Pissara Umavijani is the founder and perfumer of the esteemed Thai fragrance house in Paris, Parfums Dusita. Known in the niche world as the highly original creator of such contemporary classics as La Douceur De Siam, Splendiris, Le Sillage Blanc, Erawan, and several others (including my own personal favourite, Fleur De Lalita), Ms Umavijani first got in contact with me last year after reading my book, Perfume. A mutual friend, Catherine, who also lives in Japan, had become quite obsessed with Dusita’s floral rhapsody of summer, Melodie De L’Amour – an orange blossom tuberose that smells like a thousand tropical flowers rising up in the lush steam of the hot afternoon – and had already recommended I try them : the virtual meeting thus felt serendipitous. I was then sent the full set of samples by Dusita, and was impressed. Ms Umavijani’s is an unclichéd voice. You don’t feel that her creations are compromised in any way. Most definitely an acquired taste (while never strident, the perfumes of Dusita are not afraid to go to quite strange, unknown registers, whether it be the vegetal bitter green of the recent Pavilion d’Or or the animalistic richness of the contradictorily delicate Oudh Infini), but they are undeniably a new style. Her style. One that invites not only olfactory, but also psychological interest: sometimes the perfumes to me feel like messages I (wrongly) feel I need to try and decode. Blending classical French olfactory mechanisms with an unplaceable depth, inspired by the work of her famous father, Dr. Montra Umavijani, one of Thailand’s most famous poets, each perfume is linked directly in inspiration to one of his poems, illuminating the scents themselves with an added layer of meaning and intrigue.
The perfumes aside, which I will come back to in more detail later, I was also, perhaps selfishly, quite interested in certain similarities I started to notice between both our lives. Whether there were any parallels between our own stories : an Englishman living his life in a completely different culture on the other side of the world and becoming a writer; a Thai woman ‘exiling’ herself in France who ends up running her own successful Parisian perfume boutique. What had drawn us both to isolate, and immerse, ourselves in unfamiliar, even alien worlds, on the opposite side of the earth, and what came from these mergings of ‘East and West?’ What kind of insights does this give a person (if any)? How important is ‘culture’ anyway? I have lived most of my adult life in Asia. Ms Umavijani has lived much of hers in Europe. What does this ‘distancing’ from one’s culture of origin do to a person? And what is the result in terms of creativity?
I began to ask Pissara some questions along these lines about her own life by email, not knowing whether I was getting too personal in what I was hoping to know. Being too direct. But I started receiving voice mails, in which she answered my questions straightforwardly and yet very earnestly; gradually replying in random order, in her always hypnotic voice – soothing, sweet and earnest: voicemails that were difficult to make an accurate assemblage of, as she seemed to be coming up with answers as they came to her, in the moment – in intuitive cyclical remembrance that I have disentangled a little here.
Neil Chapman :
I am a person from England who has been absorbed by Japan. How does this relate to your own situation?
Thinking about your question regarding Japan, in my case I also came to France almost by accident, but have stayed here. My father was a traveller, and I know that he would have done the same if he could have done. To be honest, I was looking for my passion. For me, the most important thing in life is to find your true passion and then to stick to it. It took me a while at first. It was about ten years before I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I had to be alone, initially, without family, without knowing anyone, in order to concentrate…..
When I came to France I had certain projects in mind, but they didn’t quite blossom at first. So by spending time alone – at the time I couldn’t speak a word of French, I was completely isolated – it allowed me to access my creativity, which is something I don’t think I could have done back home in the same way in Thailand. Being a stranger in a strange land made me focus more. I felt alienated. I didn’t have many friends. But being alienated also helped me a lot as I found it was very meditative to focus on something, and eventually I found what I was looking for.
I can relate to this. I also wanted a radical re-appraisal of everything in my late twenties. Instinctively, I knew I had to shed something. Sometimes, the pressures of your ‘own culture’ can clog you, be oppressive. All the expectations. I personally needed reassessment, of everything, philosophically, culturally, personally – and though I also felt extraordinarily lonely at first when I came here to Japan, just walking the streets of Tokyo as you did in Paris, just mulling and thinking, in the end it was a kind of trial by fire that brought me into a new consciousness and way of living. Almost like being born again.
How much is your father’s poetry an influence on your work?
I would say that my father’s poetry influenced much more than just my creation: it has had a very big influence on my whole life generally. My father had a very strong need to express himself, but he also felt that sometimes it is easier to express what he wanted to say in another language.
People in Thailand couldn’t understand why he wrote his poetry exclusively in English, but English is universal. He wanted to touch people. He believed in art. In many ways of course he was also very Thai: he appreciated the traditional Thai hospitality, for example. But he never felt completely at home there. He was a traveller and a wanderer.
The name Dusita in fact comes from one of my father’s poems : he said that the word meant a ‘’paradise: a place where I can go when I die and can be free to create”. He wrote this in an old notebook that I now treasure. He really felt that art can have an effect on people, help people, and the essence of this is the main inspiration for my perfume. Like words, for me, also with smells, the raw materials are real and ‘universal’, but they can be interpreted individually. They can create something new.
My father’s poems were post-modern, often about being lost: humanity. It was not only his words, but his whole being that deeply affected me: how he always worked with such great passion without really getting anything back in return. He only self-published his poetry in small series; every night I would see him writing and translating at his desk at night until two or three in the morning. He didn’t sell very much, but he continued with this passion throughout his entire life. He was a very kind, sensitive and considerate man and paid attention to small details in daily life as well as being interested in ordinary people; he was kind to people like farmers and those who worked at the market; people that society doesn’t usually consider as being ‘important’.
NC: How did you make your first perfume?
I started making perfume about ten years ago. I remember it was a rainy day, in Bangkok. I was with a friend who had just started composing perfumes, who had about three hundred perfume ingredients, and I was encouraged at that time to just sit and ‘play’ with the raw materials. It was such fun making these new discoveries, and it was a day I will never forget. When you start mixing things together for a perfume, it is so exciting realizing how just a very small addition of a particular ingredient can change everything and stir emotions. I take so much time to make each perfume formulation. They are like my ‘babies’. I remember that on that day, the very first perfume I made was Issara. I was thinking about freedom when I made it. The current formula is exactly the same as the one I first created that afternoon.
I love hearing this. Issara is the Dusita perfume that Duncan took to immediately : he loves it. A fresh aromatic fougère with a prominent, clean but emotionally touching white musk accord in the base, it smells fantastic on him. Saintly and sensual at the same time. Somehow it makes perfect sense, with the ‘innocence’ and green of nature, that this would have been your first ever perfume.
I do actually feel that the fragrances in your collection, like Issara and Melodie D’Amour, are actually quite ‘accessible’ in many ways. Oudh Infini, by contrast, is almost legendary in its ability to shock people (I have come to love it, even if it I do definitely consider it to be somewhat ‘dangerous’ It is addictive, but most definitely polarizing. I love introducing it to dinner party guests and registering their reactions). Was this almost controversial effect actually intentional on your part?
I think this is a very important question. As a perfumer, when I start blending a perfume, the
15 responses to “PAVILLION OF DREAMS: INTERVIEW WITH PISSARA UMAVIJANI of DUSITA PARFUMS + LE PAVILLON D’OR (2019)”
(……………..to be continued: I am having internet problems, for some reason, and cannot access our correspondence : I impulsively felt like putting up the first part of our interview on here, anyway )
I had the pleasure of meeting Pissara in person at her lovely salon in Paris last December where I bought my bottle of Le Pavillon d’Or. she was kind enough to meet up with me and is indeed a charming and engaging person. She even let me take a photo with her. It was a wonderful highlight of my trip.
How fantastic. I really hope to go there myself one day (travel seems so dreamlike now, don’t you think?)
Yes, I do not think many people will be traveling this year. I am so glad I had my wonderful trip to Italy and Sicily in the Fall of 2018 and to Belgium and France in November/December of 2019. I doubt I will be going anywhere any time in the near future, not just due to the pandemic but also due to my finances.
I am the same. But I do think the memories of these trips are enough to ‘feast on’ for a while . We are lucky we can even do it.
I love the idea of “translating” the way one expresses oneself, whether it’s literally to another language or through a different medium such as perfume.
My point precisely. It is extremely fascinating, I think. Pissara’s father translated his emotions into something timeless in another language; she is doing the same thing with scent. I think that perfume is, ultimately, almost a kind of spiritual language (or is that going too far?)
We have just finished Netflix’s ‘Freud’, which is quite ridiculous in many ways, but something I also learned from.
Translating; also ‘coalescing’ oneself in some way if you know what I mean.
I think the ancients would agree about perfume being a spiritual language! Hard to apply that thought to some modern creations that aim to shock for the sake of shock, though.
Coalescing… different creative facets together? Or distilling oneself to one’s essence to be shared in art?
I receive no spiritual or even aesthetic pleasure from the majority of duty free ‘fragrances’. The majority are just chemical pollution.
You always come up with interesting ideas and questions. ‘Distilling oneself to one’s essence to be shared in art’ is something I feel instinctively drawn towards (do you?)
I was trying to understand what you meant by coalescing. But I suppose that is something I would like to be able to do, ideally – create something that would potentially outlast me and stay true to my “essence” even as I change over time, as people do.
This instalment — can hardly wait for the rest — flows so delightfully from one idea to the next. Very simpatico. You, Ms Umavijani, many of your readers. And you know I am a real fan of her work. I’m loving this idea of what it means to move to a country with a radically different culture: what the impetus is, what the experience is. Can’t get enough of it whenever you write about it.
(Oh, and dear N., I did leave you a bit of a rose list on the Amplitude page as requested.)
‘Culture’ is my prime obsession in life, I think. The perils of ‘identity’. I think any culture or set of presumptions about how you should be or behave is a straitjacket – so by moving from one to another you are not liberating yourself really, just entering another set of (bizarre and unsettling) cultural norms that you have to analyse and question, reject or accept or just try to understand; and to some extent by doing so you then become a stranger in both, which is hard in many ways – feeling or literally being disenfranchised like me and D with no rights in either place! – but it also feels as if you have come out of a chrysalis, possibly created, carved out, your own new space in which you take on the aspects of both cultures that you like the best. I don’t think people realise how much we are oppressed by our own culture . It is why suicide is so prevalent in some places but not in others. In Japan, as I often write on here, it goes without saying that the conformist mentality can be crushing (at least in the work culture) ; conversely it is the opposite in the US, where you are either a ‘somebody’ or a ‘nobody’, an incredibly devastating dictum to live under (and an idea that doesn’t really exist here to anywhere near the same extent – which is kinder to the spirit). In the UK we have something similar to that I think; the ”invisible’ class system and the obsession with the ‘property ladder’ etc – plus hideous levels of vicious underlying violence in the society because of inequality; there is a suppressed rage under a lot of things in the UK, even though on the surface it is much more relaxed than Japan, which is why I love going back home for summer holidays (and why I am quite sad I can’t go back this year: when the exile is ENFORCED, perversely you suddenly want to go back!)
In my own case, in coming to Japan, it was a do or die situation: I was drowning post university and had zero affinity for London so couldn’t live there. It was an EXTREMELY drastic thing to do to just come to Japan, but it was like an instinct from another realm that I just followed.
I honestly don’t think The Black Narcissus or the book or our films or any of it would have happened if I had stayed where I was. And it felt to me as if Pissara experienced something similar by going to Paris.
For me and D, I think the prime factor in staying is aesthetic: while I love the old buildings and the green of England (reedy rivers; stately homes; also the opposite, the grungier/rebellious side, the art and music, I do love a lot there), at the same time the eye is happier here overall ; it feels dreamier.
I have always rejected hard ‘reality’.
Please do post the second part of this interview when you can, Neil. I’m loving it so far.
Oh thank you. I would have done more but the internet connection trying to access the voicemails was so exasperating I rudely gave up mid-sentence!
I intend to go back to transcribing our conversations next week.
Have you tried any of the Dusita fragrances? I would like your take.
Looking forward to the rest, Neil. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Dusista, but haven’t had the opportunity to try any yet.