Marissa Zappas

I first became aware of Marissa’s work at the beginning of 2021 through her now cult classic fragrance, Annabel’s Birthday Cake. I had recently graduated to the gourmand stage of my perfume obsession, and was delighted to hear of a scent that could transport you to the smell of a tea party for all your favorite dolls. After some exchanges, I had the pleasure of visiting her Brooklyn-based lab and smelling not only Annabel’s Birthday Cake, but a majority of her other gorgeous offerings. I was continually blown away with each new tester strip. The running theme of all of Marissa’s perfumes is that they take you somewhere. They are deeply woven fragrant narratives that also happen to be a complete joy to wear. Her approach to perfumery merges her background in anthropology with her admiration for avant-garde perfumes of the early twentieth century. Her fragrances are often personal, but she is also known for her collaborations with New York City artists and writers. Her ethereal and deeply nostalgic perfumes blend the fantasy with the real, and the gothic with the modern. I caught up with Marissa below about her unconventional journey to becoming a perfumer, and what’s to come in 2022 from her brilliant nose.

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?

The first perfume I remember is actually the one that I now somehow don’t. It was given to me by my great aunt and it was a very old fashioned, musky jasmine. It smelled gray. I barely wore it, but relied on it for comfort, and would often spray my pillow with it. It never seemed to run out. I wish I knew the name of it, I’m not sure it even had a label. I think it’s what formed my love for old-fashioned jasmine fragrances, as I can’t seem to stop making them.

Selections from Marissa’s perfume collection

What were the fragrances that defined you in middle school, high school, and early adulthood? 

Babydoll by YSL and Shalimar by Guerlain (my great grandmother wore it).

Do you feel like your fragrance personality aligns with your own? If not, what do you want your fragrance(s) to say about you?

I think it does. I like quiet drama in perfume. Nostalgic and not really of this time. 

You’ve had a unique path to becoming a perfumer, and I feel like your current scent design practice is equally special. Could you take me through your career a bit and how you’ve landed as a freelancer?

I was finishing a graduate degree in Anthropology, looking at the history of cemetery construction at the point during the French Revolution when cemeteries shifted from centers of cities to the outskirts. I realized perfume began to popularize around this time as well, which I thought was interesting. The more I learned about the history of perfume, the more fascinated I became, and so I took a job working in a commercial fragrance house towards the end of my studies as a temp receptionist. Right when I graduated there was an opening in the lab to train with a master perfumer, Olivier Gillotin (my mentor), so I immediately applied and somehow got it. I trained there with him for two years, then left to work independently in 2017. 

A lot of your incredible fragrances in 2021 were born out of collaboration—can you talk about how you chose what projects to lend your nose to and why?

It’s difficult for me to come up with concepts for perfume—I’m better at the actual making of it. I’m not good at branding. For example, Elizabeth, Annabel and Liara all had strong concepts for their fragrances and I just sort of immediately agreed. I love collaborating because they push me in directions I wouldn’t normally go. If I could make whatever I wanted, I’d probably be making exclusively old-fashioned, powdery florals, but that’s not really what the people seem to want. Or do they…?

How does your poetry inform your perfumery? 

I think they are both very subconsciously informed.  Smells are memories. I’ve said this before, but I think perfume and poetry are both about the dwindling down of words. Perfume essentially has none, while poetry has few. 

Annabel’s Birthday Cake

Do you have any favorite notes or notes you’ve come to love over the years as you’ve expanded your practice?

Coumarin. Coumarin is the synthetic version of tonka bean. When I first started, I really didn’t pick up on how incredibly complex it is, and in how many different ways it can be used. Initially, I was really drawn towards ionones and orris notes. Most of my perfumes have some iris component, but there is so much more under the surface with coumarin. At first sniff it just seems like a combination of vanilla, cherry, hay, and woodsy elements. However, without it, perfumery really would not be what it is. What it brings to the table is unlike any other raw material, in my opinion.

If you could scent any movie (ie. what fragrance would define the mood of the narrative, characters, songs, etc.)  what would you choose and how would it smell? I know you recently did a scented dedication to Flaming Creatures—so feel free to dive into that 😉 

Well, M. Elizabeth Scott and I scented Flaming Creatures, which is a perfume I’m very proud of. I’d also love to scent National Velvet, because it is my favorite movie, but also especially because Mike Todd was the original creator of Smell-O-Vision.

Flaming Creatures

What’s in your current collection? Are there any niche fragrance houses you’re drawn to right now?

I love Xinu! They are a small fragrance house based in Mexico City. And always vintage Guerlain.

What do you want to see change in the fragrance industry? 

I’d like to see bigger brands giving independent perfumers like myself a chance to make them something really special, as opposed to just going with a commercial fragrance house that runs on market testing. 

What are you hoping for your brand in 2022? 

Simply that I’m able to continue growing, learning and working.

Check our more of Marissa’s work here.

Interview and all visuals by Elizabeth Renstrom.

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