If you were a teenager in the 80’s you probably remember Ralph Lauren’s Polo cologne in the classic green bottle. Despite pimples, parachute pants, copious amounts of hair spray and neon color palettes, Polo made you cool. Or at least on the way.
Fourteen-year-old Chris Collins was obsessing over another popular fragrance at the time, Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. Prior to that he’d grown up smelling his father’s cologne, Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel. The bottle, the label, even the flannel bag it came in all left an impression.
Collins always loved fragrance and the powerful associations communicated through the olfactory nerve. Scent was its own language and he found himself longing to be the author of its many stories. Decades later he met the Hemingway of perfumers himself, Kilian Hennessy, which resulted in months in the South of France learning the craft.
“My entire life I’ve been obsessed with fragrance. I would always say to myself, ‘I wish I could create my own scent,” says Collins. “When I started to learn the process of perfume creation I was hooked. There are about 3,000 notes that can be used by a perfumer. To see them work to build a scent from scratch is art. The very concise method of building a fragrance with its top, heart and base notes… is magical.”
What’s also magical is seeing a passion through to fruition. Collins spent his early career as the face of Ralph Lauren. After 20 years as a model, he is now the face of Chris Collins, Alchemy of Fragrance, having made his dream come true with the launch of his eponymous line.
“After my experience with Kilian, I just finally had the courage to do it. The courage to create fragrances that I fell in love with and to share them with the world,” says Collins, who debuted his fragrance line at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. The launch party was so packed I said “Excuse me” to a mannequin I accidentally bumped on the floor of the men’s store. He was okay.
The collection features three artisanal fragrances (Harlem Nights, Renaissance Man, and Danse Sauvage) which are inspired by Harlem’s rich history and Paris during World War I.
“This particular collection is dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and its influence on the one that’s happening now,” says Collins, citing a cultural rebirth within the community, where he lives in a historic brownstone.
His famous face no doubt lent to landing prestigious retailers such as Bergdorf’s (and Ron Robinson at Fred Segal Melrose in Los Angeles) but Collins also credits his extensive modeling experience with playing a key role in understanding an important element in the success of any new product: branding.
He recounts his first visit to the distinctive Ralph Lauren “Polo mansion” on the Upper East Side in 1999. The impeccable attention to detail impressed him, from the weight and size of the doors, to the stately antiques and mahogany cabinetry, to the classical music and art. Even the staff made him feel like a visiting dignitary.
“I learned that day that any successful brand has to create a unique experience their customer feels a part of, and the language and message have to be strong and consistent,” says Collins. “Almost as important as the product you’re offering is the way you make people feel when they possess it.”
The fragrances, which are 50 ml and retail for $160, come in an elegant glass flask with a copper cap, similar to those found in Harlem speakeasies. Danse Sauvage is a nod to the renowned late entertainer, Josephine Baker, the first person of color to star in a major motion picture in 1934.
And speaking of women, at the launch, which coincided with International Women’s Day, Collins gave a speech that began with a special shoutout to women, the most important of which was his proud and beaming mom standing nearby. She later joked that she was relieved his line was finally complete so she could now throw away the hundreds of little sample bottles that had been accumulating in her home.
Even though the fragrances were created for men, they have a universal quality for anyone that appreciates a bold, daring scent experience. Several women I spoke with were purchasing Danse Sauvage and Harlem Nights, citing a unisex appeal, whereas I picked up Renaissance Man for one such gentleman himself.
Collins worked on the line for two years, taking the advice of his mentor Kilian not to rush the process. In an age where celebrities churn out fragrance like fast food, his careful approach is refreshing and with intention. You get the sense he’s not just in it for the acclaim, but rather to feed a deeply meaningful creative hunger.
He’s also upfront in admitting that he’s not a perfumer. He holds great reverence for individuals like Kilian and other notable noses, likening them to artists, whereas he is merely the curator assembling a memorable collection that will leave a lasting impression.
And, if the launch was any indication of how Chris Collins, Alchemy of Fragrance, will be received by the public, he could very well be the next iconic scent coveted by fragrance lovers everywhere.