The Adventurer - JK de Lapp
One rarely comes across so wonderfully talented and curious people. As passionate about his work as he is humble, JK de Lapp’s journey sounds like a tale your grandpapa would tell you by a nightly hearth and yet it is all true. Nothing short of an adventurer, this Relic Hunter of the perfumery world amazed us as we literally stumbled on his page, some random day, whilst scrolling the meanders of Etsy. We discovered another world, another dimension of perfume and history both. It is our utmost joy and honour that JK de Lapp, the creator of The RisingPhoenix Perfumery and nose behind Dodo, Zoologist Perfume’s new and already acclaimed release, granted us his time for this Interview.
Alexandre Helwani - So JK, you’re quite a character if I may say. I was wondering how did you end up crafting perfumes ? Is it something that dawned on you or was nurtured all through your childhood ?
JK de Lapp - You know, as a kid I thought I’d either be an archaeologist or a spice trader. I never thought I’d be a perfumer, that’s not something I grew up wanting to be. I thought archaeology was cool because you got to dig around old stuff and learn about forgotten cultures and spice trading meant you got to go everywhere in the world. As I grew up and started working with Chinese medicine, I worked with herbs so I somehow became a spice trader by accident.
A.H. - I believe there’s more to it than one accident, right ?
JK.L.- It’s kind of funny actually. When I graduated university in 2003, the expectation was to get out of college, get a job, have a salary, buy a house but all of a sudden, in 2003, I got out of school and there were no jobs. The ones available didn’t pay or at least not enough to live. A lot changed after 9/11. When I graduated high school in 1999, the world looked one way, and when I graduated in 2003 all the expectations we were raised with no longer existed. I got out of school and was unemployed, pretty much like everybody. People got back home or took full-time jobs that didn’t pay well. Strangely enough, I got a job offer in Singapore but my parents were like : « You’re gonna be arrested, you’re gonna like spit and be beheaded » and I was like « I don’t think that’s how it works ». So I turned it down then I had an opportunity to go to China and my parents were like « That’s even worse ! » so I was like « You keep telling me I need a job, here’s two jobs I had to turn down. » So I took a job in a mortgage company until 2005 and at one point, there was a big movie being shot in Atlanta and two of my friends somehow got parts in the movie so they came to me and said « Hey, we know you’ve been having a rough time at work but there’s this movie in town, we kind of showed up and got jobs » so they gave me the contact information of the casting director and… I heard nothing back. Several months went by until at 7:30am on a Tuesday I received an email and then for the next three years I worked full-time on movies and television. I shot commercials, worked on TV shows, it was kind of surreal.
A.H. - I sense another accident coming…
JK.L. - Yes, while I was working there, there was a writers’ strike which lasted for a year and a half. So I went from being fully employed to sometimes employed to « Damn, now I’m unemployed again ». And at the time, I’d heard of a Chinese clinic in Atlanta and I’d go there for acupuncture and the director of the program told me « Why do you know more about Chinese medicine than most of the students here ? » and I said « I don’t know, I like to read » and he continued « Yes, but nobody knows about this stuff » so he encouraged me to start taking classes and about halfway through my second semester, the school folded. So I was like : « Cool, now I have no school and no job » so I either had to find something to do or wait the writers’ strike out. In college I’d always wanted to go to med school so when this one folded, within two weeks I’d visited a bunch of med schools throughout the country and moved out of Atlanta. For the next two years, nobody even knew I was gone. I still had friends calling me saying « Hey it’s Friday, let’s hang out » and I’d tell them « I don’t live in Atlanta anymore » and they would answer « What do you mean you don’t live in Atlanta, we haven’t seen you in awhile » to which I’d reply « Yes, because I don’t live there anymore ». While I was in school, I got to learn about hundreds and hundreds of medical substances and herbs and as I was from Atlanta, it reminded me of Coca Cola.
A.H. - Well that’s peculiar.
JK.L. - We forget its inventor was a pharmacist. The original formula was based on rosewater and essential oils. You’ve heard of Dr Pepper, well who was Dr Pepper ? And Johnson and Johnson ? And Listerine ? So in my head I thought « Pharmacy degree = making bunch of stuff » and I figured out that the pharmaceutical industry was built on the back of something that nobody thinks twice about : herbs. So I could become a doctor or a doctor « and ». And again, it didn’t take me long to figure out what the « and » was about. Fragrance was the most accessible place to start, so I started looking for materials as incense materials and I realised all the oils were used in making perfume and before I knew what attar was, I was already mixing oils. So I went from this kid who graduated in this shitty time of history to creating perfumes. And in 2011 I started RisingPhoenix but I waited until 2014 to put things up for sale.
A.H. - Why such name ? Does it have to do with the journey you just spoke about ?
JK.L. - Well, the whole concept of the company is a play on words. Rising Phoenix, the new life rising from the ashes. The whole angle is giving a new life to old things. You know, Chinese medicine is incredibly modern, it’s cutting edge medicine but people think about it as something from centuries past yet in Asia it’s cutting edge. So you’re constantly getting new life from old things. For me, it’s a platform to educate but it also gives you pretty much all of history to mine for information. For instance, I made an Egyptian musk oil and, to be honest, Egyptian musk is a cheap fragrance. So my idea was: okay, here’s a crappy concept based on an older idea. The basics of Egyptian musk is that it’s supposed to smell like civet because civet is the African musk. Historically they used musk from alligators. We forget it but a lot of animals have musk glands, the downside is they’ll be coarser animalic smells. Crocodile toenails were even used in making a musk oil which I’ve actually come across and it’s really interesting.
A.H. - How does one simply come across crocodile toenail musk oil ?
JK.L. - Okay, so there was a man who is now deceased or so I think, I haven’t heard from him in years. He was terminal and he reached out to me and and you know when people get sick, they tend to smell a bit foul. So he was constantly applying aromatics and burning oud and incense to cover his smell. He wanted oud, he wanted oil, he had no money so of course I was : « Okay, that’s everybody » and so at one point he asked me to make something, which turned out to be the Aziz Attar. At one point, I was up in Washington and met him and he had a big collection of stuff he amassed over the years, one of them being a toenail musk. I asked him what it was and he said « It’s made from alligator toenails and sandalwood. » They cook the toenail and the sandalwood together ! I did some research and I discovered it was a real thing !
A.H. - You speak a lot about research. Is it crucial to your work or life in general ?
JK.L. - As a Westerner, when you talk about perfume your mind doesn’t go to attars and oud. Most Americans will be thinking Chanel. They don’t think about oils. They know what sandalwood is but they have no idea what agarwood is. When I try to educate people, I really tell them that the backbone of both perfume and incense industry is both sandalwood and agarwood, it’s the skeleton that everything’s built on. You know oud oil has been used in the West for as long as it’s been used in the East but not in a context that people know of. It’s been used in church incense, in France even ! Louis XIV used to wash his clothes and sheets in oud hydrosol but why would anybody know that ? I like pulling from history. It gets you out of your geographical box but also out of time and place. It helps you see something in a context, sort of what was but also what could be. Think of so many cultures and ideas that have been available for us to pull from, it makes it easy to find inspiration. I made a perfume a few years ago that I called « Jaipur » and the whole idea was to smell what it was like to walk through the spice market of Jaipur and a reviewer went nuts over it. And that’s the process : here’s a fragrance, the concept is cool, let’s make it.
A.H.- It is interesting you would mention getting out of a time and place. Your perfumes all have legendary stories behind them and are all so very peculiar in their beauty. How would you explain their success considering they’re utterly unusual compared even to your own attar niche ?
JK.L. - I don’t know how I do it but somehow what I make feels both very exotic and familiar to everyone. I think part of the familiarity that people have comes from the fact that I tie the scent to a time and place. Here in the US, people may not have travelled everywhere but since we are from everywhere, we’re at least familiar with everybody’s stories. Take Sicilian Vanilla, for instance. It was one of the first fragrances I made back when I was in med school. At the time, I used to go to this Italian café that was owned by a legitimate Italian guy who’d sit down and tell me « JK you always smell so good » and the thing he liked was Sicilian vanilla. So I gave him a bottle and he wore it all the time from then on. So Christmas rolls around and he went back to Italy for the holidays and when he finally came back he told me : « JK, you made my mum cry ». And so I was like : « Is this good news or bad news ? » and it turns out his mum is from Sicily and she was in her nineties. So he got home, hugged his mum and she said « What are you wearing ? It smells like my childhood ! ». He told her my story and she said : « When I was a child, that’s what every man smelt like » so I apparently captured what Sicily smelt like in the 1910’s. And I’ve actually never been from Sicily. I just saw a formula for an old pipe tobacco and made it. So yeah, I made an old lady in her nineties cry. The same thing happened with Ghilaf-e-Kaaba. You know there’s the imagery and you read about it and I wanted to create the scent of the Ghilaf, which is the scented cloth wrapping the Kaaba. And Ensar Oud somehow got his hands on this attar and asked me « Are you sure you’ve never been there ? This smells exactly like I remember it » and I’ve never been there ! And a lot of Muslim customers told me that it smells like Hajj. And again, I just read then used my imagination. The same happened with Dodo [Zoologist’s next release]. You’re trying to recreate the scent of an animal that’s been dead for centuries… Now I’m just waiting for someone to actually tell me « Hey, we dug up a bird, this is what is smells like ! » It is an interesting question thought : how do you capture a memory you’ve never had ?
A.H. - A great question indeed. So how do you ?
JK.L. - I think being able to connect with people means learning about folks and culture and time. If you can communicate and are familiar and have something you can share about, you’re no longer strangers. You know I really like to cook and it’s satisfying to cook for someone and seeing that someone sitting across the table, eating and smiling. Even if you don’t speak the same language, it doesn’t matter since everybody eats. My wife is Japanese and I remember the first time we had her sisters and her niece and nephew in the States. The kids had never seen a man cook, usually men don’t cook in Japan. I made breakfast every morning and the two sisters were like « Why does this taste so good ? » and I remember one time I made a grilled cheese and the eldest sister took a bite and had this look on her face…and she started crying. I looked at my wife and I didn’t know what to do. And she said : « As a wife I do all the cooking, as a chef I do all the cooking. Nobody cooks for me. »
A.H. - It would sound like you make a lot of women cry…
JK.L. - No but a lot of joy comes from being able to make these things happen.
A.H. - What would you say is different in your work ? The difference that makes people cry ?
JK.L. - I think a lot of people have bought a lot of products that lack spark, that lack umami. The Japanese term umami really means tasty. Like it takes food from being two-dimensional to being three of four dimensional. We’ve gone to restaurants where food was flat, we’ve watched movies which stories were flat, we’ve heard music that’s just noise. I think in order to have something that really pops, it means to have umami. Not just in your mouth. I want my ears to have umami, I want my eyes to have umami, I want my friendships and my relationships to have umami. Sometimes my wife thinks I have too much umami. My personality is as large as I’m tall.
A.H. - How do you achieve umami in your creations ?
JK.L. - I think the basis of umami, in cooking, in both about the quality of ingredients than the technique. Think about boiling an onion, caramelising it in butter, in duck fat, caramelising it and adding some kind of liqueur. It’s all about cooking an onion but the technique is different. In perfume, just like in cooking, unless you use certain techniques, it’ll come out flat. Sometimes when I make oils, I smell them and feel they’re missing a few drops of something. But most of the time, since I’m using oud and sandalwood oils, they naturally add umami to the blends. You can really use crazy raw materials and they’ll make a fragrance do things that commercial ones won’t. Working in Chinese medicine, we see a lot of pathologies are rooted in emotions. One of the problems we modern people have is we no longer participate in basic things. Nobody hunts for their food anymore but every single one of us has this innate need. A lot of people today satiate their hunting need by shopping because now they’re « hunting » for the deal, that’s the emotional tie-end. I am constantly on the hunt for a material. My scouring the Earth for these raw materials, taking trips and talking to people satiates a basic human need to find things. The kind of aromatics we make and the stories we tell satiate that same need because people connect to the stories which fill a void they’ve been having. In medicine, a patient comes in, you take your brush, dust off the dirt and see what’s down below. Then you dust off more, you find a piece of something, you pull it out, dust off more and after you have ten or fifteen of these pieces, sometimes close together, sometimes far apart, you piece it all together and you’re like « Okay, that’s what’s wrong with this person ». You’re digging to figure out what’s underneath.
A.H. - Would you say that as well as the spice trader, you’ve also finally become the archaeologist the child dreamt to be ?
JK.L. - Of course. I get to mine time for ideas.
Interviewed by Alexandre Helwani