“How do you want to be remembered when you leave a room?” is one of the first questions Vancouver perfumer Josée Gordon asks clients who come to her seeking custom fragrances. Sincere, empathetic, and uncommonly attuned to those around her, Gordon focuses on understanding personalities and translating them into scent. Over the course of an hour in her candlelit studio (an apothecary bottle-lined nook within the Railway Street workspace she shares with the design company Andlight and designer Conroy Nachtigall), clients are encouraged to discuss their favourite movies, eras they feel most connected to, and any foundational, personal memories they wish to share, with each subject given space to veer indulgently tangential. It’s like a great talk with a friend, mixed in with a therapy session and a conspiratorial meeting of the vaguely occult—understandable, considering the similarities between perfumes and potions.
Gordon is one of Canada’s few perfumers (Vancouver has two), and there is something mystic in her methodology. The alchemist behind local fragrance and body care line Reassembly, Gordon creates finely crafted skincare and exceptional oil-based perfumes, such as the NYC blend, which captures the kinetic intensity of late summer and hot concrete, and Blackwood—a rich, resinous forest accord. However, customizing perfumes is somewhat her calling. Dressed in a kimono-sleeved white top with an attentive gaze and casually pinned blonde hair, Gordon explains, “I have always felt like I’m supposed to be working in the abstract; I’m looking for unspoken things.” Her unique talent is for skillfully transposing an individual’s history, interests, and energy into the fickle, subjective medium of scent; providing them with something akin to a portrait constellated in drops of jasmine, amber, and pine. Sitting before dark glass vials of essential oils, with vermillion petals fermenting in a bag on the counter, Gordon says she feels like a conduit: “I’m meant to interpret very subtle elements and try to give them form.”
As a teen in Quebec (where she grew up, although she was born in a small German village on the edge of the Black Forest, now abandoned by humans and reclaimed by plants), Gordon experimented with aromatic blends. She quickly realized that, beyond simply concocting nice fragrances, she was interested in the inter-relationship between personality and scent. “I’m drawn to scent because of its connection to individuals,” she says. “The way the people you care about smell and why. … It’s very intimate and evocative.” Gordon began tailoring fragrances for friends and family, and officially launched Reassembly in 2010. “I had shelves of experiments,” she admits. “The process builds humility: you learn how to listen and go forward with your heart.”
After chatting, clients identify their favourites from an array of pure essential oils, which Gordon has sourced globally and organized into base, heart, and top note categories. A few weeks later, they return to test a flight of three perfume blends presented in chemistry beakers, each flanked by a card detailing its notes and the intention behind it. “I think about how to fill in different stories that came up in our talk,” Gordon says of the intervening process. Typically, she only works with one or two clients at a time. “I don’t want the stories to become crowded during that witchy part of it, when I’m intuning and trying to interpret part of someone’s spirit,” she explains.
If a key facet of scent’s appeal is its ability to evoke emotion—bypassing the rational mind on a beeline towards dormant memories, unwrapping your subconscious like a box of old photographs you’d forgotten you had—then Gordon’s talent is uncanny. Arched over beakers in her ambient studio, you might find yourself breathing in the honeysuckle blossom, tomato leaf, and cut grass that perfumed August dusks in your childhood garden, or recapturing the washed pavement and golden bakery waft of a memorable Parisian dawn. “I do it because I care very much about people. That sounds corny,” Gordon says with a laugh. “But I think my audience is really intelligent and multifaceted; I want them to feel like they can express themselves by helping translate intangible qualities into an essence.” Once a scent is chosen, Gordon files each client’s private recipe and provides them with a bottle of pure selfhood. It’s the gift of something abstract, precisely expressed.
Photo by Andre Pinces.