Firmench RE|ENCOUNTERS places creators of positivity in the spotlight. Artists and activists create a dialogue with perfumers about the power of perfume and to share in our humanity. Here in RE|ENCOUNTERS: Smelling Sessions, creatives sit down with raw materials and scents to help tell their stories.
In our first Smelling Session, perfumer Frank Voelkl joins fashion designer and entrepreneur Francisco Costa. The two are known for minimalist designs that remain immediately identifiable to the knowing eye (or nose). In conversation, they share their olfactive memories, the luxury of functionality and the power to provoke in measures fluid and clean. While a perfumer of major designer launches like Gucci Bamboo, Voelkl is known for the clear, modern constructions he brings to artisanal brands like Le Labo’s Santal 33 and Thé Noir.
Following his departure from Calvin Klein in 2016, Costa returned to his homeland of Brazil to explore the natural splendor of the Amazon rainforest. Local healing rituals and the untapped wealth of curative native ingredients instilled in him a new sense of discovery and a deep understanding of the urgent need for conservation. The result is Costa Brazil, an eco-beneficial skincare and fragrance line that combines the raw power of the natural world with Costa’s unparalleled eye for beauty.
Throughout his career, Francisco Costa has been an instrumental force in defining the look and feel of modern beauty. During his 13-year tenure as the creative director of the womenswear division for Calvin Klein Collection, Costa introduced strong architectural codes and a tactile sensuality to one of the most iconic American brands of the past century.
Here, we join them in their first meeting:
Frank Voelkl: Hi, Francisco. Welcome to Firmenich RE|ENCOUNTERS Smelling Sessions. I’m Frank Voelkl, perfumer at Firmenich for 15 years. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Francisco Costa: My pleasure, Frank. I’ve been in the fashion industry for about 20 years and I have just launched a new brand called Costa Brazil. Fragrance is a new world for me, so to be here next to you is beyond incredible. I’m very honored.
Voelkl: Francisco, tell me about you. What’s your story?
Costa: I grew up in a small town in the countryside of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. My relationship with fragrance and nature happened seamlessly. Living in the mountains and in the countryside was life. Today, it feels very good to be able to transport the imagery and feelings that I once had as a child for others.
Voelkl: What were scents that you experienced early in life?
Costa: The scent of a heavy rain on the field. I love the scent of burnt wood. Growing up in the countryside, the fire was very much a part of our lives. I grew up in a town where the river was literally behind my house. So the scent of the river was very present. Being born in a tropical country, you go through streets and all of a sudden you have the scent of a white flower. I think fashion for me was where I fully connected with beauty. It wasn’t just what you wear, but how you felt. All of my shows and ideas at Calvin Klein were about translating a sense of purity. The gorgeousness that comes from the inside out. We kept everything very simple, very clean. Talking about fragrances today illustrates that fashion is just a part of what I set out to do. Beauty compliments the aesthetic vision. I hope that my clients now understand the full picture of what I’m after.
Voelkl: I also grew up in the countryside. I spent every summer on my uncle’s farm. I think that’s when I discovered that I’m interested in smells, that I’m aware of smells. We all smell but it’s not always in a conscious way. For me, it was very conscious.
Costa: Do you remember the cows and horses?
Voelkl: Exactly, and those are not bad smells for me. No way. They are good smells because I was happy when I experienced those. As a teenager, I moved to Paris. So there were a lot of smells again, but a different style. Back then, in the seventies, eighties, no woman left the house without a fragrance. And that’s where I discovered that I also like perfumes. From there, it all happened.
Costa: You know, somebody once asked me what’s fragrance for you? And I said, “Fragrance is the first one to arrive, and is the last one to leave.” Right?
Voelkl: It’s a good point.
Costa: Paris must’ve been really exciting because it’s the overdose of scents everywhere you move. How did you relate it to that? The difference of the purity of the countryside and the opulence of Paris. Is that how you decided to become a connoisseur?
Voelkl: I started trying to guess the fragrance my mother was wearing. By coincidence, a friend of my parents knew about a school that teaches perfumery. I had no idea that there’s people creating fragrances. Back then I would think that Calvin Klein creates his own fragrance. I slowly discovered that there’s people behind the scenes. That was a key moment where I said, all right, that’s what I want to do.
Costa: It’s fascinating. I never understood. Fragrance for me was just very emotional. But knowing there’s a science behind it, it really fascinates me. I imagined it to be so perfect, so manipulated, so conceived, which is also magical because I assume that’s how you actually express yourself. Emotion with reason. Right? You’ve done some wonderful things like Le Labo Santal 33, which really was so seminal to the way people wore fragrances, and is still so current. How did you conceptualize the moment? How did it come about?
Voelkl: I believe that a fashion designer must be very similar to being a perfumer, that there’s this blend between the technical and the imagination. I’m thinking we have that in common. I know you’re very much into minimalism. So, I think Santal is this more minimalist approach to create something that just triggers an emotion. It’s built in a relatively simple way, but still has facets and dimensions to it. People can relate to that. When you used to design for Calvin Klein, how did you create something emotionally strong by using so little lines?
Costa: How I started the design, it was really very much about the textile. I would go deep into the yarn. That approach I took with me to Costa Brazil, creating this product line. I was visiting labs and doing my research, and everything felt very conceived already in beauty. So the first thing that I had to do was detach myself from what existed. And the same way I looked for the yarn, now I have to look for the ingredient. That was the moment of departure. I went back to Brazil. I had to go into the Amazon region just to smell. There wasn’t the intention of finding anything, but certainly experiencing the colors, the sounds, the scents. I stayed with these indigenous people called the Yawanawá. They are a tribe situated in the Acre state of the Amazon region in Brazil, which borders Peru. There are 11 tribes and I stayed with one of them for seven days. The day before I left I realized that there was something magical in the air, this scent which I couldn’t figure out what it was. I thought it was natural wood being burned. But that last evening, I saw that they were tossing rocks into the fire. There were fires everywhere day and night. The whole community was bonfires. I realized that the scent was coming from these rocks that they were tossing in the fire. I questioned, “What is that?” And they said to me, “This is breu, a resin.”
Voelkl: It smells like incense.
Costa: Actually, they use it as incense, the indigenous people. They use it as a part of every ritual they do. They breathe in the smoke, they believe it has properties to open a sixth chakra. They believe it cures headaches and migraines. The scent is amazing. I’m going to burn something for you here. The smoke that at first was very deep and red and black, all of a sudden it becomes…
Voelkl: Turns liquid.
Costa: Yeah. This really gentle scent. I mean, it’s fascinating huh?
Voelkl: Fascinating. And you know Francisco, what I just realized, that you actually made a trip to the origins of perfumery, because perfumery, per fumus means “through the smoke.” This is really how it all started, when they used incense and resins.
Costa: Wow. There we go. I’m learning something here. I also learned that fragrance becomes part of a ritual. If I’m under stress, I just go and burn a little breu and it calms the room. It brings me back. We have breu now as part of something we call the Jungle Complex at Costa Brazil. At the core of all our products is the nutrient-rich trinity of Kaya, Cacay, and Breu.
Voelkl: The choice of the ingredient is so crucial. I make that choice as a creator. I choose to use this ingredient, let’s say, as a foundation of my fragrance, and that’s what makes all the difference.
Costa: The industry now talks a lot about clean fragrances. I’m fascinated by your understanding of the technical aspect and what molecules really mean. What happens when you add molecules to something that is purely organic.
Voelkl: I’m a big defender of naturals, and I’m an equally big defender of molecules. I feel like they are yin and yang. They’re important together. They co-exist in my fragrances because they play different roles. It’s a bit like synthetic yarns allowing fashion designers to go into certain functional clothing designs. They allow us in perfumery to go into territories that create different textures. For example, metallic. There’s hardly any natural materials that have a metallic smell to it, but there are some molecules that do. We also like the smell of water. It’s molecules that can provide that. I think it’s very important to have a space for naturals and molecules, to cherish them and to promote them equally.
Costa: I love that you said “function”. It makes me feel that it’s okay to have synthetics because there’s a function. Function is one of the pillars that I go by. Everything has to have a function and everything has to have a purpose.
Voelkl: Coming from fashion and clothing, would anybody love wearing a dress, or a blazer, or pants if they were not comfortable? I don’t think so. I feel it’s the same way for fragrance. It can be the most imaginative, innovative fragrance, but if it doesn’t make you feel good, I don’t think you will enjoy wearing it. I think there’s a function in fragrance where it can be soothing, it can make you feel good or comfortable.
Costa: How do you start a project? Do you start a project by commission only, or you always fussing? Are you always thinking over something?
Voelkl: I think what I love the most about my job is that, however I go about it, it’s always going to be my choice and my style. For example, if you ask a perfumer to create a gardenia fragrance, and you have five different perfumers. All five perfumers will create fragrances that smell like a gardenia, but they will be completely different. And I think that’s the beautiful part of it, is that I can put myself into it.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Just for fun, we asked our RE|ENCOUNTERS Smelling Sessions participants to answer questions from the Proust Questionnaire. Not devised but popularized by Marcel Proust, it is a game of a series of questions where participants ultimately reveal their true natures.
Question: If you weren’t working in your current field, what would be your profession?
Francisco Costa: Gardener.
Frank Voelkl: Diplomat.
Question: Which talent do you wish you had?
Francisco Costa: I wish I could sing.
Frank Voelkl: Drawing.
Question: Where would you most like to live?
Francisco Costa: Vienna.
Frank Voelkl: Tahiti or London.
Question: What trait do you most like in others?
Francisco Costa: Honesty.
Frank Voelkl: Being yourself.
Question: What trait do you most deplore in others?
Francisco Costa: Dishonesty.
Frank Voelkl: Not being yourself.
Question: What word or phrase do you most overuse?
Francisco Costa: Fantastic.
Frank Voelkl: You know.
Question: What is your perfect idea of happiness?
Francisco Costa: I think I’m the happiest, really, I’m the happiest when I’m working in the garden. Just takes me away, I love that. And I love to see the seasons coming by. The whole process of planting something and just seeing change, is just so wonderful.
Frank Voelkl: Total harmony.
For more information on Costa Brazil, visit: https://livecostabrazil.com/