"Scent is essentially a part of every civilisation and religion, existing at the heart of spirituality in every culture and era,” Omar Al Houli, the Kuwaiti co-founder of Odict, a new fragrance brand, tells me with some flourish.
Al Houli is part of a new generation of perfumers in the Middle East, a region where big-name, international brands have traditionally reigned supreme when it comes to both fashion and fragrance. This year has seen a surge in home-grown perfume brands, headed by Arabs who are inspired by their heritage and have a knack for mixing aromas that appeal to a modern, multicultural audience.
It would appear that consumers in the Middle East are no longer content with those big-brand bottles – they want scents that are relevant to their culture, and that evoke some sense of nostalgia.
“In Europe, there are fragrance makers, but they are working from a very commercial perspective. They are making made-to-order [perfumes] for Hermès, Mulberry and Carolina Herrera, but they don’t have that heritage in their DNA,” explains Mihai Dascaliuc, who worked with Paris Gallery in Dubai for 13 years before launching his own fragrance concept store, Beautique, in the city.
Beautique stocks niche, luxury fragrances and is located in Festival City mall. Expensive monochrome floor tiling and emerald green walls, accented with reflective gold panels, make a fitting home for fancy fragrance brands. One of these is the newly launched Anfas, by Emirati perfumer Asim Al Qassim, a singer and architect who was recently certified by master perfumer Rosendo Mateu in Spain.
Al Qassim is as enthusiastic about the stories behind his perfumes as he is about the actual smells, spraying each on a white textured sample card and handing it to me before revealing an animated tale about its origin.
His line of six fragrances is inspired by Arabian hospitality, and each scent represents a stage in a blossoming romance, starting off with an initial “Salaam” greeting to a stranger on the street. “In this fragrance, you will smell a confident citrus scent, which is a masculine smell, covered with a shy vanilla from the lady – because a lady will not answer you directly when you say ‘Salaam’; she will be very shy,” he explains.
Al Qassim isn’t alone in his desire to give fragrances a more personalised touch. Emirati perfumer Amna Al Habtoor, who launched her brand, Arcadia, earlier this year after studying at The Cotswolds Perfumery in Cheltenham, England, was also attracted to the narrative qualities a fragrance can hold.
“I loved the idea of bookmarking a significant time in your life and being able to return to it, simply with a familiar aroma. I created a fragrance to capture the time of my wedding and distributed it to all my guests as a memento. I did the same at the birth of my daughter,” she says.
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Al Houli and Abdullah Al Dossari’s Odict brand is another that launched earlier this year, retailing exclusively through Sephora stores in the Middle East. Unlike Al Qassim and Al Habtoor, its founders aren’t trained in perfumery. “It is something that comes from the heart – we may have not studied it, but we managed to translate our inspiration into a bottle,” says Al Houli.
The perfumers agree that fragrances are fundamental to the culture of the Middle East, and that for Arabs, perfumes are far more than just vanity table-toppers. “The way that smell functions in the Middle East stresses communal ties – the recognition of individuals by their scent is a form of literacy, a way of reading each person,” Al Houli explains.
Arabian perfumes are characteristically laden with signature scents such as oud and bukhoor. “Like most Emirati households, I grew up watching my mother burn wood chips that had been soaked in her homemade perfume for days. The scent of that bukhoor would settle into our furniture, and live in our clothes for weeks,” Al Habtoor recalls.
Al Qassim suggests that oud is something of a cliché when it comes to Arabic perfumes, and his initial thought was to create a range completely devoid of it. But he admits it did inspire one fragrance, which was designed to emulate the aromas found in the outer living room of a traditional Arabic home.
“My mother, every morning, distributes the oud, and then prepares a table of fruit,” he explains. And his sixth fragrance, which marks the man’s successful courtship of the woman he initially greeted in the street, actually contains oud. “To make it masculine, this is the only fragrance with oud in my collection, and it’s mixed with tobacco, ginger and black pepper,” he says.
According to Dascaliuc, while oud may have been the scent of choice for locals up to about a year ago, there are now so many variations of it on the market, that customers are seeking something different. “Today, it’s more about floral scents and mixed scents than oud, because oud has become overrated,” he explains.
Arabs are known for their tendency to mix and blend scents – anathema in traditional perfumery.
Al Qassim says he has been doing this since he was young and was always complimented by his friends and family. In fact, that’s what inspired him to start his own brand.
“In Europe, everything is so standardised and commercial with fragrances,” he says. “The master perfumer Rosendo Mateu told me: ‘I will teach you how to do professional perfumery, formalising everything, but I need to understand: how are the Arabs mixing fragrances without caring? Because when you mix two fragrances you are destroying the fragrance.’”
Al Qassim says that his range, which he worked on while he was studying perfumery in Spain, is a balanced blend between techniques from the West and Arab elements.
“Two to three years ago, people were only looking for something very branded, but nowadays they have that knowledge about the kinds and qualities of [aromas], and they want their own personality [reflected] in their fragrances,” he says.
Perhaps almost as important as the actual scents is the branding of the fragrances – a fact that isn’t lost on this new generation of Arab perfumers.
“Branding represents the identity of the fragrance. It is the first thing people see and associate with the brand. If the branding is unappealing, it can sometimes deliver a negative image for the fragrance, even if the perfume happens to smell exquisite,” explains Al Houli.
Complementing the no-frills, contemporary vision of Odict, the brand’s fragrances have a minimalist aesthetic: bottles are rectangular with stark black lids. White square labels on the front of the bottles display the logo and name of the scent.
Minimalism is also the defining theme of the Arcadia fragrance bottles. Al Habtoor provides each customer with a booklet containing details about the story behind that particular perfume. “Every element of the perfume has been purposeful, including the fragrance notes, the literature and the brand imagery that illustrates each individual perfume,” she says.
While the perfumers behind Odict and Arcadia consciously rejected traditional Arabian motifs, Al Qassim’s Anfas is neither simple nor minimal when it comes to packaging – it’s just as intricate as the storyline behind his six scents.
The heavy, black rectangular box, he explains, opens just as a door would. But, this door is not locked, Al Qassim says mysteriously. “The cap of the bottle represents a Moroccan plate, and on the top our Arabic sun is inscribed, but inside it, is a flower.” The rim of the lid features carvings of palm tree leaves, “to show you we are so confident about our heritage”, he says.
These breakout perfumers may yet create a whole new language of perfumery, in this region and beyond.
“When it comes to talking about the new generation of local perfumers, most of them are sophisticated and educated,” says Dascaliuc. “They come from local heritage, but they travel a lot. They try all of the fragrances abroad, from commercial to very sophisticated and niche scents. And what they all [embody] is very much a fusion of cultures.”
Fragrance and gender
It may come as no surprise to hear that all three perfume brands – Anfas, Arcadia and Odict – offer unisex scents.
"I believe that there is no fragrance that's all-feminine or all-masculine," says Asim Al Qassim, founder of Anfas, adding that a person's choice of scent depends on how he or she is feeling at a particular moment, not on their gender.
In 2016, it was reported that brands were taking a new, genderless approach to fragrances, with Louis Vuitton, Jo Malone, Tom Ford and Le Labo at the forefront. But gender-free perfumery has always been prevalent in this part of the world, says world-renowned perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, the nose behind scents such as Narciso Rodriguez's for her and for him, Elie Saab's Le Parfum, Dior's Cologne Blanche and Eau Noire, and My Burberry.
"This is a funny thing about this region," Kurkdjian says. "On a common life basis, there is the separation of genders, but on the perfume side, it is totally reversed. There is no distinction of what a man should wear and what a woman should wear.
"That was the way it was in Europe back in the 18th century. We could have a huge debate on how the perfume culture will evolve as women begin to play more and more prominent roles in these societies. It will be interesting to see if we will have the same shift in perfumes as we did in the 19th century in Europe."
Of Amna Al Habtoor's 10 scents for Arcadia, nine are technically female fragrances, but there's one that's intended for both men and women. "I did create a unisex scent, called Periwinkle, in honour of my father," she says. "The scent has middle notes of lavender and jasmine, and bottom notes like musk and amber, making it a versatile fragrance that still has the ability to evoke nostalgia."