The West Coast is most stereotypically known for a preconceived lifestyle of daily hikes, green juice galore and alternative spiritual practices. But how would one define the olfactory aesthetic of said region? One fragrance brand embraced this challenge, creating completely cliche-free scents in the process.
Helio is the brainchild of Christian Bohdan. In collaboration with perfumer Ralf Schweiger, he devised The Color Collection, comprised of 6 fragrances: Bloozberry, Capsene, Chill White, Dula, Quino and Salt Lick. The brand’s name is derived from the Latin word for sun, so it should come as no surprise that all of the eau de parfums err on the side of lightweight rather than densely formulated, imbuing them with an uplifting quality.
However, if you are expecting a range of generic citruses, you will be mistaken (the range does offer a citrus in the form of Quino, but in this instance said notes are paired with Nootka cypress). There’s the clean vegetal notes of Capsene’s cucumber and bell pepper combo, the hint of darkness in Salt Lick’s liquorice root and rose pairing, the juniper berry and wormwood of the appropriately named Bloozberry. White floral fans will find their fix in the jasmine absolute notes of Chill White, while lavender purists can delight over Dula, which utilises only the petals of the plant for a refined and herbaceous aromatic fragrance.
Due to Bohdan’s background in natural raw material production, Helio emphasises superior quality ingredients — mainly those which have been obtained via supercritical extraction and molecular distillation, in addition to a variety of essential oils. The brand states that its core values are “simplicity, naturalness and freshness”, cheekily stating “if you want to smell like a cookie or a French courtesan, we’re probably not for you”.
Amidst coordinating his team across Los Angeles and Vancouver, Bohdan sat down for an interview to discuss ingredients-first perfumery, conscious consumerism and the scent of possibility.
How would you best describe the West Coast style and ethos which underlies the brand?
Helio sees ourselves as the leader in the West Coast style of perfumery, which is based on a conviction that is simple but significant: It’s what’s inside that counts. In perfumery, the tendency is to focus on the external — sex, money, sophistication. We’re not against those things, but when it comes to how we design our scents, it’s more important to focus on what’s inside the bottle. Helio is an ingredients-first fragrance house.
In this emphasis, we’re a part of a larger movement towards a more thoughtful form of consumerism. More and more, people want their products to be made with integrity. Making a product with integrity means using raw materials that are safe, healthy and environmentally-responsible. It means treating your employees and your suppliers fairly and equitably. And it means trying to uplift people and make them feel healthy and happy because of the products they buy rather than trying to sell them on their insecurities with images of unattainable wealth or beauty. There’s a long history on the West Coast of brands and people living out these values. Tesla, Patagonia, California Cuisine, Greenpeace and the sustainability movement. Helio is part of that. We’re bringing those values to fragrance and we’re proud of that.
How important is it for fragrance to move away from grandiose, exaggerated showmanship to something more authentic and natural?
The fragrance industry is intoxicated with its own grandiosity. Think about some of the perfume ads you’ve seen. The glamour shots of models, designers, even of perfumers. It’s all so uptight and overly serious!
The problem is most of us don’t care about this sort of thing anymore. In fact, many of us think it’s kind of comical, because, if you’re like us, almost every day of your life you’ve had products marketed towards you. You’re tired of being sold something that has no purpose to it other than the fact that it needs to be sold. You don’t believe in the grandiosity and showmanship. You want products that have some soul to them.
It’s absolutely critical for brands these days to be real with people. For Helio, what’s real is what’s happening inside the bottle. That’s in our DNA, because our background isn’t in marketing or distribution; it’s in producing essential oils from the Pacific Rainforest. That’s who we are and what’s real to us. And we think that when you focus on doing what’s real, you give off a laidback genuineness that speaks to people where they’re at today.
What were some of the biggest challenges and positive surprises when creating this collection?
Most fragrances begin with a concept. At Helio, we begin with constraints. We’re only willing to use certain types of ingredients. No parabens, no phthalates, no sulphates, no irritants, no animal-based products. Essential oils are good. CO2 extracts are better. Everything has to be vegan, cruelty-free and sustainably-sourced. The scents themselves have to represent a distinct West Coast style that’s clean, fresh and natural on your skin.
Meeting those standards creates challenges. The biggest one is having to say “no” to a scent you really like because it doesn’t meet those standards. We’ve created several scents that we thought smelled incredible. But for one reason or another, they failed the Helio test and so they didn’t make the cut. That can be frustrating, but it can also be rewarding, because when have you high standards, you can’t do certain things. And when you can’t do certain things, you have to take new and different approaches.
That’s probably the reason why our scents contain so many ingredients that are so rarely used, like Sichuan pepper, seaweed, bell pepper, liquorice root. These are not your traditional building blocks. This is not classical French perfumery. This is something new and innovative, something that surprises and delights.
What is the gap in the fragrance industry that you see Helio filling?
There’s a growing divide between what people think they’re getting in a fragrance and what they actually get. Increasingly, we want to know how products are made and what they’re made with. When it comes to fragrances, we’re no longer okay with wearing a bottle of cheap smelly chemicals. We want better.
The fragrance industry is not well-equipped to give us better, and frankly, we don’t think they want to because in a certain sense the fragrance industry is not really about fragrance at all.
Fragrance is usually sold as a way to sell something else. Luxury brands use it to sell their more expensive luxury products, fashion houses to sell their clothing lines, celebrities to sell their personal brands. The fragrance itself is an afterthought, and the ingredients aren’t thought about at all.
Helio is different. Our background is in essential oil distillation, so for people that want the best scent possible, we have a unique expertise that other fragrance brands simply do not have. This expertise gives us the skill to use modern natural ingredients that smell exactly like the plant they are distilled from. When you wear our scents, they have a clearness and purity that is unique to Helio.
We believe that naturals have something unique to offer the world of scent: a depth and a richness that can’t be replicated by synthetics. We design our scents out of that conviction, and are transparent about that focus because, quite frankly, we’re very proud of it. The ingredients we use are expensive and they’re not always the easiest to work with but we use them because they’re the best ingredients available. They’re what we want to spray on our skin.
Last but not least, what is your favourite West Coast scent memory?
It’s less of a memory and more of a feeling. When we travel to other parts of the world for an extended period of time and return back home, we’re always struck by how young the West Coast feels. From Vancouver to LA, we really are a young part of the world. We don’t have the rich history and traditions of Europe nor even the East Coast of the United States. Everything here still feels very new and a little raw.
In a way you can smell that newness and rawness in the natural environment. Obviously, there are plants and flowers all over the world, but when you think about the pure freshness of the Northwest Rainforest or the crisp clean smell of the Pacific Ocean, there’s something that’s uniquely refreshing and rejuvenating. It smells new and full of possibility. It’s an abstract feeling but it’s there. It’s something we really like about the West Coast and it’s something we hope Helio can convey to other people through our scents.