Franfan20's Perfume Blog
The Canadian Zoo - An Interview with Victor Wong
Animals in their natural habitat - to transform their habits, their smells, their being into fragrances; with this concept Victor Wong launched his brand Zoologist, which is now very popular with fragrance fans worldwide. Various independent perfumers create a fragrance for him that is inspired by a certain animal or can be attributed to one. For me as a biologist and animal lover a wonderful theme, which I pursue with pleasure from the beginning.
What is your favorite animal (besides your cat)?
This is actually a very tough question. I have many favorite animals. I love small, cute, fluffy animals particularly and I have soft spot for rabbits.
I tend to persuade my perfumers to create cute animal perfumes for me, but most of the time we ended up choosing animals that aren’t cute-looking. Recently a perfumer just told me directly: “I am not a ‘cute’ person.” I guess I will save Quokka for a different perfumer.
What are your thoughts on Zoologist’s journey so far?
It’s really like having many dreams come true, except I didn’t have those dreams in the first place! I had never dreamt of winning the Art and Olfaction Award and I won. When I started, my goal was to sell my perfumes through the web shop only. I didn’t think stores would carry them, but now they are available at some local and international boutiques.
I also didn’t dream of quitting my day job to take care of Zoologist, which was the second bravest thing I had done since I launched my own perfume house four years ago. This doesn’t mean I am making big money, it’s just that I could no longer handle both jobs. There had been weekday nights that I tried to fulfill two retailer orders at the same time and I worked till very late – I do everything myself – diluting, filtering, bottling, shrink-wrapping, shipping, social media, etc. – and I woke up at five having nightmares of customers complaining about leaky samples and lost packages. And an hour later I had to get up and go to work.
Another big milestone for me is that Luckyscent has started carrying my line. I think this has helped Zoologist to get the snowball rolling, because they are the most successful online perfume shop in the US and they have a huge international mailing list.
I really didn’t know how well-known my brand was until I attended the Esxence in Italy recently. I wasn’t exhibiting with a booth, I was just wandering around and some people actually recognized me and told me they were eager to smell my perfumes. Sometimes on the show floor I received phone calls from unknown distributors who happened to be there too, telling me they wanted to meet me and get to know more about my perfumes. I had also met perfumers who showed great interest in designing a perfume for Zoologist. While I was very grateful this was a big contrast to when I first started and knew no one in the industry. I had crossed my fingers so many times in hopes that deals would go through.
Are there animal concepts that probably won’t see the light of day because they just didn’t work out or the collaboration with the perfumer wasn’t satisfying?
Yes, I have cancelled a few projects because they weren’t going anywhere. Originally Civet wasn’t designed by Shelley Waddington. Civet was a very challenging perfume to design, although it seemed obvious that it would have civet in it. The difficult question was how much civet to put in. If it was just a touch, what would you fill the rest of the perfume with? The original perfumer had spent a year focusing on making the perfume a “civet bomb”, but I knew no one would want to wear it. It’s like the YouTube “Cinnamon Challenge” – who really wants to eat a ladle of ground cinnamon for some bragging rights and laughs?
There’s also a perfume project that I had to cancel because the perfumes that this perfumer makes all smell very light and fleeting and Zoologist perfumes are famous (or notorious!) for their potency. Scent-wise, that perfume was spot on – it matched the brief 100%, but it smelled like a 5% EDT to me. In reality, it was at 22% parfum concentration. I felt really sorry about that and I hope the perfumer will forgive me.
And there’s a perfumer who insisted on making a perfume named “Toad”. Even as an open-minded person, I felt no one would want to wear a perfume with such a name. Eventually I found a more interesting and challenging project for him and he’s willing to design that. Whew!
What exactly inspired the reformulations of Panda and Beaver? And why only these two?
It is a complicated subject.
I asked Chris Bartlett to redesign Beaver (2014) with the excuse that it had poor sales. But to be honest, like most people, I found it too challenging and I wanted it changed. Note that technically, the original Beaver was perfectly fine; it was very well-crafted, in my opinion. I have never received any complaint about it smelling harsh or unbalanced. It was just not what most people wanted, including me. But after its redesign, it is much friendlier, and I feel sexy wearing it. To tell you the truth, sales still haven’t improved, probably because of its name and scent genre, but that doesn’t bother me. What’s important is that I love my own perfumes. I can confidently tell people that it just may not be their cup of tea.
Panda (2014), on the other hand, is a different story. It had received quite a bit of negative feedback and it took me a while to get past the negativity with a clear objective mind and face up to what was wrong with it. I agreed with most people that there was something about it – too sharp, too aquatic, too green. Some even said it smelled metallic. When I first released Panda, I was inexperienced and impatient, I couldn’t see what was wrong with it. I thought that was the style of the perfume – and overall, a nice perfume. At one point, I diluted the perfume from 20% to 15% in the hope that it would smell less sharp and swampy, but it didn’t help much. Eventually I asked the original perfumer to improve upon it, by first separating the original Panda into different accords and look for the smell that most people didn’t like. Once he took those out, the formula just collapsed into a characterless perfume. I cancelled the reformulation project and looked for a different perfumer who would redesign Panda from ground up.
In 2016, at the Art and Olfaction Award show I met the perfumer Christian Carbonnel. He was also a finalist and we sat next to each other competing for the same award. He said he would love to design a new perfume for me. He worked very fast – he creates perfume by writing down the ingredients ratio and gives the sheet to his assistants to prepare – and the new perfume was done in a few months. I asked him if he would like to take a chance on Panda and he did. I told him if he could make a scent that matches the handsome panda-in-a-tuxedo illustration on the perfume’s label. The end result is something that smells nothing like the original Panda, but interestingly it shares most of the notes you find in the original Panda.
Is the idea of more merchandise products attractive for the brand?
The illustrations on the perfume labels are very attractive and important to my brand. I think the most-requested merchandise is posters/art prints. I have thought about it, but printing them in high resolution leads to a problem: piracy. Did you know that Zoologist perfumes have clones? They are sold in the Middle East. I think you could find them at the Iran airport! I have never smelled those perfumes, but Zoologist fans from the Middle East have sent me photos and they definitely stole our look and packaging. I think they have Deer, Bear, Panda, etc. and they stole images not just from Zoologist, but also from some Etsy stores. Shameless, really.
For the launch of Civet, I tried something new. I had 30 silk scarves made with the civet illustration on them to test the waters. They were expensive to make, and I did it for the fans; I didn’t make a single dime out of them. Merchandise is tricky. Fans say they want them, but if it is not the right kind of product, they won’t buy it and you are left with a bunch of inventory stacked in a corner. That said, recently I have been thinking of making little coasters for fans to collect when they buy a full-size bottle.
Do you know of any prominent people, maybe even people you’re a fan of yourself, who got to know Zoologist and became a fan of the brand?
Well, I don’t know if he’s a fan of the scents of Zoologist, but I am happy that he knows about Zoologist, and he has said some encouraging words to me in person at both Esxence 2016 and Art & Olfaction Award 2017. I’m talking about the perfume critic Luca Turin. He first learned about Zoologist when he was a judge for 2016’s Art and Olfaction Award. He wrote a very good review of Bat. At Esxence 2016 he said to me that in music (I assume classical music) it is rare to hear funny or humorous pieces, and Zoologist is kind of like that in the world of perfumery. At A&O 2017, he told me that it was not easy for an artist to be a good creative director, and I have been doing a good job. He also said that Nightingale was a very interesting piece of work. Well, let me use this opportunity to say that without Luca Turin’s book “Perfumes, the A-Z guide”, there would be no Zoologist. His book was one of the catalysts for the creation of my project. I actually felt a bit out of myself when I told him he was my idol in person. I think he felt a bit awkward, too when he heard that.
How do you think would one of the animals respond to Zoologist’s interpretation of it?
The natural odour of musks and stinks are very complex and I think a real beaver or civet would not find the synthetic castoreum and musks used in my perfumes particularly arousing to them.
I am currently working on two new scents with Tomoo Inaba (the perfumer of Nightingale) and one of the scents is a “gourmand” scent. Humans might not find the scent particularly delicious, but I’d imagine it would mean something to the little animal that the scent is based on. I found it amusing that Tomoo has successfully created an accord that smells very close to the food that animal loves.
What is your current plan for the brand’s further development? Do you have a plan for a consistent release cycle for example? Or do you say after a total number of X fragrances you feel your line is complete for now and after that you would like to see if it can maintain its current success in the coming years?
People might agree that it’s best for a perfume house to release one or two perfumes a year – it creates awareness that the brand is still “alive” and customers should have enough time to catch up with the brand and digest the new releases. As a perfume snob, there are so many perfumes to buy and if a perfume house releases new scents too frequently I feel overwhelmed and financially stressed and give up collecting their perfumes (for example, Penhaligon’s). It is also good for small retailers, because you are not tying up their money by asking them to constantly stock your new releases.
I now worry about having too many open projects and the risk of releasing too many new perfumes in a year. You might notice that I collaborate mostly with indie perfumers and most indie perfumers have a day job. Compounded by the insecurity that you never know how many revisions you need to call a perfume “done”, I have reached out to too many perfumers in preparation for having no perfumes to release for a year. The stressful moment comes when a perfume suddenly is “done” in just a few rounds of revision and you still haven’t released the perfume that is waiting in line. I don’t want to let the perfumer down by telling him I will release his perfumes in two years, but it seems like I have no choice.
That said, my goal is to have a total of 20 perfumes in my collection. When I do, I will do a full review. Maybe I will discontinue some of them. In terms of “animal bio-diversity”, I would feel incomplete if Zoologist doesn’t have any reptiles, sea creatures and insects. In terms of perfume genres, I still haven’t got a fougère and an aquatic scent in my library and there are still a few important musk/perfumery ingredients for which I haven’t found an animal to represent them.