How does a fragrance come together? After a visit to the at-home studio of perfumer Julia Zangrilli and seeing rows upon rows of vials, tinctures, and tiny scales...we can confirm: it's a science. Zangrilli is an accidental fragrance developer, who fell into it while looking for a tactile creative outlet while she was working as an actor and musician. But once she started, she was immediately hooked, throwing herself into the scientific process and learning as much as she could about the composition of scent. Today, Julia develops scents under the name NOVA, under which she creates both her own line of fragrances as well as meeting regularly with clients to develop custom fragrances, made from ingredients that she sources all over the world. Working with her husband, art director and designer Justin Kay, NOVA is a team effort, with careful thought going into every decision from the packaging to the product label.
This week, we're teaming up with Julia for a special event at our Herald Square store: on Thursday, 2/12 from 6-8, we'll be hosting an evening of fragrance-making, where Julia will lead guests through the process of developing a scent. We can't really think of a more perfect gift for Valentine's Day than a scent blended just for you (or for the person you love!) Looking forward to the event, we stopped by Julia and Justin's at-home studio in Brooklyn to talk more about nostalgic fragrances, the importance of perfume packaging, and what makes the art of scent so special.
Photos by Anna Ottum
What are some of your early scent memories? Favorite smells growing up or scents that are nostalgic?
Like many kids I used to creep around my mother's vanity. She wore Hermes and Jean Paul Gaultier, I'd put on fancy bits from her closet and spritz myself. My first "signature scent" was Angel by Thierry Mugler, I discovered it when I was 14. I wore too much of it at once! I always went for perfume that made me feel like a w-o-m-a-n, subtlety did not interest me. I think the need to mature had to do with being a late bloomer, the need to channel womanhood.
Can you share more about the process of making one of your custom scents? How do you "interview" a new client about scent?
I have each client fill out a basic questionnaire which points to specific materials/fragrances, preferences, dislikes, and intentions. From there I curate a selection of oils as starting points. It quickly becomes organic—they'll point me in the directions that work for them.
Do you find that people are often surprised by what scents they like (versus what scents they "think" they are drawn to...)?
Yes! Specifically where language concerned. It's tough translating scent via language. People are also surprised that they like certain materials because they're so used to smelling certain versions of it. Examples of this are patchouli and vanilla. Both are gorgeous raw materials, but the name remind many people of cheap body oils at mall stands or body splashed that they wore when they were 12.
How do you continue fragrance self-education?
I am constantly smelling, sourcing new oils, reading....learning. I don't think that process ever stops.
Can you share more about the role your husband Justin plays in the business?
Oh man, Justin is beyond instrumental. He's a huge part of NOVA. He's an amazingly talented designer who also has an ability to think clearly from a brand strategy perspective. He's very pointed in his work and thought process, whereas I come from a more creatively inventive standpoint. Both sides are imaginative, in different ways. We work well together for this reason. I'm the flesh of NOVA, he's the skeleton? I think that makes sense. He keeps my vision in order, pulls things together, builds the framework.
Do either of you wear scents? If so, what is your "signature" blend?
He switches between a custom fragrance I made for him and Monocle scents (he has all three, they're amazing). The custom blend I made for him is called CMYK, it's dedicated to his upbringing in printing so there are ink, leather, and paper notes alongside clean woods and rustic notes. I own a lot of fragrances (I have too many favorites to name, that could be its own article) and wear them when I go out at night, but not during the day while I'm on the scale because it conflicts with the work.
Can you tell us more about your at-home studio (and new home!)?
I'm so excited about it! My husband and I weren't looking to move until far into 2015 but went looking at places to get an idea of the offerings and found this amazing duplex by the Brooklyn Museum in Crown Heights. The deal was so good that we jumped immediately. We were coming from a 500-square-foot apartment, so this upgrade has been a huge breath of fresh air and allows me to be closer to my work. I still do major batches at my manufacturer's for safety and regulatory reasons, but I'm able to do all of my formulation and creative work here which is a dream.
Can you walk us through a day in the life? What's your daily routine like?
First thing is coffee and a small bite of something. Snacking is my strongest suit. I try to be physically active at the start of the day, whether it's catching a class or doing yoga or a DVD at home. It's just good to get the blood flowing, it helps the brain for the rest of the day. From there it really varies, I may have errands to run or I may go straight to the studio. I romanticize about getting away from my computer but the truth is that there's a lot of communication and admin, so usually the first few hours of my workday start there. Fresh air is important so I try to take little walks. My dog often stays home with me so that's good for her too.
I work at the scale a few days per week. I'm always working with a handful of clients, and I try not to tweak more than two formulas per day for the sake of my nose, and for the sake of mental space and quality. Building a fragrance is a creative process and needs to be approached from a relaxed standpoint, which is why I try not to have too many deadlines on a daily basis. Goals, but not deadlines. Of course I can't always keep that up, and some weeks I'm running against the clock to make sure an event or product falls into place. Right now my evenings consist of dinner at home and a lot of chilling: it's cold in NY, that's all I have desire for. My husband is a great cook and since we moved into a place with more space, we've been hosting friends a lot.