Ephemeral and highly subjective, perfume is a challenging product to market. Few of us regularly exercise our sense of smell, leaving many without much of a frame of reference for buying perfume, especially when shopping online. Some fragrance brands have responded to this challenge by leaning on the trendy buzzwords of the beauty industry, such as by touting their “natural” or “clean” formulations, offering lower prices through direct-to-consumer models, or by marketing fragrance as a wellness product with mental health benefits.
But then, perfume is not a practical product. Why should there be a practical solution to describing it?
“All this is very intuitive and gut-decided,” says Anna Barkne, one of the five co-founders behind the Swedish perfume brand Stora Skuggan, of the label’s creative process. “The different scents usually circuit around a myth or a phenomenon that’s maybe real or not. These become like small worlds or universes that the scent grows in, like a tiny baby.”
Stora Skuggan has just five scents in its line, starting with Fantôme de Maules, launched in 2015, and including most recently Thumbsucker, launched at the end of 2020. Both are based on myths as Barkne references — the former a ghostly figure from the Swiss village of Maules, the latter the Hindu story of King Yuvanashva, who accidentally drinks a potion meant to make his wife pregnant, though it also references Freud’s theory of thumbsucking as a sign of oral fixation.
“The concept behind Thumbsucker is a mix of sweet comfort and a kind of dirty, shameful underbelly,” co-founder Olle Hemmendorff says of the scent, a concoction of narcissus, violet, cherry, cedar, and candle wax (you can decide for yourself which are the comforting notes and which are the dirty ones).
With their oversized, architectural caps and fantastical names, Stora Skuggan’s perfumes are instantly eye-catching. The addition of playful mythologies around each scent makes them doubly appealing for those who look to perfume for a sense of escapism. But with new scents released only intermittently over the years, building the audience has been a slow curation over time, co-founder Tomas Hempel explains. “We have not followed the traditional way to launch a perfume line by hiring established perfumers and design agencies and so on. We have done everything ourselves; every little detail has been formed by our hands,” he says.
The group — consisting of Barkne, Hempel, Hemmendorff, as well as Jonas Nordin and Martin Nicolausson — first met in 2005 through the party scene centered around Stockholm’s Beckmans College of Design. “We talked about doing something together that was scent-related, but it really didn’t happen at that stage. It was not until I started to learn the art of perfumery in 2010 where it all became, well, something, and the other ones joined in one by one,” Hempel says. “You could think of us as a nose in unison; everything has to pass our ten nostrils thousands of times before we are ready to add something new to the collection.”
Hempel describes their debut launch Fantôme de Maules as their most “classical” scent, a fresh interpretation of the chypre perfume genre. “It might have had something to do with the fear of standing out too much as a rookie,” he says. Newer creations have expanded their boundaries as perfumers to great effect. In 2018, the label’s second launch, Silphium (built around an extinct plant used in ancient Greece and Rome) was named a finalist in the Art and Olfaction Awards. And the collection has now found a home in fragrance and apparel boutiques around the world, like SSENSE, Nose Shop, and Scent Bar.
The group has occasionally cut out challenges for itself. Mistpouffer launched in 2019 after four years in development. The scent attempts to bottle the mystical, unexplained sounds sometimes heard along bodies of water, often likened to a cannon or sonic boom. “We started out wanting to create something very misty and transparent, but at the same time a very defined scent,” Hemmendorff says.
“That’s a really hard nut to crack, if possible at all,” he adds. “As a novice, you’d think it would be possible to create a perfume that smells just like foggy morning air, but if you take that scent and concentrate it to the point of it being a perfume, it’s an entirely different smell, and not necessarily a pleasant one.” The resulting smell of Mistpouffer is “natural, but in equal parts supernatural,” as the brand describes, with ozonic notes, forestry aromas of pine and fig leaf, as well as a malt sugar note that gives it almost a crackling texture.
Though Stora Skuggan develops its scents and bottle designs in-house, the label has worked with outside creatives on musical and visual creations around its perfumes. Most are familiar with the interplay between scent and taste, but Stora Skuggan’s collaborations with musicians Hans Berg and Jans Lekman engage our audio, visual, and (should you own the perfumes) olfactory experiences all at once. “If you think of it, perfume is abstract,” Barkne says. “You don’t see it, you can just feel it. It’s the same with music and sound, so the link in between the expressions is direct and connected.”
Such collaborations offer more insight into the “feeling” of those perfumes. But since Stora Skuggan entered the market in 2015, more and more fragrance and beauty consumers are increasingly invested in what is actually in their products, specifically whether or not a brand uses natural or sustainable ingredients.
However, the search for more ecological formulations doesn’t adequately address the reality of perfumery, Hemmendorff says. Natural ingredients can offer more olfactory complexity, but they can also incite more allergic reactions than a synthetic material produced expressly for its aroma.
“I’d say that demand for all-natural fragrances is very poorly informed. ‘Natural’ is something people just take for granted means safe and good for nature,” he says. “But in perfume, the best materials are generally synthetical materials produced in a lab, both in terms of environmental impact and for human safety. To get a kilogram of rose oil, you need huge fields of roses, which requires a lot of water and land. But most of the core elements in rose oil can also be produced in a chemical process requiring hardly any of the planet’s resources.”
Chasing trends would be a moot point anyway, considering the group’s style. “All in the group are quite stubborn and strong-willed,” Barkne says. “It’s a never ending slow process.”
For now, Stora Skuggan is working on a candle in time for the holidays — or so they hope, as their scents are only ready when they’re ready. “After at least hundreds of trials, the scent ends up being interesting,” she adds. “It can be confusing; sometimes the twentieth draft is the most thrilling one. But you don’t know that when you mix it, even though you can have a feeling it’s good. You have to do all the forever-tries to know.”