Anne McClain of MCMC Perfumes makes some of the most captivating scents on the market out of her Brooklyn studio. Mixing and bottling each one by hand, there's something undeniably special about her fantastical fragrances -- our very favorite, "Maine," which has a sunny, salty quality. A graduate of the renowned Grasse Institute, a small school for perfumery in southern France, McClain is now a veritable fragrance expert. Here, she dishes on the scents she reaches for again and again.
What first brought you to perfume making?
I was at Brown for college, and I was an art major there. I had been taking a lot of different kinds of classes -- photography, but also painting and silk screening, book making -- and I just wasn't feeling fully satisfied with any of those. Then, just a couple years after I moved to New York, I took this perfume class at night, and that really changed everything. I felt really connected to the materials and the process, and it started to slowly become obsession. I was doing it in my free time, all the time.
Where does a new scent start for you?
Most of the fragrances that are part of my collection now are based on really specific memories. A lot of them have to do with past experiences, but some of them have to do with certain instances or people. The inspiration and the story kind of kick off the fragrance and from there I mull on that story for awhile before even thinking about ingredients. Then, when I do start compiling ingredients, I think about the connection to the place ... like the natural materials in that moment. A lot of plants have symbolic meanings as well, like they were used in certain rituals, so I'll try to bring that in if I can, or particular colors. That part of it is the hardest and the easiest: It's the easiest because it comes pretty naturally to me, and it's the hardest because that's where I really make the scent, in that beginning stage. By the time I start experimenting with the materials, it's almost more perfecting the inspiration.
What was the first scent you ever made?
The first scent I ever made is still part of the line. It's called "Noble" and now it takes a really different form than when I first started making it. I knew I wanted it to be jasmine and vetiver, so it started with those two ingredients as its backbone. I actually started working on it it was before I ever went to perfume school, while I was still experimenting on my own. It was really basic but still strongly inspired by the interplay of those two ingredients. After I went to school, I rounded out all the ingredients and developed it a bit more.
Do you have a favorite scent?
There are lots of ingredients that I love, but I tend to use a lot of woods, and that's not always so common in more feminine fragrances. I try to incorporate them in a way that still feels feminine but a little edgy. In mass market, the most popular fragrances are Fuji florals, which tend to be so sweet. But the woods help to tone that sweetness down and give it a more natural feeling.
How about a least favorite scent?
I don't have a least favorite, though when I smell things I definitely get an "oh wow I love this" or "oh, I don't get a feeling from this." It's really instinctual when we smell something. Our teachers tried to emphasize to us that you can't really like or dislike a given ingredient because each one is a tool, and will affect the rest of the formula in a certain way. It's like cooking -- you may not like cinnamon on its own, but if you add it to a cake it becomes wonderful.
What advice would you give to a customer trying to find a signature scent?
For whatever reason, and this sounds really simple, but just go with what you like. With perfume there's a lot of image-making that goes into it: The perfumes are described in a certain way, and there are all these promotional things that go with it, but it doesn't really relate to you when you're actually wearing it. The key is to put it on and see if you would enjoy having that smell on you all day -- you have to be around it the most. Also sorting out what families of scent you like the most -- like citrus, or woods, or grasses, or florals. Once you can identify what family of smells you like, then keep looking for citrus fragrances.
Visit the MCMC website to sign up for one of McClain's perfume-making classes.