Interview with Lyn Harris, the Most French of English Perfumers

Perfumer Lyn Harris (44), who trained in Paris and Grasse, founded company Miller Harris in 2000. Through her signature style, which combines her British love of nature with a sophisticated French touch, she has reinvented artisanal English perfumery and attracted clients such as Madonna, Sophia Coppola and Kristin Scott-Thomas. In France, she was commissioned to create a signature perfume for upmarket department store Le Bon Marché as well as a bespoke perfume for singer Jane Birkin. She lives in Primrose Hill with her French partner and their son.

Why did you decide to become a perfumer?

I believe all of us are on a journey in life, even when we don’t realise it. Already as a child, smells were very important for me. I spent a lot of time in Scotland with my grandparents, who had an amazing garden, full of sweet peas and geraniums. They grew their own vegetables, baked their own bread and made their own jams and I vividly remember those smells. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about that place which opened my senses and about those two people, who deeply inspired me, as this sense of nature is very instrumental to how I work now. I then worked during the school holidays in a perfume shop , which seemed very luxurious, and later on decided to go to Paris to become a perfumer. I set up my own laboratory when I was still a student and started experimenting to create my style. Then I moved to Grasse to train with a master perfumer at Robertet, one of the leading providers of scents in the world, and all the pieces of the jigsaw came together. When I came back, I became the only London-based independent perfumer in the UK, working in a very artisanal way.

What inspires you and which are your favourite scents?

In terms of scents, I have always had a thing about wet green notes, citrus and the smell of the rain. I am obsessed with finding what I call the other side of a scent, which means I want to bring a different slant to the scent, as in my bitter fig, which is not a typical green fig but brings the experience of a fig by the sea. I also like to keep it simple: for example, Fleur de Bois is all about Regent’s Park. Apart from my own perfumes, I love Jicky, Eau Sauvage and Chanel N°19.

Which perfume do you wear and do you think one should change his/her perfume with time?

I wear all my perfumes, as they reflect different sides of me. I believe that perfumes, just as clothes, should enable you to express different sides of your personality. As time goes by, a person’s skin, body, feelings all change, and the person’s perfume should reflect those changes. Also, when you wear the same perfume over a long time, after a while, you can’t smell it anymore, which is sad, as it deprives you of this pleasure. So I believe that even if you have a favourite perfume, you should not wear it every day but alternate between several scents, and then come back to it.

How did start your collaboration with Jane Birkin, for whom you created L’Air de Rien in 2006?

We were introduced by a very good friend we have in common. Jane had been wearing several perfumes, such as Shalimar, but it was always Serge (Gainsbourg, the French singer and Jane Birkin’s ex partner) who would buy it for her, and she had never found anything that she really loved. But she likes to experiment and she has a very strong idea about what she wants. She is a very powerful and very inspirational woman, and worked with me on her bespoke perfume more than any other client and she had to approve every ingredient. Ze used French oakmoss, Tunisian neroli, sweet musk, amber and vanilla, as she wanted to create something slightly dirty, that would be reminiscent of old houses, musty books and floor polish. It was her idea to actually release it and it instantly became a modern cult fragrance. It is actually huge in France…

Which ingredients do you use most in your perfumes and how would you describe the process of creating a perfume?

I love angelica, cistus, wood but also, more subconsciously smells like birch tar. I find vetiver and iris very sensual and their scents always challenge me. As for the process, this is actually very difficult to explain. Some things just stop you in your tracks and inspire you. Sometimes it can be a beautiful accord found in the lab or it can be an experience in life or a material you particularly like. If I smell a baby for example, I immediately feel tangerine, iris and musk, and from that I start building a fragrance. Then your own chemicals just add to the magic.