Unraveling Othertopias: How Aesop’s Barnabé Fillon Melds Innovation With Tradition Through Fragrance | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Photo: François Halard

In this exclusive interview with Lifestyle.INQ, Aesop’s Barnabé Fillon decodes the architecture behind the Othertopias fragrance collection

Nostalgia – what ignites it? 

A walk down a familiar road. The sound of a song you haven’t heard in a while. Perhaps it is a whiff of a scent you thought you had forgotten. Nostalgia is prompted by moments that compel you to utilize each of your senses. 

For Aesop’s Barnabé Fillon, these senses serve as instruments to an orchestra. A harmonious amalgamation of inspiration, the “Othertopias” fragrance collection is the product of melding this nostalgia – these memories – with reality. 

Through the course of over a decade, Fillon has trained and evolved in the realm of fragrance. Utilising traditional and craft-oriented methods, his compositions often incorporate natural botanical ingredients. In 2012, he joined forces with Aesop to further develop their range of scents. Since then, their enduring relationship has resulted in the creation of the “Othertopias” fragrance collection.

In this exclusive interview, Lifestyle.INQ speaks to the French perfume designer to discuss the architecture behind his creations with Aesop, his varied sources of inspiration, and the intricacies that go into the craft of creating scents.

Photo: courtesy of Aesop
Could you share with our readers how your career began? Do you recall any events in your life that shaped your approach to your work today?

My interest in perfumery really began to evolve when I was studying at a Visual Art School, and was specialising in photography. I used a Polaroid camera to take pictures of botanicals to reveal the ‘architecture of nature’ – all the patterns and repetitive structures across the elements in nature. This was how I developed my interest in ingredients for fragrance – even today when I create a perfume I explore this same style of photography as inspiration.

It was during that time that I had the opportunity to be formally trained by a perfume specialist who helped me unlock some of the keys to olfactory design. From then on it was work, work, work – ever since I’ve been researching and composing fragrances using traditional craft-oriented methods. I like to use natural botanical ingredients inspired by my travels, as well as play with the idea of innovation versus tradition.

What would you say is the biggest challenge whenever you embark on a new project?

So much of the fragrance industry revolves around developing new fragrances as quickly as possible, so there is always something new on the market. It works for some, but I prefer to take the time needed to build a fragrance to its full potential wherever possible.

Thankfully this has been the experience of working with Aesop on the Othertopias collection. It has really been a long-term research project – we first discussed the idea together seven or eight years ago, and it took us a long time in between exploring different schools of philosophy, digesting the ideas, the first visuals, and trialling the perfume. We all had these ideas in our minds, but to bring it down to that one range that exists today, it’s taken a long time. But not because it’s not been difficult – it took a long time because we gave this range the time and space that it needed to come together. It’s wonderful to work that way – it’s rare.

“It took a long time because we gave this range the time and space that it needed to come together. It’s wonderful to work that way – it’s rare.”

Fragrances are an extremely personal and even intuitive part of one’s routine. How much do your instincts play a role in your creative process when creating a new fragrance?

Intuition is a really important part of the process. When I create a new perfume, my process really starts with the visual. Scent evokes associations, creates images and patterns in the mind. I always start off with a blurry image which becomes more focused over time.

Once I’ve found the initial ingredients I want to work with for the concept, a crucial part of my creative process is to wear the fragrances on different textiles as well as my own skin, so I can smell them at different times of the day and over and over again to understand its effect in different contexts. It is a very circular process: each time you move a new ingredient may come to the surface, or maybe you notice another layer of the complexity that continues to inspire and inform the whole procedure.

What makes the Othertopias collection so special? Could you share with us how this collaboration with Aesop began, and what were your favourite parts of the process?

In 2017, a philosopher friend of mine and I discussed the idea of interstitial space from different philosophers, and shared these ideas with Aesop’s Creative team. From this, we began to work on the idea of a perfume collection.

The Othertopias collection is about the study of interstitial space; it is a piece of research on the boundaries between real and imagined, the physical and the abstract. The concept served as scaffolding the development of these perfumes. They are an homage to the work of Gaston Bachelard and many other philosophers and thinkers that have worked with the idea of these spaces that are relative to realities, and have this capacity to make us travel and unlock reveries.

As a result of their intricate inspirations, these are some of the most complex and experimental fragrances I’ve ever created. From the beginning, our aim was to transport each wearer to a much more engaging territory, where people need to interrogate their reality, meaning not only seeing what you see as it is, but understanding different perceptions. Perfume itself is an othertopia, in that it’s a physical item, a liquid you apply to your skin, designed to transport you to a different place or a different mindset. This collection is really special – it’s for the curious and to make people curious.

“The Othertopias collection is about the study of interstitial space; it is a piece of research on the boundaries between real and imagined, the physical and the abstract.”

Could you tell us more about the inspiration behind Ouranon, the final fragrance of the Othertopias collection to be launched?

In the development of the Othertopias collection, Ouranon felt like the last one in the chronology of the series—it is really the one that was closest to what we call ‘the end’ whilst also representing this idea of ‘the end’ never really ‘ending’. It speaks to the idea of places or events in life that have a different chronology and geography.

For the ‘Monolith’, which is the concept behind Ouranon, it is really interesting to think of this almost indestructible sculpture of architecture, which has crossed centuries, something of the past, representing civilisations through the ages—a structure that connects us to the civilisation of that time.

Photo: courtesy of Aesop

This architecture of the past can be found in the geographical sources of inspiration—the main one being the ruins of Petra, a clay, dusty desert that was once a caravan route, a place where Mira (Myrrh) and Boswellia (Frankincense) were sold along the spice, trading routes. There is this idea of a persistent image, like looking at the unforgettable ruins of ancient cities that offer a symbol of civilisation’s resilience and time through stone. In this stone, there is this conservation of essence and resins, the ageing of these substances, and somehow this is something that the perfume can create involuntarily.

Ouranon is also a bit about transcendence, similarly to Gloam which embodies the state where thoughts turn inwards as the outside world recedes. Here, with Ouranon, we are going to the end, and we really let go, we enter a new cycle—looking at civilisations from the past or questioning the future. 

How do you think your personal style or identity is reflected in the work that you do with Aesop?

I feel like my work with Aesop is very reflective of who I am because throughout our many years together, we have always shared a deep regard for both science and nature, and belief in the marriage of innovation and tradition. We are also really matched in our aesthetic leanings and cultural interests: we value what has depth and longevity over what is momentarily fashionable. It means we prefer a longer approach when developing new products, following every promising idea and path exhaustively.

Equally, many of the fragrances we’ve co-created were directly inspired by my own travels and experiences. In fact, one of my most incredible memories is creating Hwyl with the team. The idea for the perfume began when I was in Yakushima in Japan. I was exploring the beach with my dad, and I found this huge branch on the sand, and I had this intuition to smell it. I was expecting driftwood, but really it was a Hinoki branch that had been through the sea and was salty and beautiful. So I brought some of the branch with me, took it to the Aesop office, and this was the inspiration for Hwyl. This sort of thing happened so often with Aesop, where there is some intuition, there is some connection between my own life and the project.

Are there any industry luminaries you look up to? Could you share how their work has inspired you?

Generally I’m not as close to the industry because I’m inspired by a lot of other worlds, but there are a few important people that I consider mentors. There is Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garçons, and Christian Astuguevieille, the Creative Director who made the fragrance of Comme des Garçons. Since the beginning they created something really inspiring, disruptive and singular. Another inspiration would be Serge Lutens because he is the father of niche perfumery. He created a new type of perfume, more than 25 years ago, and he was a great art director.

‘Ouranon’ and the Othertopias fragrance collection is available online via Aesop’s website, and in-store at Aesop Greenbelt, SM Aura, and Powerplant Mall. 

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