We Tried It

What It’s Like to Make a Custom Fragrance with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Perfumer

I ended up in tears. (In a good way!)

By: Katie Becker
Photography: Weston Wells

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, perfumer Douglas Little works out of a dimly lit wood-detailed apartment carefully decorated in gothic touches like taxidermied birds, a glass-encased skeleton covered in jewels, and lots of candles. “I had asked my broker for the Rosemary’s Baby apartment,” says Little, whose brand, Heretic Parfums (sold at Barneys New York) offers complex all-natural fragrances. He is also the nose behind Gwyneth Paltrow’s all-natural Goop fragrances, a soon-to-be-launched perfume with Sakara, and has made customs for Nicole Kidman, Dolly Parton, and Janet Jackson.

I have a seat beside Little at his fragrance organ (a fragrance organ is like a little tiered mini-theater of shelves with tiny bottles of pure perfumes—reminiscent of the tiered keys of a church organ) to, as the aforementioned have done, design my own personal perfume with Little as my guide. He pours me a glass of an obscure German biodynamic white wine he discovered in Paris called Fledermaus. “I prefer people to drink,” he says, “heavily.” The wine is a little bit cloudy, but I learn this murkiness often occurs with natural liquids of any kind, Little explains, including a few of the 300 scents around his organ. Among the other things I learned: how to sniff fragrances like a pro, why some fragrances smell better with just a *hint* of feces, and how certain notes can bring you to tears.

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Little, who grew up in Los Angeles and now splits his time between New York and L.A., studied perfume and apprenticed in the fragrance capital of Grasse, France, but is an artist of all kinds. He has also been a longtime window designer for Bergdorf Goodman, which you can see on his Instagram, and has done set and scent design for shows like “Queen of the Night.”

Why did he name his brand Heretic? “I was at a trade conference, and a very astute perfumer said naturals were nothing more than the work of heresy.” Boom. Thanks, dude.

One of the latest launches from Heretic, Dirty Ginger, is a shiso leaf, black pepper, clove, and lime blend that has been one of his most popular fragrances so far. He says to expect some more “Dirty” fragrances from Heretic in the near future.

Little with his fragrance organ behind him. He explains top and base notes like so: “Top notes are the most diffusive, and they evaporate fastest. Bottom notes are heaviest, made of fattier and heavier molecules. The actual extracts are ‘gunkier.’”

To start off with my own concoction, I tell Little how every perfume I have at home is a fig—I own, like, 10 different beautiful fig-heavy perfumes and need something new. So we decide to totally skip fig in this fragrance but try things in the scent family that I like, such as green notes and smoky scents, and try to insert some kind of delicious gourmand, which I know my boyfriend would appreciate. It’s a challenge, but we’re gonna see what happens.

Little applies each scent to cards that are made of watercolor paper. “It’s so absorbent,” he explains. “It allows the molecules to penetrate fiber.”

To smell each note as clearly and distinctly as possible, Little explains to me the open mouth trick: “Smell each with your mouth closed and open. When you open your mouth, the taste buds fire and your brain gets very involved. Your taste buds are designed to figure out if something is the foul or the fragrant. With synthetic replica notes, you can almost taste the metallic quality.”

We start with the heavier base notes. “Like a house, you have to start with the base. Establish the base and move upward,” Little explains. The first we smell is violet leaf absolute; it reminds me of sandalwood, which I hate. Skip. Then we try Hiba, the Japanese cousin of cedar, and it’s amazing. It takes me straight to my Northwestern roots and even makes me cry a little bit with its familiarity. We hang on to it as an option. Green tea absolute is totally “meh,” so we reject it. Then, I fall in love with hay absolute, which is so romantic and instantly has me picturing rolling around in a field with someone special.

To keep your nose smelling clearly, Little has a trick: “Smell the inside of your elbow or smell into a natural fiber,” he suggests. “This acts like an eraser so you’re ready to start again.” This is particularly helpful for smelling indole, which is a key component in jasmine. “Also in feces,” says Little. “When you get too close to a jasmine plant that’s in bloom, it can make you feel sick. But in small doses, it’s actually erotic. This is where you start getting into psychology. People don’t realize why they react the way they do. The smell of body fluids, feces, and milk and urine—it’s very, very sexy. But it’s a slippery slope, of course.”

“Bourbon patchouli is the McCallan of patchouli,” says Little. “It smells like dirt. Fresh earth. This one is a little over 40 years old. It’s one of the rare natural ingredients that gets better with age.” The smell of this one also makes me teary. Presumably because my dad’s a bourbon drinker.

After we’ve chosen a few notes I like, Little staggers the papers so we can smell them together. He slides them closer and further from each other to approximately “dial” the levels and intensities before we start blending the actual liquids together.

I ask Little what from his childhood might have predicted a career in perfume. There are a couple telling anecdotes. “When I listened to music growing up, I would have to pick apart what parts are what instruments,” he explains of his interest in breaking things down to their individual elements. His mother also showed him the world of botany. “We would go to garden nurseries, and I would be able to name plants and their Latin names. My mom would crush up leaves and hold them under my nose with my eyes closed, and I could name them.”

“So far you like the expensive stuff,” he tells me after showing me a really rare gourmand—a smoked black tea called lapsang souchong that I feel I *must* have in my fragrance. We add a card of it to the lineup. As we combine the various possible combinations, certain notes seem to bank off each other, almost like they’re moving under my nose. We’re definitely onto something I love.

Now it’s time to start blending the actual liquids together and test the combinations on my own skin. “We start with a base of natural sugarcane alcohol,” says Little. “It gives more of a softness and sweetness—natural sugars have a bit of an odor.” He starts adding the concentrates a tiny drop at a time. “Making custom fragrance is so expensive because you have to do this process three or four times,” he explains. “One drop too many can ruin the blend, and then you have to start from scratch.”

Three hours after I’ve walked through the door and a kicked bottle of Fledermaus later, we land on something gorgeous. All the woodsy and green notes—including hay absolute, oakmoss, jasmine sambac, and bois de rose—come together for a type of fragrance called a fougère, which comes from the word “fern.” Every time I sniff mine, it conjures an image of stomping on piles of fresh, wet garden roses. “Let it settle in the bottle for a few days, then start wearing it on your body,” says Little. “You have to really live with it. We often end up revisiting fragrances in two or three sessions to get it right.” I’m already dying to douse it on and am compulsively smelling all the traces left on my arms from the afternoon’s work. It’s addictive, and I love it. I think I’ll name it Dirty Fougère.

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We Tried It