Exclusive: Proenza Schouler on why their debut fragrance is like nothing else you’ve tried

Posted by
Anita Bhagwandas
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

When talking about perfume, we often fall into the habit of describing it in an archetypal way: floral, oriental, woody… But then along came renowned fashion house Proenza Schouler with their debut perfume, Arizona, to reshape the way we think about fragrance altogether.

Before their much-anticipated perfume deal was finally set in stone in 2015, Proenza Schouler’s designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez stepped away from the sketches and decided to hit the road, pinpointing Arizona – the ‘birthplace of America’ as their source of inspiration, and boy did it deliver. 

Expansive vistas, crystals and ‘scentless’ cactus flowers ignited their imagination, and the result is a truly unique scent that’s more like a sensory postcard documenting their travels rather than a portfolio of nose-pleasing notes. 

So where will this scent transport you? Warm musk, cashmeran and orris accords recreate a sun-soaked drive through the desert, while jasmine and orange blossom provide a luxuriously syrupy, sultry element that lingers in the air - think of that moment while you wait for your pre-dinner drinks to be served. Setting it apart from every other fragrance currently lining your dressing table, it’s the only perfume you should invest in this year. And it’s cheaper than a trip to the USA too.

Here, STYLIST’s Beauty Director Anita Bhagwandas gets the lowdown from the very creators themselves: 

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez 

Anita: Is the perfume what you thought it would be?

Lazaro: It’s evolved so much over the course of the two years. But it’s got a lot of the kind of codes and adjectives that we were throwing around in the very beginning, so it still speaks to those same initial thoughts and ideas.

Jack: I think it feels like a form of our initial idea.

J: It’s evolved and been refined over time – it’s taken us two years. It’s like making a movie, so you have an initial idea and then it grows and a lot of people are involved and then you have to create a box and a bottle. It’s amazing what goes into it, the storytelling that’s involved.

L: It’s so interesting. We do a collection every six months, and pre-collections in between, and so we will have done eight collections in the time it’s taken to develop this one fragrance.

J: It’s so thorough!

J: We spoke to historians and sociologists, too.

A: Why’s that?

L: We wanted to look at the history of fragrance, and some specialists took us back to smelling Queen Elizabeth I’s fragrance. They were able to synthesise it from pieces of her clothing and recreate it from her robes.

Q: What did she smell like?

J: Kind of strong. Kind of like BO. They had to cover the BO with fragrance!

L: And then you smell the fragrances of the 70s and the 80s, and the 90s and they’re all so indicative of that moment in time. The 80s are really big and loud, and you can smell the girl before you see her. The 90s are clean, and like CK1, so it was interesting to get this whole tutorial.

J: All these iconic fragrances that really spoke to the time in which they were created. And they wanted, we wanted, we all wanted, to speak to today in a way.

J: To get that ‘of the moment’ feeling but to also have that timelessness to it, and so they brought in sociologists to describe the moment we live in, and what it means, and what’s the general feeling in the air.Things like who we are as a society and as a world today. It really involved philosophical conversations as a starting point before embarking on the actual thing we were going to create.

L: So that was six months already, right there. 

A: So you were talking to sociologists - what do you all think ‘now’ is?

L: We thought a lot about the idea of escapism. We are constantly bombarded with technology, and information, and everyone works harder than they’ve ever worked because they have to be accessible at all times and [on] email, and the modern world that we live in today is a bit chaotic. We liked this idea of going back to basics, to nature and escaping to these kind of primal things that are really important to us.

J: Kind of like unplugging, cutting off your wire and going back to things that matter. To a sense of peace, a kind of introspection, things like that as a sort of antidote to the chaos of the world. 

A: Have you guys always been big fragrance fans?

L: We have, in our own way. I mean we don’t wear a lot of fragrance ourselves.

A: How interesting.

L: But we know a lot of fragrances. We’re always interested, especially like all those essential oils, we’ve always been attracted to.

J: We’re intrigued by it, rather than fans of it.

L: I mean we’re not buying fragrances all the time. We’re intrigued by the creative process of working on something from scratch, rather than the market of it. And it’s also fascinating, just the power of smell. It’s the most powerful and nostalgic of all your senses, and it evokes memories and brings back places and people stuck in the back of your brain that you thought you’d forgotten about, so there’s a power in the sense of smell.

J: There’s all these technologies where they’re using scent to try and help coma patients and Alzheimer’s because it literally brings back memories in a way that no other tool does, and so we were really fascinated by those kind of nostalgic properties and what it does to your brain.

A: You talked about memory and having those amazing nostalgic moments - how do you think that links in with fashion?

J: I think it’s about emotion. Fashion is about producing an emotional response from people, making them feel something, and you use whatever tool you have at your disposal to elicit a response, whether it’s a runway, or an advertising campaign. It’s all about emotion and beauty and conjuring a feeling, and fragrance is just a really good way to do that.

A: Did you start with the bottle?

Both: Yeah!

L: Right before we started working with L’Oréal we went on this road trip after our show, we always take these trips after our shows to kind of escape…

L: To get away from the chaos. We went out west on this road trip to go see all this art like James Turrell and Walter De Maria, Donald Judd in Marfa and we were just driving all around seeing this incredible land art from these artists that we constantly reference in our work. Then along the way we started collecting all these crystals and that’s what we brought into the first meeting actually with L’Oréal. We were like, “How do we recreate this”? Because those pieces in a way were symbolic of that landscape and of that feeling we experienced when we were out there.

J: The cactus formed the shape of the bottle, and then we saw these beautiful blooms on a these hard edged cactuses and we wondered what this cactus flower would smell like? In actuality it doesn’t smell like anything so our imagination started to do its thing and we imagined what it would smell like. We came up with something quite salty, and there’s an earth element too - it’s sun, it’s not night, it’s only alive during the day time. At night time it dies, so there’s a luxury and a rareness to that. All those codes start to weave their way into the story. It is story telling. 

A: Going back to the rocks you picked up; what was the first reaction when you turned up to L’Oréal like, “We’ve got some rocks!?”

L: They were like ‘Woah, cool, how can we do this? How can we figure this out?’ There were so many different versions, you should see the books of the renderings - I mean it looks like the bottles already exist. They’re like these incredible 3D generated images of these different bottle designs - we started with 20 different versions slowly honed in and refined. It wasalmost like sculpting.

A: The scent is pretty feminine and I kind of expected it to be gender neutral. Did you ever have that thought?

L: A little bit, but we don’t make unisex clothes really so we did want it to be focused as a women’s fragrance. Some guys can wear it and I’m sure this is going to be an idea that we elaborate on - maybe it evolves and there’s new versions. It’s a world we could explore so deeply in so many different ways, so who knows what’s to come.

A: What’s happening in the future?

L: I don’t know. I think you do what you do because you love it and you let the world decide for you. When we did our bags, we did a bag that we love, it was the anti-it-bag and then it became the ‘It’ bag. Do what you love and do it with passion and authenticity and the worlds decides for you.

A: Can I request a makeup line?

J: There might be…

L: There might be something in the future

A: Can you name a lipstick after me?

Both: 100%.

Proenza Schouler Arizona EDP, £68/50ml is available exclusively from Selfridges online now, and in store from March 1st

Images: Proenza