Like Los Angeles itself, game-changing perfumer Sanae Barber draws her influences from multiple cultures and disparate influences, an approach she channels into her unique, unisex fragrances known as Sanae Intoxicants. Sourcing all-natural materials from around the world, she combines them into concoctions complex and evocative, new yet timelessly L.A.
Her layered and conceptually compelling perfumes capture the same dark and sensuous combination of nature and glamour of this town. Burning Ocean, for instance, is a mix of clary sage, pink peppercorn, ambrette, and cinnamon. Yet she’s also known for her collaborations with locals who both embody and shape the culture here—her perfume with Father John Misty is a grown-up ode to girlish floral fragrances associated with teenage yearning.
Recently, Barber took over Elements of Gray, a lifestyle boutique in Los Feliz, where she hosts fragrance-making workshops (even for pets!). We sat down with her to talk about her creative process and her favorite places in L.A., plus we get some tips from a well-honed nose on where to find the most intoxicating scents in town.
What Should We Do: You have a huge range of projects. How do your clients find you?
Sanae Barber: I feel very fortunate to have connected with all of my clients. They usually find me through colleagues, friends, and the vast network that makes up Los Angeles. I feel like L.A. is a wonderfully connected city with a huge network of creatives who are often very supportive of one another.
WSWD: What’s one of the wildest scents you’ve ever concocted?
Barber: The Coco Musk for Night Palm is a pretty wild, musky, coconutty scent with hints of lime and pear. But the Bonnie Billy [a collaboration with Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy] may actually be the wildest, as it has a top note that reminds me of gasoline, but then dries down to a sexy tobacco jasmine buried in a barnyard kind of vibe.
WSWD: What about recently?
Barber: My latest one that’s pretty far-out would have to be Nightcap. Think: lying naked on a bearskin rug, in front of a fire, with a whiskey and a cigarette. It’s probably not for everyone, but it’s been hard to keep that one in stock.
WSWD: How does one go about channeling an idea into a fragrance?
Barber: They all usually start with my obsession with one note and then I build around it. Since I work on so many collaborative projects, the initial inspiration comes from my collaborator’s vision. Lately I have been moving away from the deep, dark, sensual type of perfumes I am used to creating and going more into the light, lemony, white flowers—grassy, cleaner scents. I’m really excited about this new direction. I guess the biggest challenge (and what I am always striving for) is to make something that is totally different and new from the last thing I made.
WSWD: What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Barber: I now have a store in Los Feliz, and I am working on a line of face serums, face spritzers, and room sprays. I’m also coming out with two new perfumes that are fresh, citrusy, and grassy, with hints of forest hikes and gardens rich with vine-ripe tomatoes. I’m really excited about these, which should debut in the next month.
WSWD: Of all the places you’ve lived in and traveled to, why Los Angeles as your home?
Barber: I love L.A. for its diversity. Diversity in people and also its natural surroundings. We have it all here. I spend most of my time alone, hiking the hills or at the beach.
WSWD: What are some of your favorite hikes?
Barber: The Gabrielino Trail for something easygoing but deep in nature, or Bird Sanctuary Trail in Griffith Park. These two are my all-time favorite go-to hikes.
WSWD: What are some of the best smells in Los Angeles?
Barber: I feel like when I am hiking, that’s when my sense of smell is most alive. I really do get turned on by the smells of nature that come with each season and with different locations. These are the smells that often inform my perfumes, room sprays, and face serums. I’m particularly obsessed with the smells of artemisia, prairie sage, orange blossoms, and Scotch broom for Southern California, and for Northern California, I think of redwood forests and the smell of Douglas fir or the salty breeze and Eucalyptus groves.
WSWD: What about non-nature smells? Any places in town that smell incredible?
Barber: If I had to pick something outside of the natural surroundings, I’d probably say I love the smell of walking into Japanese restaurants—one of my favorites is Kombu Sushi in Silver Lake. Or a coffee shop—Bru on Vermont has the best cup of coffee in L.A.
WSWD: Where are some of your other favorite places for inspiration in town?
Barber: I find all of L.A. inspiring. I hang in dirty dive bars (Ye Rustic Inn in particular, but only before 9 p.m.) and fine dining restaurants (I love Café Stella anytime), talking to all kinds of people, and spend all day long hiking the hills or hanging at the beach alone with my thoughts. It’s all a wonderful world of inspiration to me. My job here is to do everything I can to remain open to the world around me, as well as to anything that can inspire me to connect with people through making something they love.