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Among Perfumers: Valerie Lee Vitale and Hans Hendley

June 14, 2019

Among Perfumers: Valerie Lee Vitale and Hans Hendley

It was a windy day in early May. The afternoon sun was shining down on the quiet Bronx neighborhood, and I looked forward to meeting independent artisan perfumer Hans Hendley. He had invited me to his home and studio, and I realized that this simple gesture was a generous one, and one that I did not take lightly.

CEDAR OIL: EASTERN RED CEDAR, MAYDELLE, TEXAS is boldly hand-written on the mason jar. The oil is an important note in Hendley’s Bloodline, a limited-edition perfume (30% extrait) commissioned by AMERICAN PERFUMER®. His father, a ceramic artist who makes functional stoneware, decided to give distillery a go, and sent the raw material to his son. An exchange from father-to-son/artist-to-artist, that represents a do it yourself, pioneering spirit. Hans grew up in eastern Texas near Louisiana, and his father built their cedar wood home on 75 acres. As a kid most of his days were spent in the pine forest climbing pine trees and playing in sticky sap. Hans paused before he stated his father’s unadorned values, “meticulous intense dedication to craft, everything matters.” Clearly, he absorbed this early on.

It’s difficult to talk about BLOODLINE, without talking about his perfume, FUME, made in 2014. “The relationship is important to talk about because they are related to the same place, same memories, and story in the same way.” FUME wears like a wide-angle shot of his childhood scentscape. It smells delicate, ambient, as if one is looking down at oneself. Its anatomy is skeletal as it embodies the entire childhood landscape. Hendley explains, “it’s a couple of days after- the campfire is still in your hair and clothes, a smoky conifer chypre.” “BLOODLINE is the same trees, but a different take on it.” BLOODLINE is a closeup of that time and place. Its anatomy is cardiovascular, it takes us to the deep heart chamber, you can almost hear its heart pumping. The cedar oil is a bear of a note that Hans artistically tamed, it almost feels as if you’re eating it rather than smelling it. He also added a hand-made tincture from a white pine tree, a beautiful citrusy and translucent top note that he let steep for a year. I didn’t want to stop smelling it. Hans reworked a base accord that he had perfected over the years, making Bloodline a baritone fragrance that is balsamic, woody, smoky, resinous. The kind of perfume that comes off the shelf or out of the dresser for special occasions. It is a reminder on the technique of application and the strategic placement of perfume. Hendley understands that people want fragrances to last, but he’s witty too. “I want it to last [too], but maybe I'm more sensitive, and I want the experience to end at a certain point - 16 hours is too much. In the end everything lasts!

When I smell Hans’ perfumes, I think of time. What it takes to make a hand-made perfume, the observation, care, and discipline. Yet, his fragrances aren’t overworked. His process isn’t regiment, but it is extremely thorough. He tests four or five concentrations, but again “nothing is strict.” Early on he made 50-100 versions of a single formula, however as he becomes more confidant, not as many versions are needed. Self-possessed Hans agreed, “The time commitment is inescapable. If perfumery taught me anything, it is patience. You can’t speed up the time it takes for maceration, or the time it takes to understand your raw materials. The process is time bound. Making serious perfume requires time. It’s making task a passionate endeavor. I was obsessed with other stuff, photography, music. I put in the time, but the challenge was the feeling when the muse was moving away. It was a process to accept this. Then I realized the extension output is different, but the process is the same. I accepted it and moved forward. Yet it comes from the same place. Never imagined, but in 2010-2011 my mind was opened to perfumery.”

Making perfume is technical, but the discipline can lead to self-discovery too. “You become grounded when you’re with yourself, [and begin to] act out of clear understanding, not something you are searching for. My releases have become more approachable and wearable, it’s harder to make something that is dialed in and super technical. The skill it takes for a perfumer to make something that’s simple and clear takes a lot more skill then just dumping a bunch of natural raw materials together to make something bold and wild.”

Hans recently moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx, his studio space takes up one of the 2- bedrooms in his thoughtfully organized and calming apartment. As we sat down to talk, occasionally we would walk back and forth from his studio back to the living space. His space reminded me of my space at home, and the intimacy of having your materials close-by. We agreed that American Perfumery, is having its moment, much like craft beer and California wine. The momentum supported by artisans not being part of the status quo, but rather forging their own path, a kind of American ideal. I was ambivalent to bring up the subject of worth and the idea of luxury in perfumery. How does an artist place value on what they do? An artisan perfumer is responsible for it all, and this big lift can feel quite the opposite of luxury at times. Hans easily weighed-in. “I practice perfumery as if I were a painter. This is a concept that fine artists are more easily reconciled with. The process is the majority of the art, in the end you might have a painting, but what gives the object value is all of the work that was invested into it.” Hans was clear,” this is an important topic, particularly in the perfume world, a topic that needs to be reconciled. I don’t want to make a luxury product. My work reflects my lifestyle and how I live. I want to keep it real with everybody. There’s too many bull-shitters around perfume and luxury things. I am not a luxury brand, let it be something a little bit different than what the majority thinks it should be, when you think about perfume. People aren’t going to smell that my perfumes are arty. It smells like nice perfume, and you can peel back as many layers that you want. It’s there if you want to go deeper, but I don’t want to patronize or educate people.” He is unapologetic, and he would rather put his attention and resources into the juice itself.

Long before I met Hans I remember seeing a short film he made about the ritual of cleaning his space before he works, and how that resonated with me. Many times, as I would prepare my space, I thought of his film, and felt comradery. It shows a small window into a world that emphasizes that “most of the work is at either end, you gotta sweep the floor.” There’s no landing page on his website either, no flowery language describing what he does, or the finest ingredients that he uses, he wants to say less and just create. He laughs, “I’ve been lucky, I thought this would be a weird hobby.”

- Valerie Lee Vitale for AMERICAN PERFUMER®

Valerie Lee Vitale is the founder of Soliflore Notes, a blog about perfume and the people that make it. Her small-batch artisan fragrances highlight her fascination with raw material and the faceted layers that live inside a single note. Her perfume is an extension of her writing, and her intuitive process involves balancing and bridging the technical aspects of composing with the imagination. The natural world, ambient scent, and movement also inspire. Valerie lives in New York with her family.