Scented emotions and fragrant memories – we meet one of the creators behind the world’s most unique perfumery to find out how they’re bottling the smells of those who mean the world to us
We all know that the sense of smell holds a special and powerful position when it comes to our memories. Who hasn’t travelled back years or even decades when sensing a familiar scent? Or been grabbed by a nostalgic moment when recognising a fragrance that holds the key to a memory we thought had been firmly locked away in our subconscious?
Two people who have realised the potential and power of olfaction, also known as the sense of smell, are mother-son duo Katia Apalategui and Florian Rabeau. They are the people behind one of the most unique customised perfumeries in the world: Kalain. Their concept is to transcribe a loved one’s scent, alive or deceased, into the form of a perfume. Yes, you read that right. Kalain can create a perfume based on your own memories of a person, place or treasured pet. And all you need to do is send them some fabric that has been infused with the scent that you want to preserve – a loved one’s old jumper, your baby’s blanket, a piece of cloth from your dog’s bed.
We spoke to Rabeau at his Normandy base to talk about scent, memories and what it’s like to collaborate with your mother.
As a dynamic mother-son duo, you two are a perfect example of a creative collaboration that stretches through the generations. How did it all?
“From an early age I often heard my mother speak about her creative ideas and I have always been impressed by that ability. You know, sometimes it’s when you are at your most disorientated that your most impressive ideas come to you. That’s exactly what happened to my mother when my grandfather passed away in 2007. That’s when the research started. Eight years later, Kalain was born. Through that creation I came to understand that the hardest thing is not to come up with ideas but to be able to give life to the good ones and then live your passion through your work.”
Have you two always worked creatively together?
“Yes, ever since I decided to join the project and create the company, my mother and I have been working together creatively. We are the only company in the world that is able to fully transcribe a smell into perfume, so we have to stay on top creatively every day. We both love that each day is different and my secret to staying creative is to travel as much as I can to get ideas.”
Working with family and friends can have its challenges. Do you and your mother ever clash?
“We are both strong characters, so of course there are some clashes, but that’s what makes the relationship so powerful! It’s not easy to work with friends or family, you need to set up some rules to be really productive every day. My mother and I are very different and that’s what fuels our creativity. There are two different ‘schools of thought’ in our work, as we’re not from the same generation, but each idea can be completed or improved upon thanks to the other one. I think that’s really important when it comes to an inter-generational duo. My mother has a lot of experience in different fields and I have experience in some others, such as in digital marketing or coming up with new ideas.”
What does scent mean to you and your mother?
“Scent means a lot to us. We love to analyse them to better understand their constitution. Each scent is unique – the human scent is composed of more than a hundred different molecules and that’s why this work is really awesome. There is a real power to scent, and we know that they establish a real interaction between people. The human scent can bring a lot of comfort to someone when there are sentimental values intertwined. Personally, I love to smell my girlfriend’s scent on the bedsheets when she’s not sleeping at home.”
A lot of people can probably relate to that since a scent or an odour can create all sorts of associations in our minds. Do you have any other powerful scent-related memories?
“My mother and I have a lot of olfactory memories. Smell is the most powerful sense when it comes to memories. The funniest thing is that I only discovered my sensibility to scents when I decided to join my mother in this crazy adventure. I’ve always been sensitive to smells but I didn’t realise it before. However, when I was a young boy, my comfort blanket was one of my father’s T-shirts! It’s as though I was destined to work in this field.
“Each day is a real olfactory tour for us. When I meet people, or when I use the subway in Paris, I can smell different scents depending on the station. Or when I go to the library or walk in the forest. Even occupations have scents! I still hold some olfactory memories from my travels, such as frangipani flowers in Bali and tiger balm in Thailand. I am pretty sure that my mother still has my grandfather’s smell in her head every day, even if we weren’t able to transcribe his scent back then.”
You get requests from people all over the world. What are people usually looking for when they contact you?
“At the beginning our offer was primarily focused on helping people to cope with a definitive absence. And then after some requests, we noticed there were also a lot of people who had to cope with a temporary absence. For example, mothers who wanted to keep an olfactory memory of when their children were babies, couples who are separated because of work.”
What are the more unusual requests you’ve received?
“As our concept really is to help people to keep an olfactory memory, we get a lot of different requests. To be honest, we don’t like to use the word ‘unusual’. There is almost nothing we consider ‘unusual’, except requests that aren’t ethical. However, a few examples of some of the more rare requests are a woman who wanted to keep a rubber’s scent because it reminded her of her school years. Another customer wanted to keep a flower’s smell. Some people want to bottle a holiday’s smell and, these past few months, we’ve had a lot of requests for transcribing the smell of dogs who have passed away.”
Do you ever get the background story from your customers?
“That really depends on the customer. Some feel the need to speak and exchange with us because they are in mourning. Others don’t communicate too much. We always ask customers after they’ve received the product if they are pleased with the result and we always get positive feedback. That is the best reward we can get.”
What are your own preferences when it comes to fragrance?
“I choose my perfume based on the occasion. During the summer I prefer to wear a fresh fragrance, and in winter it’s the opposite – I prefer to wear a woody one then. I use a lot of different ones, but nowadays, depending on my mood, the season and the kind of day, I might wear Diptyque’s L’Eau du 34, a fresh fragrance with green notes, or their Essences Insensées, which smells of centifolia rose. Also, Terre d’Hermès, a spicy, wooded gem created by Jean-Claude Ellena, or L’Homme from Yves Saint Laurent, which is composed with vetiver. Perfumes have always had an important role in emotions.”
Words by Camila-Catalina Fernandez
Illustrations by Eimi Tagore Erwin
Product photos in courtesy of Kalain