Interview: James Heeley

James Heeley is a perfumier and the owner of every scent that carries his name. HEELEY Parfums remains one of the last independent companies in the field. British-born James Heeley learned the craft of perfume composition in Paris and his company is still based there. His perfumes receive high praise from the avant-garde: they come without traditional gender distinctions. His creations were hailed in The New York Times as extraordinarily imaginative.

James Heeley vor MDC Cosmetic Berlin

Mr. Heeley, how did you become a perfumier?

I had previously worked as a product designer; I didn't know anything about fragrances. I studied philosophy at King's College in London, but then decided to of to Paris, where I started designing product packaging. And then eventually I started dealing with fragrances. I started seriously working in the field 10 years ago and by now we have a collection made up of 14 fragrances and extracts – astonishingly, all made by me.

Did your divers interests make you a better perfumier?

To be honest I really don't know. Making perfume is… special. And even if there's overlap or similarities with other forms of composition – for instance like in making music – creating a perfume is kind of incomparable to anything else.

What smell experience is strongest in your memory?

It's hard to name just one, there are many. The smell of freshly mowed grass behind my grandparent's house; camp fires after the potato harvest; spring bouquets, piles of hay, the coast; my hands full of mint leaves freshly picked from the garden, just before noon, before the Sunday roast was served. I've always loved all kinds of smells, but putting together individual fragrances and in doing so composing a new experience – this is it for me today. Do I follow my dreams? Forever.


Do you try a lot of things out?

That's what it's all about. That's what this work is basically. And my biggest advantage is that I've remained independent. In doing so I ensured my freedom – I can experiment as much as the heart desires. At my company HEELEY, there aren't any impatient investors or a looming corporation. So I'm in it for myself, deciding to make the perfumes that I want to make.

And how do you decide which ones to make?

For me it's less about the radical other or something completely undiscovered. I strive for quality. I want my fragrances to be wearable. And most importantly, I want them to be elegant.

Is there a perfect fragrance?

Ah, the ultimate. You want to invent a perfume, an image or an idea of it, a feeling. Perfumes are like beauty itself: rarely perfect. There's no such thing as the ultimate. But a good perfume should spread joy. And lust, in a good, insatiable way. That's it!

How do you arrive at the idea for a new fragrance?

Oh anything can become an idea, as banal as it sounds. Usually it's little everyday experiences. But it can also come from memories or dreams aligning with the present. What's important are ideas that come from dealing with the basic ingredients. Direct inspiration from the materials for making perfume in themselves.


Is it true that it's better to wear too little perfume than too much?

It really depends on the scent, the wearer's personality and the occasion.

Can you wear a so-called summer fragrance in winter?

There aren't any rules; we all have different personalities. Generally, fresh and clear scents have a nice effect when the weather is warm and humid. Black flower scents, woody notes and spices harmonize with the colder seasons. But I'd actually like to contradict that immediately; because what's nicer than a few sprits of mint, lemon or orange to lighten up the chocolaty Christmas season. My perfume, St. Clemens, is a summer scent in principle, but I could also see it going with cashmere or tweed, or even a grey flannel. A touch of summer surrounded by winter. Well, why not!