If you ever feel like you’ve got a lot on your plate then you probably haven’t met perfumer, writer and artist Pia Long from Volatile Fiction.
The first time I heard of the busy and multitalented Pia she was talking to Christine Daley on the WondAROMA podcast in October 2014, and I immediately subscribed to her blog to find out more about her. Her blog is collection of her consciousness, where she shares industry information, reviews, her art, and more. There’s a reason over 1,600 people subscribe to her, and it is likely that she is a fountain of knowledge and creativity.
Pia began her career in cosmetics at a makeup counter in Finland, and graduated from the London College of Fashion in 1996. Today she is a council member of the esteemed British Society of Perfumers and dabbles in everything from fragrance, flavour, and writing technical nonfiction, blogs, and Sci-Fi.
Below are Pia’s thoughts about how organized beauty communities have changed her life, the abundance of new perfume releases in the market, and her experience working as a LUSH Cosmetics perfumer.
Your cosmetics career started with working at a beauty counter in Finland, and now you’re an artist, perfumer, and writer. What has been the draw to this creative industry?
I didn’t expect cosmetics and fragrance to become a career. I spent 12 years in a language school and the work I did at evenings, weekends and on holidays (in beauty) was just a way to earn some money (and get lovely freebies; ideal for a teenage girl). When I enrolled at the University of Helsinki to study Russian language translation and interpretation, it was clear after one semester that I’d made a mistake. Continuing with languages had seemed the obvious path but I craved a creative career. After a failed application to study fine art in Finland, I packed a bag and came to the UK for a ‘gap year’. Eventually I combined the practical skills I’d learned behind the beauty counter and my desire for something creative and qualified as a make-up artist from London College of Fashion. After a few years of freelancing, I moved to a training management role with the Fragrance Factory (a fragrance and cosmetics distributor). It’s there I first started thinking about what really goes into making a fragrance. Eventually that question became a burning obsession.
You later spent over six years working as a perfumer for LUSH Cosmetics – what was it like? Were there any highlights over the years, and what did you learn from it?
I actually started at Lush as a store manager. Back then they were very keen to have people work their way up from the shop floor, regardless of their qualifications and experience, and I really valued being able to see how things were done all the way from the customer-facing frontline staff to the company founders. After a few months as a store manager, I was added to the “Lush Mafia”, a group of key decision makers, and after a couple of years I was offered the role of a junior perfumer. Working directly with the product creators and company founders taught me a great deal, as did having access to a wonderful selection of natural materials. I understood that it wasn’t normal to put real rose absolute into bath products, so it was an opportunity to play around in a way you couldn’t anywhere else.
How did Volatile Fiction come to be? How does it fit with this creative career?
I’ve been sending my writing out into the world since the age of 9 and blogging was such a natural progression of that. I’ve been an enthusiastic blogger since before they were called blogs (I had a website on Geocities and a couple of LiveJournals and all sorts) so I started Volatile Fiction as a home for my adventures in the world of fragrance. Sure, it contains the odd banana bread and ice cream sundae recipe and some other off-topic posts here and there, but it’s mainly a way for me to offer a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes in the fragrance world as I learn more about it myself. In a way I’m writing it for the 10-years-ago me who was wondering what it would take to become a perfumer.
What has been the best thing that’s come out of your blogging experience, and why?
Receiving messages in which readers tell me they’ve found what I’ve written useful in some way. That’s really the ultimate reward.
I’m sure 10-years-ago Pia would have said the same! Is there someone in the cosmetics industry dead or alive that you haven’t met yet but want to talk to?
There are many people I’d love to meet; many whose work I really admire. Sophia Grojsman is high on the list because she has been such an important perfumer at a fairly male-dominated time in perfumery. Her work also featured in my formative years in a prominent way; Paris by YSL was my first ‘grown-up’ perfume.
Speaking of other perfumers, you are involved with quite a few societies and communities related to perfume and cosmetics. What are some of the benefits of being associated with other like-minded people?
Being involved with like-minded people via communities and societies has been life-changing. Not only are you able to feel that you’re not alone in your obsession, but you learn so much and meet so many new people. I co-arranged the first UK Basenotes meet with Grant and Dani back in 2009, I think, and many of the people who came to that have become good friends. Career-wise, I wouldn’t be where I am today, had I not been so active in the British Society of Perfumers. They are very supportive and when I first became a Student Member via the IFEAT Diploma in Aroma Trades course, I felt very welcome. They also organise lots of interesting lectures and events. Listening to talks about the mechanism of olfaction or human pheromones would be interesting even if I wasn’t doing what I do now.
Any product(s) that you’re currently obsessed with? Can be perfume, beauty, or other.
I love finding products that actually do what they claim to. There are two such products which I’m really excited about right now (and they kind of go hand-in-hand): A313 Pommade which really works at night to keep skin smooth and La Roche-Posay Cicaplast B5 balm which can be used anywhere to soothe and calm skin. Perfume is a funny one; ironically the more you work in a lab environment, the less fragrance you’re actually able to wear, but on days when I’m not doing lab work, I am completely obsessed with two fragrances – Mandragore by Annick Goutal (I’ve gone through several bottles over the last few years) and Cuir Beluga by Guerlain (a sensual, ambrettolide-y, suede-y vanilla).
What’s your personal fragrance collection like? Do you wear anything you’ve made?
I have about 70 perfumes in my collection, give or take a few. I want to at least feel that what I own will be used, so I’m not a collector per se. Having said that, about a dozen perfumes I own are there for nostalgia or research. The scents I wear on a regular basis are in a glass and metal cabinet in my bedroom and the rest are in a drawer. The majority of perfumery I’ve done has been functional (bath products, soaps, toiletries, cosmetics, detergents, candles, that sort of thing). I’ve created some bases and accords, but the only complete fine fragrance I’ve made to date was for Lush. It was a tribute to the love-or-hate ‘Lush shop smell’ and though I have a bottle stashed away, I don’t wear it.
Considering your own collection, what are your thoughts on the global cosmetics and perfume situation at the moment? Are you excited, upset, or something else entirely over the flooded market? Perhaps you feel it isn’t flooded at all?
Everything is a bit flooded, though, isn’t it? Think back to when we didn’t have iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, Audible, Amazon, YouTube, blogs… the music industry and book publishing have already experienced what happens when the barriers to entry for creators are smashed, and now the same is happening with perfume. Not only that, we’re seeing what happens when there’s a great hunger for something new and products are not expected to become classics; all the money goes into creating new things for people to talk about and get excited about. In this, yes, you sometimes feel that a slower pace wouldn’t hurt; that there are a lot of apparently pointless launches. On the other hand, just like with TV shows and books nowadays, you don’t expect any one person to be able to comprehensively consume everything in a particular genre. There’s just so much of everything out there now. If we adopt the attitude of discovery and serendipity instead, we can have fun with it. It’s only bad for people who feel anxious if they don’t know everything about every launch. My proposal would be – unless you’re a market researcher – don’t worry! I love the fact there really is something for everyone out there and that there are people wearing fragrance in all kinds of ways; people who might not have worn perfume in its department store form may now be using a body spray or a celeb perfume, or an artisan-made scent which meets their tastes better than a conventional perfume.
What does the future hold for Volatile Fiction and for you personally, career-related or otherwise?
I am currently working on a book about the world of fragrance, have recently joined Penny Williams at Orchadia Solutions and was added to the council of the British Society of Perfumers, so it looks like my future will mostly be very busy and fragrant. Volatile Fiction will continue to be a little window to what I’m up to and the things I pick up along the way.
I would like to thank Pia for taking the time to share her ideas with me. You can find her at her blog.
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