“Radical” and “perfumery” aren’t two words often heard in the same sentence, but for Altra’s co-founder, Beckielou Brown, they’re as intertwined as the ingredients in Altra’s all-natural, meticulously blended scents.
As the UK’s only all natural haute perfume house, Altra isn’t only committed to creating scents that you can wear as comfortably as your own skin; it’s also dedicated to a conscious and responsible approach to the creation of said scents. Calling this “Profuture®”, Altra’s scents are more than 100% natural: they’re also infinitely refillable and consciously created.
Altra’s dedication to 100% natural materials also translates into its unlocking the realms of possibility when it comes to natural scents. The brand doesn’t only create the fragrances you’d expect, but is opening the door into otherworldly experiences via all-natural routes, through its three distinct scent collections: Skin Scents; Altra Intense; and Future Florals.
Talking to Beckielou Brown, Perfume-Creator and co-founder, we delved into the ecosystem surrounding Altra, down to its molecular level.
What’s your favourite scent, and what images does it bring to mind when you smell it?
This is a hard one as I have so many, but if I had to choose, it would be sandalwood. Whenever I smell a really good sandalwood, I’m transported back to my childhood. I grew up in a very bohemian family; no one wore modern perfumes like my friends’ parents did. But my mother had this beautiful, classic sandalwood that she’d sometimes spray on my pillow as I loved it so much, so it came to represent a comforting sense of home. The first time I went to India at fifteen and smelled real sandalwood, I was overcome by the beauty of it – sweet, exquisitely creamy, smooth, warm and softly woody. There’s nothing else quite like it.
If you could only wear one fragrance ever again, which would you choose?
Altra Skin, without a doubt. Although I love each of the scents I’ve created for Altra, the one I cannot live without is Altra Skin. The way it adapts and melds to your body makes it feel like an extension of you. It creates this second skin effect like a translucent veil or aura of scent around you. It’s soft, comforting and addictive – the kind of scent you want to immerse yourself in.
You once described “one of the most powerful and fascinating abilities of perfumery, [as its ability] to evoke emotion and transport the wearer.” What does your favourite ALTRA scent evoke?
I think the most evocative scent in the collection for me would be Jasmin XXX. I wanted to capture a moment from my youth where life was an optimistic pursuit of endless possibilities. That feeling of freedom and the excitement of the unknown, setting out into the night not knowing where life might take you. Jasmin XXX is an unapologetically full-on white floral; it’s intoxicating, hedonistic and charged with kinetic energy. It conjures images of shimmering neon lights, nocturnally blooming jasmine, smokey skin, and the sun rising in a red morning sky.
Why do you think natural perfumery (not using synthetic aroma chemicals) is so important?
I have a love affair with natural materials that goes beyond a desire to create something that might be considered “cleaner,” or “healthier,” than synthetics. Natural materials are just so vibrant and alive; they possess this complexity and depth that I’m fascinated by. They’re unpredictable, layered and nuanced in a way that never ceases to inspire me creatively.
I love that the same variety and same extraction of a rose can smell so wildly different, depending on where it was grown. This terroir is imprinted in the raw material, from the terrain and weather, to the skill and care of the growers who cultivate them.
I think there’s just this connection that you have with scents from the natural world; it’s magical to think that the fleeting moment that a flower bloomed was captured and transformed into a droplet, only to come to life again when applied to your skin. Whilst synthetic aromas can be stunning and expertly crafted, they just don’t have the same effect on me.
Are there any other industry norms (other than not using a single synthetic aroma chemical) that you want ALTRA to challenge?
When we first set out to create Altra, I really wanted to challenge what people expected from naturals. I think most people expect them to smell like nature in a natural environment; a true to life depiction of a rose, or a woodland. While nature’s my palette, the scents themselves are often abstract and conceptual, bringing in notes like concrete, sunscreen, and a sense of structures and spaces. I wanted to explore this medium in a new way and bring a new level of appreciation to the diversity of natural perfumery.
The other thing we wanted to challenge was how to do “conscious,” in the luxury space, without losing the magic. For us, being mindful in the creation of our products was non-negotiable; we knew anything we made had to be mindful in its use of resources and its impact on our planet. I wasn’t inspired by the ‘brown paper label’ approach to typical sustainable brands, so the opportunity to do things differently excited me. It was a chance to be creative; to explore the beauty and materiality of more sustainable (or Profuture) recycled packaging components; to create better products, not just more, by avoiding short product life cycles and single use plastics.
We wanted our bottle to be an object: something so considered and beautifully made that you wouldn’t sling it in the bin when empty, you’d want to keep it forever and refill it. With scent being an invisible medium, the tactility and multisensory components of the brand are super important. These are the layers and touch points that bring excitement, inspiration and pleasure. Just because you choose a more mindful route, you shouldn’t have to compromise on this.
I love the “ingredient spotlight,” posts on your socials, but what do you think is the ultimate ingredient to include in a fragrance?
That’s an interesting question! I think the beauty of creating scents is that it’s not just about the individual materials in your palette, but what you can create by combining them within the composition. I have some all time favourite materials that I love to work with due to their diversity in creating different effects within a scent – one of which is Orris.
Orris is one of the most revered notes in perfumery due to its ability to morph depending on how you use it (what volume, what extraction, and what it’s combined with). It can go from suede-like and velvety, cool and dusty, rich and chocolaty, powdery, skin-like, sweet and violet-y floral, earthy or ethereal and, to me, utterly narcotic. I think if I smelled it for long enough I’d actually get high – it’s the most addictive note.
In our current collection, I use a beautiful French Orris in Stone Cold Heart for two different effects. Firstly, combined with the frankincense it creates a cool airy spaciousness at the heart of the scent, and secondly it adds a touch of suede and a trace of skin in this intangible way that evokes the feeling of someone who was once there and is fading into a memory.
Your socials also feature a lot of visual imagery for each ALTRA fragrance. Would you say that you ever start with a visualisation of a fragrance’s aesthetic before knowing how it will turn out?
Absolutely! I’m learning that everyone’s brain works differently, but, for me, this process of conceptualising a scent is a very visual one. I usually start with a feeling – an intangible emotion I want to capture – sometimes with a specific note or ingredient in mind, but sometimes just a feeling that I need to then match with the notes that replicate it. Whilst this is forming in my mind, different colours, textures, visuals, and sounds will come to me. Often it’s a place or the aesthetic of an era that embodies this vision.
I create moodboards during this process that develop in parallel with the scents. As the scent takes shape, the visual references become more distinct. I can always identify in inspiration imagery what scent it relates to; the visual representation is key for me to communicate the vibe of a scent, especially when it’s still in development, or as a tool to collaborate with other creatives. We’ve started to use some of these on our socials for this same reason!
Before buying a fragrance from ALTRA, what would be your advice to customers?
Have an open mind. I find that often if you ask someone what kind of scent they like and they respond saying “woody,” or that they like “anything but florals,” I can almost guarantee they will (if left to their own devices) pick out a scent that is the opposite to that description! So many people find they fall in love with Jasmin XXX when they typically hate jasmine. Likewise, they go for Altra Skin when they would normally go for woody scents.
I also really encourage people to try fragrances on their skin. I created these scents to be worn on skin, not on paper, so while it’s useful to get a sense of a perfume on a blotter, paper just won’t do it justice. The warmth of your skin will bring each note to life. I’d say this is true for almost all perfumes, but especially for natural ones.
Looking to the future, is there anything coming up in 2024 for you or ALTRA that you’re excited about?
We have lots in store for 2024 that I can’t wait to announce! One in particular is a new scent coming out this summer. I can’t reveal too much yet; all I can say is it’s a very futuristic take on a sheer rose skin scent.
Featured image via Altra©
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