Disrupting the fragrance market with a story-driven approach to the bottling of scent, END. spends a day learning about the transportive powers of perfume with 19-69.
On an early summer's day, in the living room of a penthouse apartment on Copenhagen's Pilestræde, I discovered that time travel exists. It isn't by way of wormhole, and it doesn't involve any master manipulation of quantum physics designed to open the binding continuum of space and time. In fact, physically, I didn't even have to leave my seat. But nevertheless, Johan Bergelin - artist, product developer, and co-founder of pioneering luxury fragrance brand, 19-69 - managed to transport me across continents, offering safe passage to decades of the distant past by painting a visceral and immersive vision that used smell as the basis and built outwards, like being invited for a walk in someone else's memory. He did all this with nothing more than 19-69's debut range of six Eau de Parfums.
"Smell is invincible," Johan tells me, as we sit around a dining table smelling each of the 19-69 fragrances in turn. Joined by his partners Silas and Marco, each bottle represents the culmination of three years of intense research and development; the unlikely trio unified by their singular mission to bottle the powerful intangibility of memories and emotion. "There's nothing more powerful than our sense of smell, it's transportive in a way that's like nothing else."
Johan is quintessentially Scandinavian, with golden blonde hair pulled back in a low slung ponytail. He stands over 6ft and wears loose jeans, a casual striped t-shirt, and a pair of old Nike sneakers. His entire vibe is the basis of the 19-69 brand, aptly named after the year of his birth. "But it's not about me," he explains, "it's about the time."
A baby of the Bowie era, his life has been punctuated with paradigmatic shifts in societal structures and technological capabilities. This experience - coupled with his Swedish heritage, a country renowned for its progressive outlook - has informed each element of his career, never more obvious than in the disruptive approach to fragrance development which he has adopted for 19-69. Devoid of gender specificity, the fragrance range subverts the standard application of sex as a tool for sales and instead focuses on the creation of fragrances which convey a vibe inspired by memories of travel, counterculture, and real-life experiences.
"We're not working with gender, we're working with fragrance." He tells me, lifting the sample bottle of 'Rainbow Bar' from the table and offering it to me to test. "The nose is the nose, it's not different between men and women so I don't buy into this idea that we need to separate the two. That separation isn't relevant anymore, and it definitely isn't relevant to what we're doing at 19-69."
Diving deep on the company's working processes, Johan explains that it all starts with a story. "We write a brief for the noses at the lab, and then work with them over time to deliver a scent that embodies the narrative. It's about spending time with the fragrance and making subtle variations until it's perfect. When you smell it and it's right, you know straight away. We wanted to take an old-school approach. Many fragrances from the past decade or so have been very light, so we wanted to go back to weightier, heritage notes to set ourselves apart. We went through at least 100 variations for each before we got them right."
We wanted to take an old-school approach.
With this patience and dedication, 19-69 have been able to produce a collection of scents that are truly remarkable. Described by Silas as Johan's 'Rain Man' method, the company has put in the hours of work necessary to innovate and carve a niche in a market as saturated as fragrances and cosmetics.
"Johan is an artist and photographer from a time when photography was about three things: patience, planning, and an understanding of light," Silas explains. "These are the key principles that he's applied to 19-69 because he understands what it's like to work on something that can't be fixed later. You need to have a vision from the outset and be prepared to get it right from the beginning. We always say we miss our pre-internet brains because the internet has taught us to expect everything to come quickly and encourages younger people to publish content or release products before they're truly ready. Johan knows the value of patience and for that reason, we've not rushed anything."
"I like to close my eyes when I first smell a fragrance," Johan says, as we set out to begin our journey through the twists and turns of the parfums. "It gives you a chance to be alone with the scent and fully experience its layers."
As we work our way through each one, they explain the importance of cross-pollination between the senses and how each scent was designed to elicit responses from our other four touchpoints - sight, sound, taste, and touch - each sense stimulating the next to create a clear picture.
"Which fragrance do you think is cold, which is hot, and which is sweet?" Marco asks when we have just three left to try. Unsure of whether it's a trick question, I suggest that I think Rainbow Bar will be sweet, L'air Barbès will be cold, and Chinese Tobacco will be hot. "Exactly," he says. "It's about how all the senses feed in together. Even before you've tested the fragrances you have a sense of how they will smell from the colours and the names."
From the arid deserts of Morrocco counterbalanced with the heavenly oasis' of the country's walled citadels, Johan takes us on the three-day journey which inspired 'Kasbah'. Travelling for inspiration, Johan tells us the story of how he hired a taxi for three days and upon befriending his driver, decided to let the fates decide the course of the trip by tossing a Diram coin at each intersection to see where they would end up. A sweet scent full of intrigue and depth, the top notes of white honey and amber dissipate to reveal a woody base of sandalwood that feels distinctly Middle-Eastern. As we smell, the sense of freedom and abandonment that lies in leaving an entire chapter of your life up to chance seems to radiate from the bottle.
Next, we head to Key West on the southern tip of Florida - just 90 miles from the coast of Cuba. We meet the elusive Keenak, who's smoky patchouli scent and Woodstock survivor stories inspired 'Purple Haze'. Spending the summer in town with his family, Johan became captivated by the eccentric character he'd seen on the street with feathers in his hat, wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and a guitar on his back. Each local he asked had a different backstory for the man: he was a busker living on a boat in the dock with his mistress; he was sleeping rough under a bridge on the outskirts of town. Desperate to know more about this man of a million myths, he approached him busking outside the local grocery store and the two became fast friends. One day, surrounded by the quirky Hendrix-esque scent of Keenak's trailer, Johan asked him if he wore perfume. Keenak explained that he'd been wearing the same patchouli oil since he was a young man in 'Nam'. Then, leaning in, Keenak told Johan, "if you really want to know my real secret spice, it's the weed, man! The best one is Purple Haze, but it´s fucking hard to find these days."
Suddenly we're in the inner arrondissements of modern-day Paris, waiting for a metro at Barbès-Rochechouart. The frenetic buzz of most metropolitan cities is less intense in Paris, with the city's inhabitants taking the edge off with their pervasive sense of chill. Over the course of our ten-minute wait for a train, more than 100 nationalities have passed us by, a microcosm of multi-culturalism and colliding aesthetics. It's early morning, and the city workers are cleaning the station with high-power water cannons; the summer sun causing the water to evaporate soon after the cleaning is complete. The steam rises, capturing the scent of the asphalt which mixes with the cold metal and glass of the station. The station starts to hum gently with the electric buzz of a train approaching. The concrete notes of 'L'air Barbès' melt away to reveal the ink and leather base of the French capital beginning a new day.
Each of the six scents from 19-69's debut collection takes you on a new journey to a specific place and time, and most striking is the genuine individuality of each. After five minutes of killing time in an airport's duty-free, my sense of smell is overwhelmed to the point of uselessness with every new perfume inevitably losing all sense of anything unique. But even after two hours of testing and re-testing Johan's bottles, I'm discovering fresh notes and points of interest; each scent maturing and revealing itself to me anew. If 'Purple Haze' is Woodstock hippy, then 'Capri' is Mediterranean jet set. This is far from the bottled-mediocrity often rushed to market to fill the shelves in airport terminals and outlet malls. This is liquid art.
As with any art, there is a sense of vulnerability that goes hand in hand with laying yourself bare in a public forum. For most people, talking about themselves can be difficult but for with a precious few of their closest confidants, but the personal touch of sharing stories through scent is what sets this brand apart. "We call it a counterculture approach to cosmetics," Johan says.
There's a necessary leap of faith required in taking any idea forward, particularly when entering a crowded market with plans to disrupt the natural rhythm of things. Johan, Silas, and Marco's free-form approach, which puts the journey and the narrative at the centre of their process, is something undoubtedly unique, but as Johan reaches for the bottle of 'Purple Haze', sprays it on his wrist and - as if he's smelling it for the very first time - says "I've smelled this at least 4 times a week for the past two and a half years and... it's just fucking lovely."
It's obvious that it's been worth the wait.