Most perfume brands work to create their scents and then find an environment to retail them. Booke Lean of New Plymouth’s The Virtue, took the opposite approach, creating a store and then filling it with sensory delights fuelled by her creative endeavors.
A photographer for a number of years, it was the desire to diversify that led her to create her own opportunities.
“Living and working in regional New Zealand was always a tricky one, ” Lean explains. “You’re a little bit limited in terms of the jobs that are available, especially when you have a small family – you can’t always be flying around the world doing the jobs that you dream about. So it was about creating a lifestyle and a business that fed me creatively as well as provided for my family.”
She started considering how people might shop in coming years, landing on the belief that unique, experiential retail still had a special place. After trying a number of iterations over the past few years, The Virtue is now both a boutique retailer in central New Plymouth offering art – including Lean’s photographic prints – fresh flowers and vintage furniture and curiosities, as well as the name of Lean’s perfume brand, a burgeoning line of personal and home fragrance also for sale in store and online.
Initially intending to travel internationally simply to source items for the space, Lean found scent an integral part of these global explorations, and wanted to extend it to others in a captivating way.
Her first item was a scented candle inspired by a trip to Cuba with warm, sensuous and enveloping notes. Since then she’s developed a further range of eight heady and intense fragrances that are available as fine parfums, candles and incense, with more to come.
She says she isn’t a ‘nose’ and doesn’t claim to be a perfumer. She has a collection of raw ingredients and works to gather a scent picture and visual mood board of what she is wanting to conjure before communicating that to a commercial perfumer based in Grasse, France, the world’s perfume capital, who interprets her intentions.
“Everybody links scent to their memory, it’s the olfactory sense, but mine I would say is a little bit sharpened. When I visualize something or I see an image, smells come to mind and I’m taken straight back there. So what I wanted to do is use scent to help people experience things like I do. It’s about storytelling.”
A strong narrative and visual identity – complete with accompanying photographs by Lean that are often her starting point – are part of each scent.
“Even our floral scents have a bigger picture. [The perfume named] 1987, that is the smell of my school teacher’s wrist as my mother hands me over.”
Back Beach is a salty scent with a velvety rose heart and summons Taranaki’s wild and beautiful west coast spot of the same name.
“I liked the idea that someone might go “Oooh I love a beachy fragrance, and then smell it and go – “what kind of beach do you go to?!” she laughs. It’s beautiful, but you can’t quite trust it.
The Virtue’s newest scent Narcosis, is an intoxicating Sichuan pepper, rose, and amber mix which Lean describes as animalistic. Her intention? “To inspire passion and human connection at the deepest of levels.”
“It’s never my intention for my perfumes to be pretty, they should make you feel something,” she insists.
For shoppers finding it tricky to decide, there’s the option of purchasing a perfume sampler, with five 2ml sprays of their choice for $59. It gives the option to wear and get a feel for the personality of each scent and is a useful option for online shoppers unable to test each scent.