New York perfumer Christopher Brosius wants you to smell like you.
· Photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans
On the edge of Brooklyn, in a neighbourhood where artists have taken root and real estate developers are pushing in, the smells of plaster dust from renovation and exhaust from old-time industry are in the air. Someone, somewhere, is boiling hot dogs. The scents carry me to a small storefront tucked away amid a patchwork of industrial buildings. Inside, perfumer Christopher Brosius is working to recreate smells like those I’ve just encountered—of the streets, the kitchen, and most every setting around us.
The most obvious sign that Brosius’s shop is unique is the one sitting out front: a silver sandwich board proclaiming “CB I Hate Perfume.” Brosius was once a traditional perfume salesman but now shuns anything that reeks of big-time players such as Chanel, Givenchy, and Calvin Klein. Rather than developing flowery scents merely inspired by nature, he aims to replicate the environments that define our lives. Sniffing three of his trademark fragrances can transport you from a closet shelf containing a favourite vinyl purse to an undisturbed attic thick with dust to a muscle car peeling out on a drag strip.
Vinyl Handbag, Dust, and Burnt Rubber came together on Brosius’s mixing table in the back of CB I Hate Perfume, a spare space with painted concrete floors and exposed ceiling beams. Along one wall, a row of simple white shelves holds more than 300 small bottles filled with different ingredients. A chalkboard by the door lists some of Brosius’s newest scents, including Burnt Wood, Sushi California Roll, Rubber Cement, and Crayon.
Shoppers looking for off-the-shelf fragrances can drop in and peruse Brosius’s collection, but he specializes in creating custom scents for those ready for a fragrance of their very own. When I arrive for my two-hour consultation, an enthusiastic 140-pound English mastiff with a studded black leather collar greets me, smelling unmistakably of, well, dog. Brosius follows a minute later, wearing a matching studded belt.
The consultation starts with an interview. With his deep, friendly voice, Brosius searches for information about my childhood and lifestyle. I tell him that I used to race bicycles, enjoy spending time at the cottage, and have fond memories of Tuscany. He listens carefully, takes notes, and occasionally probes more deeply. His early ideas for ingredients for my custom fragrance include rubber and grease, Tuscan herbs, wet stone, and a new scent he’d hoped would be white truffle but ended up smelling more like a forest floor.
Eventually, he leads me to the front of the store, where he selects dozens of bottles and asks me to sniff them one by one. Even though personalization is his mission, it’s clear Brosius has a few favourites. One is a new fragrance called English Novel, which is indeed reminiscent of flipping through the yellowed pages of a long-forgotten book. “It was done from a paperback that I found in the basement of a shop on Charing Cross Road, and it smells exactly like that,” he says proudly. Another favourite is Play-Doh. He’s so confident he captured the smell that he labelled it simply You Know This. As for his own scent, Brosius typically selects one from a collection of mixtures that features a dizzying array of ingredients, including snow, weeds, hay, libraries, incense, and smoke.
As we work our way through the samples, a young woman enters and begins smelling some for herself. After a few minutes, she opens one bottle, sniffs, and sighs.
“What’s that?” Brosius asks.
“Bruschetta,” she says.
He smiles broadly and nods. Bruschetta he nailed. But there are other scents he has been pursuing for years. At the top of the list is gasoline, for which women in particular seem to have an affinity. Brosius has tried many times to recreate the scent for them, without success. “In two to six months it turns into something unrecognizable, which is unacceptable,” he says. He has also been unable to crack the smell of puppy, despite the inspiration of his canine companion.