Marissa Zappas Brings a New Scent to the Museum of Sex
Nov 14, 2023
Marissa Zappas, who has made perfumes with sex workers and astrologers, is the nose behind an exhibit’s provocative new fragrance.
Marissa Zappas, an independent perfumer in Brooklyn, specializes in scents that one fragrance reviewer described as “uniquely feminine,” but with a darkness bubbling under the surface.Credit...Justin J Wee for The New York Times
By Trey Taylor
A whiff of strawberry sweetness hits you as soon as you walk into “The Pink Bedroom,” an exhibit at the Museum of Sex in New York. The installation is a jumble of shocking pink objects (stuffed animals, makeup compacts, music boxes, shoes and sex toys) arranged around a bed made with pink sheets and pillows. But it also features a mishmash of smells: rose, baby powder and … is that cat pee?
The artist Portia Munson has exhibited different versions of “The Pink Bedroom,” a diorama that explores girlhood and femininity, since 1994. Her show at the Museum of Sex, which runs through July, is the first time the installation has had a signature scent.
It was created by Marissa Zappas, 36, a perfumer in Brooklyn. Ms. Zappas, who has a namesake line, has developed a reputation for creating fragrances with atypical collaborators like sex workers, poets and astrologers, most of whom are women.
“The Pink Bedroom” perfume — small bottles of which cost $45 — has, in a way, been years in the making: Ms. Zappas first approached Ms. Munson, 62, about working on a project together in 2018. Ms. Zappas loosely modeled the scent after the smell of Cupcake Dolls, a type of fragrant toy popular in the 1990s.
A theme of “The Pink Bedroom” exhibition is the loss of innocence, and Ms. Zappas wanted the perfume to reflect that. To balance the sweetness evoked by its floral and fruity notes, Ms. Zappas added cassis bud, which has an acrid smell that she said is often mistaken for that of cat pee.
“There are these classic pink ‘girlie’ smells, but then there is also something that feels unsettling, uncomfortable,” Ms. Zappas said recently while standing inside “The Pink Bedroom” installation, into which her perfume is pumped through a diffuser.
Ms. Munson said that Ms. Zappas understood “‘The Pink Bedroom’ is meant to be very seductive and beautiful, but also a little bit too much and a little yucky.”
Jane Dashley, who reviews perfumes for Fragraphilia, a fragrance website that she helped found, said that Ms. Zappas specializes in scents that are “uniquely feminine, like a fairy tale, ballerina, bows-and-ribbons kind of feminine.” But, Ms. Dashley said, there is a darkness under the surface.
In 2019 Ms. Zappas created a fragrance inspired by “Porn Carnival: Paradise Edition,” a book of love poems by Rachel Rabbit White. After reading the book, Ms. Zappas contacted Ms. White and the two developed Paradise Edition, a scent with notes of jasmine, orange blossom and salt water.
In 2021, Ms. Zappas released “Wh*re,” a perfume inspired by “Whore of New York,” a memoir by Liara Roux about her sex work. Ms. Roux said that the fragrance, which smells of cherry, rose and leather, evoked “the nasty, visceral fleshiness and the surreal glamour” of her book.
“I asked her to make a scent that captured the feeling of just having worked — something that smelled like money, condoms and sex,” said Ms. Roux.
Ms. Zappas said that although perfume has a history of being used as a tool of seduction, “sexy” can mean different things — or smells — to different people. She is less interested in defining what sex smells like than she is in exploring the ways and reasons people wear perfume. “Sex is a major one,” she added.
A fragrance called Annabel’s Birthday Cake, with notes of whipped cream and latex, is her most popular, Ms. Zappas said. She created it with her friend Annabel Gat, an astrologer who was born one day after Ms. Zappas.
Ms. Zappas runs her business from her apartment in Brooklyn, where part of her living room has become a perfume lab. Small bottles and vials of aroma chemicals cover the desk where she works, and just a few feet away is a stripper pole, which Ms. Zappas installed after a breakup. “Dancing really helps take me back into my body and not think so much,” she said.
While discussing what led her to become a perfumer, Ms. Zappas plunked a framed photo of the actress Elizabeth Taylor down onto a coffee table. The picture was from a collection that she said at one point totaled some 1,200 photos of the actress, whose eyes were the inspiration for a pair of tattoos Ms. Zappas has on her inner arms.
Ms. Zappas became fascinated with Taylor as a child, after seeing “National Velvet.” When she later learned of Taylor’s foray into the fragrance business, Ms. Zappas said it intensified her interest in perfume.
Ms. Zappas, who was born in Southern California and raised in the Bay Area, said she has been obsessed with scents since childhood, when she would spend time at a fig orchard planted by her father.
She moved to New York City in 2011, to study at the New School. In early 2015, she started a temp job as a receptionist at the New York office of Givaudan, a fragrance company that has developed perfumes for Coach, Estée Lauder and Tom Ford, among others.
During that job, Ms. Zappas applied for an apprenticeship with one of Givaudan’s master perfumers, Olivier Gillotin. At the time she applied for the apprenticeship, Ms. Zappas was studying cemetery construction. “I was learning about the history of deodorization,” she said.
Mr. Gillotin said her studies were much different from anyone else’s he had met working in the industry. She began her apprenticeship with him around the time of her graduation in 2015. When it ended, he advised her to strike out on her own, telling her then that she could make more of a mark on the industry from the outside than the inside.
Most of Ms. Zappas’s perfumes are produced in limited quantities and start at about $150 a bottle. She also takes commissions for custom fragrances, a service that starts at about $4,000 a bottle (refills cost about $200).
To develop a custom perfume, Ms. Zappas probes clients’ memories for scent associations. “This is my favorite part, learning about their specific memories from childhood, like what foods their mother made, or what their backyard smells like,” she said.
Sera Gamble, a creator of the Netflix series “You,” commissioned a perfume last July after discovering Ms. Zappas’s products on Instagram. “I was so taken with the idea that she collaborates with poets and astrologers,” Ms. Gamble, 39, said.
The fragrance is still in development. “Perfume is ideally slow,” Ms. Zappas said.
She is also working on “Maggie the Cat is Alive, I’m Alive!,” a perfume with notes of violets, peaches and champagne. The name is from dialogue by Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“I’m finally feeling more settled, with enough confidence to make a fragrance worthy of her,” Ms. Zappas said.
She added, “Quite honestly, I just feel alive.”