Interview: Neela Vermeire, from her Indian childhood to creating fragrances

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A flower market in Bangalore, photographed by Neela Vermeire

Neela Vermeire doesn’t have a PR. Besides, she’s doing pretty well without one for now. So it is from her personal email adress to my personal email adress that we agreed to meet at the Paris Europe café, in Paris’ eighth arrondissement, to discuss her creations. I had met the lovely Neela a few weeks earlier as she introduced her first three fragrances at Jovoy. There, I had found out they were beautiful and, more than that, deeply connected to Neela’s very own story. The story of a well-travelled woman, born in India, who has always seen the world with her nose. A genuine, passionate (and wise!) perfume lover. Once a successful lawyer, Neela made a leap of faith in 2010 and launched her own small, artisanal house, with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour – quite a traveller himself – at her side.

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Neela Vermeire

Can you tell me your story with perfume?
I’ve loved perfume since my childhood because in India we don’t only have spices, but also ceremonies in each household. They involved many things, like sandalwood paste, oud… So in India, everywhere smells. At all times. Even though I may not have worn perfume since my childhood, these smells were in my environment, and they never disconnected from my memory. It’s still in the back of my head. That was my first love of perfume. And over the years, I started to love niche perfumery, like Lutens

When did you leave India?
I went to the United States to study. I did my Master’s degree there. My olfactory memories from my time there are American stuff, you know, maple syrup, waffles…

Did you wear perfume then?
Long time ago I wore Coco Chanel. But it’s heavy, I can’t wear it now. Jicky was my very first perfume. I love it to death. Jicky opened my nose and over the years I started collecting fragrances. So in a way, I’m a collector first. That’s what brought me to the domain, and I got to meet a lot of people who love perfume because I’m a big networker! Between 1995 and 1997, I was in Paris and I found out about all the niche brands that even my French friends didn’t know about. They would ask me how I did it without being Parisian and I told them “it is because I am not Parisian!”.It is really through my life experiences that I developed and studied my love for perfume. But I was lucky, because I met perfumers, creators… I was a good collector. I went to stores, and then got invited to events.

Who do you admire in the perfumery world?
Guerlain has been a life-long favourite in the world of beautiful perfumes. I love Lutens. And I love the idea of Frederic Malle, he is like a mentor in my head. I am very involved in the making of my perfumes. All of them I made sure I tested them every couple of weeks with Bertrand, and I also tested them on the skin of a few friends. I am not like these niche brands that started on facebook, I don’t talk about what I’m doing. If people ask I say I’m doing mods (perfumers’ short for modifications, meaning the different versions of a perfume in the making). Or I say I can’t share! I believe in keeping it a secret. For me perfume is something you keep close to you. I don’t like those with too much sillage.

So why did you decide to take an active part in this world?
Because I am a perfumista first. I love perfume. And I wanted to do my bit. I wanted to have good quality ingredients without cheating people. Of course my perfumes aren’t cheap. But I am small! I am the one doing everything.

How did everything happen? From being a lawyer, how did you make it there?
A very good friend had just died and I realized I wanted to do something with my life, something I loved. Law is not my first love, I love the fact that I studied it, I know have strategic skills, but I am not carré (French for square). I am very creative and open. If I were carré I wouldn’t mind sitting in a room, but I love my freedom too much. I believe if you can make your passion your first priority, everybody will be super happy, including the people who live around you.
My love for creativity comes first, musicians, artists, painters, jewelry-makers, just name it. I love the five senses, I am a great foodie, I love wines, champagnes… You would call it a bon vivant! And I am not ashamed to say it. I believe we should be surrounded by nice things. So I quit my job and moved to Paris, where I started by  helping artists as a promoter.

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Bertrand Duchaufour

How did you brief Bertrand Duchaufour?
I first shared my concept with him. He understood the logic, my ideas, what I wanted to do. It is all about the history of India. I did the research in terms of raw materials, but I trusted Bertrand as to what we could or couldn’t do, because that’s his job. And I believe you have to be true to ingredients. So we started with essays, he would present them to me every other week and I would give him my comments and we’d discuss how we could make it more interesting. Once we were working on Trayee and talking about Varanasi, India’s most famous holy town. It is like the Mecca. And I said “why don’t you add an element of grass in the fragrance?”. You know, cannabis. And he said yes! I love the idea. It reminded him of a funeral there, where people were smoking pot. So he loved the idea. We laughed about it, and Trayee does have that cannabis effect.
You can really call it a co-development, because we worked on every perfume together, with our own experiences.

So you did lots of essays together and kept the three you liked best?
No, we developed the three that I wanted from baby to maturity. I had them in mind from the beginning. You know, I am not your average niche brand. I didn’t buy some ready-made fragrance from a perfumer because I wanted to work with him. I commissioned Bertrand to make a new creation. I said this is what I want. This is why I call it a collaboration!

Can you tell me the story of each of those first three perfumes?

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Trayee is the oldest. It is basically the representation of the Vedic period. That’s when yoga, ayurveda and Hinduism came about. It is my essence in terms of spirituality. It is a bit autobiographical, it is about my childhood, my spiritual background. From birth to death, in India we have so many ceremonies. We celebrate everything, every stage of life. Trayee stands for that. When you go to India you will smell all these smells in temples, and I am not just talking about incense. It is always multi-layered, and you smell from the top down, and it surrounds you. Trayee is very moving.

And to me it is the most difficult of my three fragrances to wear, because I am very touched by it. It has the deepest link to my family, my grandparents, my personal story.
Perfume lovers tend to love Trayee, precisely because it has many natural ingredients.  

Image 8Mohur is a very intense period of history, it is the start of the Mogul Empire. Moguls were invaders from India, a bit like when the Romans came here. They came with the pretext of trade, and then they occupied our country. So to me that’s a very rich period, it gave birth to fantastic architecture, music, poetry, amazing stuff, including rose perfumery, popularized by the very famous empress Noor Jahan. She learned it from her mother, who was a Persian. When her husband died, Noor Jahan dedicated herself to making sure that rose perfumery would become popular. Rose had to be the key ingredient in Mohur, because it means “the most valuable gold coin that was minted in India”. It was used under British rule in India, so for me to connect the two Mogul and British periods was through the gold coin. The perfume has 11% rose, which is huge. There is leather to remind of polo, which was brought to India by the British. There is also iris, sandalwood, 1% oud…
That is my autobiographical period of education, I got educated in an English convent in India. That is why the Brits were so important to me. The Moguls made India rich, we wouldn’t have the Taj Mahal and all that beautiful art without them. Anything super rich and opulent comes from them. This is why I wanted to put this in contrast with the Brits, because they are not opulent.  

Image 9Bombay Bling is very happy. I’ve had people from 18 to 70 years old telling me it’s anti-depressant in a bottle! They can’t stop smiling and I’m thinking at least I am helping the world feeling happier…  
Bombay Bling is India now: it’s successful, flashy, there’s a big gap between the rich and the poor. There are some negative developments, so there is a bit of sarcasm in the name, but it also has that joyfulness, positive feeling that the young can do anything. You know we have more than 50% people who are under 30! It is the birth of something immense. We have a lot to learn.
But Bombay Bling has nothing to do with the city of Bombay. It is a tribute to the energy of the whole country.

I understand all your creations are very autobiographic. How will you develop your future perfumes?
India is a minefield. I have classified India very simply with these three perfumes. There is a lot still to be said. So I will add between the periods. These are the main landmarks. But I am in no rush. I will go on creating as I feel, with perfumers I like. Right now I am creating one with Bertrand, and another one with Fabrice Olivier. I adore him, I’ve known him for many years.

Will you keep that same historical approach?
Yes. And I am also doing one that will connect India and France…

http://www.neelavermeire.com/
e-boutique: http://www.neelavermeire.com/boutique.html
Visit Neela Vermeire’s facebook page here

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