by Julia Cardi
In anticipation of our dual trunk show with Unearthen Jewelry and OLO Fragrance coming up at Goldyn on July 16th, I had a chat with OLO’s founder Heather Sielaff about her Portland-based line and the finer points of perfumery. Her sweet demeanor is immediately evident, and she talks about the ethereal nature of her craft with a down-to-Earth attitude and insightful clarity. Heather’s vignettes about her perfume-making are as nuanced and interesting as the art itself, so here are her tidbits about the inspirations behind her scents, why artificial chemicals don’t deserve their bad rap, and whether the perfumery process is actually glamorous.
How did you come to making perfumes as your craft?
I was a licensed neuromuscular therapist, and I owned a wellness center – it was in an old house, and we had acupuncture, massage, and Gyrotonics, and we had a little store on the ground floor. We sold relaxation stuff, like candles and lotions. I had taken aromatherapy – I used it in my practice – and I was making something for a customer one day, and it smelled like Froot Loops. It was an accident, you know, and it was the first time I had ever thought about essential oils in that way, how you can put something together and it makes a different smell. I was looking for a new hobby that didn’t involve physical work, so I just started playing around with the essential oils I had, and maybe six months later I had made [the scent] Nationale and was selling it and started OLO. It all kind of happened really quickly, even though I’d been using oils for a long time.
Where do you get inspiration for a new scent? How do you decide whether you want something to smell, say, girly or edgy, be for day or nighttime?
It’s always really different. Some of them are very literal – like one of them, Violet Leather, I took a Mark Twain quote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” I thought about what that would smell like if I made it. So it’s a very literal interpretation of something.
Whereas, for example, I did a custom [scent] for a store and they just sent me an image board. It was all very loose; I just had to capture the essence of a place. There are certain places I’ve been to where I want to capture how I felt in the moment. Some people come to me with a very specific idea; sometimes I have ingredients that I want to use and I think about what those mean to me, and that’s where the inspiration comes from.
It sounds like there’s some synergy involved with the scents – when you mix different essential oils, the result is more than just the sum of putting them all together. So can you talk a little bit about how you go from the initial idea to the actual finished product?
It’s a lot of trial and error. Mostly, perfumery takes patience. Once you’ve been working with oils for awhile, you kind of know how things are going to work together. You still get lots of surprises, though. (chuckles) You think something really is going to work, and then you’ll add an ingredient that messes the whole thing up; it just turns it the wrong way.
Lately people have been really into fragrance and want to start doing their own, and they don’t realize it is difficult, and you have to have a lot of failures before one shows up and is good. Every perfumer has countless blends that just didn’t work out. [The process] isn’t very glamorous. (laughs)
Where did the name for the company come from?
I dreamed it. I had to come up with a name relatively quickly…I’m assuming it was my brain playing around with the word olfactory. But I did have this very specific idea of it being all caps. “OLO” didn’t mean anything to me then; I’ve been told it means a state of being, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Details of the OLO shop in Portland, OR.
How do you come up with names for the fragrances, the ones that aren’t a literal description of the scents themselves?
For example, Erastus – in the oldest cemetery in Portland, Lone Fir Cemetery, I saw a tombstone with the name “Erastus” on it, and I just thought about the name and how you don’t hear it anymore. He had died in 1830 or so, and I was thinking how he was probably a lumberjack or something; he probably smoked and drank a lot – [the fragrance] Erastus is tobacco and whiskey. That tombstone is where the idea came from. But they’re all very willy-nilly.
Do you have any insights as to why scents can smell so different on different people?
There are certain perfumes, depending on what the ingredients are, that don’t change that much; they really stand alone. But I think it’s diet; I think some people’s pheromones really come out more strongly than others; some people sweat more than others. People don’t perceive pheromones consciously, I don’t think, but they’re there, and they make a huge difference. Your detergent, your lotion, where you are environmentally – I think it’s a lot of different factors.
Why is it that a fragrance changes over time, as you wear it?
It’s about the sizes of molecules – they burn off at different rates. So, for example, a citrus has a very small molecule, so that’s the first thing you smell, but it’s the thing that’ll go away the fastest. Whereas a floral or a spice maybe comes in later – the medium-sized molecules. The base, what you’re left with, are the larger molecules. Something like a wood has a large molecule, so it’s going to stay longer, since it takes [more time] to break apart.
And there are certain fixatives you can use in a fragrance to make something stay longer; I just don’t typically use them. I’m not a big citrus person, so I don’t like those top notes really.
Those fixatives are artificial chemicals?
Yeah. And the whole natural-versus-synthetic argument gets tossed around, but there are reasons to use synthetics. For example, bergamot is phototoxic, so you want to use a synthetic or find bergapten-free oil because otherwise it would burn the skin.
There are trace amounts of synthetics in my line. I don’t use a real animal musk…because you don’t want to use a real ambergris or civet. But I don’t use strong aldehydes or phthalates. It’s not because I disagree with the use of them; I personally just don’t like them. [Artificial] isn’t bad or good, it’s just different.
Inside the shop.
Going back to OLO, what do you envision for the growth of your line in the next few years?
My husband just quit his job to come work for [the brand] because it had grown so much – it started in 2009 with the $200 I invested, and now we’ve opened a store and everything. He’s learning perfumery as well, so he’s going to take over some of the newer lines we’re going to come out with, or we’ll collaborate.
So we’re just going to focus more on our line – the store and online stuff. We’ll still sell wholesale and pick up some new accounts. We’re approached by Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie and stores like that all the time, but we’re not interested in being everywhere. I feel like it’s short-sighted; boutiques work really hard to get something special for people. Everybody’s trying to find something that no one else has, and it’s getting harder and harder. I mean, I feel like I sell in a ton of places, but I’m trying to keep it to just boutiques.
And a lot of our customers are artists and musicians, so we’re collaborating more with installation pieces and fragrances that are somehow involved in a musician’s ethos – we just did something with Liz Harris where she burned our incense while she played a show…OLO’s rolling along – people are buying it, it’s established, so we can start playing around with fun stuff [like that].
Click here to shop Goldyn’s selection of OLO fragrances. To try out more of the line, you’ll just have to stop by the joint trunk show with Unearthen Jewelry on July 16th. See you there!