When I first smelled Vilhelm Parfumerie’s unique, luxe fragrances they transported me to another place. The scents are complex, sensual, long-lasting and housed in glamorous bottles with bold yellow caps that are super-chic. Vilhelm launched in May 2015 by former Swedish model and handbag designer, Jan Ahlgren, who was inspired by his grandfather who wore a custom-blended scent every day. With the help of his wife, Polly, Vilhelm now has seven one-of-a-kind fragrances (my favorite is Dear Polly, a mix of black tea, apple, bergamot and musk) with an eighth fragrance launching this fall. Here we talk to Ahlgren on how to find the right scent, the smell that brings back memories of his summers in coastal Sweden and the romantic story on how he and Polly first met.
1. What inspired you to start Vilhelm Parfumerie?
I was designing leather handbags and read about glove makers in 18th century France scenting leather products. I wanted to give my bags a unique, specific aroma, and through a good friend, I got to meet New York-based perfumer Jerome Epinette. The process of developing scents for the bags, both figuring out how to do it and creating it, ended up being really fun and I totally fell in love with the fragrance world.
2. Your scents evoke a memory from the past. Can you share how these come about?
I think for everyone various scents are inextricably tied to specific memories. I re-experience a memory with sounds and smells. Before embarking on this perfume odyssey, fragrance played an important role, but I wasn’t aware of it. Now that I’m aware, the experience is much richer. I hope people smell our perfume and it opens them to a new awareness or appreciation for a scent’s power as well as evoke ties to old memories. For example, our fragrance Morning Chess, was born from one of my earliest scent memories of my family’s summer home in Falkenberg, Sweden. The moment we’d arrive at the house, my dad would cut the grass, and he’d come inside with the smell imbuing the air behind him. I smell that grass and I’m immediately transported. It’s incredible how quickly and perfectly we can remember scents.
3. How do you and Polly work together on creating the ideal scent?
Generally, I have a specific memory in mind or as is the case with Fleur Burlesque (a feminine, floral scent), an imagined scene, complete with a smell element. I work with Polly to figure out how to best present the inspiration with words, images and narrative stories. We focus on the feeling that the scent should evoke and work with our perfumer Jerome [Epinette] to create samples that vary in strength and composition until we get the right one.
I want our fragrances to be complex and layered, as they are in memories or imagined scenes. The sense associated with a memory, for us at least, isn’t just a single scent element. Even if there is a strong one that comes through first and clearest, beneath it there are layers of other scents of each element present. We want our perfume to travel and change over time, to reveal different elements throughout the day. That is probably what takes the longest, working with Jerome to make sure that different notes are not only right, but that they reveal themselves gracefully and at the right time.
4. It’s so hard to find the right fragrance. How should people go about finding the right one?
Finding the right scent is like finding the right partner. When you find the right one, you just can’t get enough of it! There should be an instant attraction, of course, but I suggest spraying the fragrance on first and letting it rest for a couple of hours, then return to the store later or the following day to make the purchase.
5. Any favorite grooming products?
I don’t actually use anything other than Embryolisse lotion. If I need anything else, I take Polly’s products—she always catches me, though.
6. Can you share some of your favorite places to travel and why?
I love the Amalfi Coast. It’s absolutely magic. There are so many villages—Poisitano, Ravello, Sorrento—with small streets and breathtaking views. The food is magnificent. I also love visiting Capri, which is surrounded by pure beauty and is an exhilarating sensory experience.
7. Can you share how you and Polly met?
We met at an airport bar waiting to board a flight to London. Polly is afraid of flying, so I told her we could pretend to be a couple on the plane so they would let us sit together and I could keep her calm during take off. We ended up having a seven-hour first date and I was instantly smitten with her.
8. If you were not doing this what would you be?
It would most likely be in a creative field. I am dyslexic so an academic career is not really an option, which is the opposite of my wife, who is an abstract math graduate from Columbia and also has law degree.
9. What is next for Vilhelm Parfumerie?
We are working on new scents that will launch in the future. We really want to grow slowly and create the highest-quality product and a truly unique fragrance experience.
Vilhelm Parfumerie is sold at Barney’s New York
Photos taken by Vix Walker in New York City