The secret language of scent
French novelist Marcel Proust called it “involuntary memory” – where something simple in everyday life unintentionally evokes strong memories of the past and transports us somewhere else.
And the sense of smell is often a key trigger of such a conscious recollection: whether it’s being whisked back to a childhood summer by the scent of freshly-cut grass, or the smell of leather seats reminding us of our first car journey.
It’s a powerful sensation. And it was this idea of using different aromas as a way of capturing emotions and reliving past experiences – and taking people on a journey using scent – that inspired Swedish couple Christine and Niclas Lydeen (main picture) to start a perfume brand, called Agonist.
Agonist’s first fragrance was a long way from trying to capture the smell of a summer meadow or attempting to evoke the romance of Paris in springtime. The company wanted to create “the scent of jealousy”.
“We wanted to create something that expressed another side of Sweden,” says Christine. “The poetic, melancholic beauty expressed by Ingmar Bergman, Greta Garbo and [Swedish poet and novelist] Karin Boye. We were inspired by jealousy and passion and wanted to create a scent that was captivating, addictive and romantic.”
The result was Kallocain, a scent named after Boye’s most famous novel and combining the traditional craft of artisan French perfumery with their own contemporary take on Swedish heritage.
This uniquely Swedish scent attracted its fair share of international admirers – collectors and shops – and, nine years and 14 scents later, you could say Agonist is enjoying the sweet smell of success…
Agonist’s founders spent a lot of time travelling when they were growing up, and exploring other countries and cultures remains an important source of inspiration today. But coming home to Sweden is just as important.
“Sweden gives us distance and creates a calmness in our work,” says Christine. “Being home allows us to take what we have gathered on our travels and interpret it from a particularly Swedish perspective.”
But how does an idea or impression become an Agonist scent?
“We always start with a specific mood, theme or concept,” says Niclas. “Once that has been decided upon, we collect different sources of inspiration – for example, visuals, music, text, and raw materials. Then we immerse ourselves in the concept until it has a name, a clear identity and a story.”
When the concept is fully formed, Christine and Niclas bring in their team of renowned perfumers to help bring the scent – and its story – to life.
An inclusive approach
Unusually for the world of perfume brands, Agonist favours a more transparent, inclusive approach – to the extent that its fragrances aren’t developed specifically for either men or women.
“We would never target a certain demographic,” says Niclas. “We believe scent has no gender. That’s why we create unisex fragrances that avoid stereotypes.”
A perfect example of Agonist’s transparent approach to their craft is their practice of printing the ingredients of each scent on the bottle for everyone to see.
“Printing the recipes on the bottle lets people know how our scents are created, and this makes them feel part of the process,” explains Christine.
As well as being refreshingly open about the ingredients used in their products, Christine and Niclas are also open to collaborations with other artists to help add another dimension to each new scent.
It’s all about the smell
Even though the concepts and collaborations have become an integral part of their work, it’s a passion for scent that still lies at the heart of Agonist.
“I enjoy the smell of lilacs that blossom in early summer,” says Christine. In Sweden, this scent is so strongly connected to that special time as a child when school ended for the summer holidays and all that lay ahead was adventure.” “For me, it’s the smell of the forest,” says Niclas, “I love the smell of wood in all its forms. Wet, dry, burnt, newly cut. It is something primal and wild, yet controlled and consistent.”
In a modern world that has become increasingly reliant on visual stimuli, perhaps it’s time to see what we could get out of life by simply closing our eyes and surrendering to captivating experiences that are right under our noses.
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