We love celebrating strong, successful women here at The Caviar Spoon, which is why we’ve created ReBelles. These are the women who are working it and owning it in life, work, and everything in between. Our newest ReBelle is Marie Aoun, founder and talented perfumer of South African fragrance house Saint d’Ici.
Marie Aoun is the talented businesswoman and perfumer behind Johannesburg-based Saint d’Ici who, together with 3 other Noses around the world, creates incredible natural perfume blends.
When I asked her if she’d like to do a Q&A with us, she kindly and quickly obliged. But, due to having just created a tiny person and balancing motherhood with running her business, said it was probably easier to email rather than arrange to meet in person. Fair enough
I discovered Saint d’Ici at this year’s Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair in Johannesburg, a carefully curated event that highlights emerging creatives from across Africa. While I didn’t purchase any of their fragrances at that time, I was immediately drawn to the brand. Their aesthetic is minimal and sophisticated and they’re dedicated to handcrafting limited edition blends using natural ingredients, most of which are ethically sourced right in Africa from small-scale farmers and artisan distillers.
They aren’t “limited edition” just for exclusivity’s sake. It’s because it would be near impossible to recreate the same exact fragrance over and over again due to the natural ingredients used. Think of it like wine – every vintage is different based on the terroir of that particular year. Same goes for Saint d’Ici’s blends.
Personally, while I love perfume, I tend to shy away from blatantly obvious fragrances that are either far too strong and synthetic or are so mainstream that they are instantly recognisable. I prefer those that are closer to being “skin scents”; the ones that settle in nicely and are really only discernible by those I allow into my personal space bubble.
So when I read the following on Saint d’Ici’s website, it was like they were speaking to me:
“Natural perfumes wear closer to the skin. They exist for you and those in your immediate vicinity. We like to think of it as polite subtlety :)”
Marie generously sent me a few samples of Saint d’Ici’s current fragrances after I enquired about where I might be able to find them and test them out. It was one of the most delightful and best smelling parcels to open!
Saint d’Ici’s natural blends don’t have the longevity of synthetic perfumes but they’re unmistakably distinct, gorgeously complex, and most are unisex. I’ve been testing out Entier, Moussem, Nomvikeli, and Une Mandarine Pour Mon Homme to see which one I love the most (I still can’t decide).
For example, soft and sexy Entier includes organic lemon balm and Himalayan cedar from South Africa, along with Madagascan coriander. Moussem contains notes of cardamom, rose, aged Bourbon vetiver, and aged Madagascan patchouli. It is a bit more masculine but still insanely sexy and would work well for a man or a woman.
Saint d’Ici is for those people who love it when friends lean in a little closer as they exclaim “Ooh, you smell amazing!”. It’s also for those who like to step out of the mould, who appreciate fine artistry and craftsmanship, and who prefer a subtle, sophisticated way of life. And finally, it’s for those who fully embrace being a limited edition themselves.
Why shouldn’t your fragrance be as niche as you?
Saint d’Ici’s full-size bottles are 30ml but you can order 1ml sample vials to test them out before committing to one (and they ship worldwide!).
Tell us about your career to date…Did working in the fashion industry influence your decision to pursue perfumery? If so, in what way(s)?
I worked in the fashion industry for 10 years. I cut my teeth as a sales assistant for H&M and Harrods. I then experienced a very different aspect of the industry when I worked for SA Fashion Week. Finally, I grafted at Edcon as a buyer and designer. I love the excitement of retail and the satisfaction that comes with, not just satisfying, but delighting a customer. Fashion and perfumery have always been close cousins. I think that the romance and storytelling of creating a line of clothing can easily be applied to the creation of a perfume.
When did you have your “AHA!” moment with your business concept?
I studied natural perfumery with Dominique Dubrana of La Via del Profumo in Italy. At some point we compared a home distillation that he had done from a home-grown Moroccan mint to the same product from an esteemed large perfume house. To both our noses, his home distillation was superior. The realisation that more rudimentary processes can yield better results than ‘sophisticated’ ones led me to seek out small-scale farmers and artisan distillers instead of sourcing directly from large, multinational suppliers.
My previous role as a buyer instilled an appreciation of the importance that our sourcing decisions hold. Sourcing African goods produced by farmers and distillers who either don’t have easy access to market or who support communities through the creation of perfume ingredients became my focus.
Who has inspired you the most in your journey and why?
Amy, the founder of Jane Sews, has been a huge inspiration. I have followed Jane Sews’ trajectory since its inception. It’s almost taken for granted now that one can build a fashion label on local manufacturing, natural and sustainable fabrics, timeless pieces and direct-to-customer selling but at the time it was highly ambitious. She has remained steadfast in her ethics and has executed her vision beautifully. Throughout my journey, I’ve held her success as my inspiration.
What’s been the biggest reward to date being a businesswoman and entrepreneur?
Being able to execute the pie in the sky. It’s an empowering moment when you realise that you’ve been able to translate your idea into something real and desirable to others.
And the biggest challenge?
There’s no anonymity in entrepreneurship – you will be seen steering that ship. Putting myself out there was a real psychological challenge for me. I think many women are unnecessarily plagued by a lack of confidence and overcoming this is hard work.
What do you do to get inspired?
The ingredients that I work with are my main source of inspiration and serve as the catalyst for most blends. I get lost in researching the plants, the cultures that revered them and even their molecular makeup.
How do you measure success?
Our focus is on cultivating good relationships with our suppliers and our customers. I learnt early on as a buyer that being friendly, fair and empathetic with suppliers is a really important investment. Similarly, loyal and engaged customers help to steer, encourage and support Saint d’Ici.
The biggest learning lesson since founding Saint d’Ici?
It is much more important to get out there than to keep polishing your wares in private. Our customers have generally been very understanding when we experienced any growing pains and they have supported us while we honed our craft in the public eye.
What advice would you give to women looking to succeed in the workplace or their own business?
I’ve been juggling a 4-month-old with running Saint d’Ici. I was having a bit of a whine to my mum recently and she said, “You know, we are the stronger sex”. It’s true, ladies.
We love how certain scents can trigger memories, bring you back to a certain place or a moment, remind you of someone. What’s one scent that always transports you?
I have many but the smell of anise is particularly strong for me. It always takes me back to drinking my uncle’s home-brewed Arak with the extended family in my father’s village in Lebanon. Inevitably, we spent a good part of a summer afternoon feasting on the best food. It takes me to a very happy place.
What does the typical perfume creation process look like for you? How long does it take? How many variations do you go through before finally deciding on the final fragrance?
I start with an ingredient. I research it. I try it this way and that: fresh and clean, sultry, spicy, gourmand… I sometimes try up to 30 variations before I’m clearer about which directions are worth pursuing and what the ingredient’s best friends are. When it’s been whittled down to 2 or 3 blends I try them on as many people as I can to determine the longevity of the scent and their emotional response to it. I then tweak it here and there until I’ve run out of time and need to let it be. It sounds laborious but sometimes the first blend is the winner with only a few minor adjustments as time goes. Besides which, it’s great fun.
You work with 3 other “noses”…how do you collaborate on the fragrances, given the distance between everyone?
In many ways we speak the same perfume language so this isn’t a problem. The Noses are also working with Saint d’Ici’s ingredients, which hugely facilitates things.
Are there any key ingredients/notes that you always end up gravitating towards when creating perfumes? Any new ingredients or discoveries that you’re particularly excited about experimenting with?
I tend to go through phases where I reach for the same ingredient time and again. At the moment I’m interested in those ingredients that pack a punch and should only be used judiciously in blends. The indigenous buchu is a good example. It has a very strong urine note, which can unpleasantly overpower a blend but the tiniest drop can add a very interesting addictive, yet indiscernible, dimension to a perfume.
Do you currently, or have plans to, do custom blends for clients? Or are you dedicated to creating limited edition batches?
Saint d’Ici has already undertaken quite a few custom projects. I really enjoy these, as they propel me to either use new ingredients or to use them in novel ways. A lot of the custom work that we’ve undertaken is on a once-off basis, so this is in keeping with our philosophy.
In 24 months’ time, Saint d’Ici will look like this…
No radical shifts. The addition of home fragrances, although I haven’t yet decided what the format will be. I am always on the lookout for new suppliers so I will keep investigating and trialing small-scale farmers in Africa. I’m also looking forward to doing more custom work. Basically, just getting better at what we already do.
When the going gets tough, you…
Vasbyt. An Afrikaans word that literally means ‘bite hard’ and figuratively means ‘persevere’. It means that you’re almost at the top of the hill and there’s a wonderful downhill to keep working towards.
What’s your one piece of advice on how to achieve a good work/life balance?
Be present in the moment. When you’re working, do it well. When you’re with your family and friends, forget your work and switch off your mobile. Being present in the moment, good or bad, is the difference between a life half lived or a full life. I haven’t yet got this down pat but I’m working on it!
3 words to describe your clientele
Informed, sophisticated, genuine.
3 words to describe you
Genuine, obsessive, creative.
One lady in business who deserves a shout-out…And why?
Robyn Smith from Faithful-to-Nature, an online retailer specialising in natural home and personal products. She started by focusing on a niche customer base but clearly had the foresight that natural wellness would become a growing concern for many South Africans. She is the customer and her insistence on transparency from suppliers and open communication with customers has cemented Faithful-to-Nature as the go-to for these products. She’s not just a successful businesswoman but a woman who’s brought a lot of feminine sensibility and sensitivity to her business.
Your motivational quote
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” Rumi (of course)
Your business mantra
Make it beautiful
Your life mantra
There’s only this moment
Your favourite position is…
Off-center. Creating something beautiful and individual.
Your favourite way to refresh and recharge
Lying under the trees in the garden. Incidentally and thankfully, my baby boy loves it just as much as me.
See some of Saint d’Ici’s fragrances here.