Strange Invisible Perfumes’ Cosmic Connection
With her famed atelier in Venice, California, and a borderline obsession with seeking out pure botanical ingredients for her formulations, perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis is becoming a household name in the bespoke fragrance world. Her line, Strange Invisible Perfumes, has, in turn, helped pave the way for the idea of “narrative perfumery,” in which the journey of individual ingredients intermingles with the wearer’s own personal story and sensory preferences. Because she uses only organic, wild-crafted, or biodynamic essences set in a base of 100 percent organic grape alcohol, Balahoutis’ custom fragrance-making process is utterly unique. And the artistry and attention to detail she puts into every scent is astounding—her latest olfactory achievement, Musc Botanique, contains carnal aromas from the essence of a plant known for emitting molecules that closely resemble those found in deer musk (yes, deer musk). Style.com caught up with Balahoutis to talk about chance encounters with avocado trees, her one-on-one consultation process, and why for her, perfume is indelibly tied up with the cosmos.
The name of your company seems to speak volumes about the, well, strange and invisible fragrance compositions you are known for. It’s a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, right?
Yes, I love literature and rich narratives. I also write poetry and stories. Words are a little bit like essences to me. I love linking them together so that they communicate something in a distinctive, resonant way.
So if you weren’t making fragrances, could you see yourself taking up the pen?
My fantasy job, rather than just another career I might have chosen or still might add to the list, is a little odd. I fantasize about being a typography designer. It would be so specialized and so focused. No multitasking. No entrepreneurial facets. I could just obsess happily, having thrown myself into a world of magnificent details.
You exist in a world of “magnificent details” now, though, or so it seems. What sparked the initial impulse to get into the minutiae of fragrances?
There were many instances but a few stand out. When I was little, I became happy simply thinking about perfume. My mind would light up with intrigue and happiness when I heard the word perfume even more than it would by Christmas morning or a trip to Disneyland. I have always been in love with scent. I’ve used it to delight and influence my mind as long as I can recall. I’ve looked to scent to change my mood and mark the subtle beginnings of new eras.
And now you bring that experience to other people—like a fragrance shaman. Can you talk a little bit about the process of guiding someone on their own custom fragrance journey?
We talk about everything. The client tells me how they like their tea, what time of day they love, what they read, and why they live at all. The conversation always varies and never stays light. The custom blend is not about pinpointing a market list of essences my client likes so that I can throw them into a bottle. I want to internalize a sense of that person’s essence. Then I go to my palette and feel out which essential oils and extracts are relevant to my muse. I want to translate an elusive impression of who they are into the equally elusive medium of scent. Everything and everyone is essentially a recipe.
Speaking of which, your entire focus on rare and often hard-to-come-by organic essences must make for some excellent dinner-table conversation. Any sourcing adventures you can share here?
I once went to Hawaii to meet the one tree that my avocado leaf essence came from. This was the only one I could find as this specific avocado tree has been forgotten by perfumery and produces no avocados. The essence was so gorgeous and I knew it well. To see the one lone tree that made it for me and no one else was an interesting thing. It changed my point of view. I felt like the tree was an employee or something. It really felt like a person that worked for me.
You have referred to yourself as a “botanical perfumer and exacting Virgo,” which leads me to believe that astrology must play an important role in your work. Would you agree?
It does in a way. Astrology accounts for many of the ingredients that make up the recipe of who I am. My perfumes and my company are derived from that formula. It’s hard for me to separate the cosmos from existence itself, let alone from the work that I do.
Photo: Courtesy of Strange Invisible Perfumes