The magician - Miss Layla
Our encounter with Miss Layla, the incredibly talented perfumer behind FumFragrances occurred through ways mystical and guided by the words of JRR Tolkien. A passionate woman, whose heart is just as wide as her smile, Layla is also a plural artist, which can be seen in her fragrances, one of the most inspiring women we have come to meet in our life. It is not mere chance that brought Layla and I on the same path and it is thus our immense and humbling honour to have interviewed her for almost two hours…
Alexandre Helwani - Layla, thank You for having me tonight and thank You for Your time. You are a self-taught perfumer and we know You as the nose behind the house of Fum Fragrances. Might I ask the origins of this name ?
Miss Layla - I am fascinated by the origins of where things come from and how things came to be. I love stories, and because of that I wanted to know about where perfume came from and how it all began. When I traced the lineage, I found that the word “perfume” comes from the word, “perfumum,” meaning, “through smoke.” So the creation of perfume came from burning aromatic substances to scent the air, through incense. The vision of fūm was born through that derivation. Coincidentally, I have always been obsessed with incense. My company logo is something I drew to signify the alchemical symbol for smoke (to my knowledge there is no alchemical symbol for smoke, so I created one).
A.H. - Not often do we meet people fascinated with incense. Did this start at a young age?
M.L. – Yes. My Mom was a big hippie so we always had various oils and incense burning. Moreover, because of our Native American ancestry, we would attend Sweats to honor the Equinox and Solstice. I have memories as early as seven or eight when I started going to Sweats with my Mom. They were women only. We would crawl into these huts that we (a bunch of women) spent making all week. Super hot, glowing red volcanic rocks were carried in with tongs and placed in a pit dug in the center of the lodge. Water was ladled over the rocks that was perfumed with oils of sage, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint (anything you can imagine). Every woman was naked inside and we took turns pouring this aromatic water over the hot rocks and it would just steam and steam for hours. Incense like this impacted me ever since.
A.H. – Was it then that you realized the impact of perfumes in Your life ?
M.L. - For me, the perfume “light bulb” went on when I paid attention to smells in the kitchen. I learned to cook when I was really little. The first instruction I got from my parents was to: pay attention to the way food smells when it is cooking. The aroma tells you whether or not it’s ready to go onto the next stage. So I payed a lot of attention to food… but not to perfume necessarily. It wasn’t like perfume always held a great place in my life. It came progressively. Gradually I realized my sense of smell was the source of my memories. I started talking about my them, feeling them, re-experience them. I started to remember that I paid a lot of attention to how things smelled. I spent some time growing up in Montana and the smells there embody many of my childhood memories. I can close my eyes and picture all of the lilacs that are in bloom right now, I can picture how the rivers smell, I can picture the honeysuckles on the vines… I used to pick the honeysuckles and suck the juice out of them. I remember how the cotton trees would smell. I wasn’t conscious of how much smell impacted my life as a child even though I went around smelling and tasting everything. It’s as if I was born to taste and smell.
A.H. – That brings up my other question : are Your perfumes born and borne out of childhood memories ?
M.L. – Yes. My perfumes are my memories in a bottle. The first perfume I made was Nerola. I feel a deep connection to orange trees, citrus fruits, orange blossoms. They make me feel elated. I also spent time growing up in California. Citrus groves are everywhere here, I even have citrus trees in my backyard. When the Santa Ana winds blow, the air is just pregnant with the smell of orange trees. I created Nerola because I couldn’t find a neroli perfume on the market that did (my experience of) neroli justice. I really wanted her to be authentic and stand alone, to showcase it as a soliflore. Needless to say, it’s loaded with real neroli and orange blossom. It was almost my Crusade to show people that this is what neroli smells like. I wanted to show people as best as I could what the real thing smelled like.
A.H. – You seem to have a liking to natural materials.
M.L. - Definitely! Nature is my place to “fill up” again. It's where I go to fill my well, connect and feel whole with myself. It’s one of my ways I practice Self Care. When I started to source natural materials, I would smell them and they would transport me to different places that transcended time and space. It sounds nuts but I feel like… these botanical materials have souls. I believe it is the souls of the plants that we are experiencing. I believe the oils have their own personalities. The incredible craft of making these materials is inherently angelic. I very much respect and admire the people who can capture nature’s essences and bottle it ! The practice of natural perfumery is a meditation, an absolute therapy.
A.H. – Are there any materials with which You fell in love or which changed Your perspective on naturals?
M.L. - I experienced a Red Rose Damascena Absolute from Morocco that literally brought me to tears. The man who sources and makes these materials changed my life.
A.H. – You mentioned perfume being therapeutical for You. Would You say it also is for Your bespoke clients?
M.L. - Yes. Scent and memory go hand in hand. When I work with clients, I learn about intimate parts of their lives because they are sharing their memories with me. They’re telling me about themselves in a way that is uninhibited. Scent can be like truth serum. It’s liberating and often makes a person feel so free that they open up to me in a way that feels incredibly therapeutic. Through the magic of scent, I get to know people in very special ways.
A.H. – How does it happen, do You think?
M.L.- I’m not exactly sure but when I work with individuals, I get to see a piece of them that they don’t necessarily share with everybody at first. That’s what I feel is a really unique; how we each have our own individual relationships to scent. We all have a different relationship to these materials. When people connect with a material, they see it in a way that I don’t. Because fragrance trigger memories, people start telling me about cherished details of their memories. Scents unlock that communication unlike having a conversation at a party when you meet somebody for the first time and conversation is very simple. With perfume being so built in through our memories it transcends all that, it cuts through the small talk, you get to really know somebody. That authentic connection is incredible to me.
A.H. - Are You somehow aware that You are achieving something potentially life-changing?
M.L.- I never thought of it quite like that. Now that you mention it… when I was trying to choose a career, I remember thinking to myself, “If I can change at least one person’s life for the better, I’ve done my job.” Although, I don’t think of these things as I’m doing them, especially when creating perfume, if that is what you are referring to. Relating the question to the process of perfumery… well I second guess myself all the time. I think that conflict is just what artists go through. Self doubt it just part of the creative process. My biggest struggle is getting in my own way. At the same time, I am one of those people who believe in the power of manifesting anything you want in life.
A.H. – However, the response to Your work in the community has been utterly positive so far, it must feel heartwarming, doesn’t it ?
M.L. - Yes it does, really. They really are a kind of family, I feel so connected to this community, they teach me so much, it’s really humbling.
A.H. – I also remember You are a teacher Yourself ?
M.L. – Yes, I’ve been sharing this love with everybody. Right now I’m educating people in the fields I’m working in. I teach them how to compound their perfumes, how to make incense, how to cook. I have a nephew and a niece wanting to know more about how to make perfume. Life is just about sharing things that I love. It is especially mutual with children. They give me that life. I love seeing their little brains lighting up when they learn something new. With children, I tend to show them materials that I think they will recognise. Flowers, fruits, woody notes – I’ll describe what it is to them first, like the scent of decaying leaves or mud and tell them how incredible, how magical it is that we can capture those in a bottle.
A.H.- Do you believe in magic in perfumes then?
M.L. - Yes! That’s where the ineffable power of scent comes into play. There are things that I cannot put into words. Scent is a different language all its own… so trying to describe that type of magic… It’s a combination of a feeling a material gives me all by itself, the connection I have with somebody else who also appreciates this material and the magic it creates when combined with something else. Relationship and chemistry. That’s how I could best describe it : that spark, that recognition, that combination. You know… like when you truly connect with someone for the first time. There are people you meet for a reason or a season or a lifetime: I live for those moments.
A.H.– It’s funny that You would talk about such connections as I discovered Your work through Winter Crocus, inspired by a quote from the Lord of the Rings, which is my favourite book. Now You described Nerola as a she, what’s Winter Crocus’ story?
M.L. - I don’t mean to assign a gender to the fragrance but there is an energy to them when I describe my work and the personalities of the fragrances as a whole. It is my belief that there are no gender boundaries in fragrance which is why I market my perfumes as, “All Gender Perfumes.” However, there is a masculine energy to Winter Crocus that I find extremely safe and comforting. There’s also a haunting beauty to it. Drawing it to the example of the Lord of the Rings, it’s a very dark love. It is the story that darkness needs love as well, no matter how scary it can be. When I was creating this scent, I ran it by my friend Linda, she put it on before bed and she said it made her dream that she was walking in a dark swirling forest as if intoxicated and finding her way around. She decided that it was a very dark crocus to her and she was absolutely right. Then Amel Suljic [Ed. Amiiamisu on Instagram] took some photos of the crocuses blooming in Germany and that was it, that’s what she and I were seeing all that time. That level of resonance means something to me. There’s an appeal, a peace, a serenity in Winter Crocus. Even the darkness needs love...
A.H. – Were there dark times when perfume helped You power through? Did it change anything in the way You envision Your life?
M.L. - It changed everything. It heightened all of my senses. It’s enhanced the way I present myself to the world. I invited some friends over for dinner one night and after we had dinner, I was like : “You guys have to experience this new material I just discovered but we have to do it with this singing bowl because that’s how I experienced it!” Side note: I use scent in my spiritual practice… So I put on this meditation and I anointed their foreheads and temples. It was a 10 minute singing bowl session with the scent of blue lotus and the results were amazing! They felt it too… It opened them up. They left and their energy completely changed. My friends tell me I give them a, “Sensory Experience” every time I am around them. And that, that is how perfume has changed my life: I show it to everybody. I’m create memories with it. It’s changed me in a way where it’s made me want to share my life with people more than I ever have. Because it is powerful, I mean truly. It’s a different state of mind. It alters our consciousness.
A.H. – Have You always felt like perfume was a way to reach subtle, spiritual realities?
M.L. – Not always, but it’s now present in every aspect of my life. I have always kind of had this fascination of reaching other spirits and connecting to other dimensions. I kind of grew up with that. It was just one of these things way off in the distance and I didn’t want to believe in it until I was ready, until I was able to let go. I’d lived my life with such a tight hold on everything, in fear all the time of not being enough or not having enough that my spiritual awakening came when I let go of all the things I couldn’t control. Surrendering to Life on life’s terms lead me to my spirituality.
A.H. – In light of all this, what could You say perfume is to You?
M.L. - Perfume is Life. Life through the nose. It is a way to enrich your experience of life because it forces you to be present in the moment. I share it because I want people to experience the present because it’s here, it’s available to everybody. It’s paradise…