The Modern Scent Journey with Dawn Goldworm
Dawn Goldworm is an internationally recognized scent expert and the Nose behind successful fragrances for Lady Gaga, Adidas, American Express, Valentino, Mercedes Benz, and many more. Dawn joined us in the Chandelier Penthouse to share her rare abilities in synesthesia (blending her sense of sight, touch, sound, and smell) with a scent-sensory experience inspired by some of her favorite films and brand campaigns.
What’s the connection between scent and emotion?
One whiff of something and you get immediately transported into a memory. And in that memory, you can tell me the texture of the rug, the color of the walls, everyone that was there. What they were talking about. The music that was playing. But most importantly, and with amazing precision, you can tell me exactly how you felt in that moment.
Why is that?
Smell and emotion are in the same part of the brain. You can't have a scented experience without an emotion attached to it. You can't have an emotional experience without a scent attached to it. And so they kind of hang out like best friends, kind of floating around our olfactive memory, which is the largest and most acute part of our memory. So every time you smell something, you hit that trigger, again and again and again, you automatically feel something.
Tell us about the scent of indulgence you’ve paired with Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
I created this scent with a friend of mine, the designer for the oldest French fur house. He was asked to rereinvent what we think about fur. So he asked me to create a smell for a show they were doing at Kreo in Paris. He said, "Dawn, you know what I want? I want to smell what it would smell like if you slapped Marie Antoinette's ass.” Now imagine what that would've smelled like! In the context of that time, there were no sewers, just the smells of food, defecation, small animals, people, plants, dirt, grass: all of those smells around you all the time, everywhere. If you had to go and do your business during a cocktail party, there were no bathrooms. You just went behind a curtain. If you were a woman, you didn't do anything at all. And people didn't bathe. Marie Antoinette actually introduced the bath. People used to comb their skin: that was their idea of bathing.
Sounds pretty pungent!
Well, on the flip side, it was quite elegant, because people had scented gloves and they'd powdered their wigs, with mousetraps inside, to catch mice. Everything was powdered and perfumed. Imagine all of those smells. Now imagine again slapping Marie Antoinette's ass! It smells real. It smells tangible. It smells animalistic, like skin and power and cosmetics and beauty, with a puff of smoke around it.
What about the scent of dystopia, which you’ve paired here with Blade Runner?
I was challenged a few years ago by a digital agency to create the smell of dystopia, the smell of a nightmare for an installation in an old, decrepit church in Milan. It was falling apart, scaffolding everywhere, with dirt on the floor. And they installed these large-scale LED screens. It was new technology at the time and you could really interact with these screens. So imagine this very sacred, religious space with these huge LED screens in it. It was quite amazing to see the contrast. And I said, "really? Are you sure?" And they said "Yes!" They wanted it to smell dark and omniscient and scary. And I said, "if you make it smell like a nightmare, people will walk right back outside. They will not stay. Or you’ll get the worst review you've ever read. Everyone will hate it. They’ll be so upset, it doesn't matter what you show them.” And they said, “we want to do it anyway."
So what happened?
I went away for a couple months and came back with the smell, based on gunpowder, with burning rubber, gasoline, fire embers, a little bit of burning flesh, everything you’re scared of. They were like, "wow, this is perfect. It's exactly what we wanted." And I said, “okay, slow your roll. Why don't you spray it around the office for a few days and give me a call?" About a day and a half later, I received a call saying "a lot of people have migraines. Some people have gone home sick. This girl keeps saying that her contact lenses are melting. Can we make it softer?" Well, how do you soften a nightmare? Make it in technicolor? I said, "no, we can't soften it. Why don't we use something else?” We didn’t end up using it for the event, and I’ve never actually shared the scent, before tonight.
Shouldn't the smell of nightmare be enticing at first?
That's not what they wanted, and that's not actually how I took it, but it could be. There's something about dystopia and nightmare that's strangely addictive. You never want to experience it again, but you never forget it. Your memory won't let you forget a bad experience. It’s eeringly amazing, although I can't smell it for too long. It puts me in a really bad mood.
So scents aren’t always beautiful…
People often ask me, when they first start working with us, if the smell we're going to create for them is going to be beautiful. And I often say no. Because it's not the point. The point isn't to have a beautiful smell. If your brand isn't beautiful, then it will just smell like you. If you have a beautiful brand, you will have a beautiful smell.
Like the scent identity you created for Valentino…
Valentino is an astoundingly beautiful brand and the smell is just as beautiful. Most of the people that fall in love with the scent we created for Valentino are in love with the brand, or the idea of the brand. Valentino the scent is ethereal, feminine, and lighter than air. It kind of dances. It's effortless and graceful, but also grounded in the history of Rome. So it's dark, and sacred, and religious, and deep, with top notes that are really soft, citrus and green notes and beautiful florals, and then it's grounded in black leather. You can smell it in all of Valentino’s stores showrooms, and boutiques, globally. We scent the world of Valentino, or we should say, "this is the scent of the world of Valentino."
What about the Nike scent?
You can smell it in any Nike Lab in the world; they're all scented the same. Nike was an amazing company to work with, not only because they defined branding for so long, but because it's Nike. How do you create a scent for a 37 billion-dollar brand that everyone wears? It took me much longer to create the scent for Nike than it's ever taken me to create a scent for anyone else. The smell of Nike is a soccer cleat in dirt, a dirt molecule, a grass molecule, and the smell of the cleat itself. There’s metal, a bit of leather, a bit of foot smell in there. The smell of a basketball as it gets oily from your hand. The smell of a basketball sneaker as it screeches on the court. That sound has a very specific smell. It's the smell of working out, when you're running, the smell of exercise equipment mixing with sweat, a bit animalistic and salty. And it's specifically the smell of a pair of new Air Force Ones when you open the box. Not Air Max, not Air Jordans: they were very specific, they have to be Air Force Ones. So we gave everyone the Air Force Ones to smell and we created that smell of Air Force Ones.
How do you create a scent that feels universal?
If I asked you if you had the same sense of smell… if you liked the same scent or perfume as the person sitting next to you, you would say "no. Absolutely not." I have no sense of smell. I have my own olfactive preferences. No one likes the same things I like. It's a very Western idea, right? We're individual. We have our sense of smell. We have our own style. It doesn't matter if it's your brother, your husband, your child, your best friend. You would say no. And you would be wrong.
“We have vocabulary for touch, for sound, for sight, for taste. But we have no vocabulary for smell.”— Dawn Goldworm.
So we actually have similar senses of smell?
Even in the womb, at 13 weeks, we have a fully developed sense of smell. At 13 weeks, everything your mother eats, starts to effect you. Smell is the only thing that passes through the amniotic fluid. That's the beginning of your taste preferences. You start to form you preferences in food when you're still inside your mother. And once you're born, your entire world is smell. It's how you comprehend life until you're ten years old. Your sense of smell is your dominant sense. Your other senses (sight and touch, sound and taste)… they're just developing. And as they develop, your ability to use language develops, which is why they all live in the same part of the brain.
Why isn’t there a connection between smell and language?
If I asked you if you like something, you can tell me yes, you like it, or no, you don't. And if I ask you why, you can say it's because it's fresh. Or if you don't like it, it's too strong, or too sweet. You might be able to connect it to a memory: it smells like my ex-boyfriend or my grandmother's house. But that's it. You have no ability to tell me otherwise. That’s because when your sense of smell is the strongest, you don't have the ability to use language. It's not connected. There's no bridge between the two parts in your mind. So those first ten years of your life when your sense of smell is the most dominant, that's where your olfactive preferences come from. Your baby toys, your suntan lotion, floor cleaner, the smell of your mother: all of these things influence your preferences in those first ten years of your life. So it's really your generation, your culture, and your living environment that define how you live your life through smell.
How does that relate to scent branding?
If you're from the same generation, the same culture, and the same living environment as others, you can be pigeonholed into olfactory groups. So when I go through the process with a brand, I ask them who their target is. For Nike, it was 17-year-old boys and 19-year-old girls all around the world, which is why it took me a long time to develop it. They all have different scent preferences, but we know what they are and can put them all together, so they all understand the scent in the same way.
Are there national preferences for kinds of scents?
Generally, Europeans (the French, specifically) have traditionally liked scents that were more visceral: orientals and woods. They used to be more open to spices, but now there's a huge proliferation of fruit notes, just because of certain trends that are happening. It's changing the way people perceive perfume.
What sorts of trends are those?
Scent preferences are changing faster now than they ever have because of the globalization of food. So you can get foods today that are nowhere near in season, or don't grow anywhere near where you live. I can get an avocado every single day of the year. I don't even know where avocados are grown. People are moving from rural areas to cities, and that changes scent preferences, too, and the way they see life. Like this whole organic trend. When I was growing up, floor cleaners smelled like pine and lemon. And now my house cleaner smells like geranium. Totally different. The idea of a functional smell doesn't exist to this generation of kids, who don't spend time outside as much anymore. They're playing on iPads and computers, not spending time outside in grass and dirt, or using plastic toys, or crayons, or Play-doh. All of those smells associated with a certain generation are being lost.
Have advances in technology changed your approach to scent-making at all?
Before, if you would use a fruit note in a perfume in France, they thought it smelled cheap, because fruit notes are synthetic. We can't get smells out of fruit, just so you know. You can put a strawberry in your mouth and taste it, but you can't smell a strawberry. We can't extract something that doesn't have a smell. The same thing with cherries, or blueberries, or raspberries, or any other fruit note you can think of. Except for citrus notes. Citrus notes can be synthetic or natural. But any other fruit note is synthetic. So in France, when we would put a fruit note on top, it smelled cheap and synthetic. We couldn’t do it. But now most of the top selling fragrances in France, in the prestige market, use fruit notes.
Do you find that people are loyal to their scents?
There’s two types of consumers. We call them the loyalist or the butterfly. You’re a loyalist if you only wear one perfume your whole life. It's like when people find their style and only wear one designer. And then you have the butterflies, who change their perfume like they change their moods, season to season, day to night… all the time. But your scent isn’t just about perfume. We’re all scented portraits, from our hair gel, shampoo, conditioner, skin care, toothpaste, lip balm, laundry detergent, body lotion. The smell of your clothes and your feet, your body, the food that you eat. I mean, you're totally scented. You don't even have to put on perfume! We want you to, but you don't have to. Even the butterflies that change their perfume all the time, they're not changing everything else. But they're using it like an accessory and there's something really interesting about that.
Are there more butterflies in the U.S.?
Absolutely. But people have a 2.4 second attention span now. I mean, how can you think that they’d keep the same perfume for ten years.
Why have you paired film with scent?
It’s fun to do! We pair scent with films to give you a more emotional experience. What's interesting about film is that we don't want to be in pain. We don't want to have our hearts broken. We don't want to experience death. We don't want to know more. Yet we do all those things when we’re watching a film. We allow ourselves to be curious and open and transported somewhere else for two hours, just because it's entertaining. So what the scent does is really puts us there and allows us to be in that moment, in a human, tangible way.
How exactly does your company, 12 29, work with brands?
We transform them through the visual language of scent. Just like that girl had a visual reaction to the smell of gasoline, that's what we do with brands. Brands have the power today to help us live our lives in a better way. We live through brands to make ourselves feel better. We use brands to define us. So if we truly want to do that we have to capture the most human part of our lives, today, which is connection. And there's nothing that connects you quite like scent.
And there seems to be an obvious connection between brand loyalty and scent…
What's interesting about that bond between scent and emotion is that when you smell that scent, you automatically remember how you feel. You’re thinking rationally, logically, and able to process and use language, because it’s all happening in another part of your brain. The only other thing that happens in this part of the brain is decision-making. So when you smell something and have an emotional reaction to it, you make a choice. Imagine that within a brand context. You smell something, you remember it, you remember the brand, you remember how you feel about the brand, and then you make a decision. This is brand loyalty. And every time the scent is introduced, you have the same emotional reaction and make the same decision. It’s why you continue to stay at the same hotel, or use the same airline, or buy the same brand. It's the same trigger, over and over again.
Words by The Editors and Dawn Goldworm. Event photos: Guillaume Ziccarelli.