Photos: Michael Donath
1. The Blind Tasting | Attache-Moi 55 by Iconofly
We confronted Davina Semo with a mystery perfume in a neutral, opaque vaporizer. Only afterwards did we reveal the name of the scent. Follow Davina on her journey into scent …
Like sun falling through trees or into a smoky room …
This scent makes me think of being at home. There was a room in the house in Maryland where I grew up. It was located in between the house and the backyard and we would dry off there when we came in from the pool, or when our feet were wet from rain. It had a particular smell — damp and muggy. Maryland has distinct seasons, it ranges from hot and humid in the summer, to snowy and cold in wintertime.
Also, later I used that room as my first studio, when I still lived with my parents. It was really small, more like a closet. It had no windows but there was a door to the outside and when I left it open, the smell from the backyard would float in.
The garden wasn’t really big but it was nice and I knew every part of it. All the trees — some pines, but deciduous trees too — had been there forever. And this perfume here reminds me more of the latter. There were also flowers and bushes …
I remember spending a lot of time at home. The area where we lived is very suburban, very different from New York. You can’t walk to the store; you don’t see anybody in the street. So as a kid you just stay home. My parents both worked a lot and weren’t at the house most of the time. My mother did wear perfume, though. I can still see her getting dressed and going off to work. So her smell would leave with her when she left the house but then linger a while.
To me, this perfume is more linked to a place than to a person. There’s something very intimate about it, like a space someone else has been occupying. I could imagine that if a stranger fell asleep I would be able to smell him like this while he was sleeping. It smells warm.
I see a hazy light, like the sun falling through trees or into a smoky room. This scent doesn’t smell really smoky or heavy by itself but there is substance to it. It has a weight like a yellowish color within a shadow. Or like when you see smoke caught in the light and can see the volume of it.
2. The Interview
What is Davina Semo’s earliest scent memory? What is the significance of fragrance in her life? Which are her personal Top 3 perfumes? Find the answers below!
I become more aware of myself when I have someone else’s smell around.
Helder Suffenplan: What is your earliest scent-related memory?
Davina Semo: The smell of my pillow. I remember very clearly that when I smelled my younger brother’s pillow for the first time, I realized it smelled different than mine.
HS: Until a certain age children are not aware that they are separate from the world around them. They just learn that by and by. And it usually is a shock to them.
DS: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard it put like that — but yes, that is exactly what I was talking about. I understood in an intuitive way that I was separate from my brother. I have a pretty strong memory of discovering that I have a smell of my own.
I also remember a friend from grade school who was an athlete and she smelled like pepper when she was exercising. It wasn’t bad; it was just very specific. I bet she still smells like that.
HS: What is the first perfume you wore?
DS: I think the first perfume I wore was White Musk from The Body Shop. I only discovered it because there was this girl and I thought she smelled so good. I didn’t even know her but I was literally drawn to her. She was a bit older and seemed very cool to me at the time. She told me what it was and I went immediately to buy some. I felt like I now had a secret potion and people would be drawn to me too, and would hug me [laughs].
I like it when a perfume tricks you a little, I mean, when it creates that illusion you have sometimes when you come close to a person and think the scent he or she is giving off is his or her own, and definitely not out of a bottle.
HS: Have you always worn perfume since then?
DS: I stopped wearing perfume when I went to high school and I never went back to wearing anything regularly until I met Barbara Herman [perfume expert and author of theme related books and the blog Yesterday’s Perfume] one and a half years ago in New Orleans. A mutual friend introduced us and Barbara had all these perfumes in her bag and they didn’t smell like anything I knew. Some even smelled brute, animalistic, and I thought: Wow! Who is this girl?
HS: What happened then?
DS: Meeting Barbara and smelling those things really opened my mind. I realized that people are now making really interesting scents and that it is a real art in and of itself. When I came back to New York I went to the CB I Hate Perfume store she had told me about and bought a couple of perfumes by Christopher Brosius there: Wild Hunt for example, which smells like you’re in the middle of the forest; you feel like you’re camping; and then another called Burnt Wood. I love that one so much! Some of the sales people at the store are a little difficult, though, but I never argue with them because I’m so afraid I might get banned from the store [laughs].
HS: What other scents do you like?
DS: A friend gave me a scented candle called Santal 26 from Le Labo as a present. When my boyfriend at the time came over and saw the candle, he smiled and said: “Are you kidding? This is the cologne I wear!” I knew then why I’d been burning this candle on a 24h basis — it reminded me of him. It was a strange “coincidence”!
HS: Do you find New York has a particular smell?
DS: It smells different in every season and there are many diverse smells in various parts of the city. Right next door to my studio in Bushwick is a commercial bakery called Voilá. They make these croissants in plastic bags they sell at bodegas and they bake all the time. It smells like really intense butter. It’s an artificial flavor of course and it’s so aggressive! And then one block to the other side there is a trash facility and during summer, depending on the wind, the smell of garbage mixes with the butter smell …
HS: Sounds like the worst smell, really! What’s the nicest smell you could imagine?
DS: I like being in the smell of another person. It’s a strange thing but I become more aware of myself when I have someone else’s smell around.
HS: Like the epiphany with your brother’s pillow?
HS: If you were able to have a master perfumer create your signature scent, what would be your brief?
DS: I would rather want to learn from him how to do it, to watch how he works. It’s blowing my mind how many people are doing the most amazing perfumes at the moment. I have this one called Molecule 01 and it is amazing how people are magnetically attracted to me when I wear it around town. It would be amazing to learn how to create different scents that work in similar ways. And now, we are back to talking about magic potions …
HS: Thank you!