Patrick, FOUNDER OF SIGIL:
Frances, what a delight to connect with you through CAP. Thank you for making the time to chat about our shared purpose in scent.
Our paths have crossed as far back as 2015. I don’t know if you’ll recall, we nearly met for a coffee in Amsterdam when I’d just started Sigil. It’s fun to finally catch up with you again and learn a bit more about one another, especially as our brands have both evolved so much since then.
Jumping right in: one of the things that always enticed me about Abel is your focus on materials first—front and center, as the stars—all the way down to the names you choose for your fragrances. Tell me a bit about your philosophy and approach to perfumery.
Frances, FOUNDER OF ABEL:
Yes, you're right, and then again in LA last year it didn't quite happen. Maybe we are destined to be penpals!
I came to the world of perfumery from winemaking. Without preconceived notions about how the creative process 'should' look, I went with what I knew, and what my gut told me. I was taught that no matter how skilled the winemaker, how advanced the latest science, you cannot make a great wine from poor quality grapes. Intuitively, I suspected that the same should be said for perfume, especially when you are working with naturals. So we pour our energy and resources into sourcing the most beautiful ingredients, one "hero" ingredient for each fragrance. With minimal intervention we build a fragrance around our hero ingredient that really makes it shine, much the same as a chef would create a dish around a perfectly ripe, seasonal vegetable.
While putting the ingredients first may sound simple (and in many ways it is), our creative process is long and very technical. After the initial creative direction is established, our master perfumer Isaac Sinclair toils for months (generally years) doing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of trials to ensure the fragrance is not just beautiful, but has finesse, is balanced, modern and long lasting. This is one of the big challenges for us as a natural perfume house, you have to work harder on these aspects when you've got none of the tools in your tool box that synthetics provide.
I'm very curious to hear how you approach the creative direction for a fragrance Patrick and what from what I’ve talked about does, and doesn’t resonate with you....”
How fascinating. I’ve only just started to explore natural wines and would love to hear more about the parallels between winemaking, terroir and perfumery. I find that’s a helpful comparator to explain to others the variance from lot to lot in natural perfume materials.
One thing you just shared that resonates with me is the turn from protocol in your philosophy. I too adopt an intuitive approach to fragrance. As a self-taught perfumer I used to have some blockers and limiting self beliefs about my place within this industry; status, background, experience. I don’t have a specific, formulaic approach to developing new perfumes, other than leading with stories first, and framing the composition from there. Occasionally, I start with an accord and the story comes later, but it’s usually the other way around.
To your point, I don’t see the natural aspect of this practice as a struggle, but a rich and sumptuous privilege, to honor and balance these so often ephemeral, precious materials with the utmost of care. An enormous part of Sigil’s raison d’être is sprinkling in small nods to the traditional, while bringing an element of modern magic and contemporary interests through intentional, considered use of language, imagery and even—sometimes, unexpectedly—through the juice itself.
Curious to hear you speak a bit more about the industry in general—how you see naturals evolving, where you (and I) sit in that mix? What does the future hold for our community?
I get a lot of joy (and satisfaction) from the challenge, it rarely feels like a struggle. I do say challenge though, as we have always felt like a challenger brand! When I started out nearly a decade ago, I was told repeatedly that natural perfume couldn't be sophisticated, that it will never stand up alongside modern perfumery, that retailers won't stock it and customers won't buy it. I've often said our raison d’être is proving to the 'world' they are wrong about natural perfume!
I'm thinking about the future a lot at the moment, not just in regards to our business, but also in regards to the world at large and how the two are inevitably linked. I was asked recently how I define success for our business and surprised myself that I really couldn't provide an answer. If I am being true to myself, the usual parameters, growth, profit etc. don't apply when you are really thinking of long term success and what will make me proud. I thought about this for many months and it wasn't until over the New Year period when I was at a meditation retreat in the Italian alps, that I realized the only genuine way for us to measure success as a business is by impact. I shared this intention with my team the following week and we all agreed without doubt (I'm lucky to have a wicked team) that the next stage of Abel's journey needs to be defined by the impact we have. I don't know if I've answered your question, but it's the only thing I'm sure about right now when it comes to the future, we need to define our success by the impact we have on the planet and those around us.
What are your intentions as you head into this new decade? Where do you see Sigil heading?
P.S. I like what you say about tradition and intent, scent is tied up in almost all traditions, religions and rituals. No surprises there as it has such power. I do feel we have a responsibility as guardians of its secrets, its language, its power!
We’re aligned in that intent then, as I think we’re both proving “you can have both.” My favorite feedback from editors and customers alike is, “This is natural? Wow!” Yep, it is.
Thank you for sharing that inspiring bit, I’m excited to learn more about how you continue to create impact for good on this earth. Can you share more about how that will come to fruition in objective terms? Thank goodness you could get away to the Italian alps for that moment of clarity. (No, I’m not jealous at all, ha! I’m just over here chasing UPS trucks, haha.)
In terms of Sigil’s direction and next steps for 2020: we are very much still scrappy, start-up and self funded. I don’t yet have a fully fledged badass team, but after Paris market I am looking to hire two more employees—so looking forward to letting go of much of the day to day that keeps me from getting out in the world to spread the message of Sigil. Our raison d’être is one that shows how business can honor tradition, tell rich stories, and still serve modern interests—particularly social ones. As a queer business owner, it’s always been a goal of mine to keep representation and inclusion at the center of everything we do at Sigil, whether it’s through our choice of words, imagery, who we hire, how we position and market our products. As I consider a potential first raise this year, a dream of mine would be to have a 100% queer and minorities-led board. More to come there.
Otherwise, it’s very much a scaling year for us. We have (somehow, remarkably) become recognized as a leader in this space, and so we simply need more Sigil people to join our community in love of scent. Look out for some innovative new formats and categories in Q4, and leading into early 2021.
Okay, now how about some random facts? What’s one thing everyone should know about you that they probably don’t already?
What else should I have asked you that I didn’t?
The honest answer to the impact question is that I'm still grappling with it. We have many on-going environmental commitments that we will continue with and expand, but there's so much more work to be done and opportunities to drive change. (Environment Anxiety has its own hashtag for a reason!). Watch this space as we continue to define and measure impact. Wouldn't it be great if you had a 100% queer and minorities-led board, I have no doubt that alone has capacity for significant change.
I think your questions have been great! It's refreshing not to be focusing on the usual stuff.
Maybe something most people don't know about me is that I'm a total oddball-introvert, happiest on my own, with my family, or a small handful of friends! When it comes to Abel, I'm in my groove behind the scenes. It sounds silly, but I never really realized that starting a business also meant being the face behind the business. Sometimes I feel like the only "entrepreneur" who doesn't like the limelight! I'm sure there are others... maybe we need to start a support group!
Can you give me something most people don't know about you and what you wish I'd asked you? Merci!
Love this. I’d be the first to join that support group. I’ll take a glass of natural wine in the bathtub over a party any day.
Perhaps something most don’t know about me: I once wrote a fantasy novel. Just for fun. It’s trash, don’t ask to read it. But I do love writing, and you’ll see that more this year as we look to expand our community and marketing programs with a wider range of essays, interviews, and collaborations.
This was a blast, thank you Frances and CAP. Let’s finally have that coffee, ASAP.