Lesli Wood was so tired of floral scents she stopped wearing perfume. And then she set about making her own. By Mari Herreras
Tired of the heavy and floral scented perfumes offered at department stores, Lesli Wood simply stopped wearing perfume. She never gave up looking for a fragrance or scent to call her own, but the only alternatives seemed to be oils sold at the health food stores.
Then about four years ago, Lesli sat down at her coffee table in her Los Angeles apartment with a few high-quality oils and natural fragrances she purchased, determined to make her own.
“So this has really only come into its own as a business the past year, but [there have been] at least four of tinkering, learning and taking the steps I needed,” Lesli says, sitting in her workshop in the home she shares in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo with her husband, musician Boyd Peterson.
Thanks to an assortment of glass vials and tubes, Lesli’s workshop space has a mad scientist quality to it – but the kind of scientist who appreciates style, vintage and desert living. There’s Chico, Lesli’s Chihuahua mix, who might be the most friendly of this small wily breed, and a cow-hide rug across the floor. In one corner, a small antique secretary desk is filled with vials and looks like a mixing station ready for Lesli to bring her formulas to life. A ’50s-era cabinet against a wall stores larger bottles of fragrances and oils, and all the supplies needed to be, well, a perfumery: Lesli’s perfumery, called La Curie.
Vintage and style is something that Lesli has always had a love for and a hand in; she ran a vintage and handmade store in the Glendale area with Boyd before moving back to Tucson two years ago. In Tucson, they started Thee Collection Agency, a similar shop on Sixth Street near Sixth Avenue. But they closed the brick and mortar store early this year, allowing her and Boyd to focus on other projects, like La Curie.
This perfume business is a new world for Lesli, but one that allows her to use two interests she’s always had: science and art. “Perfume is those two worlds. There’s some art and design involved. I do all the graphics and packaging,” she says. “You have to be able to keep notes and have an interest in formulas or how chemistry really works. You kind of have to have a bit of a nerd brain.”
The work of mixing – discovering those formulas and what Lesli describes as “sniffing, sniffing sniffing” – is harder that most may think. But turns out Lesli has a knack for this business, and quickly figured out what she liked and what others liked. She learned that synthetic fragrances might be easier to blend, but she didn’t want to go in that direction. “I wanted to combine natural and essential oils and even a different, higher quality.” One example is what’s called an absolute, a name for a fragrance often described as a bit dirty and waxy, and considered a challenge to work with. Lesli, however, overcame that challenge and embraced what absolutes had to offer.
“A lot of handmade perfumers don’t like to work with these. The essential oils that you can buy at health food stores are extracted by a certain method and absolutes extract fragrance from plants using a different method. Not all plants respond well to an essential oil process,” she says. “They are also more expensive, rare and really concentrated and often have a different smell then essential oil form. They have more depth and complexity and are more highly regarded in perfumery.”
Figuring this out basically meant living a “How To” primer on making perfume. Lesli said it’s a model of living and working she’s always embraced. She didn’t finish college, and always figured how to do things on her own or seek the guidance of a specialist. “Maybe it’s because I’m an only child … but I also love puzzles and love a challenge. I read a ton and most of it was trial and error.
“I’m not doing this to make money,” she adds. “Much to my mother’s dismay, I’ve never gone into anything with the idea of making lots of money. I do this to express myself and maybe I can make money doing this.”
The fragrance Lesli first created on her L.A. coffee table is called La Curie One. She says she’s never changed this first formula. It’s her first top-selling of the oils she’s created and the positive reviews she’s heard from friends and customers inspired her to keep creating.
“It’s a lively fragrance, not heavy. It’s kind of active. A little freshness. There’s some bergamot, which gives it a lemony fresh sent and an undertone of leather, and a little bit of jasmine. When I first made that one I described it as wearing your favorite aged leather jacket and walking by a citrus tree in bloom.”
Right now the only stores that carry La Curie are MAST in Tucson and her former shop in California. MAST sells the full range: four oil-based perfumes, two face sprays and a natural mosquito repellent, as well as three eau de perfume sprays. Her remaining sales are online through her website and, thanks to an October 2013 review in a popular perfume and beauty products blog, those sales are increasing, even for samples.
“Before, online, nobody knew who I was. Really, how do you convey a smell online? So sales have been through MAST, and I’ve been watching closely what people say and buy,” she says. The feedback this past year has been phenomenal, with sales at about 40 bottles a month. “At first I thought it was people I know, and how nice it was that my friends are supporting me. I didn’t trust myself, but I was finally told that I probably only know 10 percent of the people who’ve bought at MAST,” she says.
Sending samples to the EauMG fragrance and beauty blog took some courage, but Lesli says she realized the publicity would help her reach an audience beyond the loyal following she’s cultivated in Tucson. “It was a positive review, and it gave me the validation I needed. It was the first time I had anyone who knows what they are talking about smell [my products]. She did a second review, so now I have two nice reviews. It helped. I’ve had people ordering samples from all over the place and discovering my stand-alone website.”
Her spray perfume Faunus – unisex, like all her fragrances – is woodsy and earthy, inspired by the Roman forest god of the same name. These earth-inspired creations, like Larrea with its touch of creosote scent, and even the name La Curie, happen to be inspired by a special super moon Tucson night – those big moon evenings we are treated to from time to time.
“I went to the El Tiradito shrine during a super moon,” says Lesli, recalling an evening at the Barrio Viejo shrine dedicated to unrequited love and loss, in which people for generations have left prayers and wishes in crevices of the shrine’s wall. “I don’t read my horoscope. I’m not really into that stuff, but there was a super moon and my husband’s mother wanted to go. She said we have to put prayer there.”
At that time Lesli was feeling stuck and not sure where she was moving in this perfume business, with no ideas for scent names. “Right after that everything came to me. It all happened in one week.”
There’s more running through Lesli’s head, along with the tubes and the notebooks open on her desk, revealing new formulas inspired by secret society symbols, roses, Northern Morocco, moss and ferns, and Italian caves. There are notes of crushed leaves and wet earth floating around there too. But right now her seven fragrances are enough for people to discover.
So Lesli finally made some fragrances she could wear, and ones she hopes appeal to people like her. “I think of them as a sophisticated bohemian group, but also artsy and rebellious. Except now you’ve grown up and you’re doing the responsible thing.”