If you were to make the perfect scent for Wellington, what would it be?
Salty, muddy, fragrant like the bush or with a suburban rosey finish? One thing's for sure. There would only be one man for the job. That man would be Mr George Bowler, a friend of mine and the best nose in New Zealand.
I have known George for several years from his time working in retail. He has the most pleasing disposition of anyone I have ever met in Wellington and is (naturally) devilishly handsome. Recently George went on the extraordinary journey of a lifetime. He studied for a year at one of the world’s most prestigious fragrance institutes in no less than Grasse, France, the birthplace of fragrance. I caught up with George and asked him how does a Kiwi boy end up being selected for one of twelve places out of hundreds of applicants worldwide, taking him from Wellington to Grasse, to Paris and New York, and back again.
Like a complex scent, George Bowler’s youth is a blend of rich experiences, completed with a heady finale. He was born in Wellington, living in Kelburn until he was 5. In 1984 George’s parents moved to Devonport in Auckland. In 1989 the family moved back to Kelburn, where they have remained ever since.
After finishing secondary school George tried a year of architecture but found it wasn’t for him. He decided to take a gap year; one year turned into seven during which George worked for Cafe Astoria in Midland Park (“Still the best employer I’ve ever had” says George), moved to London at 21 working for Chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Peter Gordon and then to Sydney.
A mix of adventures - From Workshop to WORLD and Coffee Supreme
After finding he wasn’t enjoying Sydney, George returned to complete his Bachelor of Arts, studying "mainly English papers". “I did well” George remembers, “but my heart wasn’t really in it. I never really liked university because there is no practical real work to apply it to.”
After university George worked at New Zealand fashion brand Workshop and Wellington restaurant The Matterhorn. He returned to Auckland to work with Workshop as the wholesale brand manager.
Over the coming years, George also worked for Coffee Supreme, in beauty PR and for WORLD. However he found himself drawn back to Wellington. George had donated to friends of his in Wellington and together they were raising their two-year-old son Luca. So George moved to WORLD in Wellington to manage their Beauty Store, which stocked international artisan fragrances at a time where most fragrances in New Zealand were big brands found in department stores. George had not considered fragrance much at that time - “It was like socks or underwear. I’d never thought about it that much” - but found himself naturally drawn to niche fragrances.
A Grand Idea
George was trained well by WORLD, and while enjoyed managing the Beauty store for two years he once again he found himself wondering about what he wanted to do. A push from his father made George decide to take the plunge and fully realise his love of fragrance “He said "Any time I see you, it’s all you talk about - so why not take a year or two and really throw yourself into studying it."
George went through the arduous task of finding somewhere that offered courses studying fragrance. The obvious choice was Paris or New York - but the courses there didn’t capture George’s interest. “They were really marketing courses about the beauty and cosmetic industries” he says. George wanted to get an understanding of the industry as a whole. With his retail background, George was already well positioned to understand the selling side of the fragrance industry. “I believe it’s always good to start in retail if you are going to work in a service industry. It keeps you humble and teaches you the process of selling. It links you with your customer. Some of the most amazing fashion designers I’ve met, still work a day in their own stores.” However, he was also curious about crafting perfumes. He thought it seemed very out of reach and wasn’t convinced yet that he’d be good at it.
With the help of his friend Camille Brasseur (who also worked at WORLD), George located a private perfume school located in Grasse (on the Côte d’Azur) called the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP for short). The small classes appealed to George (GIP only take 12 people worldwide per year to study).”You were learning about more than marketing, production from raw materials, evaluation, the works” says George. “It’s run by industry professionals - people who actually work in the industry.” The quality of teachers was also impressive with professors from iconic institutions such as Hermès, L’Oréal, Robertet and Firmenich.
"They took a punt on me. I was the plus-sized model"
George decided to apply, but had his doubts. “I was a 36 year old with retail experience from New Zealand” he laughs. To get into GIP was no mean feat. The application process was arduous. George needed to write a letter explaining his motivations to study (his friend, journalist Elle Hunt helped him write it). With a resume listing mainly wholesale, PR and retail experience, George knew everything would hang on that letter and its impression on the selection panel. George’s friend, designer Noah Butcher formatted the resume, had it printed and stitched into a folder with George’s name letter pressed on the cover. “I figured I’d be up against a lot of millennials who would just email theirs in. But this was the fragrance industry so these guys, if anyone, would appreciate good presentation.” George sent his application. He heard nothing. After the three month mark he began to pester the school “just enough not to be classed as harassment” he says laughing. “I found out that email doesn’t work. The French don’t answer emails. The best thing was to call, seeing as I was on the other side of the world. I would try to sound very positive and a bit naive. It stopped it sounding too much like badgering. I think a lot of people think New Zealanders are like that.”
“I figured I’d be up against a lot of millennials who would just email theirs in. But this was the fragrance industry so these guys, if anyone, would appreciate good presentation”
There was also a short listing process he managed to get through (around 40 people) for which he had to fly to Sydney and have an interview and olfactory exam (which his friend Michelle Bailey of Aromaflex helped him prepare for, by letting George practice smelling raw materials).
Nevertheless, everything remained silent. George had almost given up hope at being accepted to GIP. Then, one morning while getting ready for the gym, George found out by email he had been accepted. 2 months later he found himself moving to France. “It was a whirlwind really. It was coming up to Christmas and the busiest time of the year at WORLD. But it was a great adventure. I think my persistence paid off - they took a punt on me. I was the plus-sized model.”
La Vie En Rose - George travels to France and arrives in a Cézanne painting
George flew into Nice via Dubai. When he arrived he took the bus to Grasse. “It was a miserable day, raining hard. I’d only been to France a couple of times and my French was rubbish.” George had arranged to stay in a one bedroom apartment in a historic perfumery 30 minutes walk from school. The experience of being in Grasse was something special in and of itself. “Grasse is in the hills and is a medieval town” George explains. “Wherever you are, you have a beautiful view over the Côte d’Azur - the sea is just turqoise. I know it sounds really corny, but one day I was walking through the old town and just felt like I’d been there before. I was looking out to the coast over the Terracotta-roofed buildings, when suddenly I realised it looked like a Cézanne painting (Cézanne painted around the area). I always thought he’d sort of amped up his colours, but they were in fact there. I was in a freakin’ Cézanne painting.”
"I was in a freakin’ Cézanne painting.”
However, things did not start smoothly. George contracted a terrible virus in his first week. “It was the sickest I’d been in my entire life. I had this blinding fever and didn’t know my arse from my elbow. It set me back in the course missing those first four days of school. Thankfully my classmates were really supportive, particularly the Spaniard - Lucas and Sicilian - Fulvio who were great. They brought me food and the notes from the classes I’d missed. ” George tells. He lost 5kg (which he says he needed to lose!) but gained a determination to see the course through.
Daily life at perfume school - “We would smell..and smell and smell until we reached saturation point”
Every day, George’s class would be required to exercise their noses to the limit. “We would smell..and smell and smell until we reached saturation point” George says. Students were taught about natural and synthetic raw materials, chemistry, sourcing, formulation, scent evaluation and brand development, and became close due to the shear amount of time they spent at school. Challenges included mutually understanding one another’s accents (French; Italian; Spanish; Serbian; Japanese; Indian; Filipino; American and of course Kiwi) - “We all defaulted to English spelling but French pronunciation. Most of the class had never met a New Zealander before and for the first few weeks no one could understand me” George explains. It was also very intensive. “We were taught in one year what other schools would teach in two” George says.
George also learnt an incredible amount about fragrance. The course stripped away much of the mysticism that has historically surrounded the perfume industry and gave him an in-depth knowledge into the world of natural and synthetic raw materials. “I was pretty naive when I went into the course, thinking I could and would only use naturals. However, early on in our studies we were told that it’s only possible to extract oils, concretes or absolutes from about thirty flowers (not including woods, resins, citrus, etc.) on the planet. Most floral notes are constructed using fractionated naturals and synthetics, which is where science and artistry come into play. People think synthetics are a relatively new and evil occurrence in perfumery, but they’ve been in use since the 19th century. They’re nothing new.”
A scent for Sofia (Coppola)
A huge highlight for George was creating a bespoke fragrance for the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, in honour of renowned Rococo painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The exhibition had been put together for la Nuit Blanche and was the first time Fragonard’s major works had been exhibited under the same roof. George’s brief was to create a scent with a heart of tuberose based on a painting of Venus ‘La Chemise Enlevée’, that would be displayed in the museum. “I don’t think any of us realised how big a deal it was. We arrived in Paris and saw ad’s for the exhibition on the Metro, and then huge queues for the exhibition!” George says. “People were absolutely fascinated. I’d been inspired by the painting I was allotted and taken the Tuberose scent further, by creating the scent of her boudoir. I wanted to give the fragrance humanity, so gave it animalic and musky notes to depict unwashed bed sheets, as well as woody and cosmetic notes .” The scent and mouillettes completely ran out, after George presented the fragrance to over 2,000 visitors (including Sofia Coppola!). “When the museum closed and we were left to wander the corridors, we realised how lucky we were to be working with these masterpieces, giving the people a four dimensional experience. All the students across the board felt so honoured to have been a part of such an important, historical event.”
“I don’t think any of us realised how big a deal it was. We arrived in Paris and saw ad’s for the exhibition on the Metro, and then huge queues for the exhibition!”
New York, New York!
George was also lucky enough to complete a two-month internship with renowned fragrance house Arquiste Parfumeur in New York during the year. “Part of the course requirement was to find an internship over the summer months of July-August when the school was closed. I had met the founder of Arquiste - Carlos Huber - when I was working for WORLD in Wellington. We kept in touch and when I approached him about an internship, he very generously offered me a role with his company. My first day of work we met perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux at the head offices of Givaudan in midtown Manhattan, which for a junior perfumer is akin to meeting Jesus. Carlos and Rodrigo were developing a new scent due to be launched this year, and I was brought in to evaluate different trials, along with Alexandra Mendoza, Arquiste’s marketing manager.”
George stayed with expat photographer Nikki Clark, who many will remember from her time at Zambesi in Wellington. “I was really lucky in New York to have friends and colleagues that took the time to show me around. I got to go to NY Fashion Week, sip Martinis at the Standard, eat NZ oysters on the Hudson and even got to see Deva Mahal perform in Williamsburg which was pretty rad.”
The Scent of a (New Zealand) Woman
On his return to France in September, George was asked to create a niche, feminine fragrance with a (traditionally) masculine heart of vetiver. Because there are only three formally trained New Zealand perfumers, and there is no established ‘New Zealand’ style, George felt he had no established styles or restraints to conform too, when it came to formulation. “I was inspired by the New Zealand landscape and New Zealand women. They are trailblazers, pioneers, independent - they have a strength about them that is different from others around the world. Perhaps this comes from being from such an integrated, yet isolated society. I dunno, I’m not a sociologist, I just call it as I see it.”
Top notes of sparkling bergamot and green mandarin were used to represent the rising sun. Galbanum, an aromatic gum resin from northern Iran was also used in the top to denote the earth. “It reminds me of the smell of freshly decomposing Ponga logs. It’s a bracing, green scent that draws me back home.” George says. “I gave the fragrance a heart of Madonna Lily because it reminds me of being home with family at Christmas (and I was feeling particularly homesick at the time). It has a white floral purity to it, but with spicy, animalic undertones. In the base I used vetiver - the root of the a native Haitian grass which has a green, earthy, smoky character. I blended this with notes of patchouli, cedarwood, oakmoss and civet to ground the fragrance and give it a long-lasting woody, earthy, animalic sillage. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but I didn’t want to create a crowd pleaser.”
George has returned to New Zealand for his two sons (Heath, 3 and Luca, 6). George admits the course changed his life. “I finally found something I want to do for the rest of my life. It excites me. I’ve always been artistically-inclined, but this is the medium I really feel I can best express myself and be the most creative.”
Up next for George: “Wellington is the city I’ve really lived in most of my life because it’s my family home"
Where to from here? “Wellington is the city I’ve really lived in most of my life because it’s my family home. I’ve lived in London, Sydney, Auckland and Grasse, but here the most out of anywhere. Wellington gives you a unique perspective on things. It gives you humility and it’s also a place that nurtures and supports creativity. I think people need to place more importance on creativity. It’s what makes us unique and tells the world our story.”
George’s dream is to have his own fragrance house and one day work with fellow students from his year. At this time, he is currently working on some collaborative projects with established New Zealand brands that he cannot yet talk about publicly (but are rather exciting). “No where else could that happen but New Zealand. People are approachable and so receptive to new ideas. That’s the beauty of starting something here” George admits. So if you happen upon a very dashing gentleman smelling impeccable through Wellington’s grubby back alleyways, it may just be Mr Bowler - a sweetly scented future New Zealand legend.