Kiwi takes scents of home to the world

Isaac Sinclair is working from home during a visit to his family in Dunedin. Photo by Gregor...
Isaac Sinclair is working from home during a visit to his family in Dunedin. Photo by Gregor Richardson.

While many mothers receive perfume and other types of fragrances from their sons at this time of the year, one Dunedin mother is feeling quite special this week. Not only did her son arrive home carrying her favourite fragrance, but he had made it especially for her. Business editor Dene Mackenzie talked to Brazil-based master perfumer Isaac Sinclair.

Without knowing that Isaac Sinclair grew up in Waitakere, it would be impossible to tell where he is from by his accent, which, he says, is a mix of the languages he needs to speak as he carries out his work.

Based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mr Sinclair (33) has had to come to grips with Portuguese, French, Italian and various other European languages. His accent, although sounding like something European, is just a mixture of all the languages, he said, while laughing at this reporter's question.

Mr Sinclair is on a rare working trip to New Zealand after being approached by listed company Ecoya to become the company's master perfumer and nose.

He was genuinely excited to be working with the fragrances of New Zealand he grew up smelling in the West Auckland bush and Waitakere ranges.

''I usually work on big Hollywood blockbusters and the big brands don't take risks. When Ecoya approached me, it was `woohoo, I can work from home'. Ecoya is more creative. They just said, do what you want,'' Mr Sinclair said.

While he had been here, he had ''played around'' with feijoa as a fragrance but was unhappy with the result and turned back to the green bush smells he loved. The fragrances he was developing were based on manuka and kanuka with a backdrop of water.

''When I think of New Zealand, I think of the creeks and rivers and the aromatic green bush smell.''

Although brought up in Auckland, Mr Sinclair has lived and worked in Paris and Sao Paulo for more than 12 years. His parents moved to Dunedin about 10 years ago and he enjoyed heading back to New Zealand to see his family.

Living in a city of 20 million had its disadvantages.

It was the world's third-largest city and the financial centre of Brazil, not the cultural centre. Walking down to the Otago Daily Times for the interview took him about 10 minutes, something Mr Sinclair could not quite believe. After living and working in Paris for 10 years, Mr Sinclair moved to Brazil, initially for six months. Brazil had overtaken North America in terms of perfume sales, with only the combined countries in Europe having a bigger market.

The six months turned into a year before he had to go back to Paris and work in the French capital again before receiving a permit to move back to Brazil. Mr Sinclair described himself as a French ex-pat, living in Brazil, from New Zealand. He is employed by Symrise, one of the four big fragrance manufacturers in the world.

Not many of the large fragrance brands made their own perfumes, he said. Chanel was one that did, but many of the world's well-known fragrances were made by four large companies.

''When you look at the perfume counter and see all the fragrances, you can divide it up by quarters.''

Firms such as Calvin Klein licensed out their brands for others to make. The same went for other ''big names'' in the fashion and fragrance industry.

''Those companies come to us with a brief for a new fragrance. It could be masculine, feminine, aimed at youth or an older market.''

All four fragrance companies were briefed before their perfumers started creating a fragrance they believed best fitted the brief.

Each would show between five and 10 different fragrances before the client made the final choice.

''It's a tough market, with winner takes all. You can work for a year on a fragrance and the client goes with the opposition. It's tough when you put in so much effort. There is no second prize.''

However, the eclectic type of work was satisfying. This week, Mr Sinclair was creating fragrances for Ecoya. Last week, he was creating ''seductive'' fragrances for Brazil and Latin European countries and next week he could be creating fresh fragrances for Australasian and North American markets.

While North America, northern European countries and Australasian countries wanted a fragrance that said ''I'm just out of the shower'', Latin countries wanted one that said ''Whoa, what's going on here?''While he would like to work on more New Zealand brands, Mr Sinclair acknowledged there was very little work here. Ecoya was leading the way in the development of fragrances and he hoped more companies would follow.

All of that seemed a long way from the West Auckland bush. Asked how he got into his career, Mr Sinclair said his mother's garden and the bush always had smells he liked. He started collecting fragrances while still at school and had about 50 by the time he was 16 or 17.

''I decided then that if I had all of these fragrances, then someone behind the scenes was making them. Then it clicked, like a `eureka moment'. I knew right then what I wanted to do.''

Realising he could not create fragrances in New Zealand, he decided the next best thing was selling them. He phoned every pharmacy he could find in Auckland asking for a job selling fragrances but was told to forget it because he was a guy.

After finally getting a job in Auckland department store Smith & Caughey, Mr Sinclair used his free time to get to know the fragrances and their distinctive characteristics.

But the desire to create rather than sell still drove him and he made contact with fragrance expert Michael Edwards, in Australia, and asked him whether or not he should study chemistry in his quest to become a perfumer.

Mr Edwards instead urged him to attend a conference in the south of France, where he met the man who still employed him.

In a typical ''Kiwi makes good overseas'' tale, he was urged to stay in Europe to study at the Universita dell'Immagine (school of five senses), but he told his soon-to-be boss that he had no money. No money, no problem as Mr Sinclair was given an internship and then a scholarship to the school.

''I phoned my parents and told them I was not coming home.''

After graduating, he worked in Paris with master perfumer Maurice Roucel, co-ordinating all projects between Paris and New York, developing fragrances for international brands Guerlain, DKYN, Lancome, L'Oreal and Natura.

''The only thing I had going for me was that I was from New Zealand.''

The company believed he would bring a point of difference to the fragrances because while most of the French perfumers had grown up smelling lavender and roses, he had grown up smelling feijoas and manuka and his mother's garden.

''They gambled on the fact that I could bring something new to the table.''

And he believed he had done that. When he created a fragrance using feijoa, it was seen as ''totally off the wall'', Mr Sinclair said.

On his last visit home, he went to Moeraki, where banana passionfruit plants were growing wild. Because there was no passionfruit in Europe, the smell was seen as exotic.

For New Zealand, Dunedin was seen as a cold place. But for Europeans, it was temperate and passionfruit was exotic.

With up to 500 fragrances launched globally each year, competition for success was fierce, he said. Three years from launch, only about 10% of fragrances were still on the market. In five years, that fell to 1%.

He described the celebrity fragrance market as out of control. A major company had found a successful formula that it kept rolling out with each new celebrity. The market was aimed directly at the teen market. Anyone older would not be seen out wearing those types of fragrances, Mr Sinclair said.

Asked how he kept ahead of the competition, Mr Sinclair said you had to remain creative and innovative. If you started following trends, you were losing.

Mr Sinclair continued to make a unique fragrance for his mother called ''Ode to Jacquline'', which she proudly told all her friends they could not buy anywhere in the world. She often called to ask when he was coming home because she needed more perfume.

However, he did not believe the fragrances he made for his sisters were quite so successful, as they had not requested any more deliveries.

In a couple of years, Mr Sinclair must decide whether to return to live and work in Paris full-time or stay in Brazil. Many people thought New Zealand was so far away from anywhere, but the same applied to Brazil, he said.

It was easier to get back to New Zealand from Europe because of the number of flights.

''You can't leave Brazil for the weekend but if you live in Paris, you can get on the train and be in London in three hours. That has its attractions.''


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