Karen Walker in Grasse. Picture / Supplied.

Everything You Need to Know About Karen Walker Fragrance

The designer goes into detail about the creation of her fragrances, a trio called A.B.C

When do you wear fragrance?

Every day. The only time I don’t put it on is if I’m going to a yoga class because it’s not good manners in yoga.

Define what perfume is to you?

Perfume is about uplifting and energising. Perfume is attention-grabbing, but whether that leads to seduction or something else isn’t what interests me.

I think a perfume should present something about the wearer in the same way that clothes do, it’s self-expression, and I think that’s how people choose their perfumes. Does it reflect something of them, which is how I think that people choose makeup, or a bag, or a car? It shouldn’t be overpowering, it shouldn’t be about the fragrance, it should be about the person wearing the fragrance and how it interacts with them.

When you choose a fragrance what are you wanting it to say about you?

I’m an optimistic person and an energetic person, so I guess that’s what I look for in a fragrance, and that they’re interesting, where it’s not just sickeningly sweet, or very sexy, it’s interesting and there are layers and there’s a point of view.

What’s your earliest fragrance memory?

The first fragrance I wore was Lou Lou. I don’t know whether I liked the smell, or liked that the bottle reminded me of I Dream of Jeannie. It was kind of Oriental. Sometimes I still smell that walking through a duty free store and it takes you back to the summer of 1987.

The other fragrance was Poison, which was the most extraordinary fragrance for an 18-year-old to wear. It was the thing, you could smell it somewhere round here, around your stomach, not your nose.

I can’t remember a lot of fragrances I went through after that, then for a long time Escentric [Molecules] 01 was the only fragrance I wore. We sell that at the store. I loved the smell and I loved how it would come and go throughout the day and I liked the conceptual nature of it, but that it wasn’t a heavy handed concept, a concept for the sake of concepts, a really great, unusual smell like nothing else. I got stopped in the street a lot wearing that.

Does NZ have a smell?

It’s got a vividness, when you get off the plane it’s unmistakable. And a crispness that you don’t get anywhere else. Even more so in Auckland because it’s mixed with that mangrove-y smell you get. Everywhere has a unique smell.

What are your favourite smells?

In terms of flowers I like the tropicals the most, and the whites. I love frangipani, I love gardenia, I love citrus, I love tuberose, jasmines. I love Christmas lilies. I had tuberose in the house last week.

Frangipani I adore. It’s a tricky one to grow, but Mikhail has nailed it, so they’re on the porch outside my study, so in summer I have the windows open at night and the frangipani is coming in ... I think that takes me back to childhood holidays in the islands.

I made chocolate chippies at the weekend, they’re a pretty hard smell to beat. In terms of other stuff, a brand new paperback, cat’s tummies ... we’re between cats at the moment, but the neighbourhood cats did a land grab on our house, we had five or six fighting it out for a while and one of them has become dominant and he was lying on the daybed and he was asleep and I put my head into his tummy and took a deep smell and aahh ...

Are there fragrances you don’t like?

I don’t do a lot of fragrance testing when I’m walking through duty free or Smith & Caughey’s, I don’t often smell fragrances very much. There was a new fragrance that came out last year and I took a spray on a spray card and I sniffed it and I rang Miranda [Waple, Walker’s business partner for A.B.C] and said, “I’ve just sniffed the new blah de blah ... ” and she said what did it smell like and I said: “To me it smells like Paris with a touch of hamster cage.” Another woman talking about it in the Emirates lounge said: “I think it smells like Paris with a touch of cat’s pee.” A few fragrances out there I would never touch. A heritage one I’d love to like, but it just smells old.


A.B.C, Karen Walkers trio fragrance. Picture / Supplied.


Why [make] perfume?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, it’s been on the list for 10 years or so. It is a natural extension to have a fragrance, in the same way it is to have eyewear, or bags or shoes, but you’ve still got to find a way of doing it that is unique to you, that is authentic and honest and exciting and feels real.

We had the time, we felt we had an idea, a point of view that was different from what was already out there. Right time, right people, the right team ... sometimes it all just comes together. We had this little gap in the 24 months ahead of us and at the same time Miranda Waple, whose company it is we’ve partnered with on this, came to us and suggested we work together.

We went with three because coming from the world of ready-to-wear and eyewear and jewellery and so on, we are used to presenting ideas as a body of work and so I just felt that was a good way to start with the fragrances as well. As we move forward we won’t always present them in threes. The market really loved it [the trio], especially when it’s a first fragrance in terms of the presence in store, three somehow makes it easier to work with. The concept of A.B.C is about possibilities and optimism and energy and inspiration, but not about whether some guys will look at you.

Why France?

From day one, I said, if we’re going to do this it has to be made in France because that’s where the craft comes from, that’s where the history is, that’s where the knowledge is, that’s where the quality is, and if you’re making a fragrance in France that means Grasse ...

So that led us to Charabot. We didn’t realise it at the time, but they’re the oldest fragrance house in the world. I thought that was so lovely, that history and knowledge and fragrance that they’ve worked on over the years.

We’re a very new brand comparatively speaking, but we worked with the oldest fragrance house in the world. So much about our brand is combining opposites to create that energy, so the masculine and feminine ... with this project that shows though in that the fragrances themselves are quite floral and complex, but the packaging and the way they’re presented are so clean, but not in a hard minimal way, still with fun in there.

When you go to Grasse, they still have their old factory in the main town, but they manufacture out of there now. That’s where they run their marketing and back-of-house stuff and you can still go there, see the old parts of the factory. It was really a special experience for me going in there and learning in detail about the process, meeting the noses. I had a tutorial.

I’m used to working visually so working with the nose in Grasse was quite a different thing for me. It’s the same process, but a different sense. I’ve found myself since spending a lot more time when I’m smelling fragrance, sensing the different layers in it. I’m probably more in tune to it. It’s so much about how it interacts, the different layers, the ratios ... When I’m smelling fragrance I don’t pay any attention to what’s in it, it’s the effect and how it makes you feel and when you get a little more layered, I’ll go, Tell me what’s in it, what am I smelling in it?”

How did it all come together?

We’ve been sent dozens, dozens, dozens of bottles. I went there only once. How it worked was once we appointed them, we briefed their perfumers on the idea, the concept. We knew what it was going to look like, we knew what we wanted it to make people feel, we told them what some of my favourite scents are, but it wasn’t like those have to be in it.

A month or so later, a box with 40-50 bottles arrived to test, so it was “like that”, “like that”, “don’t like that”, “that’s got something to it”. Just like any design room, it’s “okay, rework these”, “this is what we’re liking about them”, “these are the ones we’re not feeling”. Back and forth, back and forth.

About halfway through, after the third or fourth batch, we went to Grasse and also their offices in Paris, to see more of how it works for them; and then it was probably another two to three sets and we had the final products. Probably about six different reworks on each of these to get it right.


We had the building-blocks idea in advance. We chose DJA on design; they work with Prada and Dior. There were late-night Skypes with London. Bottles: tested lots of pumps.

Your name is not on the front of the bottle, what was the thinking with this?

We liked the idea of playing with two faces. It’s on the side. People can play with how they sit on their bathroom shelf.

What do your fragrances express?

A is the lightest, I think of it as being sparkly, a little bit gin and tonicky. It’s got notes of crushed mint and it’s very sparkly.

B is much more floral, it’s really about that evening kind of floral scent. Lush is the word I was looking for. Ripe and delicious, not in a sweet way, but ...

C is much more addictive and sexy, it’s opulent, quite generous in what it gives you. C has got a lot of my favourite flowers, it’s got tuberose, lily of the valley, gardenia and magnolia ... it’s all really packed in there.

What would you be wearing with them?

If it’s a hot day I find myself going for A. If it’s a bit of dull day or going to be a big day, I find myself going for B because it’s got so much energy in it and I find myself going to C if it’s more night time ... there’s no rules around it, just what I’ve been finding over the past six to eight months.

Do you have a favourite?

I love them all. The great thing about a trio is you don’t really need a favourite!

Karen Walker Fragrance is available in store and online now.

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