scent memories

The Natural-Hair-Care Pioneer Turned Perfumer

Anu Prestonia. Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Courtesy of Anu Prestonia

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 Anu Prestonia, natural-hair-care pioneer and the founder of the famed natural hair salon Khamit Kinks. Throughout her storied career, Prestonia helped popularize artistic, African-inspired natural hairstyling in the U.S. and abroad, creating and coining many of the braiding techniques we see today — from Senegalese twists to Queen Latifah’s signature goddess braids. She’s helped celebs like Stevie Wonder, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, and Brandy craft their looks, and she continues to help less-photographed people look and feel their best every day by creating botanical fragrances that harness the healing powers of nature’s aromas. The Cut caught up with Prestonia to talk seasonal body oils, sacred incense, and applying your perfume before you get dressed.

My first scent memory is: Smelling tobacco, and smelling the cigarette packs of my parents. Not cigarette smoke, but the raw tobacco before it’s burned. If you ever put your nose in a cigarette pack, there’s this smell that smells like extra oxygen to me, because it’s mentholated, and you just want to inhale deeply. Because of that first scent memory, I have tobacco resin in many of my perfumes. A dear friend who is an aromatherapist pointed that out to me — that it’s a thread that runs through. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, I just knew that I really liked this smell. It’s so interesting because I absolutely abhor the smell of cigarette smoke. Both my parents smoked from before I was conceived, and through my infancy and childhood, so my two siblings and I can’t stand the smell. But I used to sneak and smell the cigarette pack, and I don’t know what made me do that. Maybe it was because we would be sent to the store to pick up the cigarettes, and I could smell it wafting through the pack, through the clear saran wrap. Maybe I just had a high sensitivity to smell back then. But I knew it wasn’t something I was supposed to be doing because I’d do it on the sly [laughs]. You can go get the cigarettes, but other than that you weren’t supposed to be handling them.

Happiness smells like: A cacophony of scents for me, because I am happiest when I’m sitting at my perfume organ. Perfumery has a lot of musical terminology, like the scent is called “notes,” and when a perfumer has all their essential oils laid out in front of them, usually it’s on some kind of wooden structure that has steps to it, and it’s called an organ. When I’m sitting in front of the organ, creating a perfume, I have to smell each thing before I drop it into the formulation. It’s a habit now, to create that scent memory, and to make sure that the scent is what I’m expecting it to be — to ensure I didn’t pick up the wrong thing, or that it didn’t go bad. I love doing that because it reinforces what I’m creating. It smells like a cacophony of scents from top notes of citruses and spices, to the heart notes of florals, jasmine, rose, tuberose, and neroli, to the base notes of tobacco and oakmoss and vetiver, myrrh and opoponax. Happiness is a blend of all of that.

Love smells like: My current lover, that I don’t have right now. But when he’s current, that’s what it smells like [laughs].  Love smells like that sweetness and muskiness that comes from a person’s personal scent profile.

Heartbreak or loss smells like: Pain, and I guess pain smells like something acrid, like bubbling rust, or swampy waters. I fell in some swampy waters at the park trying to take a picture of some turtles right as COVID was starting up. Oh my God, that is such a horrible smell, and it just stayed on me after I got out of the water. That’s what loss smells like: It’s a bit putrid and it throws you for a loop. I thought it would smell like cut grass and mud.

Friendship smells like: Good food, good beverages, and eating some place that you love to eat, because I’m usually breaking bread with friends. I love that experience of, “Let’s go eat!” My friends and I went to this place recently called Planta Queen, and I was really surprised by the scents and the tastes, which were very different. It’s a vegan place and they’re very creative in how they make their dishes and the plant-based materials they use.

Regret smells like: Something gone sour, like a sour washcloth or a sour clothing.

Success smells like: Soft sweetness mixed with exotic spices that remind you of taking flight and going off to faraway places. Usually, if you’re successful, you have that freedom to travel, and go to faraway lands, and experience different cultures where you’re encountering different kinds of smells and textures and colors that you don’t see in your everyday world in your day-to-day existence.

The worst smells are: The ones made by man, like landfills and industrial waste and garbage. I hate the smell so much that it caused me to create a product called Cleanse & Purify Spritzer. It’s made with all these essential oils like eucalyptus, clove, cinnamon bark, and wild orange that sort of cleanse the environment because they’re antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral. If I’m driving along and I am passing a landfill, or get a whiff of some garbage, I’ll take out my spiritzer and spiritz a couple of spritzes, and use it on my mask, so I have something to disperse bad smells. My sense of smell is so intense that when I smell something, I feel like I’m experiencing it, so I have to get rid of it quickly.

My ideal vacation smells like: The salty, beautiful smell of the ocean, because whenever I’m by the ocean it’s a vacation, even if I’m just going to the beach right here in Brooklyn. It’s the salt, the sea, the sand, the sun — all working together with the smell of sunscreen.

My home smells: Divine. I say that because people always walk in and say, “Oh, it smells so good in here.” But the reason why I use that terminology is because I burn a lot of sacred resins in my home: frankincense, myrrh, kopal, and sage to cleanse and clear the air, because that’s what our ancestors did. They burned and smudged the sage to clear out bad smells and stagnant energy. After I’ve burned the sacred resins, I’ll burn some of my sweeter things like bakhoor, or amber. I do that every day, and that’s why people always say it smells good, even if I haven’t burned something yet. Any kind of scent that is prevalent in your home, is going to get into everything — the walls, the furniture. I gave a friend a mask I made and when she went to put it on she said, “Anu, this mask smells like your home!” and it hadn’t been used or anything.

The last thing I smell before I go to bed is: Usually the oils that I put on my body after bathing. In the summertime, I’m smelling like citrus because I’m using a body oil I make called Yuzu, which is made with a melange of citrus oils. In the cooler months, I’m smelling my oakmoss and lavender body oil.

A scent or smell that you love that others usually don’t: The one I told you about with the lovers [laughs]. Most people don’t know that true musk — like the musk of a deer, or civet musk, or whale upchuck as they call it — all of those smells have a sweetness to it, but people just take in the initial smell. When I smell something, I go deep. I’m taking a real good whiff of it so you get into all the nuances. I have ambergris, and castoreum, which is beaver balls, because that’s what perfumes used to originally be made from: plant essences, flowers, and musk. There are a lot of people who get a little prickly when you say you use animalics because it wasn’t harvested in a humane way, but I use humanely harvested animalics, and I love how they scent a perfume, how they give it that extra depth. I have those animalics in my perfume called Nola, which is named after Nola Darling from the original Spike Lee “She’s Gotta Have It,” and in my Shaman fragrance as well.

I smell like: It depends on the day, but I think I smell like sweetness mixed with sass. I am of the human species, I’m an animal, so my own essence has its own animalic smell. So a mixture of that musk with floral spice. It’s been hard to do, but I’ve trained myself to put my perfume on after bathing, but before I start getting dressed, so that I can be totally dry before I put on my jewelry. I wear pearls a lot and the alcohol in perfumes and oils will damage the nacre of your pearls and discolor metal.

The Natural-Hair -Care Pioneer Turned Perfumer