scent memories

The Model Turned Perfumer Who Smells Like Hustle

Chris Collins. Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Chris Collins

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 Chris Collins, former model and the founder of his eponymous luxury fragrance line, World of Chris Collins, which launched in 2018. The familiar face that fronted many a Ralph Lauren campaign is now formulating seductive scents and creating complex fragrance collections that tell a different story, be it about giving in to your animal instincts, experiencing an aria, or reliving the artistry of the Harlem Renaissance in real time. The Cut caught up with Collins to talk gardenias, fish markets, finding inspiration, and demystifying the fragrance industry.

My first scent memory is: Violets. When I was a kid, I used to sneak upstairs to my parents room, and there were these marijuana papers up there. I had no idea what they were, but they were always next to these little violet candies, so I would sneak upstairs and steal some. Over the years, I realized that it was the violet in the candy that I liked. My dad also used to wear this fragrance when I was a kid called Grey Flannel, which is a violet fragrance. I don’t even know if he knew he was that drawn to violets as well.

Happiness smells like: Food. Food makes me happy. I love cooking at home and going to restaurants. Food is warm, inviting, savory, and very aromatic. I think what makes food taste so good is the actual smell; those two senses work hand in hand together, so I’m the happiest when I’m around food, smelling anything.

Love smells like: There are different types of love, but if we’re tackling the love between two people, to me, that love smells like sex. I love the natural smell of sex, of two different bodies kind of conjoined. Sex, to me, smells sweet and animalistic. I remember years ago there was a song called “Sex and Candy,” and that song is spot on. Sex smells like candy to me.

Heartbreak or loss smells like: Gloom, and, to me, gloom smells like right before it’s about to thunderstorm; when the sky gets really dark, the air gets very thick and humid and gloomy. That scent reminds me of heartbreak. And then it eventually rains, and I love the smell of rain; then everything smells earthy. But it’s that moment right before it rains, right before the clouds and the sky open up.

Friendship smells like: A nice cigar, with its tobacco and chocolate scents. Me and my buddies, we love to smoke cigars; that’s what we share together, so whenever I smoke a cigar, it reminds me of friendship.

Regret smells like: Cheap tequila right before you do a shot, because you know that you are going to regret it — the next day, or at some point. I’m a big tequila drinker, and I don’t really like doing shots, but, you know, sometimes the situation calls for it. I can’t even smell it before I take a shot because I’m like, This is not gonna be good. Regret is that smell, to a T.

Success smells like: Leather. It has this very rich smell to it, and by rich I mean a deep, pleasant smell to it. Leather is very spicy, earthy; it kind of reminds me of tobacco as well. I use a lot of leather notes in my fragrances, but outside of fragrance, the leather smell of stepping into a brand new car, or the smell of a leather jacket when I’m on my motorcycle, that to me just smells very rich and exudes success.

The worst smell is: Gas-station bathrooms. They are the worst smelling situation you can ever be in. It’s so bad, and I dislike them so much that sometimes I don’t even drink water before I go on road trips [Laughs.] just so I don’t have to stop and use the bathroom.

My ideal vacation smells like: Gardenias. One of the first vacations I went on, I believe it was in Barbados, and when I walked into my room, there were three or four gardenia plants, so the scent of gardenia reminds me of vacation. To me, gardenia gives off a kind of coconut-y, fuzzy-peach kind of smell; an earthy-green kind of smell. That smells like paradise to me. I haven’t used gardenia in any of my fragrances yet, but I’m excited to play with it as I work on the more fresh, and more floral scents I’m creating.

My home smells like: The scent of hundreds of fragrances, because I test all my fragrances at home and they spill, and seep, into the wood and stone. There’s this aroma of all these different fragrances, which I can’t put my finger on, but I’m glad I can’t because it’s like this weird combo; it could be musky, it could be floral, it could be citrus, [or] all of them combined, depending on when and where I tested all the fragrances. It’s nice to walk around and get hits of scent. Sometimes I wonder if my neighbors can smell them, but I haven’t heard anything yet, so we’re good.

The first thing I smell in the morning: Lemon and honey from my little hot lemon-and-honey drink I have first thing in the morning. I’m sure before I get to the kitchen, there are some other scents along the way, but that’s the one scent I look forward to in the morning.

The last thing I smell before I go to bed: I have a fragrance called Sweet Taboo that has cacao and coffee notes, and that relaxes me before I go to bed. I’ll shower first, then put on a  little bit of Sweet Taboo. I don’t put much on, just enough to get a hint of it in the bed, and then it’s lights out.

A scent or smell I like that others usually don’t: I like the smell of fish markets. I spent a lot of time in Croatia years ago, and every morning we would get up, and we would go to the fish market because the fishermen would literally bring the fish they just caught to the market at five in the morning, and something just drew me to the smell. They had clams, and branzino, and it was all straight from the Adriatic Sea, so it was that fresh smell of the sea as well. Some people think it stinks, or it’s weird, but there’s something about fish markets that I love. Of course, the fish gotta be fresh. If it’s old stinky fish, it’s not gonna work …

I smell like: All kinds of different scents, all the time, but I feel like I smell like drive and determination. I think hustle has a scent, I think there’s an aroma to it — I can smell it on people right away. I can’t really describe what it smells like, but let’s just say there’s a good funk to it. Things that smell good to me don’t have to be perfume-y. I love the natural smell of people — like, sweat — and I think there’s such a thing as a “good funk.” To me, hustle smells like that “good funk.”

People always ask me, “What’s your favorite fragrance?” and I always say my next one. By the time I’ve introduced that fragrance to the world, I’ve already smelled it, modified it, worn it in different situations, and I’m already working on one for next year. I love each and every single one of them, but the excitement is in the next one. What can I create now that’s going to be interesting, complex, and intense? I’m constantly smelling myself, and I’m always wearing perfumes on my wrist and upper forearms, so people must think I’m crazy when I’m out in public, just smelling myself to see how it develops.

On creating fragrances: Most of the time I have a story in my head that I want to tell. I have tons of names of fragrances that I would like, and they’re all inspired by so many things — including music, poetry, and film. Those things inspire me when I create a fragrance because each fragrance tells a unique, distinct story. I go to the perfumers I work with and say, “Here’s my idea and what I think it should smell like,” and then we start from there. We may end up somewhere along that line, or somewhere else completely, but we always start with an idea of a story, or a memory, and go from there.

It is a very interesting creative process. Right now, I’m in the process of creating a space where people can come and see how that all works. A lot of people are curious as to how it goes from point A to the shelf, and I’d like to bring people on that journey. There is this sense of mysticism around fragrance. In the beginning, when I was first creating, it was a very difficult process for me because I was trying to please everyone with my fragrances, which is impossible. You’re going to have people who fall in love with them right away, and sometimes, it won’t resonate with other people, because fragrances are very intense and emotional. It can remind you of something that you don’t want to touch or revisit. I’ve always loved fragrance, but I never knew how it was created, and when I learned and started to create my own, that was another emotional, psychological journey that I had no idea that I’d be going down. I’d love to introduce people to that.

The Model Turned Perfumer Who Smells Like Hustle