Julia Zangrilli of NOVA perfume.
Living in New York has its special perks and my favorite has to be that you’re surrounded by wonderful people doing fascinating things. Last year, my friend Julia Zangrilli up and decided she would become a perfumer which at the time felt spectacularly random. Her company, NOVA, is based in Brooklyn, New York, and the bulk of her business is comprised of custom fragrances. Here’s the deal: you make an appointment to visit her studio in Williamsburg and she walks you through an evaluation of what scents you find yourself responding to and she makes you a one-of-a-kind eau de parfum. Its exact formulation is yours and yours only and the composition (basically the recipe card) is tucked away in a secret location until you need to re-up.
Now I know it sounds rather straightforward but unless you’re born as a bajillionth generation perfumer to a family of known noses, gaining a foothold into the industry poses an enormous challenge. Julia first enlisted in an introductory class and then matriculated in an intensive course at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in Grasse, France, a.k.a. the perfume capital of the world. After months of gaining confidence from friends and mentors, she finally launched her own line. NOVA’s first retail scent, Chakra, is available for preorder and in a highly scientific poll conducted among three other friends over a bottle of rosé, it smells “bonkers,” “expensive as hell,” and “WANT.”
I visited Julia at her studio to talk about the riskiness of changing your career, the tremendous rewards of heeding your instincts, and what it’s like to geek out on something you didn’t even know was out there.
Photo: Courtesy of novaperfume’s instagram
MTV Style: I know you didn’t go to college for perfuming so what was your major?
I went to UC Boulder for communications, it’s the gateway to so many things and basically the major for people who don’t know what they want to do in their lives.
I was undeclared in liberal arts for two years so I feel you.
Right. I loved Boulder but that school wasn’t for me and wanted a creative outlet so [when] I got accepted to Fordham for acting, I went there for three years. I graduated, did some off-Broadway plays and for a couple of years it was wonderful but then one day, I snapped out of it.
You just didn’t want to do it anymore?
Yeah. It was hard to realize at the time because being an actor is difficult. You have to overcome personal vanities and fears. You’re told you can’t give up and that you have to learn to love rejection and so much of the job is blind commitment and faith, so letting go was hard. But if there’s something in you that doesn’t want it, the best thing you can do is recognize that and give yourself the permission to stop and go in another direction.
Was becoming a perfumer the next obvious move for you?
Not at all. I was a studio manager and then got into event planning. I started searching for something to feel passionate about so I was doing all of this stuff like yoga, pilates, cleanses, alkaline water, you know, trying to “feel the universe” [laughs].
So you were deep on that ’Eat, Pray, Love’ tip?
Exactly. It was either that or depression. Both are equally desperate but then I happened to go perfume shopping with a friend and she realized I was really descriptive and had a good nose. A week later, she forwarded me a class that she found in New York Magazine. I definitely credit her for pushing me in this direction.
Was the class insanely expensive?
It wasn’t crazy. It was about $300 and you just smelled raw materials and learned about the properties of each.
You’re certified by the Institute of Perfume, what’s Grasse like?
It’s like Ocean City, Maryland.
Rose picking in France.
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images
Yeah, it wasn’t this charming, provincial, cinematic Southern France. You do have the landscape of winding hills but mostly it was hookah bars and karaoke and trains packed with tourists but Chanel has their rose fields there and so many incredible perfume houses are based in Grasse. The climate is perfect for rose, lavender, tuberose—important ingredients in perfume-making. I thought it was the most take-charge thing I could do to learn but I came back still not knowing how to create.
Well, right. It’s like learning the definition of every single word doesn’t really teach you how to be a writer.
Creation is such a mysterious process. It’s not really something that can be taught.
What was the catalyst for you to just go in?
I met Ralf Schweiger at a trade show. He’s a great perfumer who was at Ateliers Hermes and is now at Mane, and I took him out for a drink and he smelled some things I’d been working on and at a certain point he was like, “OK, you just need to do it.”
It was like you needed permission or something?
It blew my mind how simple it was. Coming from someone like him, it hit home. I knew I really wanted this. I had been building up oils, I had enough of a repetoire to make a perfume, I just had to do it.
What qualifies as a repertoire sufficient to build a perfume?
I had a library of basic ingredients—woods, florals, citrus, aquatics, ozonics, resins. I’d accumulated about 50 oils in my collection, now I have over 200.
Julia Zangrilli of NOVA perfume.
Photo: Courtesy of novaperfume’s instagram
How did the custom aspect of the business begin?
I’d been experimenting on my own and nothing super exciting was happening until my friend Claire [McKimmie] came over and I decided to make her a perfume. We went though the oils and I just showed her everything. She picked her favorites and we went from there.
So you just ask a bunch of questions and suss out what people want to smell like?
A lot of women don’t like “sweet,” other women don’t like “woody” so it’s just about narrowing down what the client is going for. Is it light? Is it sexy? Is it wintry? The evaluation is about how many adjectives you can get. From there, I navigate them through top, middle, and base notes.
The ins and outs of perfume making.
And those are, like, the layers of a perfume?
Top, middle and base refer to the size of the molecule and how long they’ll last on your skin. Top is the smallest, they’re the most diffusive so they go onto your skin, fly up and hit your nose first and then evaporate the quickest. Top notes are that first burst of freshness so it can be citrusy or else certain spice notes work well too. Middle, or heart notes, are traditionally the centerpiece of the fragrance, it’s a lot of florals. Base notes are the largest and they hold the fragrance down and give it longevity. It’s a lot of woods, resins, animalics but it’s never black and white. Most oils fluctuate and can move between categories. A lot of notes smell crazy on their own.
Like, certain animal-derived notes. Civet is an important ingredient that comes from the anal gland of the civet, this possum/cat-like creature. It smells musky and almost like the worst bad breath you’ve ever smelled (ed note: I have verified this to be true, it’s gnarly) but it adds depth to floral bouquets and acts as a fixative to make it last longer.
What’s another super-weird ingredient?
Ambergris. So any time someone describes a perfume as “amber” it references ambergris, which comes from sperm whales swallowing sharp objects and producing this waxy substance in their digestive tract.
Whoa. That sounds mythological!
Yeah, it’s incredibly rare. Most of the stuff out there is synthetic but I remember reading an article about a guy who found a big lump of ambergris that had washed up on shore. He had to google it to figure out what it was, but it ended up being worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So being a perfumer involves a ton of nerdery?
Yeah, you need to memorize so many materials. You need to be able to close your eyes and someone hands you a strip of whatever and you can identify it.
It sounds like being a sommelier or something.
They say you should be able to compose a fragrance not in the presence of the actual notes. You’re supposed to compose it from memory and not by using your nose.
But that’s how well you have to know it. I’ve got most of my notes memorized. I just got a bunch of new ones which I’m still learning. You have to get familiar with their nuances and properties because each oil interacts with others so differently. Certain oils just don’t mix well.
More perfume nerdery.
Seems like some really mercurial stuff.
Yeah. But that’s the great thing about this work, I’m constantly surprised. When I think something’s going to be cacophonous, it’s not.
I guess, that’s the language, huh? Notes, cacophony, it’s like music? Is that how you picture it in your head?
You know, I used to write music in college and I do visualize where the different fragrance notes hit and consider them to be musical notes. I don’t “see” the scents but I do think of them in chords.
But things don’t always “sound” the way you think they will.
Yeah, I’ll have a client come in and they’ll choose two things and I’ll be skeptical but I never say no to anything a client wants and it will end up being the coolest fragrance ever. There’s no reason why it should work but somehow, in the right ratios, it does. I’m always surprised by what people want to smell like, too. I thought a friend would want something ethereal but she grew up on a tobacco farm in the South and wanted something tar-like, gritty and heavy. Nostalgia is a huge factor in an evaluation.
How many trials do you go through with each client?
Anywhere from two to ten.
And how much does it cost?
$270 which means the profit margin isn’t huge but I want to keep it accessible. I also teach classes and I’ve definitely had people who want to pursue it come in and smell my collection and I’ll run them through my library. It’s something I want to share since I was so desperate to learn things when I started.
Are you super fussy about your nose? Like, do you refrain from eating spicy foods?
No. I eat whatever and I’m a social smoker. It’s terrible and I should quit but I remember at Grasse my teacher being like, “OK, we have a lunch break,” and she’d be drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. I’m casual about it. It’s not so tight-assed.
When I go to a perfume counter I get nose fatigue so easily. Like, after four things, I’m done and everything smells the same. Do you get that?
No. I can go and go. It wasn’t always this way, when I started I would smell 30 ingredients and my eyes were heavy and my nose would shut down but you get better. I do a lot of smelling and evaluation all day, five days a week.
What are your thoughts on celebrity perfumes?
I think they’re awesome. There’s an art in creating that branding, the ingredients, you have to hit such a specific price point. It’s almost like the ultimate “look for less” challenge and requires some genius. Sure, some are super stripper-y smelling but who cares? I think it’s fun.
And you’re moving into retail fragrances this fall which is new for you.
Yeah, it’s our first and it’s called Chakra. It was actually supposed to be released last year but hurricane Sandy flooded my manufacturer and supplier so they were backed up against a holiday rush. It was crazy.
Wow. It’s wild to consider how many different types of industries Sandy ended up harming in this area.
Yeah, it halted production and threw my schedule off by 8 months.
Do you think you would’ve started this company anywhere other than New York?
Honestly no. My friends were hugely inspirational in starting NOVA. New York is filled with people trying to figure things out and do their own things. It’s like if I told my friends, “I want to invent a color.” They’d be like, “Right on.” They’d be so supportive.
How did you parents take it?
I think all parents are concerned when in comes to financial worries and career instability, and of course that’s where I was when I was starting out. But they were still supportive in different ways. They both push pragmatism but have a relatively high tolerance for risk and passion. So I guess they took it well!
That’s good! I’d imagined more table-flipping.
It was a huge risk.
Do you feel like you’ve finally found something that you’ll do for a long time?
Absolutely. I just had to start.