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In the first year of the fashion school, Jeroen Oude Sogtoen went to work – full of ambitions in haute couture – as an assistant for designer Frans Molenaar. However, after graduation, he decided to shift focus and worked as a designer for the bigger and more commercial fashion houses WE and Secon. Fashion formed him, taught him how to work hard and particularly how to think big. The ambitiousness is unchanged but the path is a very different one. Jeroen Oude Sogtoen is the mastermind behind the unique French-Dutch perfume house Mona di Orio. Founded in 2004, the company is inspired by the past but looks to the future. Jeroen was known as the “eyes” of the perfume house and business partner Mona di Orio as the “nose”. A very special team. Sadly, Mona died in 2011, but Jeroen continues her passionate legacy. An incredible story, especially for an edition devoted to the senses…
From fashion to the hotel industry
‘Fashion has shaped me and I was thrown to the lions at an early stage. There I was, just a kid, shaking hands with Audrey Hepburn. I had always just finished some important presentation, had almost missed the latest deadline. This went on for 10 years! It may not be polite to say it, but at a certain point, I thought: who cares anyway? But I did care. For the Dolle Dwaze Dagen, I had to design a skirt with my own print but all of a sudden I realised that I couldn’t do it. The party was over and I resigned immediately. Then, together with my partner, at the time chairman of Horeca Nederland, I established the Amsterdam College Hotel. We were convinced that service in the Dutch hospitality sector could be far better. For five years, I was the concept creator but what I discovered on my many travels was that not one hotel offered a lovely, luxury but also green cosmetic range. In the end, I decided to develop one myself. I got in contact with Luxury Hotel Cosmetics and together with them I have developed Zenology. We have just closed a deal with KLM, which just goes to show that if you focus, you can do anything.’
From Luxury Hotel Cosmetics to a perfume house
The reality was that Jeroen had absolutely no experience with cosmetics but had learned how to gather the right people around him. Jeroen: ‘When I needed a fragrance component, I decided to contact the museum in Grasse. They gave me the phone numbers of 2 producers, so I picked up the phone – 10 years ago now – and called Ms di Orio. And that, as they say, was that…
‘In the context of senses and intuition, there are people with whom one clicks instantly. That was the case with Mona di Orio and me. By posing the right questions, you can go on a creative journey together and I sincerely believe that there will always be a demand for this. Mona was an earthy person, a dreamer… She was different, truly different, and I was deeply impressed. I immediately thought: we will develop a new perfume house like Guerlain together, but in our own way. She will be the face and the name and I will be in the background. I had her on board in 6 minutes flat!
‘Mona was always trying to understand things. Through Mona, I met Alain Ducasse (first chef to have 3-star restaurants in 3 different cities, gaining a total of 19 Michelin stars, ed.). And she introduced me to wines. The first time that I tasted a real organic wine, I thought: it seems that there was a rotting animal in the barrel where they made this wine. I just thought it was nasty. One year later, I tried it again and although I didn’t find it delicious, I did think it was interesting. Another example, you’re standing in a bar in Milan with a really great person, and he/she says ‘You have to try this’. Then, you are predisposed to taste things differently. The nice environment and the stimulated senses, all 5 of them together, create a click in the brain. Okay, you might not find it brilliant, but again… interesting. And so you drink a bitter for the first time. I think this applies to everything. People who want to get used to a taste like whisky often become the biggest fans of it! I’ve learned that when it comes to smells, tastes, sounds, art or basically any of the senses, you really have to want to do your best! From day one, our target group was described in our brand bible as: those who want to know. This has nothing to do with elitism, but with people who want to discover things – because we aren’t instantly likeable, like, for example, McDonalds.
The colour, sound and taste of smells
‘Perfumes and smells have everything to do with perception. I sometimes ask people what colour a particular scent has. At first they look puzzled. The same applies to taste. One day, we created a menu with a chef that was based on our perfumes. What is a smell’s message and how could that taste? ‘What does this smell sound like?’ seems like a tricky question. But it really isn’t. If you smell a succession of fragrances, you will notice that one happy fragrance sounds less sombre than the other and that this cheerful fragrance is also much lighter in colour. The senses are all interconnected. It’s called synesthesia and Mona was always deeply into it: feelings, colours, sounds and basically everything went into a fragrance.’
The creation of a perfume: Oiro
The above does sound more and more reasonable as Jeroen explains it, but when he describes the evolution of their very first perfume, the penny really drops. ‘Our Portuguese neighbour couldn’t pronounce the name Orio and so she always said Oiro, Portuguese for gold. I thought that was a great pun. I asked Mona to create gold in a bottle and so she went to work on this idea for several months. How long exactly? It may sound crazy but it’s almost always 9 months. But perfumes can also lie dormant and then come back later. Seasons can definitely be inspiring in this process. I launched one of the last new products from Mona’s hand, Eau Absolue, only this year. The idea for it came to me on a beautiful yacht in Majorca. The feeling that you have sailed all day and then weighed anchor before nightfall… a summer breeze… that feeling. This was the language I used to Mona. I could explain this feeling and she could then transpose it…’
Eyes and the Nose
There was an important distinction between Mona and Jeroen: she was the Nose and he was the Eyes. In other words, the perfect combination for a perfume house. Jeroen: ‘Mona had the greatest nose ever as her teacher. She dedicated her entire life to smell and was, in my opinion, a real nose. But also more than that. Mona was a viticulturist and loved food and art. She used all her senses, albeit to varying degrees. I, on the other hand, am not naturally like that. With my roots in the fashion world, I primarily use my eye and creativity. But because I worked so closely with Mona, I can also think in fragrances. I’m currently working together with a new nose on new perfumes for our perfume house, so it’s a matter of finding the language with which to speak to each other.’
Relaunch – Spring in a scent
When Mona and I started out, all the fragrances emerged from storytelling. We began with 7 “poetry” scents. One of these is Amyitis, a classic spring fragrance. It’s early morning and you go barefoot into the dewy grass, the sun rises, the dew evaporates and then the scent becomes younger, fresher and warmer. With this narrative, we went a step further. There was a mystical element missing. A story emerged about the mythical Garden of Babylon and eventually we decided that the perfume had to be developed specially for “Queen Amytis”. So an oriental note was added to the scent, which gives it an entirely new dimension. Something exciting. This is, in the end, what story telling is about.
‘There were always ideas, but we needed something that would draw in the consumer. A message. You have to create a need for your product. This applies to fashion, and to everything, in fact. Do you think the world needed another perfume house? Now, I say yes, but to be perfectly honest, there is too much of everything. You need to have a story and, above all, credibility. I can’t decide whether you like or dislike our perfumes, but I can trigger reactions by passing on information. Mona was an artist, a story teller, I a creative who came up with the stories. The combination worked. We did everything together except for the actual making of the scent. Only Mona could do that and I would never aspire to it. But I understood what she meant and could present the narrative. I could even co-create it. She wouldn’t allow anyone else to be involved in this process, which is actually very intimate. The profession of being a nose is a lonely one, just like that of a composer. You have to imagine that every fibre of your being is gnawing away at you for nine months. In the end, you have to do it by yourself. A good pianist has to practise every day, store sounds in a library in her head until a melody forms. The same process applies to smell. If I give you scent components to smell every day, you may start thinking in sound shapes. Smell is our most primal sense and you can also learn how to smell.
‘After her death, people asked the logical question ‘How can you go on from here?’ Well, like a father does, for the sake of his children when their mother has died. Sometimes I feel almost like I am the only one who’s allowed to talk about these fragrances. Smell is the most powerful link to memory. In philosophy, for example, we don’t have any words for it. But we do in music. What you do with smell is to speak in musical terms, we speak of a symphony, of scent sounds and scent notes. I have learned to speak the language and now I can never go back…’