The Devoted - Joyce Azar
For this third Advent Interview, we wanted to publish the precious moment we shared with Joyce Azar. Be it chance or fate, as usual, our path crossed hers during the launch of the Roja Dove boutique in Perfumery & Co. And we have to thank Jack Cassidy here for introducing me to her. Her career isn’t typical, her training empirical, her life exemplary. Perfumes have become a way for her to grow the already immense love she has for her daughter. As such, Joyce lives the real story of The Perfume Chronicles which is to « speak the unspeakable ». That is why we chose to include her, to honour her and thank her for what she has taught us.
[The Advent Interviews are a series centered around women. Four women, four exceptional lives, four different paths leading to and from perfumes. Four life-lessons which ought to be listened to and learnt. We wanted to choose four utterly different women, four different backgrounds and careers linked with perfumes, because women are under-represented. Because they are the womb of our lives, of all humanity. Because they are more and more present in the world of perfume. Because their stories are meant to be told and need to be heard.]
Alexandre Helwani – Were you always been into perfumes or was it a late revelation ?
Joyce Azar – I never fully understood how perfume came into my life. I think it started when I didn’t know what to study. My mother told me one day : « Do you remember, back when you were little, how you used to keep the ads in the magazines ? » and I looked at all the ads I tore up and realised most of them were about perfumes. So I started my career in an advertisement company and in 2004 I came to Dubai to work on my thesis and I immediately knew I wanted to work here. So I « threw my résumé out » as we say in Lebanon and I managed to land a job interview with the then director of Paris Gallery. As it was a Friday in the middle of Ramadan, everything was closed so I had my job interview in a hotel lobby. Three months later I received three offers : one in the watches department, two others in the perfumes department. One was in distribution, the other in retail, but I’m not a sales specialist. You have to be both passionate and patient to work in retail, and I’m not patient. I can’t wait around until a prince comes in, buy 10 000 dollars worth of goods, and reach my goal. So I thought distribution might be more interesting. When I arrived I received a list of 54 brands. I knew only 3. The director lent me a car and told me to go explore all the brands. For many years I stayed in charge of the brands’ management and training until 2012 when I quit Paris Gallery to launch my own business up until 2017 when I had to go back to Beyrouth for personal reasons until I finally came back to Dubai and started working with Plethora.
A.H. – What actually moves you when it comes to perfumes ?
J.A. – This sense of well-being. For instance, I never had one big crush on a perfume as I’ve always loved many. Lastly I’ve had one with Dolce Amalfi. At first I didn’t really understand it, I found it very citrusy and cake-like, but when I went out and felt this warmth all around me, I realised I felt this aura. And that’s what I’m looking for. I need a calm perfume. During my training in New York with Laurice [creative director of Bond n°9] we sat around a table, all the perfumes were there, and I chose my five favourites which she ended up blending. And I loved this perfume, I wore it everyday until the day I gave birth, then I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then when I left Dubai and came back, my taste had changed. I didn’t like gourmands before and now I do. People change. For each new step in our lives, we have a new perfume.
A.H. – You were talking about aura. Do you think perfumes can influence our aura ?
J.A. – Perfume can help you make a good impression. I am not the best person to talk about this, if you look at my attitude or the way I’m dressed, I am very casual. People don’t like that. They want the three-piece suit, no sneakers etc. but I’ve learnt that in order to properly do my job, I need to feel good with what I’m wearing, with who I am and how I act. Whether they like it or not, I don’t care. So to answer, yes I think aura is important especially here in Dubai. If you look around, what do you see ? All women are in black, all men are in white. What makes a man different from another, apart from his car and watch ? His sillage, his aura. But it goes beyond this. A perfume alone can make me feel better. An former client of mine offered me one of his perfume, Eirini [From Eter Story] which means peace in Greek. Whenever I wear it, I can’t not smile. It brings me such joy to live, I had never experienced that before.
A.H. – So would you say a perfume can help people feel better about themselves ?
J.A. – I never had another experience such as the one with Eirini but I remember clients telling me : « When I wear Love by Kilian, I want to feel loved » and at first I didn’t understand it until I had this experience myself. A good perfume should give you a boost, it should make you want to accomplish things. Back when I was in Paris, my foot was hurting, and I stopped by the Bon Marché. There, I smelt a perfume which made me want to power through my day even though I was about to ride a taxi back home. I ended up staying up till 11pm. It had me forget the pain.
A.H. – Interesting. Are there any perfumes which helped you power through some rough patches in your life ?
J.A. – No, it’s quite the contrary. They didn’t help me, they blocked me.
A.H. – How so ?
J.A. – It was my husband’s perfume. When we broke up, I didn’t want to smell it anymore and whenever I would, I associated it with him. It took me some time to get over this feeling. It really blocked me, I didn’t feel good standing around someone who wore this perfume, or a perfume from the same olfactive family. I didn’t want to linger with someone who wore vetiver because I couldn’t manage to trust them. It was all happening subconsciously. One day, my sister told me : « Do you realise all the perfumes you hate have vetiver in them ? » and I suddenly understood everything and got over it. Once you spot the problem, you power through it.
A.H. – Would you say perfume influences us, subconsciously ?
J.A. – You know, I have a special needs child. Anytime I want to test out a perfume, I try it out with her. She’s used to it, she started smelling my perfumes when she was one year old, as she would watch me do it. Sometime ago, I had four bottles and I wanted to see which she’d like. I threw the other three away. For these children who don’t speak or don’t know how to express themselves, perfume is very simple : it is soothing or not. Because they lack one sense, it is very instinctive. They like it or they don’t.
A.H. – Have perfumes enabled you to strengthen your relationship with your daughter ?
J.A. – Yes of course. When she was younger, I’d put her perfume before she went to school. Little by little, it became a privileged moment for both of us. I loved her perfume so much I bought a dozen bottles and put one in each of my bags so I could keep smelling her when I was travelling. Back when I was a young mother I was the one waking her up, now it’s the other way around and if I ever forget, she comes to me with her bottle so I can put her perfume. It became a ritual to her. It’s beautiful, even more so for a child who doesn’t fully understand what it means. It’s moving to see she remembers the gestures.
A.H. – Do you think perfume could actually help other children with special needs ?
J.A. – When I was self-employed, I worked on a few projects revolving around children. One in particular involved crafting birth gifts by engraving the child’s name on a perfume bottle the mother had smelt when she learnt she was pregnant. A perfume bottle is a way to mark an important step and I want to work around this aspect. I also dream of a project linking perfumes with the drawings of these children.
A.H. – Wherever did this idea come from ?
J.A. – Because these children who don’t speak won’t say a word. The majority will express themselves through drawings. They smell, they see, they touch but they don’t speak. I talked about this project to my daughter’s school and told them that I didn’t want to earn any money with it, that they should only reimburse the production costs and keep the benefits to help the project grow.
A.H. – Is it crucial for you to support such initiatives ?
J.A. – Yes. I remember planning an event for Clive Christian. I had been asking to get a bottle of the « most expensive perfume in the world » for two years and one day, someone called and said : « Hey, you can get it in two weeks ». Only I needed at least two weeks to get the approval from the Dubai Mall but it was now or never so I agreed and had to come up with an event which would normally take months to prepare. I went to see our partner in advertising who told me they were too busy on such short notice so I found somebody else who agreed only if our event had any CSR repercussions. And I had an epiphany. We’d give back 10pc of our profits to my daughter’s school ! It turns out the event was a success.
A.H. – It would seem you are very involved with this school.
J.A. – Yes and ever since I grew a special bond with them. They’d call me whenever they needed some help. One day, the director called me and said : « We’re organising a charity dinner and need 300 gifts for the guests ». Back then, I had been working for two years with the brand L’Arc and it turns out they were phasing out their old packaging to make room for the new one so I called him and asked if he’d consider selling me the old bottles and if so, for how much. He asked me why, I explained everything to him and he said : « If it’s for your daughter’s school, I’m offering them, for free ». So he gave us 300 bottles. The dinner went well, the director was happy and at the end he came to me and asked how he could thank me. I was still living between Dubai and Beirut at the time so I said : « You know, I don’t need anything but Jaemia misses her school » but I knew they had a 3-year waiting list. A month later I received an email saying : « Jaemia can come back for the first day of school this year ». And I didn’t even think about it, I never imagined he’d offer me anything. You know, honestly I’m a good person, I don’t do bad things. I know I have an angel at home and I know it is my mission here. Sometimes it’s hard to accept. Everyday I keep asking myself : « What would she tell me ? » and I know she’d be very funny because I’m a bit crazy. Sometimes I look up the sky and tell God : « Please, give me the chance to speak with her ». But in the meantime, it isn’t happening so I do everything I can for her…for her good.
Translated from French by Alexandre Helwani