Roja Dove, born Roger Bird is a world-renown British perfumer whose fragrances are legendary. The dish caught up with him to find out more about the man behind the truly iconic scents and his nearing forty years experience in fragrances.
What was the first fragrance you bought?
I fell in love with perfumery when I was a small boy – I would often steal into my mother’s room to root through her perfume collection and steal a breath of scent. In retrospect, I was a bit of a strange child because whilst my piers were busy spending their pocket money on sweets and what nots, I was saving my pennies for perfumes. But it was when I was maybe about 14 or 15 years old, which was when I discovered my very first signature scent. It was made by Balenciaga and it was called Eau de Balenciaga Pour Homme. I totally fell in love with it and thought I was the chicest, smartest person in the world. All my friends were wearing Brut and Hai Karate but no, this one was for me. I always kept it because I thought it was very special. When I open it I become a teenager again, and am transported back to my earliest memory of how I, personally, smelt.
How did you get into fragrance?
Scent is such a magical thing because it gives a gift to everyone around the person that’s wearing it. My earliest memory of scent was when I was a small boy of around 6 or 7. “I remember vividly my mother coming to kiss me goodnight. She was on her way out to a cocktail party and dressed in a gold lamé dress; the light from the hallway illuminated her from behind, transforming her into an ethereal figure. It is an image that will always stay with me and the resonating scent of her face powder and perfume that lingered in the room once she had kissed me goodnight marked the beginning of my love for perfume. From that day on, my heart was totally devoted to the industry and I was set on a path that I would walk down for the rest of my life. I became enamoured with one particular house in Grasse in France and they essentially decided that I would be less of a nuisance if I was within their walls as an employee. I trained there and stayed for just shy of 20 years before leaving to start my own company.
How did you start your own company?
The day after I left Guerlain I set up my own company – I had been in the industry for years, but it was the start of my life as doing something for myself. My first project began with a charity auction for the Terrence Higgins Trust, where I was asked to offer a perfume to bid on. It didn’t feel right making something and putting it up for auction, as taste is so subjective, so I decided to get Lalique to re-blow one of their iconic Art-Deco bottles especially for me. I put this empty bottle up for bid, with the possibility for the winner to have a perfume made especially for them to fill it. When the winners partner immediately wanted their own scent made for them, too, my Bespoke Service was born, and it has been a steady business for me since then, working with a small handful of confidential clientele per year.
Not long after, Harrods invited me to open up my own perfume boutique within the store, and it was the first time a shop didn’t have to carry entire lines of a collection. I stocked it with what I found to be only the finest examples of perfumes from different houses. Whilst fashion has Pret-a-Porter and Haute Couture, I wanted the equivalent for perfume and the term came to me: That is how The Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie began. 15 years on, it is still going strong and you will see the term “haute parfumerie” used the world over.
Having had my own boutique in Harrods for some time, it then came time to launch my own brand, Roja Parfums, in 2011. I went for dinner with a friend of mine, and she gave me the biggest metaphorical slap around the face. She said to me: “you have spent your entire life protecting and promoting everyone else’s work. When are you going to do it with your own?” Whenever I look into perfumery your name is everywhere but if I want to get near to you, how can I as you have no product”. I thought I had been coping with the loss of my parents, but these words really made me dwell on the fact my mother had said that with me, the family name dies out. Launching Roja Parfums became my family legacy and I will never forget standing in Harrods on launch day seeing my entire life savings laid out on a counter. I had asked Harrods how many bottles I should create, and they gave me a figure to last a few months. To my amazement we entirely sold out within a matter of weeks. It was the first time a brand like this had been launched and it was a risk that completely paid off – thank god! To this day, I have only been able to pinch myself when I think of how this small, personal creation has transformed into a globally best-selling brand.
Please can you tell us a bit of history about the brand?
I think the magic of Roja Parfums is that it came about at a time when the public were really craving scents of quality, creativity and individuality. Having been brought up on a diet of olfactive banality, the public had become privy to the lack of imagination found in mass-market, block-buster scents, where the money was channelled into their ad campaigns as opposed to the scent itself. I launched Roja Parfums just in time for the beginning of what turned into the current zeitgeist – the new golden era of perfumery, where the public are really interested and informed about it, and independent, niche and luxury houses totally outweigh the fashion house fragrances.
I think what people really connect to is the fact there is a real human element to the brand – the fact that care and craftmanship go into creating each scent. At the same time, I spare no expense: I am really lucky that I own my own brand and therefore have nobody breathing down my neck. There is nobody to tell me what to create or how much to spend, and I have no marketing briefs or advertising budgets to adhere to. I simply put out into the world whatever inspires me most, and I do it without compromise, and it seems that the world enjoys this.
What inspired you to create the perfumes?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. I have fragrances based on the arts (opera, theatre and ballet) and fragrances based on my own life experiences. I create scents based on places and cultures, and also around evocative words where I build the character to fit that word out of the raw materials. Being a Perfumer is like being a poet or a storyteller, except instead of words, I am telling stories through olfactory materials. I tell story through scent, and there are so many stories for me to tell.
Do you have a favourite fragrance?
I know it sounds terrifically arrogant to say so, but my favourite fragrance is one that I created for myself. I am very lucky that I have the tools at my disposal that allow me to substantiate this claim – for it is no different than an architect being able to build their dream home, or a chef being able to craft their ideal dish. I wore the same fragrance for 30 years – Mitsuoko by Guerlain. To me, it was the epitome of an elegant scent. Then sadly one day I opened a fresh bottle and was heartbroken to find the formula had changed and the perfume that was “me”, was no longer the same. After hunting around for a new scent for a while, it dawned on me that I had been creating Bespoke perfumes for years and that there was no reason to stop me from becoming my own subject. I made a scent using all the materials I love the most – the finest examples of their kind. The scent goes simply by the name ROJA and it has gold flakes floating in the liquid for a bit of fun. The gold is the cheapest material in the formula and it is a glamorous yet tongue-in-cheek ode to the fact I never take myself too seriously. After being urged for many years to make it available to the public, I decided I would release 25 bottles to the UK and 25 to the rest of the world but demand became so high that we had to up the quantities to 250 each. Though initially I didn’t feel like I wanted to share my own scent, I now love the fact that so many people around the world seem to really connect with it. It is the greatest compliment.