Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 100th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest analysis of the consumer economy. You can check it all out at LooseThreads.com.
Richie: [00:00:35] Joining me today is Frederick Bouchardy, the founder of Joya Studio, a fragrance design company known for its candles, perfumes, soaps and other scented products. Frederick fell into the profession after working as a journalist and quickly realized this new opportunity allowed him to put his design skills and penchant for collaboration to use. Over the past decade, he’s built a design manufacturing company known for its own brand and countless collaborations with everyone from A24 to Katz’s Deli.
Frederick: [00:01:02] I’m not a chemist. I’m not a perfumer. I kind of have picked this all up along the way. It’s just that our company now, through this weird path that we’ve taken, has this wealth of knowledge that ends up being really valuable.
Richie: [00:01:16] We had a great talk that touched on both the creative and operational sides of building a business—the topical mix that has embodied our podcast from day one all the way to today on our hundredth episode. Thanks to everyone that’s listened along the way and here’s my talk with Frederick Bouchardy.
Richie: [00:01:36] Why don’t we start. Talk a bit about your background and then how you got into candles and fragrance and all that.
Frederick: [00:01:43] My background originally is in writing—verse writing, poetry. My concentration in college was in 19th-century American poetry and I was spending a lot of time verse writing but also learning critical thinking. I pursued a career in journalism and I was working for a French TV station called ARTE. It’s sort of French-German. It’s their version of A&E. They had sent two French-Algerian journalists to New York and this was after September 11th. It was sort of about New York rebuilding and the short- and long-term impacts of what that would do. But at the same time, the days were so long and it wasn’t 100% satisfying or fulfilling because I was helping them to tell their stories and not my own.
Frederick: [00:02:35] And so also in classic New York fashion, pretty recently out of college, I’m looking at—full of hustle mode—so many different jobs and opportunities. One presented itself that seemed really cool, which was to work on a kind of design project for a large, mass American retailer. It involved scent. The weirdest part was that it was sort of a back-to-school campaign, but it involved home scent and scented candles and stuff. This was a side project. Late-night, early-morning brainstorm sessions, sitting in a home office, bedroom, laptop situation. So I started to look into—my friend, she was going to be handling the graphic design part and engaged me–or we engaged each other—to do the storytelling and the identity, brand identity part.
Frederick: [00:03:28] Looking into fragrance as I’m wont to do, I did a deep dive into not just the bells and whistles and how we could make something smell and look pretty, but what is the nature of this kind of thing? If this is going to be in a mass retailer with 500 locations in the States, what is the componentry? What does that look like? What is the supply chain and what suppliers is this project gonna be supporting? Looking into fragrance world, I realized that, as anyone would, the bulk of the finished product is based on the base material. For candles, that’ll be something like 80%-92% percent base, which is some blend of wax. For fine fragrance or perfume, it’s about the same. And then for things like lotion and soaps, it gets closer to 99%.
Frederick: [00:04:19] This was at the time when there was just not a lot of transparency in the market. There were not as many of the niche, beautiful, entrepreneurial brands. The only company I remember at the time that was doing anything with respect to sustainability and origin story and informing their customer base about what they were buying was Aveda. And so I started to look at different base material possibilities and just through searching the internet, found what I thought was an interesting possible base, which was mostly comprised of a natural tropical palm oil wax and that supplier had proactively formed a roundtable for sustainable harvestation of palm oil. That wax had a beautiful natural effect. It could be combined with natural oils and cotton wicks. If it was heated to a certain temperature, it had a really pretty sheen. And so I started to experiment with that and then we created a boutique collection of scented candles using this, I think, more sustainable and modern material. Then we were able to combine it with packaging that would be stylish and also not use as many glues, would ship flat and just be something that would be more modern and something that is so obvious to our generation but, at the time, was not being that well explored. This actually worked and it was distributed across the states.
Frederick: [00:05:48] And then at the same time, I’m still working, busting my ass at my regular job and looking for a different creative outlet, I realized, “This is a different opportunity for me and now I’m sort of becoming passionate about the ingredients and also the opportunity.” I realized that there seemed to be a huge white space in the fragrance world. Candles seemed like a really smart starting point, again, because there were accessible ways to address the issues of the componentry that just seemed so old school at the time and because it seemed like really no one else was going there.
Frederick: [00:06:26] At the same time, I worked with that same supplier to create a collection of my own candles and then through a friend, got lucky and had a meeting with a buyer at Saks. I just went to meet him for advice because he took my meeting and I brought a box or a duffel bag of samples that had been printed on an inkjet printer at home. He looked at them and said, “These are great. Why don’t I introduce you to the fragrance buyer?” We just shuttled across the cubicles and then I’m meeting the fragrance buyer. He said, “These are great, this sort of purple. We have a different story going right now so we would need this in a different tone.” He pulled out the chip from this Pantone book, handed it to me. He said, “If you switch that one to this, we’ll just buy these.” I left this meeting and called my parents and was like, “This is pretty easy.” But then came the matter of getting them actually made. Then I instantly got a crash course in the barriers to entry at this industry, which is one that is firmly based on established businesses and those practices and supplier relationships. It’s pretty old-school. And I like some of the old-school relationships so I wasn’t mad at it, but I realized it was going to be actually kind of difficult to navigate.
Frederick: [00:07:41] I ended up subleasing a space in East New York to figure out how to get these made and then started to do small batches, very luckily got a great consumer response and editorial response. I think other people had felt the same way about there being a need for stuff that looked cool and was stylish and smelled great, but also didn’t have such a negative impact. And then I just started to luckily get inquiries from other stores and spas, department stores. And then pretty soon it accidentally became a business, incorporated in 2006.
Frederick: [00:08:13] Without knowing what I was doing, it had a sharp distribution strategy from the get go. We’re in this great, established department store, this great spa where they’re actually burning them so it’s really accelerating people’s exposure to the product and then design shops. So we were coming in at all different angles. The thing that I had not exactly predicted—and it didn’t end up mattering in the long run—was that so many other people had the exact same idea at the exact same time. Basically exactly when I launched, we started to do [the] trade show circuit in Dallas and the Pacific Northwest and Chicago and Atlanta and High Point and all the circuit, which I now find to be the most painful possible way to expose a product but, at the time, it was the only way.
Richie: [00:09:03] Are these all fragrance trade shows? So they’re seeing 10,000 other candles?
Frederick: [00:09:05] No, they’re mostly gift shows and things like that. I started a fragrance and beauty trade show in 2011. But there’s more of a need for those in Europe where in Italy, for instance, they have something like 400 independent perfumeries. In the States, they have [fewer] than ten. In Italy, it’s so much more concentrated. They just have a different appreciation for and relationship with scent.
Frederick: [00:09:28] But so I saw 25—at least 25—other natural, sustainable, boutique candle companies, not using the same materials or same design ideas. Soon they were because the bigger, more established ones, as soon as you do one trade show, they literally knock you off. It’s not a cliché. It really happens. In seeing that, I realized a couple things very quickly. Number one: I wasn’t going to spend my life traveling around setting up and breaking down trade shows. It didn’t seem to be the best way to spend time doing business after I got some initial exposure to it. At least not those kinds of trade shows. And also that I’d need to pivot into other forms of expression and also product extensions.
Richie: [00:10:11] So this first batch is going. You realized you had to make them yourself basically. What was the easiest and the hardest part of that process? You just started doing it out of necessity, right?
Frederick: [00:10:22] Yeah. The easiest part was not easy. It was pure luck. [It] was just the organic growth was happening and just the response was great. And so even without so much punting, the inbound requests from clients was strong. What I didn’t realize was that in having to manufacture, that it was going to change the nature of the opportunity. So on one hand, with my own brand, I’m working on product extensions and other ways to intimately connect with our customer base. That’s why we eventually went into perfume and light bath and body stuff was to have something that people were actively putting on their bodies and on their skin and also to play a different role in their lives. So it’s not just that we are involved in the personality of their home, but also their personal identity. Having a manufacturing facility also begot these other opportunities where friends of mine who were great designers, artists, architects were emerging who were not seeking giant licensing deals, but more ways to express themselves and their brand visions or their own personal visions would say, “You’re doing stuff with scent and you’re making it. That sounds cool. Why don’t we work on something together?” And so this part really exploded.
Frederick: [00:11:41] To get back to what is difficult about manufacturing and the world of fragrance: mostly everything. There’s different ways to ship different products across the world. There’s constantly changing regulations and allergens based on standards that are very difficult to predict. There’s supply chain issues, raw material shortages. There’s even just the very basic starting a business where there’s heavy lifting problems of good staff, accountability. And then just the really obvious things: maintaining inventory, where do you get the corrugated packaging to ship your stuff to the beautiful packaging, the secondary packaging that the actual product is about. There’s just so much other knowledge that is hard to come by. This is why the big players are so big and why they stay around notwithstanding distributing in foreign countries, accounting for changes in currency in other countries and how you’re able to sustain that. These are things for rogue people or entrepreneurs or insiders that are like—it took me ten years to learn this stuff. Finding a great team, I think, is quite difficult. Especially [because] this part—the brand part—is so exciting. So many people want to be involved in that. But the making is hard and what we do is industrial and we’re moving thousands of kilos of stuff all the time. I don’t think that anyone would disagree that this kind of work is important and it has been neglected as part of the American experience and so many years later, I realize that this is an important thing that we do and we’re creating opportunity that’s local and good.
Richie: [00:13:32] Can you talk through the process of actually making a candle? Do people know that?
Frederick: [00:13:37] In the case of this first collection of candle, it was more about the material selection. It’s a very specific wax type, heated to a very specific temperature. Then there’s two different forms that it will take in terms of the finished product. One is just a raw wax pillar and those go into metal molds that are relatively easy to source. Now we make our lives so complicated. We do custom silicone plaster and 3D-modeling. But back then, it [was] just these traditional aluminum molds. Those get heated to a certain temperature so that when the wax, which is heated to a certain temperature and blended with fragrance and any sort of coloring that is needed, they don’t react adversely to each other—meaning that the wax won’t pull away from the container that it’s being cast into. Otherwise, if it’s poured into glass or any sort of container and meant to live there, it’s actually generally a different formulation. It can be more or less the same raw material but it has slightly different properties so that it’s heated to a specific temperature. Yeah, again, this is stuff I never intended to learn.
Richie: [00:14:45] Are you on reading books about this?
[00:14:47] Yeah, reading books. And then there’s manuals for it and I was subleasing a space in a candle manufacturing studio.
Richie: [00:14:54] Oh, okay. This wasn’t just like you had a WeWork and you had a table.
Frederick: [00:14:56] Yeah, exactly. This is a good question and something that people ask a lot because there is science and chemistry involved, but it’s also a lot like painting an apartment. You need to spend the time to tape the corners and if you spend a lot of time doing the setup then the rest is operationally smoother. And there’s still a million—this is also not to discount my team that is the best in the world at this and does amazing stuff and they have so many projects. There’s a lot of other sensitive things in that every different scent has different properties, up to 75 different ingredients. All of them have different flashpoints so you need to make sure that the wax is not at a certain temperature once you’re introducing the fragrance. Otherwise you’re basically burning off all the volatile top notes and the things that your end customer is paying for, you’ve basically already used in your manufacturing facility because it’s burned off. There is access to this information.
Richie: [00:15:55] Because the scent is a whole ‘nother piece, right? You make a candle that’s just a candle. Adding the scent actually does something is a whole ‘nother discipline as well, it seems.
Frederick: [00:16:03] A whole ‘nother discipline. But the candle, I think, is quite cool just on its own. The ambiance it creates, that light. I’m a dim light sort of person so that ambience has value in its own right. We only have one project where we’re doing the unscented candle because we manufacture in New York and just our operation is expensive and people are accustomed to unscented being inexpensive. So we only have one project. It’s actually a partnership with Helen Levi, the ceramic artist, and those are cast into forms that she threw on the wheel and those are using organic certified beeswax. So those are meant to not be scented because they’re tabletop, they are sculptural and because beeswax has its own odor. That’s a completely different piece.
Frederick: [00:16:48] There’s a lot of access to apothecaries and essential oil suppliers and stuff, but there’s not a lot of access to the fragrance houses that have advanced R&D and are designing and creating their own molecules and this really incredible shit that I wanted to have access to until much later when you have either things that are winning awards and getting a lot of press or you’re doing tremendous volume. Luckily, those are things that we do now and so now we’re able to work with all these great fragrances houses that are just incredible, but we’re still able to maintain our independence. But at the beginning, none of the big time suppliers or fragrance houses wanted to risk their time or their materials on something that’s not a sure bet because they need to spend their time pitching things to Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble because they’re going to put a little bit of oil and a ton of laundry detergent.
Richie: [00:17:39] So we’re in 2006, 2007. It sounds like the brand itself is growing. And then you started doing some of these collaborations. Talk through the growth of that over those few early years. What were some of the benefits you were seeing and also maybe some of the challenges of now having almost two different businesses under the same roof?
Frederick: [00:17:57] Sure. To give you a double case study, my friends who founded Opening Ceremony were part of the cohort that said, “Oh, you’re doing scent stuff. This is cool. Why don’t we work on something together?” That ended up being a mini candle collection based on their vision for their brand and specific Olympic years. This is where my design started to change, to become a little bit more conceptual and a little bit less direct and more evocative and about tapping into, for starters, a different time and place and using the raw materials to support that. That ended up being super successful. I remember the launch event. There were hundreds of candles burning. There was an open bar. There were all these kids there, skaters. I walked in and I’m like, “Oh my god, this building’s going to burn down.” This is when things were super fun because it was just all a little bit renegade. And then at the same time, we got asked by companies like Neiman Marcus to develop collections in partnership with them.
Frederick: [00:19:03] These were just kind of opposite experiences and different learning lessons because the audiences were so different. I found myself and my company in the process of vanishing too much in order to take on the voice of a different company. It was such a valuable learning lesson because it’s actually not what anyone wants. These people are engaging us because of what we bring and especially now. But even at the time, we became chameleons and morphed into designing with buyers and merchants when, in fact, we should be designing what we believe their customers will want.
Richie: [00:19:48] So basically it sounds like, as the manufacturing business got built, in maybe an objective effort to continue growing and sustaining that, you skewed more towards a private label manufacturer, in a way, at the expense of your own identity for the company.
Frederick: [00:20:02] That’s a fair way to put it. Even if some of these things were—
Richie: [00:20:06] Not regrets.
Frederick: [00:20:07] —theoretically co-branded, financially speaking, some of these were private label where a different company is buying products from us even if it’s known and acknowledged that we are designing it in partnership with them, if they are taking on the ownership of the product and taking on the risk in terms of the sales and marketing then, yeah, I think it is effectively private label. Yeah. This was also calculated in that I realized that I wanted to develop my own brand in a specific way and get involved in other products as I mentioned—fine fragrance and just other materials so that it wouldn’t just stay as [candles]. But, yes, I could even grow the business in doing this work with other brands.
Frederick: [00:20:49] And also I could touch different audiences. If you take just Opening Ceremony and Neiman Marcus, for instance, these are people we talk to now. That customer is someone [whom] we want to continue to talk to, but in our own way. We want to reach out to different audiences in ways that are authentic and not just take an existing product, but actually do deep dives into that audience and into what those brands and companies stand for and build product that way.
Frederick: [00:21:12] From a business perspective, it was so great to have these other opportunities so that we could continue to develop and explore our brand. But also to—not restrict the distribution, but basically to restrict the distribution—to grow a team and to grow our capabilities, but not have to have our own product everywhere because I think of scent as the long game. If you want to have something that people feel is special in the long term, you have to really make it that way. There’s no way to fake it. You can market it incredibly and a lot of people do. But if you want to stay around and stay in their lives for a long time and continue to make them feel special, you have to deliver a great product, but I think you also have to make the experience something else.
Richie: [00:21:56] And so how are you thinking through that? In terms of—you’re starting to build a reputation, I’m sure there’s a lot of inbound, as you said, coming to you.
Frederick: [00:22:03] There started to be just tons of inbound.
Richie: [00:22:05] Right.
Frederick: [00:22:05] When you’re growing and then these different opportunities seem really exciting and they’re coming at you quickly and they’re coming from these great companies and big brands, you’re just saying yes to all of them.
Richie: [00:22:14] Did you learn how to say no? Or how did that happen?
Frederick: [00:22:17] Oh, yeah. Definitely. But it took a while. We say no all the time now. By the way, there’s no exact playbook for it. It’s based on, still, instinct. It’s based on, of course, opportunity and brand equity. But it’s also based on what stories we want to tell. We’re just as likely to work with a one-man shop, one-person emerging artist as we are to work with a global hospitality company. At the beginning, I was just saying yes to everyone and then developing my brand at the same time. I became friends with a ceramic artist through a mutual client and we met and just became friends and then [got] interested in each other’s work. Her name is Sarah Cihat. She lived in Williamsburg at the time but now she lives in Nashville. As we were becoming friends, we also explored the idea of what it might be like to work together. I would, after my work—I sort of skipped the part where my work, then, once my company was incorporated became my full-time job. I stopped my other job […] and then that just became everything and became more than a full-time job, became like a full-life job.
Frederick: [00:23:23] But in any case, Sarah and I became friends and were talking about different ways of working together and we started to tinker and tamper with stuff and realized pretty quickly that her main discipline, which is working with porcelain, and mine live well together in that porcelain is not porous. And so whether you’re putting oil or soap or wax or scent in it, it’s a natural receptacle for it. I basically kind of interned for her for a little. I would go after my work to her studio, just to watch and observe her. We decided to do a really very limited edition of hand-cast pieces that she made that we would pour candle into. I think we released those at Barney’s and maybe one other place and they sold out right away. So I think we realized very quickly this can be something. So we started to grow that collection and [made a] candle, diffuser and then perfume and soap. And this was, again, something I wanted to do early on which was to take it out of the world of home and more into lifestyle, which was just what I wanted, again, because I saw this as design and didn’t want to hone in on something so specific and become just good at that. But also because I was seeing why people were, why other clients—in my other part of my brain and the other part of my business—what clients were coming to us for and so how I saw the future of the market and how I saw the extensions becoming important.
Richie: [00:24:53] The fragrance piece, as you go into other products, is similar, right? There’s still scent and so forth. Did you think it would be easy to extend outside of candles and then what was it actually like?
Frederick: [00:25:03] I thought it would be easy because we already had this great culty, industry darling status, had relationships with all the good buyers. We were creating a concept that was pretty novel and cool. And so the immediate move was, because we were and are dealing in something that is so tangible aside from one of the critical parts which is invisible, how to express that in scent for skin. And so it is different bases and different formulations, but those have to be pretty carefully considered. So the development was not easy. The bottle took us two years to create. In terms of the porcelain, there’s some interesting engineering things that we backed into for that. The soap is rough cut, classic Italian style, saponified three oils and fragrance and that’s it. The idea was to make them all, not rough and not distressed looking, but to not hide the handmade-ness of this. This is something that took me a few years to realize. In fact, at first, I was striving to make things that look perfect but then I realized that’s not what our audience was appreciating about us. They were appreciating that this operation is possible because of hands and that what we do is, at most, semi-automatic. To just let the differences—not flaws—but let the differences show in the products was sort of epiphany.
Frederick: [00:26:41] The actual perfume itself is an oil which, at the time, was not being so thoroughly explored. Now there’s perfume oils. They’re very common. But we did one in a practical travel version and then the other in this dramatic bottle made in porcelain, dipped in 22 karat gold. As I said, there’s some backed into, interesting engineering there. It’s an homage to the classic, Lanvin bottle—the Arpège bottle, which my mom loved and I always had. But it’s our version of it so it’s faceted, it’s a little rougher. It has a very specific and distinct silhouette. The idea was twofold. One: to make the bottle so beautiful that, in fact, people would want it to just have and to admire, to display. And then the other piece was, in making it oil instead of alcohol, was to encourage or basically force people to apply it to their own skin instead of spray it into the air. Again, to keep this physical connection with our customer.
Frederick: [00:27:43] Yeah, I thought it was gonna be super easy. I remember going to visit one of our strong clients at the time to give them an early look at it. Back to the basics of going with a bag and boxes and samples. I said, “This is what’s next.” And I brought all the stuff out and it wasn’t until that exact moment when there was complete silence that I realized, “Wait a second. They might not buy this. They might not be into this.” Maybe this plan for extension is not the wave. We were gonna do it anyway. We were going to distribute it however we wanted, but this is a key point of sale. I remember there was just complete silence and then the boss said, “I’m not sure our customer is going to understand these, but they’re cool so we’re going to give it a go.” That proof of concept—which I realized since I first started with samples and my first three clients—that kind of proof of concept is important. It’s very hard when you’re first starting or launching something new, especially if you’re really independent and rogue, to express to people how what you’re doing is innovative and great and special and how they should take a moment to recognize it. When you do have this sort of seal of approval from either great stores or critics, it really helps.
Richie: [00:28:59] When did you think it was formulized or when did you feel like you had the model?
Frederick: [00:29:03] Maybe three years ago.
Richie: [00:29:06] Okay. Almost nine years.
Frederick: [00:29:06] Almost two-thirds of the way into my company.
Richie: [00:29:08] And what was that moment? How did you know you had it?
Frederick: [00:29:11] I think once I started to understand a little clearer how we were working as just this hybrid, as brand. We have this distribution strategy. We have a storefront in Brooklyn. We have an unusual concept there. Our space wins international awards, gets covered in all the good press. Our launches are followed and appreciated. Really just separating that from the industrial business. Once I was able to make a clearer distinction between those two. Because even still, they support each other. They learn from each other. They mirror off each other. But I think that was the key thing and, in fact, they’re different tangible arms in the business now.
Richie: [00:29:52] As you’re realizing, as you said, the perfection and the imperfection and so forth, how are you thinking about—because this is all under your roof—the potential scale, how big this should get, how many clients you should take on, how many runs you should do and then also how that mirrors distribution? Because it sounds like in the mid-2000s, you’re exploring this limited distribution model that a few years later, and I guess at that time still, takes the likes of a lot of streetwear and Supreme and all these things of limited quantities, maybe mid-to-higher prices and so forth. How has your thinking evolved throughout the business between the potential scale you can create, given you have the manufacturing, but actually the potential breadth of distribution you want to create to continue keeping the value of what you’re doing?
Frederick: [00:30:39] With the business model, that wasn’t really formalized until several years later. This was, I think, 2009, 2010. The first idea, once we realized that the ceramic was the move, because Sarah was in a very small studio and this just wasn’t exactly my wheelhouse, we figured out different suppliers and were able to test batches that were imported from Portugal and then from China. This was in an effort to try to be able to create a process map that could enable this to grow into not mass distribution, but selective mass.
Frederick: [00:31:17] But I remember two things happened with that. One: A shipment of ceramic from Portugal came in and several of the pieces were broken and I was looking inside them and the insides were so different from the outsides. What we had been making in Brooklyn was stained cast porcelain so it’s a uniform piece. The idea for candle was that the wax was colored the same and the point was that it was supposed to look like a solid object. The visuals have always been important to me and I don’t think of it as a fake out. I think of that as honoring the user experience to make someone feel that they have gotten something that’s well considered and beautiful. I just remember seeing that and thinking, “This is not what we ordered. This is stoneware or earthenware that’s just painted.”
Frederick: [00:32:06] And then, similarly, a shipment came in from China of boxes. Earlier, I had been able to figure out different box solutions from someone producing in Rhode Island and stuff but, this, we basically made an opportunity by. The boxes came in with one detail completely wrong. I think, possibly, a lot of normal people would have said, “No one’s going to notice this.” But it’s not what we designed or ordered and so I went back to the supplier and said, “This is wrong.” And they said, “We’ll give you a discount.” And I thought, “I don’t even want this. I don’t want this for a discount. I wanted what I ordered.” And now I don’t want to reproduce these because then this is all going in the trash. It’s so wasteful. In fact, I just don’t want this kind of relationship. I’d rather work with suppliers that I can trust and that I can visit and that I know who I’m supporting. It was kind of like going all the way back to the beginning of my thing where I, in an attempt to create a thing that could scale, lost touch with the thing that was more important to me and then I realized you can scale doing it other ways too.
Frederick: [00:33:16] So, instead, more organic growth. We started to develop an in-house ceramic studio. And now this is something like eight people on a daily basis, doing industrial design work, making plaster mother molds, silicone molds, milling and C&C and casting porcelain, cleaning, gold decals, hand finishing. That’s what I wanted. That’s where we are now. It just took me some time to realize exactly what I wanted and how to do it.
Richie: [00:33:44] All of this time, as it’s growing, it sounds like you are using department stores and other retailers as the main point of distribution. Is there a point—when does the Internet come along? Because all those place, I guess Net-a-Porter is different but generally those are mostly offline points of distribution. Can you smell these things in the store or there are wraps so you can’t? Do they have samples or testers?
Frederick: [00:34:05] You can smell. There [are] testers so you can spell perfumes and candles in the store and that’s why it’s always been so important.
Richie: [00:34:11] Right.
Frederick: [00:34:11] And that’s why it’s important that we have our own space too. And it’s doubly important because when people come to our space, if we’re launching something that’s a little bit limited—and we know our space is a destination, but we also know that when people come we’re delivering an experience that’s quite cool—because, even if they know that we’re making the things by hand, when they come into the space and they’re there and they can see it firsthand, it completely changes their impression of what we do. No matter how you market and express the story to them, there’s nothing like actually being in that environment. In addition to that seal of approval, proof of concept, it’s always very, very important. I’m so grateful for it too. People who have real stores are taking on a lot of risk and they have so much expertise so I still really value those things.
Frederick: [00:34:55] I like stuff. I’m not ashamed of it and I like to be exposed to new things and really inspired by other scent companies and beauty brands and stuff and I really geek out over packaging.
Richie: [00:35:06] Right.
Frederick: [00:35:07] It’s funny because at the very beginning of my career, there were even rules from department stores—this is the very, very beginning—that they didn’t want you to distribute your own product on your own website, which now seems you know like crazy or illegal. But at the time, it kind of made sense. It still makes sense. They’re taking on so much risk. They’re helping you to expose your product and be this tangible, physical point of sale where people can go and experience it. Why are you going to be able to sell it directly to them?
Frederick: [00:35:41] But in any case, I try to be offline as much as possible, but I’m not a Luddite or an idiot and I value the benefits, especially the one of being able to connect with our customer and understand them and create things that they’re going to want. So I’ve always been curious about experimenting with technology and digital distribution and so this is something that we’ve done all the time. One more time, we’re the first perfume ever on Net-a-Porter, which is, in a way, funny because now they have everything. They have Tom Ford and Kiehl’s and all these really well-known, amazing, awesome brands. And so it’s funny that we had the first thing, but we still continue to be a really strong seller there and we have a connection with them.
Frederick: [00:36:27] We had the first, I think it was a candle, maybe scented product on Gilt Groupe, which was really different at the time. I think [we had the] first perfume on Birchbox, [we were] very early in Ipsy. The way we work, our ecommerce is so niche in its way that the data is important, but it’s not that rich. And so in working with these other companies [that] are only digital, we’re able to test and navigate those waters a little differently and see how we want to position ourselves there. Because, god knows, despite all the various attempts, selling anything scented online is a major challenge despite what anyone will tell you and we want to understand it as well as possible.
Richie: [00:37:21] Is the biggest challenge the obvious one of just people don’t know what it smells like?
Frederick: [00:37:24] That is the biggest challenge, yeah.
Richie: [00:37:26] Yeah.
Richie: [00:37:26] We also, in fact, did a perfume a couple of years ago called FoxGlove. We launched it exclusively on Net-a-Porter and on our website before we even had our store and we got a lot of emails and calls asking, “This sounds so cool. How do I smell it before?” And we said, “You can’t.” You just had to give it a go. A lot of this is testing to see how far can we push this thing. We’re doing this other initiative since October of this year. It’s been something like ten weeks going where we launch a new product every week and they’re all completely new. A lot of them are with other brands. To see how far we can push our own capabilities and our point of difference in this weird industry and to see if we can’t drum up excitement and desire in a way that other companies can’t because of how they’re formed. We have an unusual proposition in that we’re actually designing and making this stuff.
Richie: [00:38:23] So I think it’s a good transition into the A24 collab. So I’m curious to talk a bit about how that came about. And then also, to what you were talking about before, as you’ll describe, the way the candles are named, I think is an intuitive allusion to the smell. But then beneath that, you have all of the actual complexity of the smell and so it seems like an interesting kind of device, almost, to try to bridge that gap of giving someone a hint of what it could be without maybe spoiling it or confusing them about what it could be.
Frederick: [00:38:53] This one is such a good example too because this needed the clarity of vision that we have now because this project is really totally co-branded. It’s co-distributed. It’s only through their side and ours and our shop. We’re not competing with each other. We’re supporting each other. The messaging is consistent. But at the same time, we really recognize our disparate contributions to the project. They gave us tons of freedom, but the idea was pretty clear from the get go. It was to do, not a signature scent, but a collection of scents, inspired by movie genres, and to do it through their lens, using our skills, but not for them to be about A24 movies, but to be about something more overarching.
Frederick: [00:39:41] The way that works is they come to our studio. We have a lab there. They go through some of the raw materials so that they’re seeing things that are, again, not blended accords or anything. But our client or partner will brief us on a thing so we have a starting point. And then we’ll prepare raw materials that we think can be the foundation for these different scents. They come and review and then we go our separate ways for a little bit. The great part about this project is the brief was so strong. It’s funny. It’s just an easier thing to develop because for Noir, there’s classic movie references like typewriters and cigarette butts and for other ones, monocles. Anyway, so this was a really great way to position the development, but then to let us go off. Then we we worked through various iterations of the fragrance, communicating pretty consistently, but then also my team is disappearing to do our work in quiet. Then there’s just tweaking and refining so that things like Adventure—there’s a couple ways you can go. It’s either green vines and Tarzan swinging or it’s sand and cover your heart. That’s fun because we get to be free. We get to challenge things. We get to make scents that aren’t conventionally pretty, but are totally on the money.
Frederick: [00:41:06] And then really quickly some of those scents sold out. We’ll reproduce them. But it’s so awesome to be able to, not saying we’ve cracked the code or anything, but we’re inching toward it. There are ways to get people to take a chance on a thing if the value that you are providing seems worthy of the investment.
Richie: [00:41:25] It’s so interesting because I feel almost a similar thing, for some reason, when I go get sushi and I’m looking at the list of the rolls. Because it’s usually a list of ingredients and I’m trying to make sense in my head of what do these things actually taste like together? I feel like I’ve gotten better at it, but for a long time it was a huge barrier and you end up just going towards the safe choice. It seems that the messaging, especially online, plays such a similar role where it tends to, I feel like, go towards such technical messaging of almost an ingredient list but it was, as you said, cigarette butts. Everyone knows what that smells like. Or concrete or all those other ingredients. And so the precision or the nuance of that messaging sounds like either such an interesting tool or such an interesting barrier almost.
Frederick: [00:42:03] Exactly. It’s a double-edged sword.
Richie: [00:42:06] Exactly.
Frederick: [00:42:06] And also all the fragrance ingredients, not all, but 99.9% of them that you read online, the fragrance ingredients, are just complete fantasy. They are real life representations of what these synthetics and aroma chemicals are supposed to synthesize. I’m not at all against aroma chemicals. Even the ingredients we extract from nature are chemicals of sorts and there’s this huge misunderstanding about synthetic versus natural and niche versus corporate. I don’t care that much about these. I have my own feelings about them. The importance for me is having our own value proposition and also, with respect to what’s inside these things, for us to just really clearly illustrate what we use, what we support, what we believe in and then let our customers make their own decisions because convincing them is not the right way and educating them is almost a form of convincing them now anyway. Also there’s a lot of people who know a lot more about fragrance than I do and a lot more about the ingredients. I’m not a chemist. I’m not a perfumer. I kind of have picked this all up along the way. It’s just that our company now, through this weird path that we’ve taken, has this wealth of knowledge that ends up being really valuable.
Richie: [00:43:28] So I’m curious to talk about the space a bit. Obviously, a physical space, from a manufacturing and design perspective, was the beginning of this. It was there from early on. When did you start to realize, “Oh, we should have this be consumer-facing. We actually should go open up a physical space?” And what were the qualities or experience you wanted to deliver in that?
Frederick: [00:43:46] We moved relatively quickly out of East New York to a different space in kind of Bed-Stuy and then another better space sort of in the Bed-Stuy area, an industrial facility and then kept growing and then found this space. One time when I was actually driving to the airport, I saw an available sign and I called when I came back and then sort of impulsively just had a vision for what it would be and moved us. This is a late 19th-century, former rigging garage. So it’s a garage that used to house trucks. It’s very long. It’s such a great, perfect New York space. I just remember from our other experiences, I want us to be in control of our own destiny. That’s why, in terms of packaging middle people, in terms of fragrance houses and other people we engage with, I want us to be able to totally call the shots. That’s why we develop our own fragrance. That’s why we own all our own IP. This is just its own building. It’s its own weird self-contained ecosystem. Many people have called it a sort of Willy Wonka-like operation and it kind of is. We immediately outgrew it so it’s hardly perfect, but it’s a great home.
Frederick: [00:45:02] What we have there is most everything. Office, lab, production of candle, small-batch production of soap and small, very limited batch perfume. Generally, we’re using the space for experimentation and developing fragrance and formulas and then we will have one of a number of different labs actually produce those in bulk for us. And then we have the ceramic studio, industrial design. We even have all of our corrugated and box pack out stuff, peanuts and everything. Then in the front, we have this storefront. Number one, it was just so we could have maximum control. But number two, it was just, again, part of my understanding of what people wanted from us. They didn’t want for there to be a curtain. What we did is pretty radical. It’s to completely remove any suggestion of a curtain by having even the guts of the operation be accessible to visitors and to the naked eye.
Richie: [00:46:03] An open kitchen, effectively.
Frederick: [00:46:04] An open kitchen where you even see the drums of peanut oil and stuff.
Richie: [00:46:10] The butchering and so forth.
Frederick: [00:46:11] Exactly. And so through a different mutual friend, I met an architect called Alex Miller. He’s a lighting genius and also a great architect with his partner, Jeff Taylor. They have a company called Taylor & Miller. He has a fascination with garages and this space, of course, was a garage. So we started talking about the possibility of working together and then it just happened. We first did all of the practical, safety, regulatory stuff and then brought in Alex and Jeff for the forward-facing retail portion. We’re addressing a couple things there. This open kitchen conversation. Where does the making end and then the retail begin? The line is completely blurred. It doesn’t [end]. It’s always there.
Frederick: [00:47:03] And then also this idea of the retail apocalypse where you have to really offer something super special or you have no business having a store. What Jeff and Alex designed [are] these structures that are hot-rolled steel with oak veneer on the other side. The hot-rolled steel side has exposed conduit. It has all the markings on it. They’re all suspended from the super tall ceiling that we have in our studio and they’re all on tracks and so they’re modular. They move around so that we’re still able to do our industrial work, but the space is able to transform, either just to be so we’re open for business or so we can do intimate or larger scale events. It’s evocative and beautiful because it’s who we are. One side is refined and perfect and the other is rough and industrial. There are these niches that are illuminated by these LED strips and so it’s really echoing the cast mold relationship that we have in basically everything we do whether it’s perfume, candle or porcelain.
Richie: [00:48:06] What’s it been like having that leg of distribution under your own roof when, generally, distribution was not in your building? It was away. It was in all these other points around the country or the world. It was online in some cases which, again, isn’t in the ether. What did it inform having it literally next to you or in the same building?
Frederick: [00:48:22] Oh, it’s the ultimate mission, still is, for us to have this connection with our customer, to understand them better and not just so we can sell them more stuff. Really so that we can make things that will make a lasting impression and hopefully stand the test of time. It’s just awesome data. It’s awesome to be able to experience them in real life. We have almost all our product and then we have some rare, third-party things and books that are part of our world or lifestyle and some that are custom made for us. Also [we] just have things are hard to find. We’re a proper destination. We’re in Clinton Hill, a block from the Navy Yard. It’s either a trek by train or they’re coming in a car. We are a proper destination and people who come generally really want to be there. There’s plenty of walk-in traffic, but the destination traffic is really exciting and sometimes people come from different continents to see what we’re doing. It’s cool. It feels good and it’s a great different way to express and to learn.
Richie: [00:49:25] How do you think about price as you’ve gone through this journey in terms of [whom] you want your products to be accessible to, but also knowing that there are scale limitations whether they’re objective or also self-imposed on some certain projects?
Frederick: [00:49:39] I feel conflicted about price actually because, in my heart, I want us to be able to reach as many people as possible. Those who want in. But at the same time, what we do is so expensive to produce that we’re generally skewing towards quite high-end or hyper-high-end. I’m not at all insecure about high price points because I just know that it’s going to be for a specific audience, generally speaking. But the idea that the business is separated into two extreme arms is kind of my way of reconciling that. At this point, we do scent identity whether it’s commercial product, scent distributed through the HVAC systems or free-standing machinery—we do that in almost 2,000 locations globally now—or in perfumes with other companies. That’s our way of a different sort of expression where tens of millions of people are experiencing a thing that this company has created. My main dilemma when it comes to price point is that we want to honor and value our own work and we want to grow the business, but we want to not only be accessible to rich people.
Richie: [00:51:00] What’s been the cheapest the most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?
Frederick: [00:51:04] The most expensive lesson I learned—it’s going back to one of the earlier things we talked about, which is letting buyers design product. That’s where you can see your model and your cost of goods and your things spiral out of control because your vision started to get tampered with even if it’s not malicious. Those have been some spicy mistakes.
Frederick: [00:51:25] The cheapest realization or lesson learned was free and I think it’s mostly in the past two and a half years. I have a son. I spend a lot of time with him. If I’m going to be working, it has to be for something good because otherwise I’d rather be spending my time with him. He wasn’t really interested in this. I urged him toward this a few times, but it just caught on. We were reading “Where the Wild Things Are,” and we just read it for the first time and so we read through it again the other night. And the end of it, where Max is the king. He has no rules. He’s just partying and playing and swinging from trees all night. All the monsters listen to him. He’s got the crown. He’s got, theoretically, everything he wants. He’s brought back to his home by smelling the dinner that his mom has left out for him because, even though he’s been awful, she’s his mom and she’s still taking care of him. The idea just keeps coming back to me. The idea of the power and significance of scent and those feelings and memories that it conjures. I kept this away from myself for a very long time and that’s why I always described it and even considered it, but now I think it’s something more and I’m more open to it. I think the things that we’re doing and the things that we’re going to do in 2019 are because of that kind of acceptance and that willingness to take it more personally, to take more risk and to stick my neck out a little more.
Richie: [00:53:06] Do you think that as we move into just an increasingly digitized world where people are alone more or together more or both, their heads are in their phones more, they might be going out more or less, do you think scent is becoming increasingly important? Do you think it’s always been important? How do you, at a macro level, think about it?
Frederick: [00:53:26] In a macro level, I think it’s always been important. Do I think it’s becoming increasingly important? Yes, definitely. And then in the micro level, we have all the good designers come to us. We’re sort of the ultimate trend forecast because they’re all expressing to us what they see as the future of scent or how they want to harness their own storytelling and turn it into a scent. For years, the stories are related and they’re very much about ritual and comfort. Firewood and Palo Santo and amber and these kind of things that have a history and are sticky, sappy, real. To me, it was just always so obvious that people were gravitating toward these things because otherwise they’re being kept from nature and kept from that sort of warmth and comfort. They’re being kept from it by themselves.
Richie: [00:54:21] There’s also something interesting from a memory perspective. If Facebook introduced a world of digital permanence and then Snapchat came as a response and Instagram Stories as a response of a response to fleeting moments, scent as a tool of memory almost when maybe there are not as many digital artifacts. You could posit that the digital world attempted to somehow replace or augment a memory but then, now, we’re trying to kind of flush some of that down the toilet because we actually don’t want that much memory. Does scent come back as some sort of interesting trigger?
Frederick: [00:54:53] Very true. As someone, again, who’s not exactly a Luddite, but kind of old school and someone who’s never had a Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram account, I’m aware of them. I see them and I find Stories so much more interesting and exciting. But it’s also going back to this idea of putting something on the line. If you want to really make a statement or say something, but you know it’s going to vanish in 24 hours, it’s not a real commitment. It is exciting, but it’s still not a real commitment. Our thing [is that] we are going to experiment quite a lot digitally. We’re going to continue to and then next year, we have some major initiatives with respect to this. But at the same time, you can’t let go of, yeah, scent has an impact. It’s emotional and physical. And so we can’t let go of the impact that we’re making in an offline and real way too.
Richie: [00:55:48] How long do you think this could go on for and how long do you want to personally do this for?
Frederick: [00:55:54] I need at least another, say, two to three years to say what I want to say. And now I know really clearly what I want to do in that period of time. Otherwise, I don’t know. I really like this world and I think it’s just so many different other things it touches and I’m good at it. So it feels good to be good at something but there’s other media I would like to explore too and always intended to and always will. So we’ll see.
Richie: [00:56:22] Where’s the name from?
Frederick: [00:56:24] The name is from the first wax base which is, again, this tropical palm oil wax and it has this—just the way it’s naturally heated to a specific temperature, it has this shimmery crystalline finish to it. I wanted to use something short and abstract and to not use my own. Joya means “jewel.”
Richie: [00:56:45] Interesting. What are you excited about going into next year?
Frederick: [00:56:49] Our own brand is going to completely evolve in the new year.
Richie: [00:56:53] Because I was curious about—is it the same one you started with or is it different?
Frederick: [00:56:56] No, it’s already evolved, but it’s going to go basically into, I’d say, a 4.0 next year. We’re changing the user experience entirely. I mean that mostly offline, but just some of these things that I’ve taken for granted. But everything from just the way you open a thing is going to be completely new and something I’m very excited about.
Richie: [00:57:17] Did you feel like you ever lost touch? Do you prioritize the thing you started with being your own brand as these other projects, as manufacturing and collaboration so forth?
Frederick: [00:57:29] No. I always wanted to take it really slow. I personally admire people who drop new line extensions all the time and have these perfume flankers and new things all the time. I think it’s quite cool, but I never wanted that for us. There is a conflict there because you can personally think we have four fragrances. They’re not trendy. They’re meant to last. So we’re going to just use these for now. But the market doesn’t agree with that. They want newness and it’s understood. And so I’ve just wanted to take some time and, unfortunately for me, sometimes taking time can mean taking a long time.
Richie: [00:58:12] But it sounds like everything you’ve built is on that foundation and it still exists and sounds like it’s improving every year.
Frederick: [00:58:18] Yeah. I want things to be the way I want.
Richie: [00:58:21] Yeah. Maximizing control.
Frederick: [00:58:22] As much as one can.
Richie: [00:58:24] Yep.
Frederick: [00:58:25] Knowing that, in fact, control is an illusion. Things happen and then your inspirations and plans change, as they should, and then new opportunities come along. I think if you have a fixed idea and a plan then you should be open to those other inputs and ideas.
Richie: [00:58:40] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.
Frederick: [00:58:42] Thank you.
Richie: [00:58:47] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes—we always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode, among 80 others that have brought us up to the hundredth today. We’re going to take a break for a little while and we’ll be back with a whole new slate of episodes and shows in 2019. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.
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