In Conversation: Independent Perfumer Maya Njie

In Conversation: Independent Perfumer Maya Njie

How are your senses stirred when presented with a compelling photograph, an unfamiliar location, or nostalgic flashback? Self-taught, independent perfumer Maya Njie not only smells colour but translates hues and scenes into scents. Since founding her eponymous brand in 2016, the Swedish-born, London-based nose has continually explored the intertwining relationship of scent and memory to repurpose experiences from her dual Scandinavian and Gambian heritage. Inspired by everything from intimate family photographs from the 60s to recollected weekend visits to see her grandparents, her approach to high-quality artisanal perfume blends is an alchemy of time, place and spirit.

Familiar yet unexpected, nostalgic yet contemporary, autobiographical yet universal, each scent is extracted, filtered and bottled as personal moments, through which the wearer is invited to create their own feeling, attachment and meaning. It is a practice developed through experimentation – initially at home and then from her Shoreditch studio  – blending raw materials with a variety of essential oils, aroma compounds and resins. If Maya’s unique approach has sparked your curiosity, Oliver Spencer is hosting one of her bespoke perfume blending workshops at 62 Lambs Conduit Street on May 23rd. In this two and half hour introductory workshop, you will get a decent sniff at what it’s like to create your own perfume. Ahead of the workshop, we caught up with Maya at her studio to learn more about her unique olfactory approach and immerse ourselves in her expanding brand universe.

Oliver Spencer: Hi Maya, thank you so much for inviting us into your beautiful studio. Let’s start by talking about the world of scent, what would you say is the strongest truth about fragrance? 

Maya Njie: That our sense of smell is the only sense with a direct link to the part of our brain where our memories are stored. This is why a smell can have a much more profound effect on us than a photograph ever could. This was the catalyst for me venturing info fragrance. Working from personal photographs and extending the creative practice via scent. 

OS: And the most common misconception we can set straight here..

MN: That synthetics are bad and naturals are good. It's all chemicals and some synthetic molecules have a far better safety profile and threshold than its natural counterpart. This means that it can be used in higher amounts as it's less toxic. It's very much the dose that makes the poison. In some cases the synthetic will be the more sustainable choice too. Some old myths die hard. I recommend The Eco Well for those interested in science based facts on this topic.

OS: Building on the above truth, how did this sensorial realisation lead you to launch your eponymous brand?

MN: Essentially, I started off the back of a surface design degree that I was doing and the aim became to create multi sensory work. I worked within prints and patterns, textiles and photography. I continued experimenting with raw materials and perfumery after leaving university. I've always been curious about how places smell. If I see a photograph of the place, I'm keen to explore how I can translate that into fragrance. I increasingly worked with photographs from my own past, and I decided to try and translate them.


OS: Do you have a favourite scent-grounded memory?

MN: I would say the one that stands out is going to Gambia for the first time. I grew up in Sweden, and I have a lot of scent memories from there, but arriving in Gambia and stepping off the flight, I vividly remember how different that felt. So it's down to the temperature and down to the general smell of the place because it feels really quite earthy, woody and smoky. While Scandinavia shares some elements, they felt so different to how Scandinavia feels.

OS: Essentially your practice is one of olfactory alchemy that mixes identity with intimacy, past and present. How do you begin to approach that, what’s your starting point? 

MN: The starting point can vary as there's not a single strict rule I follow. But the first four fragrances I made, I started with imagery. So I would look at a photograph and then try and capture the essence of the picture essentially. I would pick out colours and translate a mood of a palette into a fragrance. But these days, it can start with visiting a place or meeting someone or hearing a piece of music. but I always like to have a visual reference to ground what that means. So sometimes the picture comes first, at other times the idea comes first and then the pictures.

OS: We’re so intrigued by your practice. Whether your starting point is an image, memory or moment, could you expand on how this translates into a fragrance?

MN: If I'm working from memory, I like to collect imagery, look at colours, and then focus on maybe say three ingredients that I feel could represent that memory. I then build on the formula from that and it's just about pairing different materials together. It’s intuitive and driven by experience, but it can be trial and error.


OS:  To what extent has your self-taught practice evolved since you started your journey in 2016?

MN: I feel like I pretty much work in the same way, it’s just scaled up. I focus on trying to push the brand in terms of the formulas that I create and I increasingly work in collaborative ways. I have a small team now that has helped me. For a lot of the 50mls, we set up a production line and do them in house, so that feels the same. I used to work from home, so it's nice to have space that people can visit in order to get a better feel for what the brand is all about.

OS: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?

MN: That you really don't need to be a big commercial perfume brand for people to connect with you. And I feel that customers, longtime customers that come back over and over again, they'd like to support me because they've been there for a long time, you know, and they believe in me, they believe in the brand and there’s loyalty there. And that doesn't necessarily have to come from something that's a heritage because I feel like I'm a newbie in the perfume industry.

OS: As a self-confessed newbie, how do people tend to react to your approach?

MN: Always really positive. More often than not, I hear that people really relate to it because it's a personal story and while it's a personal execution, people can take what they want from it and it becomes personal to them. Even though I often look back in time and I'm nostalgic about fragrance, the output is contemporary and that's what I want people to take, and I want them to form their own memories. So it moves forward, and continues in that way.


OS: As there’s so much of yourself and your lived experience in each bottle, how cathartic is the process?

MN: It really is. If I wasn't doing this as a job, I would be doing it anyway. And that's often how you come into what we do.

OS:  How would you describe your olfactory style? 

Maya Njie: I would say it’s quite simple. I don't think that my formula is overly complicated. I focus on  a few main ingredients, and then work around that. While they sometimes start with nostalgia, they always end up in a modern world. 

OS: And who is the Maya Njie customer?

Maya Njie: My customers are people that like fragrance, some know a lot and some know nothing, and they’re from a broad age spectrum, which I love. 

OS: As you open up your world through intimate workshops, what can people expect from the one at Oliver Spencer on May 23rd?

MN: I like to invite people into my world and I introduce them to a library of ingredients. First and foremost, it’s an interesting way to come together and an opportunity to bring scent into a space and explore it in a way that they’ll be less familiar with. During the first half, there'll be a lot of blind smelling and we’ll talk about what the smells are without having any preconceptions about what it could be beforehand.  The second half is focussed on experiencing what you like, and then making something that's suited to your taste preference, which you can take with you. Ultimately, it's a nice experience to do in a group because you always meet new people, and you might surprise yourself as to what you like and what you don't like.

OS: We can’t wait. Finally, what excites you most about tomorrow?

MN: The sheer variety because every day is different. I never really know how I’m going to spend it. There’s a lot of creativity, I always wish there was more, but I take everyday as it comes.

Maya Njie’s Special Bespoke Perfume Workshop will be held at Oliver Spencer, 62 Lambs Conduit Street, on May 23rd. Book your place here.

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