Formally trained as a winemaker, Frances Shoemack says she fell into perfumery by chance, but decided each industry had enough similarities for her to make the switch.
Raised in Canterbury, Shoemack says she initially fell in love with the burgeoning world of niche perfume after moving with her husband and two children to Amsterdam in 2011. Disappointed she couldn’t find a natural, ethical perfume within that exciting new category, she decided to create her own, a line called Abel which has since found success and numerous new releases around the world.
“I thought it wouldn’t be a huge jump from my previous experience in the wine industry, to this new world of perfume,” she says. “To an extent it was true – there are certainly similarities between the two worlds, and much I could draw from my training in winemaking like talking about scent and understanding our olfactory sense, but there were also large differences.”
She points out the way wine is made hasn’t changed much in centuries, whereas much of modern perfume making is almost unrecognisable from centuries past.
“Where it was [originally] taking natural ingredients and distilling them into scent oils, it’s now almost exclusively synthesizing scent molecules from petrochemicals.”
She committed to avoiding the latter by pursuing a completely natural approach. In this way she says Abel has its roots in heritage perfume making, but also with modern elements thanks to her commitment to keeping abreast of the latest developments in natural science. This includes scent molecules derived from natural sources and even waste products.
Abel founder Frances Shoemack.
“Being new to the industry has its upsides in that I wasn’t afraid to question the way things are done. In order to offset my lack of experience, I surrounded myself with experts like our master perfumer [and fellow expat Kiwi, São Paulo-based Isaac Sinclair] and the world’s top laboratories.”
Abel’s range now encompasses a number of fragrances including the sweet and salty Cyan Nori, zesty and cool White Vetiver and bright citrus floral Golden Neroli, with a number of new projects in the works.
Hard pressed to name her favourite smell in the world, Shoemack does concede she loves anything that evokes an emotional trigger.
”We’re using hay absolute in a scent we’re working on at the moment,” she reveals. “It’s the most incredible memory lane trip for me, of long summer days of childhood on the farm. Cardamom, another favorite scent, takes me to my favorite Swedish cafe in Amsterdam where the Cardamom buns were all fragrant, buttery, delicious … to die for!”
From Abel’s collection she treasures the perfume Green Cedar (see top image).
“When I spray it, I feel like I’ve ‘landed’ ,” she says of the blend of magnolia, cardamom and woods. “We created it at a time when I had confidence in Isaac and I as a creative partnership and it was really creating a scent we wanted to create, not trying to please anyone or ‘fill a gap’ in our portfolio.”
On launch it was a ‘bit of a commercial flop’.
“No one really “got” it. This actually didn’t bother me at the time as it’s not the reason we created the scent. But in the years since, it’s become our best seller, proving that you can have both genuine creative purity, and commercial response! “
Abel has a range of chic, considered fragrances including Cobalt Amber, with bright pink pepper, cardamom and juniper berry.
Now settled in Wellington with a small team onboard, the creator says her workflow has changed slightly given the challenges of the pandemic. Where she would once travel regularly to Paris to collaborate with Sinclair on fragrance development in their fine fragrance laboratories, these days she sends perfume back and forth between the master perfumer and his wife Fanny Grau, also a perfumer, in São Paulo.
“It takes longer and shipping can be a nightmare but the development process has always taken a long time for us. Space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it gives the scent time to ruminate.”
She remains committed to working with Sinclair and says their shared backgrounds [Sinclair was raised in Auckland] cements their common vision.
“Growing up in New Zealand we have our own unique scent landscape which certainly means as a perfumer Isaac has his own unique style influenced by our local terroir and as a fragrance house we also have our own style: we tend to be known for the purity and pared back nature of our scents which feels very Amsterdam meets NZ to me! “
In the years since establishing Abel, Shoemack’s intention to create the world’s best 100% natural perfume hasn’t changed. “It’s only grown to include full lifecycle sustainability and a bigger focus on ethics and social responsibility throughout the supply chain.”
She also acknowledges that what people want from perfume has changed recently.
“Covid changed a lot of things about day to day life and one of those things was the way people wear scent. More and more we hear from customers that they wear perfume not for how it smells to others, but how it makes them feel. It’s an awesome change that makes perfume less superficial, more meaningful. And it makes natural ingredients in perfume a more powerful proposition.
Shoemack says as a result Abel is responding to this change with a number of new products in the pipeline geared towards scent as ‘part of your wellness ritual’.