Perfumer Spotlight: Mackenzie Reilly
"Instead of telling the fragrance what to do, I start to listen to the fragrance, very introspectively, and it will start to tell me what it needs. It’s almost like the composition gets a mind of its own, and you have to trust it."
– Mackenzie Reilly, Perfumer
M. d’E. What fragrance did you create for MAISON d’ETTO?
Macanudo which is fresh, crisp and bold. A modern vetiver composed of hay absolute, cut grass and freshly turned earth from galloping hooves, threaded with a bright neroli top.
M. d’E.What moves you about scent?
Ever since I can remember, I have always loved scent and felt deeply connected to it. The smell of the earth after rain, picking blackberries in the forest, firewood burning in the winter, the bottle of Shalimar on my mother’s vanity.
M. d’E.When did you realize you wanted to be a perfumer?
I didn’t realize that a perfumer was even a job title until I was eighteen years old. At that time, in America (even in New York, where I grew up) there was not a lot of public awareness about this industry. Nevertheless, I was always very creative, and thought I would pursue a career in music, film, or art. That is, until the day I discovered there were artists whose jobs it were to create these beautiful scents I loved so much; who had the power to bottle memories and write vivid stories through olfactive landscapes. After that, to become a perfumer was my only goal.
M. d’E.What was your path to becoming a perfumer?
I never had a straight path into perfumery – I didn’t study chemistry, or attend ISIPCA like so many of my colleagues. I was drawn to scent from a different angle, and instead used my college years to focus on the anthropology of scent and how it shaped the cultures, religions, and language development of various African tribes. I loved the stories of ancient Egypt, of incense, the spice routes, and the idea that the passing of time could be marked and measured by the scents of the seasons. I studied the scents I discovered in nature, food, travel, and the olfactive memories of past experiences, much more than I obsessed over the history of traditional perfumery. My love of culture, botany, and anthropology shaped that focus for me and continues to influence my creative process.
M. d’E. We appreciate that so much, as you know my path was also very winding. How did you discover IFF?
An unorthodox approach and a lot of conviction eventually landed me a job as an assistant to the Creative Director of IFF New York in 2010. At that point I had applied for over 100 positions in the fragrance world, but never the thought of giving up.
M. d’E. SAME!
Once I was at IFF, I worked on the sensory team, and then in fragrance development, before landing a coveted spot at the IFF perfumery school. I trained for years in New York, Singapore, France and The Netherlands before returning to New York as a Junior Perfumer.
M. d’E. We call you the rebel, bad-ass perfumer at MAISON d’ETTO. I was quite intimidated by you when we first met. To the point where I said, I don’t know if this is going to work. Then I learned like me, you could be introverted and slow to open up. It wasn’t until I was invited to an internal IFF storytelling session where I was able to fully see you, your heart, your spirt and the love for what you do. I still remember every time I heard your story I would just begin crying uncontrollably. Everyone was like, who is this crazy client and why does she keep crying when people tell Mackenzie’s story. Well it was because at that moment, I saw all of me in you. Every single aspect of my windy career and the risks I took. Share with everyone your story.
What!! I didn't know this story! I definitely took a lot of risks and had an indirect path to reach where I am today. I don't know if I would call myself a rebel, but I do tend to have trouble staying inside the box! Just as I was beginning my career as a perfumer in NYC, I strayed off the traditional path, and requested to move to Grasse, the birthplace of perfumery in the south of France, to work at our naturals facilities at LMR (Laboratoire Monique Remy). I had created a thesis and a project around the research of flowers and the fluctuation in their olfactive emissions throughout the day, night, and growing season, as influenced by pollinators and environmental conditions.
I spent one year there, not competing on commercial projects — a move considered by some to be risky for a first-year perfumer, but doing research instead. Studying these natural plants very closely, hand-making my own absolutes, and spending my days in the field and the lab reviewing GC-MS analysis provided the experience and knowledge that would become the foundation of my identity as a perfumer and lover of naturals. This work has greatly influenced my use of botanicals, my understanding of their nuances, and my love of their complexities and mystery. Sometimes I’ll go very early in the morning to the Union Square Farmer’s Market in NYC, and once in a while you will see some very famous chefs walking around inconspicuously, sniffing tomatoes or tasting radishes for their bite. I think of my time in the fields as the perfumery equivalent of that; recognizing the immense value of knowing your ingredients intimately and at the source.
M. d’E. What did your path look like when you returned from France?
I started working again on commercial briefs in 2018, and have since been lucky to work with incredible brands, from the large prestige fragrance companies, to niche brands like Maison d’Etto, Masque Milano, Caswell Massey and International brands in Asia, South America and the Middle East. I love the mixture of the fast-paced, competitive nature of the large projects, and the nuanced, intimate and highly-creative nature of the more avant-garde niche projects. Each new brief is a new universe to discover, and I always find myself learning new things and am endlessly inspired by my clients’ visions. Whether exploring the equestrian world with Maison d’Etto, or traveling to Yellowstone National Park with Caswell Massey to capture the scents of endangered flowers (without touching or harming them), there is always an incredible adventure on the horizon.
M. d’E. What is your process? How do you create?
I’m a very visual person and tend to think about fragrance in architectural terms. When I approach the creation of a fragrance structure, I conceptualize in terms of the space it occupies in the air. Not necessarily sillage, but more of a 3-D depiction which involves texture and sometimes color as well. I always do my first sketches by hand, never on the computer. Working with a pen as opposed to a keyboard feels much more intuitive to me, and my thoughts definitely flow better that way. I draw the formula like this, with ingredients scattered where I see them in space, sized proportionally, quantities noted. Then I put this into digital formula software so we can prepare the trial for me to smell. From here I tend to work more on the computer as I develop and fine-tune. I do always go back to the page, however, when a big directional change is needed, or if I feel stuck.
Another way I work is in sort of a two-phased approach. In the beginning of a project, I think it’s super important to have a strong, clear vision, and a ton of conviction about where you see the fragrance going. It’s very hard to work without this clear vision, and if this is missing, the development tends to idle, and the process can feel aimless, which is very uncomfortable. Once I have a strong vision in my mind, I work until a certain point, where the fragrance develops a personality or identity of its own. The second phase happens now, where instead of ‘telling’ the fragrance what to do, I start to ‘listen’ to the fragrance, very introspectively, and it will start to tell me what it needs. It’s almost like the composition gets a mind of its own, and you have to trust it. Sometimes it surprises you!
M. d’E.Who were your biggest mentors and what did you learn from them?
Carlos Benaim taught me to work with short, clean formulas, and to always know the exact role that each ingredient is playing in your composition. If you can’t justify its presence, remove it! He also taught me the methodical approach of trying each ingredient one by one, as a learning exercise to develop your palate. When we work together, if I use a specific type of sandalwood, for example, he will occasionally ask me “why this one?” and if I can give a clear answer, he always accepts it. Carlos is very open-minded and inquisitive, and I have learned a lot from watching the joy and curiosity that are always present when he creates.
Jean-Marc is a super talented perfumer who is amazing with fruits and florals. He has a great energy and charisma and wonderful relationships with our clients. I learned a lot from watching him work, from his furious creativity, to his many years of experience navigating the industry from Niche to Specialty.
I was also lucky enough to spend time with Sophia Grojsman during the end of her career at IFF. Sophia is an absolute legend and character, and always had bits of wisdom for me. I was still in school at the time, and I used to bring my creations up to her office, and she would smell with me and give me advice. She always pushed me to create with conviction, and choose the ingredients that I love, and to work with them again and again. She would say that this is how you build your signature, in part through structural style, but largely through your beloved ingredients that you come to know very well, like old friends. She would create little accords, very powerful, very signed, and use them on different structures, to different effects. She called them her “little gadgets” and this way of working is part of the reason it is so easy to identify a fragrance crafted by Sophia. No matter how diverse the fragrances are, they just smell like her! I think this is a sign of a truly great artist.
M. d’E.What’s next for you?
I am now based in NYC, but still go back and forth frequently to Grasse. My first time in the South of France was love-at-first-sight, and I find the olfactive landscape there to be irresistible. Being close to the fields and the first steps of production has bound me to the craft of perfumery in a way that is now irreplaceable. I hope to continue to grow as a perfumer with a deep understanding of naturals, as I believe nature is the greatest artist and our greatest teacher.
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Mackenzie Reilly perfumer behind the beloved fragrance Macanudo, gets real with Maison d'Etto on what its like to be a perfumer. How she approaches working with scent as an artistic medium, architecture as her foundation and nature as her tool for creation. Naturalist and perfumer, Mackenzie Reilly.Read more