Julia Zangrilli understands just as the stars can shape the pattern of our life, so can the correct fragrance. Since founding her Brooklyn-based fragrance studio, Nova, in 2012 she has not only been guiding people towards their custom scent, but also interpreting the astrological signs in the form of candles. Growing up in a Chinese/Italian-American household in State College, PA her upbringing was defined by two words, “exploration” and “expression.” With a restaurateur father she was surrounded with a sense of adventure and variety around the types of food and flavors and thanks to her mother she had the same feelings around clothes, design, and the arts. This combination bled out into a passion for fragrances later in life. Zangrilli says, “I’ve always been a “perfume person,” I find it to be a total game of identities and such pure fun.” In her prolific work since beginning Nova she’s made many fragrant identities for countless clients and friends. In our interview we talk about her path to perfumery and all the East Village nights out in between.
Let’s take it back to the beginning—tell me about the start of your fragrant journey. What was the first perfume you remember smelling and forming a memory around?
It was an Hermès one in a gold metal cylindrical bottle wrapped in maroon snakeskin-effect leather. I also remember Tea Rose by Perfumer’s Workshop I sniffed around the same time. I swiped them from my mom’s vanity and would tote them around the house in a box bag with other random miscellanea, as kids do.
What were the fragrances that defined you in middle school, high school, and early adulthood?
I have to say I can’t separate the smell of cigarette smoke from any of these fragrances because I was a smoker for all of them.
1996/Eternity by Calvin Klein: I actually didn’t own the real fragrance, it was a designer imposter type nail polish that smelled like Eternity. I think I got it at Deb! I didn’t wear it every day or even for more than a month, but it’s such a strong memory for some reason. I dabbed the polish on my wrists and it would flake off but I just brushed it off and didn’t care. I guess some of the smell stayed on my skin? Lol. I wore it on my wrists to go see Romeo + Juliet and that night my heart truly sunk down below my feet because I would never have Leo DiCaprio.
1998/Angel by Thierry Mugler: I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania, but went to a Catskills acting camp with city kids and discovered it there a summer or two before, along with Bobbi Brown makeup and XOXO. I wore too many sprays. I actually have footage from a home video my cousin took where she’s taping me like “I wish this camera had a smell sensor.” I’m curling my eyelashes and putting on bronzer, not giving a fuck, so immune to people razzing me because it happened every day
2001/Dolce & Gabbana BY: This was the sexiest, sluttiest thing I had ever smelled and I couldn’t believe it. I loved it. The bottle had leopard print with a silver stripe. It definitely felt like a sneaky weapon that I could wear only at night or if I was dressed up. I wasn’t promiscuous at the time but I was obviously feeling myself.
2003/Escada Magnetism: Super flirtatious, like I was during this time. I was wearing it with that indie girl bang haircut and going out every night. Mostly to Mercury Lounge to see bands or other LES / East Village bars, but sometimes I’d get spruced up and go to that bar with the striped wall paper in meatpacking. There was an outdoor smoking area with grates for floors that always chewed up my heels cause I wore heels to meatpacking.
2004/Serge Lutens Datura Noir: This was a defining one in my mind because it’s how I discovered niche fragrances. I went up to Barneys one day and I left with this fragrance which was beautiful but too sophisticated for me at the time. The formula as well as the sensibility of the packaging. I didn’t end up wearing it more than a few times. No idea what happened to that beautiful bottle.
2006/Dior Poison: I went to college for performance and first smelled this on a fellow actor in rehearsals for a student show where I was playing a literal vagina. We were smoking cigarettes on break and the smoke mingled perfectly with her perfume in the cold winter air. The smell was intoxicating and this is what she was wearing. I got myself a bottle the next day. It jointly reminds me of a winter CMJ Chromeo show in the basement of a bar I now can’t remember the name of (did that happen?)
2008/Trish McEvoy Sexy 9: I really loved this scent. I love this bottle, the shape of it, and this was when it was sold with the black cloth bulb atomizer rather than a regular pump cap. Sexy 9 sadly reminds me of the absolute sociopath I was dating at the time so I don’t have it in my current collection. That mental trauma is all healed up so I could probably bring this scent back, though I will say I think my current taste for blackberry fragrances would be better met by Mure et Musc by L’Artisan.
Do you feel like your fragrance personality aligns with your own? If not, what do you want your fragrance to say about you?
It aligns with my moods and sometimes can set the scene for my own imagination. But I wouldn’t say fragrance aligns with my personality. I don’t really want it to say anything about me these days, it’s for my pleasure first—I’m pretty adamant about that. I do think about how it will remind three specific people I love (my husband, my kids) of me years down the line.
What was your path to becoming a perfumer? Was there a particular moment that made you take a leap into fragrance?
I didn’t think it was something I would or could do until I stumbled into a raw materials intro class. I very quickly became obsessed with fragrance materials and the rest is history (a phrase I never use, but a whole decade really flew like that so it does feel appropriate!)
What has been one of your favorite collaborations to date?
I loved working with Opening Ceremony. Their teams always had great ideas and input, but let me lead and do my thing. They were only a pleasure to work with. I did four sets of scent layering pallets with them in 2014 and launched my astrological candles with them in 2018.
Not only does Nova produce custom fragrances for individuals and clients in addition to the signature line—but you also put out otherworldly candles. Each candle in your collection corresponds to a group of astrological signs (fire, earth, air, water) Can you talk about your approach to making these signs into unique candle scents?
Thank you for this thoughtful question! I wanted to capture at least one character trait of each trio of signs that fall under each element. The sophistication of Capricorn translated to a suede note, the dreaminess of Pisces translated into rice milk, the Venus in Libra became rose, the aggressiveness of Aries translated to clove, etc. There was a lot of crossover given the commonalities of each trio, but there were tricky moments where I had to lean into a direction more than one of the obvious characteristics of a sign was highlighted. I channeled the softness of Scorpio for example, in order to get Water Signs to a harmonious place. I also very much kept in mind that the element itself needed to come through.
On that note (no pun intended) what’s your sign and do you feel like you’re aligned with what it implies?
I’m Capricorn sun, Scorpio rising, Pisces moon, and yes, I am mostly aligned with those signs. That said, my chart has Taurus and Sag dominance with almost no air—this also makes sense.
Do you have any favorite notes or notes you’ve come to love over the years as you’ve expanded your own library?
TOO MANY! I do think one of the most comforting raw materials that I always looooove to smell is Balsam Fir absolute. It’s this thick, delicious, balm-esque material. It’s cozy and sweet, but not saccharine. It’s warm, delectable, beautiful, and earthly, but also with an airy element. It’s a total healing note that wraps me up and makes me feel like I’m being hugged. Ugggg, it’s amazing!
What trends have you noticed at the end of 2020 coming into 2021? Do you feel like more people are embracing fragrance than ever before as a transportive experience?
I do feel like people are embracing it as transportive and using it nostalgically—I certainly am. I’m currently re-buying old favorites. In winter I re-bought Thierry Mugler’s Angel after many years, and also got Angel Muse while I was at it. I was surprised that Angel Muse is much more wearable to me. Then I was craving gourmande again, which is funny because I saw your last interview with Servideo who said the same thing. Gourmande in the time of Covid-19 makes sense. On some nerd shit in December I bought the 2012 version of Dior Addict on eBay. I just felt like bringing back some old friends for fun. Market wise trends—I’m seeing a lot of dupe companies popping up which I suppose says a lot about how mainstream “niche”, and certain cult luxury fragrances, have become thanks to IG, YouTube and I assume TikTok. I’m also seeing so many “clean” fragrances around at Sephora and in Target. The big come up of clean beauty retailers like Credo, is telling, and the level of transparency people demand.
What’s in your current collection? Are there any niche fragrance houses you’re drawn to right now?
Weirdly I feel like I am just getting started with my collection. I have a big catalog in my memory, but not nearly as much in my cabinet as I would like. I had a long period of not really wearing fragrances or buying new ones. There are a few reasons that I can go into if you want, otherwise I’ll just say I’m very happy to be out of that phase because it sucked. To answer your question though, Byredo was so influential in terms of me wanting to become a perfumer. Olivia Giacobetti is such a legend, so I’m a Byredo loyalist even though it’s now under a much larger group. Recent niche buys reflect the seasons I bought them. In summer 2020 I bought Untitled by Margiela and the classic Diptyque Philosykos (Giacobetti again).
Those were old ones I had been meaning to get. Winter 2020 when I bought them, Memo Inlé was somewhat new to my memory and is beautiful. A new one for me is Cafe Tuberosa from Atelier Cologne who I briefly worked for. This launch is a dream. The blend of coffee beans with Tuberose spices and cacao makes me feel like the Mom I want to be, going to get pastries on the weekend and leaving lipstick kisses on my kids’ cheeks. I love Parfums de Marly Oajan, I wore it around Christmas. It’s another walking pastry fragrance. There are a dozen houses I want to go smell the full collections of when Covid lets up. I also really want to build a collection of the best celebrity fragrances, which isn’t niche but is A niche.
What do you want to see change in the fragrance industry?
I would love for there to be stricter guidelines and more repercussions for misleadingly calling any fragrance product, be it a personal fragrance, a candle, whatever, “NATURAL”. It’s the same problem with food labels. This is obviously a moral responsibility—when I see companies (big ones, small ones) or any type of consultant in the fragrance field using technical loopholes in order to print the word “natural” in a slant way it gets my goat, because people believe what they read. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they know how unregulated the industry can be? The wrong info gets into the mouths of store owners and sales people and the minds of beauty editors, and it gets to be a lot of false info circulating. I have seen round-ups by editors that were way off base, and I’ve seen stores mistakenly stocking the “wrong” products for their ethos. Companies should be forced to spell out and back up these types of claims.
Check out more of Julia’s work here. Support Nova perfume here.
Interview and all visuals by Elizabeth Renstrom.