The Honest - Dhaher bin Dhaher
Our story with Dhaher bin Dhaher was placed under the sign of coincidence. As we were walking past Nose, a niche perfumery in Paris, some four or five years ago, we noticed a gathering and decided to see what the fuss was all about. As we dove in a sea of French perfumers, perfumistas and fashionistas, we noticed Dhaher bin Dhaher and his regal aura. We were immediately seduced by his brand, Tola, and the intimate stories behind each of his creations. A mere happenstance turned out to be one of the most fascinating encounters in our life. Some four or five years later, it was our pleasure to be received in his exquisite Villa 515, both a laboratory and boutique at the same time, for this second Interview by the Perfume Chronicles.
A.H. - Dhaher, thank you for meeting with me.
D.B.D. - It’s a pleasure meeting you again after all these years. I’m bad with names but I’m good with faces. This is why I remember you liked Anbar, because we talked about it.
A.H. - So Dhaher, you are self-learner. You did not consider to be a perfumer at first…
D.B.D. - No, I was born in a business culture. I started my career around the family business, which is diversified, from real estate to automobiles to manufacturing – all of these had nothing to do with perfumery. We had fashion but no perfumery. I worked twice for the government and I am now opening a café that is also about linking so many things with perfumery. I love starting things.
A.H. - Why starting with perfumes then?
D.B.D. - To be honest I’ve always been a passionate person about perfumery and I always believe in saying the true story rather than making it up. I started the brand for one main reason, other than being passionate: my mum and eldest sister. They love perfumery. Whenever I wanted to calm my mum down when she was mad, I’d talk about perfumes. They were always debating with my sister over who did what better and it’d put a smile on their faces. They mix their own oils, their own incense and they don’t sell it because, here, if you’re from a well-known family, you don’t go down that road. And we were sitting in London and I said: “You know what, I’m going to create a brand. I don’t care. I will go into business and share your story with people.” That’s how we created the brand Tola.
A.H. - Was it important to you that your family be involved in the creative process?
D.B.D. - Yes. It was created within the family, my niece did the graphic design, my other niece did all the illustrations that go with our perfumes and I’ve worked on the first collection with my eldest sister and created the brand. One of my Heritage collection fragrances is actually an oil that my mum has been doing for more than 25 years, to which she just keeps adding oud etc. I took that and launched it for one reason: because it has a story very dear to my heart. You’re from Syria and I know this scent would remind you of your home, your grandmother and your heritage. It created a nostalgic effect to everyone from the region who smelled it because it reminded them of something: their home, their mothers or grandmothers depending which generation you’re from. So I named it Amaya, which is my mum, and it’s the mum of everyone. I call my mum Amaya.
A.H. - Heritage means tradition, tradition means living stories. How do you weave this living tradition into your work?
D.B.D. - When I created the Abu Dhabi scent, I described Abu Dhabi. How did I do that? Abu Dhabi is full of islands so one of the main aspects was the sea. Then I looked at Abu Dhabi as a conservative culture linked with hospitality so that when you enter a majlis or a house, the first thing they’d do is give you the bukhoor. Then you’ve got the food, there’s food everywhere, so you would smell the spices. Once you’re done, they give you coffee. So I created a scent that was inspired by Arabic coffee and dates. You know, I love fragrances because they mean something to me. I personally love ambergris so, for example, I took something that I really loved and wanted to share with people. I don’t share things that I don’t believe in. This is how I created Anbar. To me, Anbar is all about dreaming, it gave me comfort. I love ambergris! I have a chunk of which I burn a piece with bukhoor, because it’s part of the culture. The royal families are still using it, it’s still our culture so we still stick to it. Perfume originated from this part of the world, and I think it’s time to go back to our roots and share this on an international level. This is something that has a meaning to us all.
A.H. - Is it important to stick to your traditions then?
D.B.D. - Yes but I also have to respect the other traditions abroad. I always keep my mind open. You know, I don’t work with oud a lot but certain markets look at you, see an Arab and they think: “So you do oud” but it’s really just ignorance. Tola is about creating a bridge; it is this idea of two cultures meeting. I have interns coming from Paris every year and this has gone on for three years. We started with one, then two, then three and this year we had four. So we are bridging cultures.
A.H. - Hospitality does seem important to you. How do you put this into your work?
D.B.D. - You know, I opened Villa 515 because there wasn’t really a good house to put my brand in. So Alessandro [Gualtieri, nose and founder of the brands Nasomatto and Orto Parisi] and I decided to create the villa together as a concept and we said: “Let’s try to create a place where Arabic and Italian cultures meet”. You see the chairs all around; they were inspired by the majlis. All the Arabic homes have this room, which is only open when they have guests so we took this inspiration and used it as if perfumes were our guests.
A.H. - You said something quite interesting here about the roots. Do you think perfume could help the youth reconnect with their roots?
D.B.D. - In terms of perfumery, it’s embedded in every home and every family. Even today, they’d put some oud on newborn. The perfume roots have always been here, especially in the Middle East, through history or religion. For instance, on Friday we go to the mosque, which is mandatory, and it says go in your best outfit, with your best scent. And we’re here in a culture where people, families are always together and, to be honest, you don’t want to stay in a place where it stinks. The thing that has changed regarding perfumery is our appreciation of it, differentiating mass-produced perfumes from prestige fragrances. People now realise that and we’re seeing new brands coming out of the Emirates. The young generation is more open, exposed, and more ambitious and they now have aim to create their own brands and go abroad.
A.H. - Is it to say that perfume has had an impact on Dubai’s culture?
D.B.D. - Yes and no. The perfume culture here is big, people are knowledgeable, and everyone is a perfumer since they don’t wear a single perfume but three or four different perfumes, a bit of oud, and then they burn some bukhoor. Everyone has at least fifteen perfumes on their tables. I always tell people: “If you stick to one perfume, you’re a very conservative person; you don’t like to take chances in your life”. Let’s say you have mood swings: how do you change that? By changing your environment. Your environment is the way you’re dressed, the way you smell, and the way you eat. You cannot always have the same thing you need to go out of your comfort zone, to experience new things in life. It’s like a haircut or tasting a new dish. It’s all the same thing. Perfume impacts our behaviour, but it didn’t impact the culture. Culture is culture.
A.H. - What is Dhaher bin Dhaher’s role then in the Emirates?
D.B.D. - Well, I built a reputation and became the person they go to when they need advice. I’ve worked for the emirate of Abu Dhabi and created a scent for them, I created a scent when they launched the memorial of late Sheikh Zayed. There was a very famous picture where he picks up a rose and smells it and I created a rose scent, which was diffused for two seconds when the image appeared on the screen. I created a scent for the Four Seasons in Abu Dhabi. Today, when people want an Emirati element, they come to me. And the biggest testament to that is being given the future Perfume Museum store and laboratory.
A.H. - You also talked about youth. It sounds like you take heart in educating them…
D.B.D. - Yes! A few months ago, I worked with a foundation focused on education and we’ve created the scents they children would read in their stories: they read about a farm, I created a farm scent; they read about a camel, I created a camel scent; they read about flowers, spices, I created flowers, spices. We do a lot of workshops. Why workshops? Because people need to appreciate niche for what it is. What are niche perfumes today, to be honest? It’s no longer about the price or the limited editions; it’s about the stories, the concept, and the quality of fragrances. It doesn’t necessarily mean to be highly priced to be exclusive. So educating the young talents over here is crucial. Today, two brands here in the Villa 515 were created by emiratis. They came with formulas, which we fixed together and we gave them full access. We asked them what they wanted, we said: “You want creation, feel free to play with the lab”. We would guide them. And now I’m looking at creating new programs with the schools. One of our initiatives with the Museum is to create an incubator because today there are a lot of young perfumers so I tell them: “Come and I will be your creative director. You create a scent, I will fund it and I will launch it either in my own collections or create an other brand if you come with a convincing concept.” It’s mostly about the knowledge sharing. I get knowledge from them; they get some from me. If different people have strengths and unite them: they become an even stronger entity. And this is how I see myself working with the youth.
A.H. - So what’s the importance of perfume in your personal life, since you’re doing so many different things?
D.B.D. - It takes a big part of my life. It’s like when you have children you have a favourite but in the end, they’re all your children and they’re all important as themselves, more than anything else.
A.H. - Did you ever imagine it would have grown like this?
D.B.D. - I didn’t have any expectations to be honest. I just went as is. I have to admit the person who gave me the first push was Alessandro Gualtieri and he’s also my partner in Villa 515. He looked at my presentation and said: “Dhaher, you’re the first person from the region who comes with a genuine concept, with a story to tell, and you’re not making it up”. And I was really shocked. And I kept going and got feedback and I won’t say it was an easy road, but I never lost hope. Whenever I see an obstacle, I try to find a different way to go through. I think our leadership here in the UAE taught us one thing: if you fall, you have to stand back up and you should always aim to be the first. And I’m glad I’ve always been appreciated, in terms of the quality of the fragrances, the design, the story itself. This is the result of being genuine and putting your heart in everything you do.
A.H. - Honesty. Is that what has been driving you all along?
D.B.D. - You need to tell your story and none can say it better than you. Being honest to yourself is important so as to be honest to others.
Interviewed by Alexandre Helwani