Originally one of the most reputable, influential menswear shops on the west coast (featuring the most innovative Japanese designs from Julius and Number (N)ine to then, up-and-coming designers like Henrik Vibskov), Blackbird has moved on from retail onto their own creative projects, including their own apothecary and lux men's accessories. Full of lush, unisex combinations and conceptual concepts, Blackbird scents are a dark, sensuous exploration in olfactory stimulation.
We interviewed Nicole Miller and Aaron Way, the creative minds behind the successful line on how they come up with their scents and moving forward from such a successful shop onto the next chapter of Blackbird.
How did you get started working in body products and fragrances?
N: Oh boy. Gee. Let’s just say… My mom worked department store retail a lot of her life and one thing she always told me was that even when sales were bad, people still bought soap. So when I opened Blackbird in 2004, I started with Baxter. It wasn’t until 9 years later that I was inspired by Aaron saying that he wanted to make perfume to begin focusing on our own collection, which started with the May 18th Soap Sets.
A: I grew up making bath scrubs and bath bombs with my mom. But I really got started when I applied to work at Blackbird and the only opening was in the Blackbird Apothecary. Initially I was reluctant but I built the business, memorized the scent notes of all of our perfumes, and consequently discovered that scent is amazing to work with. Shortly thereafter I realized I wanted to make perfume professionally.
We all know that Blackbird Ballard was an incredibly revolutionary menswear shop in Seattle. You have since moved into working as a design studio for body care, fragrances and accessories. How has your work in menswear influenced you as an apothecary?
N: Well. Honestly, menswear was just a thing I could do. Menswear was an open market once too. But moving from Blackbird as a menswear brand into Blackbird as an apothecary brand, I do everything the same way. With the shops I was known for buying and merchandising with a very consistent, uniform vision of what Blackbird was, and it always read clearly as Blackbird. Our apothecary brand is similar.
I’m always exploring new concepts and trying to be as heads down as possible about it. Creating from my own vision instead of “what the market is calling for” is really what helps produce something great. Blackbird was partially about getting a product that people wanted and needed, but would challenge people a little bit. That idea has carried into our line of apothecary products.
A: The imagery we worked with designing apparel has bled into what we do as an apothecary line. We laid the foundation for our new world with the naming conventions and inspirational concepts behind a lot of the Blackbird menswear and home collection. With the store we also learned to mix art and practicality and we learned that doing things differently is not a problem.
What is your process like for each fragrance? Do you come up with a an overall concept first and make a scent for it or do you start with an ingredient and work around it?
N: Scent was Aaron’s thing. That said, I have a huge need to be experimental and inventive, and I was afraid at first, but I just started doing it. I generally tend to build around an ingredient and systematically toy with it to come up with something that’s good. Usually that entails starting with something that smells good and adding contrasting elements to come up with something fresh and new.
A: Sometimes its my job to make a scent because its due in however many minutes, and sometimes its an art that I can proceed with at any pace. I prefer to work freely, without a directive. Generally I start with a vague idea to aim for, like “a woody scent,” and start experimenting by mixing things together to learn how they operate. While experimenting I’ll discover a fascinating accord that I want to flesh out and embellish to make it into a perfume. It’s a very trial and error-heavy process but I have very little interest in creating anything conventional, so I am happy to make mistakes until one of the mistakes ends up being beautiful.
Your fragrances seem to be pretty forward and conceptual compared to most. Like Pipe Bomb and the 10 minute dry down/warm up "for the fuse to burn down" or Mizuchi's ink and paper scent notes. What do you think is missing in the fragrance world for both men and women that Blackbird aims to capture?
N: There’s so much incredible perfume out there. It’s just really hard to find because what’s made most commonly available at stores is commercial perfume that’s designed and produced to be cheap. And people have grown up familiar with these scents thinking that this is how people are supposed to smell, and to smell different than that is weird. So there is a feedback loop between the consumer’s low comfort level with “unusual” fragrances and the low drive for big stores to carry better perfume.. People are very comfortable smelling very boring and cheap. So basically perfume is very much like the fast food industry where people get hooked on fast perfume and don’t know their other options.
A: We just want to make perfume. We aren’t trying to change the world necessarily. But nobody on our team right now has any formal training or education with fragrance, we are all teaching ourselves, so we are tinkerers and inventors almost more than perfumers. I think this is what the industry needs; people who are not burdened by the history of how perfume should be made, or how a person should smell. You should smell however you want to, and maybe one of our goals is to point out is that it’s actually kind of cool to smell different.
What are some new developments from Blackbird?
Our customers really want more candles so we’ll be launching a few candles this year. We’ve started to collaborate with our stores on custom fragrances exclusive to their locations so there may be more of that as the year progresses. There is also a new incense that we will release very soon. We’re just stuck on the name. The scent is the easy part.
Shop Blackbird Apothecary HERE.