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Marissa Zappas, The Perfumer For A More Beautiful World

Nov 11, 2023Nov 11, 2023


“I don't think it necessarily takes these grand intellectual ideas to move people. I think people actually really want to be moved.”

In all the lives the independent perfumier Marissa Zappas has lived, she has always been in pursuit of beauty.

Whether it be ballet, which she trained in on and off for nearly two decades; her obsession with the Paris cemetery Père Lachaise that almost led her to pursue a Ph.D. on the topic; her poetry, which she feels most inspired to write when she is in love; her devotion to the film Oklahoma; or her newfound love of pole dancing, which changed her life, she tells me as she wraps her her arm around the silver pole in the center of her Bed-Stuy living room, her curls gently bobbing, her tiny cat Audrey Horne, named after the Twin Peaks character, asleep in a bed tucked into a fireplace.

It feels like a softball connection to make: a perfumier obsessed with beauty? Groundbreaking! But like perfume, Zappas’ brand of beauty isn’t skin deep; after all, perfume is the only commodity in the beauty industry that is unconcerned with how you look. Perfume is art that you live your life in; it’s about the persistence of memory, obsession, self-expression; it’s about luxuriating in a delicious feeling — all romantic qualities that Zappas embodies.

“A crazy amount of perfume actually enters your bloodstream. It becomes part of your body. It is such a personal thing; it is an extension of our bodies. It’s almost like a prosthetic in this way,” Zappas tells NYLON. “There’s nothing like perfume.”

Zappas has been making waves in the industry for the past few years. She is one of the most exciting perfumers in a new guard of fragrance obsessives who are revamping the stale perfume industry, determined to make singular, engrossing fragrances, often by hand. She has amassed a kind of cult following of fragheads equally obsessed with bespoke fragrances as they are Le Labo, who sing her praises on perfume TikTok, Twitter, and perfume forums like Fragrantica, particularly for perfumes like Annabel’s Birthday Cake, with notes of tuberose frosting and candied rose petals, or Flaming Creature (my personal favorite), a “narcotic, hazy ode” to the 1963 film Flaming Creatures, with notes of pink peppercorn, orange Ring Pop, night-blooming jasmine, smoke, and patchouli.

When I wrote about our current perfume movement six months ago, Zappas was mentioned by nearly every one of the dozen people I interviewed. Even the New York Times took notice, after Zappas created a custom perfume for the Museum of Sex: The Pink Bedroom Perfume Oil, a limited-edition fragrance that “evokes plastic doll heads, sweet makeup powder, strawberry candy, and an overall unnerving aura,” with cassis, heliotrope, rose de mai, orris resinoid, strawberry, and musk.

Everyone points to the same thing: Zappas’ fragrances hit different. But why? When I first interviewed Zappas in December, she told me she likes her perfumes to have one component that is unfamiliar. After spending three hours with her in April at her apartment, which also serves as her work space, what I think it is is that Zappas’ perfumes are wholly personal, extensions of herself, her own prosthetics, to borrow her term. Whatever the alchemy is, it’s working; Zappas’ sales peaked during the pandemic and remain high.

“Her work is evocative of the past while feeling fresh, exhilarating, and new,” poet Ariana Reines says over email. “Marissa’s work is genuinely poetic. It feels luxurious and mysterious, much more complex than the merely good or clean, much more seductive than just another list of beautiful bespoke ingredients. I feel she understands animals and minerals, bodies and chemistry, fermentation and crystallization. Magic potions. Intoxication. Baudelaire would have appreciated her work.”

Zappas’ next scent is uniquely personal: Maggie the Cat Is Alive, I’m Alive!, named after Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It is inspired partly by Zappas’ lifelong love affair with Taylor, as well as one of Zappas’ own more personal love affairs. It was a hard and fast relationship in which Zappas found herself doing something she’d never done before: She made him a perfume.

“It was the only perfume I’ve ever done for free for anyone,” Zappas says. “And then it didn’t wind up working out with him, and I resented the fact that I made the fragrance for him, so I was like, you know what? I need to turn it into something.”

It was a classically masculine scent that she ended up turning into a fragrance called The Green Ribbon, of which she made 30 little vials for Retail Pharmacy to sell. Zappas took Green Ribbon as the base for Maggie the Cat Is Alive, I’m Alive! but then turned to her love for Taylor, whose eye Zappas has tattooed on her arm. A framed and autographed photograph of the actor sits on her fireplace mantle next to a diptych photograph of her grandparents. It was a gift from Taylor herself: When Zappas was in elementary school, she would write love letters to Taylor, who eventually sent back an autographed photo.

“I wanted it to feel kind of animalic but also vintage. Also sunny but kind of dark,” Zappas says. “Elizabeth Taylor just screaming in the sun, that was the inspo.”

The result is a gorgeous concoction with notes of champagne, sunlight, peach, patchouli, ambrette musk, and oak moss, among others. She sprays some for me, and I want to drink it.

“All of my formulas are very personal, very charged. I think the magic in Maggie the Cat Is Alive, I’m Alive! is about the power of losing your head, and in that, feeling alive. And that coming back to yourself and finding your head at the same time,” Zappas says. “Because that was my journey: losing my head and then finding my head again. Which I think happens to me a lot. I get very enchanted and wrapped up in things, and then have to come back to myself. But that’s what happens to all of us. It’s always a journey back to ourselves after losing ourselves in these various ways.”

For Zappas, the joy is in having the privilege to lose your head at all. It’s not about whether it works out, it’s the joy of…

“Getting to feel alive,” she says, finishing my sentence. “I remember having a conversation with Rachel [Rabbit White] about this. If anything, sometimes I think I want people to just spray my perfume and think, ‘Go out and get your heart broken.’ There’s something great about getting your heart broken.”

Zappas learned perfumery while working for the Swiss flavor and fragrance manufacturer Givaudan, where she worked first as a receptionist and later as a lab apprentice to master perfumer Olivier Gillotin. She has worked as a freelancer since 2017, working on perfumery and scent design, but mostly building her business, which really picked up after she launched her sample bags in early 2021.

In 2020, she created Paradise Edition, a custom perfume to accompany the poet Rachel Rabbit White’s Porn Carnival: Paradise Edition, a book of love poems. Zappas also created a custom perfume for Sera Gamble, a creator of the Netflix series You, whom Zappas says wanted something that would “help her step into her power,” which in this case, meant a white floral, lemony scent with magnolia. She’s currently working on a perfume based on Swan Lake with perfumer Courtney Rafuse of Universal Flowering, a similarly celebrated independent perfumer. Her dream collaboration? A custom perfume for David Lynch.

But Zappas is best known for her own collections, which include 12 fragrances. Zappas started selling more in 2021 and says it’s been a gradual process of gaining popularity. It’s not always easy keeping up with the demand, particularly because she does basically everything herself (with big help from her recently retired postal carrier John Vick, whose goodbye announcement she keeps on her refrigerator).

Zappas’ tidy apartment houses her entire business, which is neatly kept to a workstation and an armoire packed with empty bottles, packaging, shipping boxes, and sample-size vials. It’s a sight to behold: Shelves above a large counter house hundreds of raw materials, or the synthetic and natural scents that comprise perfumes, which are kept in glass vials. Each perfume has upward of 50 different raw materials. It looks not unlike a chemistry lab. A guest recently remarked it looked “very ‘Willy Wonka’ in here,” she tells me. “I was like, ‘You’re not wrong.’”

Zappas urges me to take raw materials off the shelves I’m curious about and she patiently explains each one. “They all have their own personalities,” she explains.

I learn, for instance, that “animalic” means something like an animal drive, so kind of stinky, which includes notes like patchouli or castoreum. “Lactones,” on the other hand, are milky notes, while “ionones” are powdery, like iris and violet. Pear is always a synthetic scent, I learn, because you can’t extract it. “Natural rose” smells a little like the inside of a Claire’s. Both Zappas and Audrey sneeze during this process; they are both allergic to some scents.

It’s worth noting that Zappas knows what every single raw material smells like. She spent two years obsessively memorizing them, waking up at dawn before work at Givaudan to blind smell for two and a half hours. It’s a discipline all too familiar for someone who trained in ballet for 17 years.

“Learning perfuming really takes a lot of obsession, honestly. You have to be completely obsessed with it, and then also have the opportunity and the means,” Zappas says. “I was so disciplined when I memorized the smells.”

Zappas explains the basic process of making perfumes: First, she writes a formula on her computer, which she can do from memory, not unlike how a chef can write a recipe without tasting every ingredient.

“My favorite story is a lot of older perfumers, because you lose your sense of smell as you get older, they can’t even really smell anymore, but they’re still writing formulas,” she says. She references how Mozart could still write music after he went deaf.

She then puts each ingredient in a pipette until she has about 50 ingredients, which then get melted down. From there, she takes 0.4 ounces of oil in a sample vial and then fills the rest with alcohol. She covers and shakes it, and then there’s a perfume. It typically takes an hour to compound. From there, she tweaks the recipe until it feels done.

“There is sometimes this moment that happens when I’m smelling something and I really feel like ‘Ah, that's it. Ah, that’s it.’ And then sometimes I’ll tweak one or two things, but once I have that feeling, that’s it. I can stop,” Zappas says. “I can’t think of a perfume where I didn’t have that happen and I released it.”

Zappas’ early formulas were more simple, palatable, and “sort of commercial,” she says, referencing Violet Hay, The Sun Card, and Queen Nzinga. The ideas behind them weren’t particularly challenging. With Violet Hay, for example, she knew she wanted a perfume that smelled like violet and hay, and so she did. Now, Zappas wants to focus on scents she feels creatively inspired by, like Maggie the Cat Is Alive I’m Alive!

Like the inspiration for Maggie the Cat Is Alive I’m Alive!, much of Zappas’ inspiration comes from an earnest place. I don’t think you can make perfume well if you see earnestness as radioactive; there is a sacred austerity about the entire process. “I like to be honest. I’m a very earnest person. I don’t understand sarcasm. I’m also very literal,” Zappas says. “I like my perfumes to be very earnest, too. I do often worry that my ideas sometimes are cheesy or corny.”

For instance, she wants to make a Phantom of the Opera-inspired perfume — but worries it wouldn’t sell, a fear she is constantly at odds with. “Running a business in New York City is really, really challenging. Obviously, doing it all on my own as well is very challenging. I don’t have a background in business, so I’m really figuring it out on my own,” Zappas says. “My father was actually a businessman, I guess you could say, but he was a loan shark, so he was a very aggressive businessman.”

Despite being somewhat complicated, Zappas’ family lore has a certain unconventional romanticism. She is one of eight siblings, was baptized Greek Orthodox, and had a bat mitzvah. Her mother and father met while running marathons; her father was in his 70s when she was born and passed away in 2018. He was Spartan, from the Peloponnese region of Greece. She’s trying to obtain Greek citizenship but is having a hard time getting birth records because all the churches in the area were burned. He attended the University of Southern California on the GI Bill, bought a newspaper company, and became a bit of a loan shark — amassing properties that included a chain of gay bath houses across the Midwest and a cemetery in Tijuana. Zappas tells me about how he used to stand on his roof with a shotgun and hunt wild peacocks, pluck the feathers, and place them in giant vases all over the house before eating the bird.

But he was also crucial to Zappas’ experience of scent: He planted a fig orchard in his front yard, which was Zappas’ favorite place.

“Fresh figs are everything,” she says. “I think my dad always really inspired me; he was very hard to be around, but I think in a way I wouldn’t have my creativity if it weren’t for his eccentricity.”

Zappas grew up in Menlo Park and Redwood City in the San Francisco Bay Area. She dropped out of high school when she was 17 to attend a conservatory for theater, though got her degree shortly after. She went back to college when she was 24, attending community college in Seattle for a year before transferring to The New School in New York City, where she has lived since 2011. But her study of perfume didn’t come until 2013. She was interested in the psychiatric industrial complex in the United States, specifically the overprescription of drugs, particularly the history of benzodiazepines and the overprescription of women. She was trying to come up with a thesis and came back to her adviser, Miriam Ticktin, after winter break and told her she’d spent the break just reading Fragrantica blogs.

“I remember her saying, ‘Oh, my God, that’s so fascinating. We should do a course, just you and I, like a private course about perfume and history of perfume.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re so right.’”

So began Zappas’ deep dive into the history of perfumery. But she still wasn’t looking at it as a career: She had traveled on a study abroad program to Paris, where she became obsessed with cemeteries. Almost every day, she would go to Père Lachaise and wound up writing a mini ethnography on the cemetery and its history. She was going to get her Ph.D. in anthropology studying cemetery construction, but instead, right before she graduated, she took a job as a receptionist at Givaudan — and soon after, there was an opening to work in the lab.

Zappas doesn’t necessarily see herself as a perfumer forever. She’s deeply interested in psychoanalysis, which she’s been in for 18 years, and could see it as a later-in-life career, perhaps her last. It’s fitting due to the psychological component of perfume, particularly in its ability to firmly root you back in a body that a trauma has taken you out of.

“I think it’s so easy to be taken out of our bodies in these traumas, but perfume has always been something for me that’s really forced me to even just touch my own skin, and it definitely brings me back into my body,” Zappas says. “It’s something that you choose, that you have agency over.”

Anyone who has struggled with anxiety is familiar with the exercise of choosing things you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. With perfume, you get to choose what one of these things is, a kind of sensory anchor that is joyful, grounding, and sexy. Pathways to healing are rarely so pleasurable.

Zappas would like to expand her business, doing larger runs of perfumes and wider distribution around the world. She would like to be able to outsource her shipping and bottle filling — all things having an investor could help with — so she can focus on other things, details like having her boxes wrapped in cellophane.

“Part of the beauty of perfume is that it’s something that requires so much work. Perfume is something that is slow and requires a lot of attention and detail,” Zappas says. “To translate something like that into something that’s a commercial product, mass-marketed, is just inherently challenging.”

It’s easy to get derailed or to want to give up. Zappas has had her share of Sinéad O'Connor moments, as she likes to call them, where she wants to go live secluded in the woods.

“I’m not going to walk away from this, but I’ve also sacrificed everything for this,” Zappas says. “I think it’s important to hold thought space for my inner Sinéad O'Connor, because it’s real.”

But Zappas is determined to make it work — and well past the current perfume trend. Tastes, after all, change, but perfume, and Zappas’ approach to it, is timeless.

“Marissa’s work carries some of that classic, slightly animal wealth that mid-20th century perfumes conjure, a dangerous femininity from a time of greater mystique, but also more oppression,” says Reines, the poet. “When I wear Marissa’s work, I feel connected to the women who came before me, to luxury, confinement, fantasies of escape — and real liberty. “

When she first started, Zappas wanted to bring a lot of intellectual ideas to her perfumery, a holdover from her academia days. Now, she just wants to make beautiful perfumes that smell good: Her guiding force is one charged with love and heartbreak and beauty; everything that charges a life.

“This is pretty basic of me, but I think perfume should smell really good. I think it should smell beautiful, and I think it should make people feel more beautiful and confident. … I think that as humans, our natural desires are fundamentally pretty basic,” she says. “I’m just an earnest person. We’re creatures of beauty. I don’t think it necessarily takes these grand intellectual ideas to move people. I think people actually really want to be moved.”

Sophia June