Perfumer Barnabé Fillion is a synesthete; he experiences life with all his senses. He can hear colours, feel sounds, and taste shapes – which explains his finesse in creating conceptualised and unprecedented scents.
Since he discovered his passion for fragrance-making whilst studying botany and phytology, the French ex-model and photographer has been diving deep into the art of perfumery. Fillion even became the protégé of influential noses like Christine Nagel of Hermès. It wasn’t long after when he met Dennis Paphitis, the founder of Aesop, marking the start of his long-standing partnership with the Australian brand.
Broadening his horizons, Fillion continued to undertake diverse fragrance collaborations with art projects to fashion brands like Rick Owens and Paul Smith, incessantly researching new scent design methods to push the limits of perfumery. In 2020, he launched Arpa, “a research project exploring the sensory basis of consciousness and sense-blending potential, such as the flavour of light”, the brand elaborates on its website.
“At Arpa, we experience the future of fragrance with all of our senses. You will listen to the scent.” Most recently, the perfumer announced his return to Aesop with a new fragrance: Gloam Eau de Parfum, the fifth instalment of his iconic Othertopias collection and the ninth eau de parfum in Aesop’s fragrance range.
Centred on the divan – a horizontal portal for self-observation – Gloam conjures the dreamscape, where imagination enters, and the waking world recedes. Here the familiar collides with the uncanny, in a fragrance that blends the tangible and the illusive: rich florals, warm spice and a bed of wooded depths combine to invoke reverie, rousing the senses and enchanting the mind.
Intrigued by his creative mind, we met up with the French perfumer virtually for an interview, where he shared how he materialises concepts and more about his latest invention.
What’s day-to-day like for a perfumer like yourself?
I like to work early because there’s something “quite accurate” in my mind in the morning. It’s been proven that we tend to hit peak productivity at 11 in the morning. I believe it’s the reason why most wine and spirit testings happen during that time. My morning routine includes listening to music; it brings a certain rhythm to my day. Then I will smell the things that excite me, like relics I’ve collected, the projects I’m working on, and new ingredients I’d like to use in the future. So the day is really an olfactory journey. It’s also important for me to be in nature as it’s a direct source of inspiration for me.
Can you share with us how and where you get your inspiration?
Usually, a narrative comes to mind as soon as I get fascinated by an ingredient. The said narrative then becomes the focal point, inspiration. Otherwise, literature and my travel adventures will come to play during the development.
How do you materialise a concept?
When creating a new perfume, I will have a visual in mind. I will think of how I can translate it into a scent. After locking down the ingredients I want to work with for the concept, I will test them out, at the same time, on different textiles and my own skin to get an idea on how the perfume would smell throughout the day and react to different types of clothing. Every time I move, a new ingredient comes to the surface. It creates another layer of complexity that continues to inspire the development.
Share with us more about Arpa Studios.
Arpa creates music and sculptures on top of fragrances to help people experience synaesthesia.
How do you retain your unique flavour while ensuring the fragrances in Arpa Studios are distinctively different from your creations in Aesop?
At Aesop, I work with a team of experts who always infuses the signature and essence of Aesop into these collaborations. We work well together to meld the DNA of Aesop with my style. It’s all about finding the right balance with Aesop. Also, when formulating fragrances for the brand, I try to reference its approach to the business.
For example, when you enter an Aesop store, you will be greeted with utmost care; you will receive a nice cup of tea and a consultation. There is this quality of care that conjures images of softness and shelter. I try to infuse these images into my fragrances – like Hwyl, where the narrative is about a shelter in a forest.
Does your background in photography and botany help you with your art in perfumery?
For sure. My interest in perfumery began to take form when I was studying at a visual art school where I specialised in photography. I used a polaroid camera to take pictures of botanicals to reveal the “architecture of nature” – all the patterns and repetitive structures across the elements in nature. This is how I developed my interest in the ingredients for fragrance. Even today, when I create a perfume, I explore this same style of photography as inspiration.
You’ve mentioned that you are synesthetic. Tell us more about that and how it shapes the way you perceive things.
When working on a fragrance, I don’t only think about the formula but also an image, and its colour and texture, that accompanies the scent. Somehow, this expression can be blurred, blended or inverted. For example, while Mimosas are flowers of Spring, Winter comes to mind when I think of them because they have the texture of snowflakes. With synaesthesia, I get to play with the suggestions shapes and forms offer.
How would you describe the scent of the latest eau de parfum?
Gloam Eau de Parfum embodies quietude – the state where thoughts turn inwards as the outside world recedes. It has a distinctly floral fragrance with rich notes of spice, and it features pollen-like, powdery Mimosa, aromatic Saffron and earthy, violet-like Iris. The top note features a splendid Orange Flower. There is also Pink Pepper, which for me, captures a classic British elegance. It’s stimulating, almost itching to the nose, and it assets dominance. Aesop’s new Gloam Eau de Parfum conjures the dreamscape, where imagination enters and the waking world recedes. Cardamom also brings a lot of brightness and something spicy to the table, but it’s mostly green and fresh because we have used the CO2 extraction of this ingredient.
At the heart, spices like Saffron and Jasmine Sambac bring about a rich warmth, while Mimosa gives a sense of pleasure of imaginary travel. And in the base notes, we have Patchouli, Copaiba and Iris working in tandem to yield an earthy note. For me, the base really conjures this image of the sculptures and fabrics of the divan setting, the atmosphere that inspired Gloam.
Who is Gloam for and when should people use it?
Aesop fragrances know no gender boundaries; they are intended for those who take pleasure in evocative aromas or are keenly attuned to the senses. For me, Gloam is a late afternoon and evening fragrance. There’s something nostalgic about Gloam, so you should wear it when you want to embrace that sense of nostalgia and dive into your memories.
How does Gloam relate to the other Othertopias olfactory portraits?
Gloam is inspired by the divan or the day bed – a place where we lay down and daydream as the outside world recedes. Here, we rest and our thoughts turn inwards. The notes of the perfume capture this landscape through rich florals, warm spice and a soft, powdery base, rousing the senses and enchanting the mind. The first three Othertopias were inspired by the boat, the shore and the urban wasteland, which means they have much earthier or more mineral notes. But because Gloam is inspired by being in this horizontal manner and losing the gravity on our body, the notes are much more focused on replicating the feeling of entering a dreamlike state.
The fourth fragrance in the collection, Eidesis Eau de Parfum, also has some of these warmer notes, but Eidesis is almost about becoming no one, disappearing into the mirror. With Gloam, it’s much more about acknowledging the body and allowing it to rest, to be able to dive into memory, or even melancholy.
What makes this scent an Aesop fragrance?
For Aesop, fragrances facilitate the journey of self-discovery, exalting and enhancing the wearer in ways both conscious and not. Like the other olfactory portraits in the Othertopias collection, Gloam Eau de Parfum embodies the said qualities and is a highly complex formulation with a uniquely compelling narrative.