Paola Bottai likes to think of her training in fragrance design as lifelong. ‘I always had a passion for scent in general. When I was growing up, whether I smelled something “disgusting” or really appealing would have a big impact on my mood,’ she says. ‘Scents are a deep source of our memories too, which is both scary and fascinating.’
A strong start
It is only five years ago that the Rome-based perfumer graduated from her training in fragrance design – in Grasse, southern France, perfume’s spiritual home. She has already worked with diverse names such as the Carthusia perfume label, car company Mini, and Bullfrog, a tiny but widely acclaimed Milanese barber shop. Other projects include a ‘super-cool collaboration’ with the Cantina Tramin wine company that brought together the worlds of wine and perfumes.
‘I never send out a CV or anything,’ says this strongly independent designer. ‘Clients have come to me because they have smelled one of my fragrances. That’s how it should be.’
Although many fragrances have been launched with Bottai’s name proudly attached to the project, she has yet to create her own signature fragrance, although one is in the distant pipeline. This is in part due to some disillusionment about the current marketing-led state of the industry – something she knows about, having originally studied communications before working in the music business for some years – and the hype around fragrances, not least the emphasis on fashionability. ‘It may be fashionable, but it may also smell disgusting on you. Why would you wear that just because it’s “fashionable”?’ she laughs. ‘There’s also been this big wave of niche perfumers over recent years, often brands that last no more than six months. In fact, there are so many niche fragrances now, you can’t call them niche. And niche just tends to mean “expensive”. Then you get fragrances launching with mysterious ingredients like “blue rose”. What is blue rose?’
Honest hard work
Buyers of a Bottai fragrance are unlikely to find anything so pretentious. The perfumer has established a reputation for the simplicity of her creations, using classic ingredients – vetiver, amber, patchouli, bergamot – in an unfussy, modern way. You will not find any self-consciously alternative ingredients in her fragrances. ‘I take a less-is-more approach,’ she says. ‘When you smell a fragrance I design, you can smell what has gone into it. I don’t want to scare anyone with what they might find in a composition.’
Bottai is particularly acclaimed for her fragrances for men. ‘It’s a more challenging market to work in because men are so much more faithful to the fragrance they already wear,’ she says. ‘That said, I think the distinction often made between a “masculine” fragrance and a “feminine” one is misleading. There are just good fragrances and not-so-good ones. Rose is classically feminine, even if its symbolism of love and passion is not the same all over the world, but I like to work with contrasts. That’s why I think rose on a man can be just great.’
Perhaps above all one might describe a Bottai fragrance as distinctly Italian. Her atelier is in the capital and she grew up in the Parioli neighbourhood. Her bottling, labelling and packaging are made in Italy; unusually, when she prepares samples for clients, they come complete with her own designs for these too. Where possible, she uses ingredients native to the Italian countryside. In fact, she is keen to be part of a reappraisal of the Italian fragrance business.
‘Obviously Italy has a huge fashion economy, and the Made in Italy brand is so important in many ways. But people tend to think of France first when they think of fragrances,’ she says. ‘But Italy has a great history in making fragrances, which anyone really into fragrances will know; in Florence, for example, or in Venice, given that it was crucial to the trade of rare ingredients from the east to the west. Catherine de Medici effectively made Grasse as important to fragrance as it is.’ (The Italian noblewoman, who became Queen of France, loved scented gloves and is said to have popularised the town’s perfume after she was given a pair of made in Grasse.)
All about fragrance
Bottai’s early experience of working for one of the corporate giants in the fragrance industry quickly convinced her that this path was not for her, despite the opportunity it offered to make a name for herself. She prefers the relative anonymity of being the creative behind the scenes. But, like Italian fragrances, she is set to be better known in years to come. ‘I love fragrance,’ she says, ‘and not just the alcohol-based kind you wear. I like to play with fragrance in all of its forms – in face creams and body washes, for the home, even for the car. Fragrance has a whole world yet to really be developed.’