scent memories

This Perfumer Truly Knows What Happiness Smells Like

Rodrigo Flores-Roux. Photo: Courtesy of Givaudan

Scientific studies confirm that, of all the senses, smell offers the best recall. In Scent Memories, the Cut asks people about the scents they associate with different times in their lives.

Next up is Rodrigo Flores-Roux, perfumer and vice-president of perfumery at fragrance house Givaudan. Born and raised in Mexico City, Flores-Roux is a master of citrus and florals, the nose behind multidimensional scents for John Varvatos, Thom Browne, Arquiste, and the creator of the beloved ’90s cult-favorite Clinique Happy. The Cut caught up with Flores-Roux to talk rain-soaked asphalt, magnolias, and leather jackets.

My first scent memory is: The smell of corn tortillas; it’s like an imprint on me. I was born in Mexico, and I am the only Mexican perfumer who works in the arena of international development, so it is very important to me to mention my country. My aunt would also always tell this one anecdote: My grandmother was a fantastic cook, and she had an apron with embroidered flowers, so when I was a little, little kid, and I could barely walk, I would approach her and sniff the embroidered flowers of her apron. Everybody remembers it; there aren’t any pictures, but my aunt is still talking about it. I should’ve known I was going to end up smelling my entire life!

Happiness smells like: Friendship, and friendship smells like citrus to me. It’s kind of obvious in that I am recognized for creating very important citrus fragrances, but for me the smell of lemon, the smell of orange, the smell of bergamot, the smell of lime — that is the smell of happiness. That’s why I also love magnolia; it can be very citrusy, it’s a very happy flower, and it announces the arrival of spring.

Love smells like: Many, many things. It’s very difficult to express olfactorily because there are so many things that I love, but I think flowers smell like love. Let’s not forget that flowers are sexual organs, and in many cases sex equals love [laughs]. So it definitely has a floral smell; maybe it’s the smell of all the flowers of the earth together.

Heartbreak or loss smells like: Not a smell at all. The total absence of smell, and an inability to smell something, which is happening right now. One of the first symptoms for the coronavirus is that you stop smelling and tasting, something that is called anosmia. I think a lot of people who are also heartbroken tend to experience that; you don’t taste food and you don’t smell things. To me, that would be very, very heartbreaking, especially as a perfumer!

The worst smell: We can talk about very disgusting things; however, as a perfumer, you have to be philosophical about it. Good smells don’t always equal good perfumes. There are many aromas out there that actually stink, but you learn how to master them, and every one has an application and a use in a perfume. But personally, for me, there is one smell that I just cannot stand, and it’s the smell of somebody chewing tobacco. That is bad no matter what [laughs].

The most comforting smell is: The personal smell of the person you love. It might be the perfume or the cologne they wear, their own particular smell, a loved one’s T shirt or simply cuddling with someone you love — your partner, your brother or sister, niece or nephew, your parents. The direction we’re heading, I think proximity is very important because proximity is very comforting, and in proximity, the sense of smell plays an enormous role.

My ideal vacation smells like: New discoveries and sunlight. I am not somebody who goes directly to hiking and being among the trees, et cetera, et cetera. I like civilization, I like cities, I like visiting ruins. So it could be a combination of the smell of a city I’ve never been to, the smell of asphalt after the rain, all the fantastic smells of an old church I’ve discovered, and of course, the smell of a really fantastic restaurant.

My home smells like: Leather and many perfumes mixed together. I have an enormous collection of books, and I also have a penchant for wearing a lot of leather clothes, so my home does smell a little bit like leather. But this is the fourth apartment I’ve had in my adult life, and I am always told that it always has that indistinct smell of somebody that enjoys perfumes.

A scent that I love that others don’t: I am actually quite partial to fecal smells, and I talk about this under a perfumer’s microscope. It is very interesting to utilize these molecules that actually kind of mark the end of life, or the end of digestion, or the end of a process, because they remind us of life. The things that we call indole are definitely part of the smell of fecal matter, however, they are also present in mother’s milk. So you’re talking about decay and new life at the same time. It’s a smell people find a little bit repulsive, but for me, they are a signal of life, so I’m always interested, and I always use them, even in very, very small amounts, in perfumes because it’s important to remind us about the cycle of life and death. Everyone wants to say, “Oh, a perfume has to smell clean,” but I say, no, I don’t think so. The dirty side of perfume is very interesting. It makes it more human, more relatable, and also more natural, and I do have a good hand in utilizing this kind of smell that could be unpleasant or disagreeable and unacceptable and using them in an acceptable way. I take pride in that.

I smell like: I would say a little bit of leather, because of the eternal leather jacket that I wear. But I also want to say I smell like friendship. I’m a very friendly person; I collect friends.

The Man Who Defined What Happiness Smells Like