The desire to smell good is nothing new. Based on what archeologists have discovered in ancient tombs, Egyptians and Mesopotamians were making perfume with ingredients such as jasmine, resin and myrrh way back in 3,000 B.C. Today, women’s fragrance is a $679 million industry in the U.S. and Black people account for a whopping $151 million of that spending, according to a 2018 Nielsen Report.
Our demand for perfume is strong, but those who want to go from consumer to creator face a challenging path due to a lack of access to education (traditional perfumers typically study in France), capital and mentorship. Although nearly 74 percent of all perfumers are white, a whiff of change is in the air.
And it’s about time. For decades, perfume ads and commercials have served as a reflection of everything most humans want: love, sex, power and validation. Consider the coolness projected by Calvin Klein’s CK One campaigns, the sophistication of Chanel No. 5 images and the sex appeal exuded by Dior J’adore ads. As consumers, we know we’re buying into a fantasy, but the power of perfume is undeniable.
With just a spritz or two, fragrance can make you feel confident, desirable and worthy of taking up space. It can unlock memories and create new ones. That’s why a growing group of perfumers from the diaspora is disrupting the landscape with indie brands, letting the industry know that people of color belong there too. These pioneers aren’t just grabbing a piece of the pie — they’re also forging strong connections with underappreciated customers and championing the need for change.
“Diversity is happening in the niche fragrance business, but it would be great to see more people of color in perfumer roles at the bigger houses,” said Maya Njie, founder of an eponymous line of perfumes. “With new generations coming in, this will happen more and more. The industry should offer scholarships and training that encourage diversity and show that it is a field where anybody can flourish if they put their mind to it.”
Find out what inspired her and her fellow entrepreneurs:
Dawn Marie West, founder and creative director of La Boticá
Queens, New York-based perfumer Dawn Marie West learned the power of scent at a young age. “My grandmother was a laundress, and she would wash laundry for clients at home when I was a child,” she said. “The sheets hanging in our backyard filled the entire house with the smell of fabric softener. The aroma takes me back to my youth and reminds me of my grandmother’s work ethic and the entrepreneurial spirit that she passed down to me.”
Blending fragrances for La Boticá, the luxury fragrance collection West launched in 2018, also transports her to various times in her life. “I find inspiration in places that represent my culture and what feels familiar,” West said. For example, her scent Nolita 96 was inspired by years working at downtown art galleries (she’s a photographer as well) and captures the vibe of concrete and effortless style. Another standout, Flor de Selva, features indigenous oils found in the Dominican Republic, a nod to West’s Afro-Dominican heritage.
Maya Njie, founder of Maya Njie Perfumes
In 2012, an old photo album inspired London-based perfumer Maya Njie to experiment with fragrance. She began bottling scents tied to her family history and by 2016, she turned what began as a personal project into a lauded line of fragrances. Njie channels her Swedish and Gambian heritage into all aspects of her line, from the minimalist packaging ― which she calls “Scandinavian at heart” ― to the fragrance notes.
“Tobak is connected to the smell of tobacco leaves, leather, smoke, tonka and wood. Even though it draws an immediate line back to my grandfather in Sweden, the smell is also reminiscent of craft markets in Gambia,” she said. Njie advises aspiring Black perfumers to stay true to themselves while trying to break into the fragrance world. “There is a place for you here,” she said. “Consumers are keen to support people they can relate to so, keep walking on that path. It’s long and requires persistence but there are plenty of nice people along the way.”
Chris Collins, founder of Chris Collins Fragrances
“The road of a Black perfumer isn’t easy, but the journey is worth it when you see your fragrances touch people,” Chris Collins said. Although he’s been “obsessed” with fragrance since he was a child, he didn’t create his eponymous line until 2018 after spending 20 years as a Ralph Lauren model. “My father wore classic 1970s colognes like English Leather and Grey Flannel,” Collins said. “I always knew when he was home from work because I could smell him first. That’s when I first fell in love with fragrance.”
His first trio of perfumes celebrated his historic neighborhood. “I’ve called Harlem home for 18 years,” he said. “I was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a time when Black culture, music, literature and art flourished. I wanted to tell that story through fragrances.”
Four years later, it’s clear that the industry likes the tales he’s spinning: Collins’ line is now sold at Sephora, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
Kimberly Walker, founder of Kimberly Walker New York
Before launching her namesake line, Kimberly Walker witnessed the lack of diversity in the perfume business up close. “During my 10-year career as a department store luxury fragrance sales manager, I never encountered a brand led by a Black, female perfumer,” she said. That motivated her to fill the void. Walker taught herself enough about chemistry and fragrance composition to create Artsy, a sweet and romantic scent that debuted in 2016 (after plenty of trial and error).
“It’s still my everyday fragrance and top seller,” Walker said. When blending and naming some of her other fragrances, Jamaican-born Walker drew upon her West Indian heritage. One example: “My fragrance diaspora is a celebration of people of [African descent] and features Jamaican rose apple paired with notes of sparkling champagne.”
Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba, founder of Pink MahogHany Fragrances
“During my tenure as an educator, I found out that many people had adverse reactions to fragrance,” said Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba, the self-taught perfumer behind Pink MahogHany. “My research confirmed that phthalates [chemicals commonly used to make scents last] were often the culprit. As a fragrance aficionado, I wanted to create a collection without them.”
Based in Longview, Texas, Dunlap-Mwamba has been making scents for 17 years. She said that inspiration comes to her “in every form imaginable,” especially when she’s spending time alone outside. “I always keep a notepad or my phone handy to jot down quick ideas,” she said. This fall, she launched a new set of sweet and earthy gender-neutral scents called The YÖU Collection, designed to encourage wearers to tap into their sensual side.
Shawn Crenshaw, founder and CEO of Ovation
Atlanta-based entrepreneur Shawn Crenshaw spent 18 years in the hospitality industry before a frustrating experience at a department store motivated him to pivot into the perfume biz. While he was shopping for Christmas gifts for his male relatives, he noticed something.
“Not one brand had a face or a representation of anyone that looked like me,” Crenshaw said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks that we as consumers held these designer brands in such high regard, but none of them ― based on their marketing ― held us equally in such high regard. That’s when I realized there was an opportunity to create a brand that elevated the image of African American men.”
He introduced Ovation for Men, a citrusy and woody scent, in 2017. His advice for aspiring founders: “Never give up. Keep believing in your idea.” Doing your homework is also key, of course. Crenshaw spent three years attending conferences, networking and learning about the industry before Ovation went from a dream to a final product worthy of applause.
Mair Emenogu, owner and creator of MAIR
“The same feeling a comedian has when you laugh at their joke is the same emotion I have when a person smells my fragrance and smiles,” said Houston-based entrepreneur Mair Emenogu. “It’s exhilarating to create something that others enjoy.” A self-described lover of glamour and luxury, she said her brand is “me in a bottle.” Her two scents, which are designed in Grasse, France, (known as the perfume capital of the world) but manufactured in the U.S., lean into femininity.
Remember When is a joyful combo of jasmine, bergamot and amber and is a tribute to the memories fragrance can evoke. The latest Mair scent, Peony Silk, mixes floral notes of orange blossom, peonies and jasmine with warm musk and wood. Both fragrances were inspired by how Emenogu wants customers to feel when they spritz them: beautiful.