If a picture is worth a thousand words, Jacqueline Steele's narrative scents are comparable to the most vivid vignettes. She is a purveyor of stories, moments in place and time that are preserved through her fragrance house, Goest. For instance, Dauphine is a scent inspired by Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette not in that it’s reminiscent of the ill-fated queen herself but because of the layered notes that encapsulate a scene from Coppola's film: rose-water pastries with cream, powder and soap on skin, an abundance of fully bloomed roses.
Catbird caught up with Jacqueline recently to hear more on running a one-woman fragrance house, how she found her start, and the most memorable custom fragrance she’s created.
What inspires your narratives? Does it start with a mental story board or a singular note?
There's two ways I'll come to the concept for a new fragrance. One is a top-down approach, where the concept comes to mind and I create something to fulfill it. This is my usual approach. That's how Silent Films came about. It's meant to capture the smell of a silent film star and their dressing room - not just the perfume they wore, but all of the things surrounding them that contributed to their smell. An additional challenge which was for fun, almost, was to have the smell itself smell like it was in black and white while still retaining an emotional depth and sense of privacy, as opposed to a more luscious technicolor representation of "vintage Hollywood!".
I studied perfume from a more academic perspective through an independent research grant when I was still in college. Through that, I had the opportunity to meet perfumers, visit schools, smell archives, learn the basics of formulation, and read many, many texts and archives from the last few hundred years that don't seem to exist in any other place than a few private academic libraries. There's no replacement for hundreds of hours spent alone learning the materials, however, which I did out of enthusiasm after my more academic pursuits ended. I think this roundabout path to fragrance formulation has actually benefitted me a lot. I learned to think about fragrance from a very private perspective - I'm not influenced by popular commercial perfume structure, which is why the Goest Perfumes fragrances don't smell "perfume-y".
The "team" is essentially just me. I'm taking on some assistance soon though because even though I like the manual, repetitive quality of some of the work (feels kind of yogic and calming), I'd also like to have more time to devote to new scents and special projects. Everything is made by hand, so there's a lot of labor involved in every scent. Hopefully that's reflected in the quality to everyone who experiences it. Everything Goest Perfumes has been made in one pretty small studio - the Goest Perfumes Laboratory - which is just north of Koreatown in Hollywood. Absolutely nothing in the fragrance production or conceptualization is hired out to one of the big chemical companies, which is really rare when it comes to commercial fragrance - hundreds of fragrance "brands" exist but out of all commercially available scents, only a few are not actually formulated and made by a few big companies. Most people don't know that.
A recent project with 69 clothing was really fun. Amber Halford, the designer, came to me saying she liked the smell of chlorinated pools and burgers and fries. I was so down with that approach to conceptualization - I find a lot of ambient scents in the modern world to be great inspiration, although they aren't traditionally thought of as fodder for fragrance inspiration because they're not romantic. But why not? I think even gas stations have their own type of romance. I mean, somebody decided that was where Cindy Crawford was going to crack open an ice-cold, condensation-covered Pepsi.
I like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I visited a mostly empty (just two employees were there, working) distillery there around midnight and the smell of all the corn and grains and the heat was something fantastical - sort of like being locked in some kind of golden lamp surrounded by the weird dark harbor night.