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