Indie Perfume Brand Spotlight: Clandestine Laboratories

There are so many interesting independent perfume brands around, so we've started a new feature, Indie Perfume Brand Spotlight, where each week we will question different brands to find out more about their brand and the people behind it. This time we question Mark Sage from Clandestine Laboratories.

About You​

Tell us who you are?

My name is Mark Sage, I’m a photographer and accidental perfumer with a strong background in chemistry. I’m first generation English-American, born in Texas, grew up in St Louis, lived in Minneapolis for 12 years, Manhattan for 12 years, now in the Bronx. At my day job as a b&w photographic printer and retoucher (old-school analog photography) I make prints for well-known photographers and artists; I’ve been doing that for over 25 years.

How did you get into the perfume industry?

Almost ten years after becoming obsessed with learning perfumery on my own I launched an indie brand and did a fragrance with a more established brand.

What was the first perfume you ever purchased?

The first memorable one was Coriandre, which I absolutely love. I’d never bought any fine fragrance before I started doing perfumery and still know very little about existing fragrances, which is something unusual about my approach.

I joke about fragrance addiction but really I think a lot of the compulsion comes from the fact that many fragrances don’t provide the satisfaction people crave. The marketing is seductive, the packaging appealing, but the juice often falls flat or smells similar to existing fragrances.

What is your favourite meal?

Probably a steak banh mi sandwich from a little place near Union Square. Or a good pizza.

Where is your favourite place?

NYC, it’s so many places in one, you don’t need a car to travel and the people are great. I love being able to talk to people from all over the world and most are generally friendly as long as you have something to say, preferably something funny. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Bronx. For the most part people are respectful and kind and there are woodlands a short walk from my place.

Do you have an interesting party trick or any hidden talents?

I’ve been doing martial arts for over 40 years, something most people don’t know about me.

Who would play you in a film of your life?

Val Kilmer or Joaquin Phoenix. Someone with intensity and good cheekbones. Fun fact: in the train riot scene in Joker, Phoenix runs off at my stop on the D train; his character lives in my neighborhood.

About your Brand​

Describe your brand in one sentence.

Clandestine Laboratories is an auteur indie brand that aspires to niche-level quality and reinvents all the rules (except IFRA regulations) while emphasizing wearability.

Where does the name of your brand come from?

My dark sense of humor and natural reclusiveness. I’d originally intended to remain anonymous and it struck me as the perfect branding for an urban indie perfumer like myself who was completely unknown and dashingly mysterious/edgy. It also describes my business model, which is drug dealing but with taxes and regulations, basically. I have the good stuff, people know they can trust my product: ideally they get hooked and come back for more.

I joke about fragrance addiction but really I think a lot of the compulsion comes from the fact that many fragrances don’t provide the satisfaction people crave. The marketing is seductive, the packaging appealing, but the juice often falls flat or smells similar to existing fragrances. I try to make fragrances that are addictive in the sense that people find one or two that become their signature fragrances they can’t do without because they’re truly original and enjoyable to wear.

More personally, it also comes from a childhood obsession with spycraft and cryptography that has stuck with me. Possibly you also remember the How and Why series of British children’s books from the 70’s - there was a How and Why Book of Spycraft and I think also a How and Why Book of Cryptography and both had a huge impact on me as a kid. I’m fascinated by WWII-era history, the bravery and ingenuity of people resisting fascism, the underground resistance movements and the development of computer science and secret organizations.

Who are your perfume for?

That’s a great question and I’ve been surprised by the answer. I originally thought I was making fragrances for people like myself who didn’t particularly like commercial fragrances and who are maybe a bit fragrance sensitive. While I have had several people tell me they’re buying their first bottle of perfume because they can’t usually wear fragrances or don’t usually enjoy fragrance - something I’m very proud of - what surprised me was that almost a year ago I suddenly exploded on BN with people who are extremely knowledgeable about fragrance, including one of the reviewers I’ve been reading here since I started.

To answer that a different way, I don’t intend to be a “luxury” brand. I offer exclusivity via obscurity and an inevitably limited supply, at least so far. My fragrances aren’t cheap because I would eventually like to be able to support myself doing perfumery and doing this in NYC is expensive, but they aren’t priced to be exclusive or sold as investments. They’re made to be worn by people who want to smell reliably good and aren’t seeking status by associating themselves with a luxury brand.

Tell us about your latest perfume.

The latest perfume I’ve finished is Wendover, named for the town where my grandparents and cousins used to live. Like many of mine, I’ve been working on it on and off for years, making advances as I find new materials or otherwise figure out how to do what I intend. It’s my memory of the smell of small-town England and the countryside in the late 70’s when everyone used to burn coal in their fireplaces for heat. Anyone who is British and of a certain age will remember that smell: sweet, warm, and smoky in very specific ways. In this case, it’s a mix of coal smoke and dewy/mossy hedgerows with a bit of peaty Scotch and leather thrown in for good measure. I may release it in January because it’s great in colder weather, though it’s also nice right now.

If someone wanted to try your fragrances, which one would you recommend they try first and why?

Silver, just because it’s so popular and apparently so unique. Don’t be afraid to overspray.

What challenges do you want to overcome for your brand?

There are so many. I need to be able to scale up production with consistency, which is a real challenge for many of my fragrances because they depend on specific materials I bought years ago and which are essential for their character and performance. I need a wider audience to support growth but the economy right now is not encouraging that. I’ve had to switch from being a perfumer in my free time to filling orders and communicating with people, which I really enjoy but it’s not what I need to do in order to keep moving forward. I’m seriously undercapitalized relative to my goals but don’t want to give up control or go into debt - and I don't even know if I want to do retail or distribution or just stick it out at a complete outsider. There is still so much to learn about perfumery, but also about marketing and making it as a business. For someone like me, without backing or industry contacts, it’s a huge leap and peripheral to my interest in creating fragrance.

What is unique about your brand?

I hope I answered that above. My brand is original and non-commercial yet highly wearable - and for certain people that seems to be exactly what has been missing in the fragrance world. Plus I hope to straddle the niche and indie categories, which is a tall order for an upstart indie brand in a world that has become crowded with indies.

You can find out more at
About the author
Grant is the founder and owner of Basenotes and lives by the sea.

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