In American model-turned-perfumer Chris Collins’ mind, designing fragrance is equivalent to creating complex and colourful works of art. Collins’ perfumes are not only meant to capture specific moods and expressions but also to portray meaningful life experiences and conjure up images of the past. Known for being one of the first African-American models to work with Polo Ralph Lauren – a groundbreaking partnership which spanned two decades – Collins is now creating innovative new fragrances heavily inspired by his personal upbringing in New York City and immersion in Parisian fashion.
Growing up in Harlem, Collins first became entranced by the art of fragrance at age six through Geoffrey Beene’s famous Grey Flannel cologne, the fragrance which his father regularly wore. Intrigued by the cologne bottle’s visual aesthetic as well as the scent itself, these early olfactory memories sparked a lifelong love for fragrance that has profoundly shaped the course of Collins’ career as a perfumer. As Collins himself has explained, “it’s funny how smell can kind of transport us in time.” Through his work, he hopes to instill nostalgic visions of immersive pastimes that effectively make us feel as if we were actually there.
The rich history of Harlem has had a deep-seated influence on Collins’ work. Situated in Northern Manhattan just south of the Harlem River, the neighbourhood experienced a large influx of Afro-Caribbean migrants in the early 1900’s. Through relocating to New York, these migrants sought refuge from the harsh racial injustices, legally-enforced segregation policies, and limited economic opportunities for them in the Southern United States. Harlem is well-recognised for its role as the American epicentre for black artistic movements throughout the early twentieth century, particularly during World War I and the United States’ prohibition era.
Home to numerous creatives such as poet Langston Hughes, jazz musician Louis Armstrong, painter Aaron Douglas, and dancer Josephine Baker, the neighbourhood gave birth to a unique and groundbreaking artistic movement historically known as the Harlem Renaissance.
As a continuation of the creative lineage of his home, Collins has crafted his perfumes to evoke distinct sensations connected to Harlem’s past. His warmly seductive fragrance “Harlem Nights”, part of his first collection, pays direct homage to the neighborhood that Collins has described as “a beautiful place of mystery and sensuality.” There are warming top notes of nutmeg and clove alongside rum and saffron which following into a sort of more earthy floral heart, of jasmine orris and patchouli. Its base reflects a dry warmth of the orris (iris root) with sandalwood amber and musk. It’s a warm night in Harlem, it’s the prequel to a sweaty night dancing, drinking and singing in a shabeen…
Chris spent two years studying the art of perfumery in Mougins and Grasse in southern France and is also greatly influenced by France’s history of fashion and art. In the 1920’s, circles of Parisian avant-garde artists and intellectuals – many of whom had been fascinated by African art for decades – suddenly became highly receptive towards the Harlem Renaissance. The city became infatuated with jazz and black culture, providing African-American musicians and artists with a uniquely welcoming high society audience. Works of the Harlem Renaissance became closely entwined with the most sophisticated and fashionable trends of Parisian society.
As a Harlem-born man who is also incredibly passionate about Parisian luxury fashion, Collins has experienced the fruits of these cultural linkages first-hand. Through his fragrances, he aims to celebrate this relationship between cultures and emphasise its inspirational and life-changing nature. “Danse Sauvage”, another of his fragrances, is a sweet and sensual creation directly influenced by Josephine Baker’s famous dance performances in 1920’s Paris. Think also of ‘dance apache’ in Paris, a movement that went on to influence dances such as lindy hop and jive in America.
Collins, who has since returned to Harlem, hopes to contribute to a contemporary rebirth of the neighborhood’s culture and celebrate its historic ties with Parisian society. Today he remains one of the very few black men to have gained influence as a fragrance designer, a feat which he claims has motivated him to consistently “bring it” and deliver the best product he possibly can. His valuable experiences of growing up in Harlem, modeling for fashion brands, and rigorously studying fragrance design have all contributed to his distinguished status as a perfume designer.
By paying homage to the historical meeting points between his Harlem origins and Parisian culture, Collins’ perfumes function to reaffirm Harlem’s legacy and further the role of fragrance as not only a product but a genuine art form which tells a story and makes a positive contribution to society. “Renaissance Man”, the final fragrance from his first collection, is designed to evoke feelings of rebirth and revival as a testament to the enduring spirits of 1920’s Harlem and Paris.
Chris Collins’ first collection “Alchemy of Fragrance”, which contains “Renaissance Man”, “Harlem Nights” and “Danse Sauvage”, is available for purchase now at Jovoy. Collins has also recently launched “Sweet Taboo” as the first fragrance from his upcoming second collection, “Dark Romance.”
You can read more about Collins and purchase his products here.