Cover Barnabé Fillion

French perfumer Barnabé Fillion talks about how his travels, synesthesia and love for nature are behind his most iconic creations for Aesop

Barnabé Fillion is a synesthete, which means he experiences the world with all his senses. It is the secret to the photographer's successful venture into the world of perfumery and becoming a longtime partner of Aesop. The perfumer is behind Aesop's Hwyl and Rozu, both an olfactory memory of his travels to Japan, from the silent reverie of the Shinto shrine deep within the forests of Isé to the musk of a thousand-year-old virgin forest in the island of Yakushima. 

"I would say that perfumery is still very visual for me. When I smell something, I see colours and textures," he says of this transition into this industry more than a decade ago. 

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A passionate student of botany and phytology, nature has always been a source of creativity for Fillion. "One of my most vivid fragrance memories was on a beach in Yakushima, where I found a big piece of driftwood that washed up on the shore. I scratched it with my fingers and I could smell that it was hinoki cypress, which was not from the island itself but travelled through the ocean to reach me," he says, recalling the inspiration behind Hwyl. "I don't normally believe in signs but it was a beautiful moment that made me feel like I was on the right path." 

In his latest collaboration with Aesop, the master perfumer revisits nature and explores its relationship with mankind with six new fragrances.

The Othertopias collection has been four years in the making and explores liminal spaces that invite reverie and reflection about the self and stimulate an olfactory journey into the natural world. "It's interesting that this idea, which came from a conversation with a friend of mine years ago, has become so relevant to the state of the world," he comments, referring to the pandemic and the introspection and imagination it has inspired in the last year and a half of social isolation.

On July 5, Aesop released the first three unisex fragrances from this collection—dedicated to the boat, the shore and the wasteland.

In this exclusive interview with Tatler, he shares the inspiration and thought process behind these new boundary-pushing and stimulating compositions. 

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Miraceti, The Boat

Miraceti or The Boat is a fragrance that was inspired by the serenity and savagery of the sea. "I was fascinated with the idea of being a prisoner of the vast sea—capturing the obsessive rage of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick as he chases the obscure and elusive object of his desire," Fillion explains. 

From this abstract starting point to Miraceti, Fillion began to experiment with ways to bottle the smell of grey amber, the expensive by-product of sperm whales, such as the titular character of Melville's Great American Novel, without involving the animal itself: "I wanted to reconstitute grey amber with mineral and natural ingredients to fulfil the mythology of the tumultuous sea."

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In Miraceti, he presents a unique blend of ambrette and styrax that embodies the essence of grey amber. Interwoven with incense, seaweed and labdanum, the fragrance hints at the ocean-worn wood of a boat that has weathered many a storm with its intrepid sea-faring crew. 

When asked if he is ever hesitant to use new and unconventional ingredients in his compositions, he responds, "It's a bit of a gamble because it's all subjective." Fillion focuses instead on the intent behind using specific ingredients and how he can use it to create a new experience through the fragrance. 

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Karst, The Shore

"Karst is about the erosion of our world. Every year, the sea eats into the earth, showing us the fossils and landscape of our past," says Fillion. "It is a scent that interrogates the dichotomous relationship of Man and Nature." 

A herbaceous blend of fresh spices and understated aromatics, seasoned with hints of sandalwood and cumin, the scent of Karst or The Shore transports its wearer to a stormy cliffside, as dark clouds gather and powerful tides roll in.

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Erémia, The Wasteland

Drawing inspiration from his travels to the ruins of Greek cities reclaimed by the green of the natural world, he intentionally brings floral notes of iris and galbanum, as well as citrusy elements of yuzu, to a vegetal and earthy base. 

"I always came back to the way French surrealists changed our perspective on nature, portraying a dream-like reality where flowers are peering at us, instead of the other way around," he says. 

And while floral scents may traditionally be associated with women's fragrance, Fillion disagrees with the industry practice of categorising fragrances. "I don't assign gender to scent," he says, adding that it is unlikely that he will every create a perfume just for men or women.  

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Aesop will be releasing another three creations by Fillion, in which he continues to distil the essence of nature.