The Olfactive Education of Rag & Bone’s Marcus Wainwright

The Rag & Bone designer knew nothing about fragrances until two years ago–but now he’s a pro with a collection of 8 signature scents.

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When Rag & Bone co-founder Marcus Wainwright set out to create a signature fragrance, he knew that it would be impossible to launch just one. So, instead, the brand’s fragrance debut includes eight gender-neutral creations, ranging from a light Bergamot to an intense Oud. The collection, which launches this week at Rag & Bone boutiques and online, may have not been easy to create, but the it sure smells sweet.

How long have you been working on the collection? How did it come together? We had the idea about two years ago, and we worked on it for about 18 months. We started out with a lot. Like 30. The approach was, if not exactly pre-niche fragrance, there wasn’t much of it around at that point. I’d say our approach was very naïve with a little bit of advice thrown in. We approached it the way we approach the clothes. What is our customer looking for?

And what was your customer looking for? Well, it was clear that it wasn’t just one scent. We wanted it to represent the range of the Rag & Bone customer, which is very, very broad. We wanted tor represent the purity of what scent stood for for us. Very naively at the beginning we thought, why can’t we just pick one single essential ingredient for each one? Why can’t it just be rose? We quickly learned that’s wrong.

How did you go from 30 to eight? Well, we had four roses, for example. We didn’t necessarily have an idea to end up with eight. We did what we do with the clothes, essentially, which was to take the most simple idea and try to twist it just a little without taking them to a whole different zone. And that’s also why they’re called very simple names instead of taking them to Portofino or wherever. It just wasn’t genuine to us. Nevertheless, people kept saying, “You need a story. You need a story.”

But your fashion already is the story, so don’t you think the fragrance is an extension of the fashion? I think the fragrance is an extension of the philosophy of the brand.

So long as you get it right. Yeah, you don’t want to fuck it up. We’ve learned that fragrance is so so subjective and so personal. I could tell you that I think this smells like Rag & Bone, then someone else will have a different point of view about what Rag & Bone is. It was obvious, therefore, that we couldn’t do one. So we wanted to have a range of scents that spanned from masculine to feminine, but not in any particularly weighted order. We ended up with seven and then we realized that we still hadn’t cracked what Rag & Bone smelled like, so we went back and started completely from scratch with the last one, Oddity, which is the only one housed in a black-to-brown bottle, and it’s the only one, really, that you can’t identify. Experts can identify it, but we couldn’t, and it’s actually the one I wear that’s the most. Most people love it. It’s a little bit of leather, it’s a little bit of book, it’s a little tobacco-y. And that’s what, in some ways, we felt like it was unplaceable. It went against the grain of all the others, it wasn’t a pure one, but actually that’s what Rag & Bone smelled like.

Did you come to the table and say, “We really want to have an incense one, or a leather one, we really want a rose”? We did. We asked questions, too. What are the most important scents, globally? And what do they mean to people? And you find out interesting things. Like in the Far East, this one’s going to resonate, but no one else is going to like it here. Or this is going to work in Russia, but it might be a little shaky in some other places. So we learned a lot through that process, but the main focus for the whole thing—the box and the bottle—was just the integrity of the product and the quality of the ingredients. It sounded like a cliché, because everyone else talks about that, but why not? It’s just the facts. And you can’t have anything else without that. So it was about what it meant to us. We’re not planning to expand it. We’re not going to 16 or 18. This is it.

Did you wear fragrance before this? No. Never, actually.

What smells in general do you gravitate towards? Church is an interesting one for me, because I went to boarding school where we had to go to church, but it was incredibly familiar, too. My grandfather and my uncle smoked pipes, and they smelled amazing; it was a very sweet, kind of weird smell. If you asked if this is what Rag & Bone stands for in a scent, it is very English yet very American at the same time. It’s earthy which speaks to the American side of things, but it’s also very English.

Which one does your wife like? I haven’t been able to take anything home yet. She likes the smell of me with the oud, so that’s a start! And she was involved with culling the number down from the original 30.

What does she usually wear? She usually doesn’t wear perfume. Comme des Garcons sometimes, which sits on her dresser and that was where the importance of the bottle came from. This was going to sit in front of someone’s eyes every single day and what is it going to look like? You don’t want to cover it in crystals and all that; you want it to look like part of their lifestyle.

Do you plan on doing ancillary products, like candles? We do plan on candles. We really resisted the idea of doing gels and creams and stuff, and we’ve said categorically there are no more scents, certainly for the foreseeable future. But candles are a really natural extension. Anything we can do that represents the lifestyle. We’ve been selling Le Labo candles in our store for years now. So candles are a natural progression, for some. Some of the scents don’t really translate to candles at all. Three, maybe four smell amazing in candles.

The good thing about candles? It’ll be easier than fragrance because the scent is linear. It doesn’t have to change. Yeah, but I’m already obsessing over the packaging.

Watch W’s executive beauty director Jane Larkworthy search for the perfect scent: