Learning the secret language of scent

Sometimes, all you have to do to travel somewhere new is close your eyes and surrender to your sense of smell. To find out how different aromas can help lift ourselves out of the everyday we talked to Swedish perfume brand, Agonist.


The journey begins

Escapism means different things to different people. For some, it’s a simple walk in the woods. For others, it’s an exhilarating drive down an open highway. But there’s another form of escapism that’s a little closer to home. In fact, it’s right under our noses. I’m referring to what the French novelist Marcel Proust called “involuntary memory”– where something simple in everyday life unintentionally evokes strong memories of the past and transports us somewhere else.

Involuntary memory is something most of us will have experienced at one time or another – 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 one that can really lift us out of ourselves if we take the time to appreciate it. It was this idea of using different aromas as a way of capturing emotions and reliving past experiences that inspired Swedish couple Christine and Niclas Lydeen to start their own perfume brand. They called it Agonist. And their goal was to create unique fragrances that sent people off on an exhilarating, emotional journey.


The first release

With our first fragrance, we wanted to create the scent of jealousy,” explains Agonist’s co-founder, Niclas Lydeen, enthusiastically. Now, trying to capture “the scent of jealousy” is a long way from trying to capture the smell of a summer meadow or attempting to evoke the romance of Paris in springtime. But that was exactly the point. “We wanted to create something that expressed another side of Sweden,” explains Christine. “The poetic, melancholic beauty expressed by Ingmar Bergman, Greta Garbo and Karin Boye. We were inspired by jealousy and passion and wanted to create a scent that was captivating, addictive and romantic.” So that’s exactly what they did.

The result was Kallocain: a scent inspired by the work of Swedish poet and novelist Karin Boye, whose most famous novel gave the fragrance its name. With Kallocain, Christine and Niclas combined the traditional craft of artisan French perfumery with their own contemporary take on Swedish heritage. They even collaborated with the famous Swedish glassmaker, Kosta Boda, to create a special limited-edition glass flacon.

When Kallocain was released, its fusion of French tradition and Swedish innovation brought Agonist widespread acclaim. The first bottle was bought by none other than the Swedish Design museum, who included it in their collection.

The bottle then travelled the world as part of an exhibition celebrating contemporary Swedish design. When collectors and shops from different countries began contacting Christine and Niclas about buying or stocking Kallocain, it became clear that this uniquely Swedish scent had its fair share of international admirers. Now, nine years and fourteen scents later, Christine and Niclas feel their journey with Agonist is only just beginning.

We wanted to create something that expressed another side of Sweden – the poetic, melancholic beauty.

Christine Lydeen

Co-founder, Agonist

The process

The idea of using scent as a way of taking people on a journey is a fundamental part of the Agonist philosophy. Christine and Niclas both spent a lot of time travelling when they were growing up, and exploring other countries and cultures remains an important source of inspiration today. “We love to travel and consume art, music, film and literature from the different places we visit,” says Christine. “This is how we collect ideas that will eventually become fragrances.” But while travel is an integral part of the creative process, coming home to Sweden is just as important. “Sweden gives us distance and creates a calmness in our work,” explains 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,” explains Niclas. “Once that has been decided upon, we collect different sources of inspiration, e.g. 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

For years, the world portrayed by the majority of perfume brands has resembled an unattainable playground for the glamorous and wealthy, with mass-produced fragrances aimed exclusively at a very specific demographic. With Agonist, this was something Christine and Niclas were keen to avoid. Instead, they favour a more transparent, inclusive approach. “We would never target a certain demographic. We believe scent has no gender. That’s why we create unisex fragrances that avoid stereotypes,” says Niclas.

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. In the past they’ve created haute couture glass sculptures with the Swedish glass artist Åsa Jungnelius, a limited edition “scented book” with the French fashion photographer Julien Boudet and a handmade ceramic vase together with the Japanese/Swedish ceramic artist Masayoshi Oya. For the release of each new scent, a special installation is created to celebrate the collaboration as well as the concept behind the scent. It’s clear that, as artists, Christine and Niclas put every ounce of passion and creativity into every stage of every scent they compose – from the moment inspiration strikes to the moment the scent is released into the world for others to experience.

It’s all about the smell

Even though the concepts, collaborations and installations have become an integral part of their work, it’s a passion for scent that still lies at the heart of Agonist. So which scents are particularly special to Christine and Niclas?

Christine answers first. “I enjoy the smell of lilacs that blossom in early summer. 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.”

As the modern world becomes more and more reliant on visual stimuli, perhaps it’s time we took a leaf out of Agonist’s book and began to explore the world of scent instead? Who knows how much more we could get out of life if we simply closed our eyes and surrendered to our sense of smell. Scent is a silent language, waiting to be discovered by those willing to learn it.

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