The Dreamer - Sonia Constant
Our story with Sonia Constant is peculiar. It all started by a stroll in a park, by a stop in a store, by a perfume sprayed on the wrist, by a letter sent on Facebook. A year later, we discovered in Sonia Constant a most complex character, certainly one whom has taught us a lot about perfumery. Alike us, she is a dreamer, she is a traveller, an adventurer. Her talent matches her utmost sensibility and maturity, her kindness and deep love met with her eye struck with poetry. Concluding our Advent Interviews, Sonia Constant tells us all about her childhood, her way to envision life ; how perfumes helped her become who she is and how her self helped her perfumes become the gems they are. A most touching and sincere Interview to mark the 1st year of her brand, Ella K.
[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 – Sonia, thank you for being here. So, we know Ella Maillart, the Swiss photograph and explorer, but my question now is : who is Ella K?
Sonia Constant – Ella K is an imaginary heroin, a timeless muse of sorts or a universal artist but definitely a mysterious traveler. Ella Maillart, whose name I used, along with Karen Blixen or Alexandra David-Neel, all those women explorers of the last century driven by a pioneer spirit inspired generations of women afterwards and Ella K, whom I imagined, is one of these women. She’s freed for time and space and there are no limits to her travels. She goes from one rite of passage to another, multiplying inner journeys, going out of herself to meet others and to discover faraway lands. She counts amongst the beautiful souls in love with the unknown, without preconceived ideas, whom are neither afeared nor reluctant, trusting their instinct. She chose, like the illustrious women before her, to write her own story, free of moral codes and restraints. Adventure is her religion, freedom is her luxury. I’ve always been fascinated by the strength of these women who had to prove so much in order to seize their independance and go in pursuit of their dream ; through their bravery, their will of freedom, they’ve led extraordinary lives. They somehow aided in shifting lines and left their mark in the world. Each one has inspired the character of Ella K. I like to think that, through this adventure, I am a bit like them but the main idea was that women and men alike could relate to this Ella K. Now, the name « Ella » does come from Ella Maillart because beyond the many journeys she set upon in a time when women were expected to stay at home, she was driven by a quest to know herself. What’s interesting is that she spent all her life going to and fro, she met incredible people such as Ramana Maharashi who probably helped her with her inner journey but in the end, she said that she had travelled all this time only to know herself. Although she realised that by the dusk of her life. So through Ella K, there is the idea of travelling beyond territorial borders of course but there’s also this idea of an inner journey. As for the K, it comes from Ella Maillart’s nickname, Kini, but also from the name of my grandfather, on my mother’s side. He passed me down his strength of character, his strength at work, his integrity and the will to pursue my dreams and to truly become myself.
A.H. – Ella Maillart was a big traveller, how about you ? Did you start travelling before you got into perfumes, did one passion inspire the other ?
S.C. – I was travelling before I became a perfumer. It was almost two separate things. I travelled out of open-mindedness, to discover new cultures, new ways to envision the world but it was ultimately linked to perfumes. New ideas don’t come up by staying locked up in your office. They can but I think we’re somewhat like a sun, and around us gravitate countless planets, the accords we’ve already built in the past, until someday some planets crush into one another and provoke the Big Bang. This is how I picture my creative process. And sometimes you have to renew your planets. I do so by travelling. Ella K is not only the fragrances I bring back from my trips, it’s my impressions. With Brume de Khao-Sok, I aimed to recreate the awakening of the jungle as the fog dissipates to unveil a floor covered with spider-lilies and gardenias ; and this sort of rhythm, the woody tension of the jungle’s clamour. Pluie sur Ha-Long is the swaying of our junk sliding under the moist monsoon air. It’s all these impressions that I wanted to put in scent, through synesthesia. There is what I smell but also what I see and feel – a rainbow of saris in Pushkar, the feeling of the Sun burning my skin and the roughness of vetiver flying through the ochre Namibian air ; the delicate rustle of the wind sliding through bamboo trees and their slow dance brushing the sun rays in Sagano. Baudelaire said in his poem Correspondances : « Perfumes and colours and sounds answer to one another ». It is exactly how I feel. When I look at something inspiring, my brains start rushing and assemble formulas to create a perfume which would somehow be the echo of what I’m seeing. It is a bit of a synesthestic phenomenon, to appropriate sounds, colours and shapes and transform them into smell is an incredible chance and an infinite source of inspiration.
A.H. – Travelling certainly touched you but how did it shape you ?
S.C. – Through open-mindedness. Some countries are really moving, India in particular. Despite poverty, I saw looks in children’s eyes I never saw in Europe. I was fascinated by their sincerity, their innocence. And the dignity of Indian women who looked like goddesses in their saris. We all have a lot to learn from that. That’s also why Ella K is a invitation to travel but everyone has to create their own story. My work as a perfumer, particularly through this project, if a way to touch the subconscious of others. Of course my creations have a story of their own and are inspired by real moments but I never want to impose, I only suggest. I aim to kindle their curiosity and invite them to explore, to leave with my stories, to make my perfumes their own and make their own discoveries. Baiser de Florence has a fabulous story by the way. My husband has blindfolded me one morning and I opened my eyes on a field of irises. It looked like hundreds of scintillating purple butterfly wings. Then we went to the Uffizi Gallery, going through wafts of incense coming out of Florentine churches and as we reached the Museum, its smell joined that of carven woods and antique marble. I wanted to sculpt the invisible. And this unexpected kiss as my lips were still covered in powdered sugar and the taste of almond pastries. It is all one : spirituality and sensuality.
A.H. – This sounds like a dream...
S.C. – And yet it’s true. Everything in the brand is true. I think a perfume must induce dreams and have a story to tell. Because there’s always a story behind a perfume.
A.H. – It does seem like you enjoy dreaming…
S.C. – It’s important to dream, to imagine countless things. I’ve always been a dreamer, ever since I was a child. My parents were actually worried about that. I love writing, I love reading, I love the Word and the way poetry takes us somewhere else. Ella K is a bit of olfactive poetry. I take as much pleasure in olfactively writing these perfumes as I do speaking about them. Which is why in every box you can find a poem, a witness of Ella K’s journeys through which she shares her emotions and the absence of whomever she longs for. It is a more intimate take on the perfume. Last time, as I was in Skins Cosmetics in Amsterdam, a customer burst out into tears. I told her the stories weren’t sad and she answered that she felt so deeply moved by them that she couldn’t help crying. I was speechless. I really understood how closely the arts of perfume and narration were linked. And how the sincerity as you create a perfume can touch people’s hearts. I had never experienced that in all of my career. And it reminded me of the letter you sent me on Facebook to tell me how Baiser de Florence and Lettre de Pushkar had moved you. To be able to directly touch the customer’s heart is something really knew which I discovered with Ella K and it makes me really happy but what’s interesting is that it is not all dream. Ella K is an invitation to give shape to our dreams by knowing who we truly are. Hence the dragonfly. It isn’t mere chance which made us chose it as the symbol of our brand : dragonflies are the symbol of freedom, of transformation and evolution. They invite us to dive deeper into ourselves to discover who we are.
A.H. – Would you say Ella K has become a way for you to truly be yourself ?
S.C. – I launched Ella K to be free. I wanted to go deeper and slower whilst creating. By launching my own brand, I opened the chapter of a new journey with a vast horizon through which I could speak with my own voice on a more philosophical and personal levels. To dare, to explore, to open up to the beauty and the diversity of our world. To choose a path towards self-accomplishment through audacity, curiosity and exploration ; through new encounters and the current search for authenticity and spiritual enrichment, far from anything ostentatious. At the end of this quest, emotions and poetry are the precious memories, the testaments of a journey which I transcribed in perfumes and poems and sketches. I have never envisioned launching my own brand as an egotistic act or a way to do more business. I chose this career because it enabled me to express my creativity and although I am working on many projects with Givaudan, I feel like I have yet more to share. It is my journey, my way to self-accomplish and go ever forward in my craft. Ella K is a state of mind. It is eyeing the world another way, with poetry, in a permanent quest for beauty. It is daring and exploring and escaping the boundaries to know oneself better. Proust said : « The real travel is not about finding new landscapes but having new eyes. ». Ella K is a way to capture ephemereal moments, shards of journeys far and inner, the little joys we overlook because of our frenzy lives. Ella K is a time when you stop to be able to take in these fleeting joys which I tried to sublime in my perfumes.
A.H. – You talk a lot about spirituality. Is it an important aspect of your life ?
S.C. – Absolutely because I always felt like I was being guided. Ever since I was little, I had this little voice – and I believe we all have one- who would tell me : « Do this, don’t do that » and I trust her a lot. Over time I understood what she really was but I mostly understood she was always right. Whenever I create, I strongly feel that. Over the past two years, meditating also helped me a lot because the creation of Ella K demanded a lot of energy and I was already swamped with work but most of all, it enabled me to understand one thing : live in the present moment, be fully aware of whatever you’re doing, all the rest being naught but an inner rambling which shouldn’t exist and consumes too much energy. I also learnt not to expect anything, nor to anticipate too much. It is adamant if you don’t want to end up disappointed. If you focus all your energy into what you’re doing in the present moment, you can accomplish incredible things. When what you are doing is fair and just, you discover an inner power, some sort of excitement which drives my creative process and also my encounters. There are people who were set on my path to help me and others whom I knew I was there to help.
A.H. – How can perfume help us enter this present moment ?
S.C. – I think that if a perfume is well built you can forget everything surrounding you, the same way you can be subjugated by a landscape. This astonishment can be experienced through perfumes but also by looking at a painting or listening to some music. You can reach this place whilst creating when you’re all about trying to reach a certain purity in beauty.
A.H. – How can we grow it nowadays ?
S.C. – Well it isn’t always easy since we live in a world full of tensions and pressures and it isn’t always beautiful to witness but I’m always empathic because I believe every person can change for the better and transform. I think that if we are positive, we create positivity, vice-versa. It is a quest I set upon.
A.H. – So did perfume help you envision the world differently, always watching the lighter and more positive side ?
S.C. – It did. When I was young, I was introvert but I had things to say. I am a big dreamer, ever since I was little. I have a certain faculty to mentally escape the world and it has a link with all the trips I took but I believe I know have travelled enough around the globe to engage on an inner travel.
A.H. – Ella K would be an inner journey, then ?
S.C. – Yes, I somehow see it this way. You know, in every artist there lies a scar, a rift, which becomes a source of energy. When you read the biographies of singers and painters and poets and composers, you always notice this rift, this spleen which lent them a poetic sense of life and something beautiful to express. Perfume was my way to express myself, to get past something. But it is true with every artist.
A.H. – A way to heal past scars ?
S.C. – Indeed. This energy is called resilience. When you’re wounded, you can either fall, or use the anger and transmute it into something positive. Boris Cyrulnik says it very well in his book Les Vilains Petits Canards, the concept of resilience originates in him actually. In the theatre of life, there are people who seem to play the evil characters and somehow end up helping you. Then again, it is all a matter of forgiveness and pass over some things.
A.H. – Did Ella K help you pass over ?
S.C. – Yes. Ella K is a culmination in the way that once you have healed your wounds, you can and you want to heal others. We’re all at different degrees on the spiritual ladder. There are people above me who help me grow and others whom I now help. With Ella K, I think that I might have, somehow, passed a milestone on my long spiritual journey…
Translated from French by Alexandre Helwani