While from the outside looking in, creating a perfume line may seem like a simple task — it's anything but, especially for Black women.
"A few big firms produce the majority of perfumes that are sold today, and those firms are mostly headed by older, non-diverse men," sisters Keta and Kaja Burke-Williams, who founded Aspen Apothecary fragrance house, share with InStyle. "There's not much room for diversity of any kind, especially at the top."
But the two didn't let this, or any of the other obstacles Black founders face (like access to capital) stop them from creating a collection of eight exquisite fragrances all infused with CBD.
Here, we speak with the sisters about their journey into the fragrance world, the benefits of CBD, how the power of scent connects them to their Jamaican roots, and more.
There are so many different avenues in beauty, why did you choose fragrance specifically?
For us, Aspen Apothecary is more than just a business. It's connecting with each other, and our Jamaican mom, who introduced us to the power of scent. It's breaking barriers and building collective strength. And it's giving womxn a different way to look at self-care, through scent and creating our own rituals.
Formulating clean fragrances isn't exactly easy. How did you go about crafting your scents?
We have a very strong opinion on what we do and don't want in our products, so it took us a while to find a U.S.-based partner who aligns with our vision. Lots of the industry veterans we spoke to tried to convince us it was almost impossible to create a beautiful perfume without the traditional ingredients, but we kept forging ahead. After so many ignored calls, emails, and disappointing meetings, we began to wonder if we were crazy to think two Black girls could build a fragrance brand from scratch, but we always learned to keep trying and so we did.
We found a partner who shares our vision and who works with us to create fragrances that have good ingredients, like organic cane alcohol, and to leave out all the bad stuff, like nitromusks, phthalates, and more. Our process takes longer, but we feel that it's worth it to have fragrances we feel good about using and sharing with others. We basically started out with a vision, grit, and optimism, and it's carried us through.
Wow. I can only image the other hurdles you dealt with trying to bring Aspen Apothecary to life.
Three big hurdles stand in our way as black entrepreneurs: a lack of access, a lack of funding, and a lack of amplification. But we've also been very fortunate to gain a network of inspiring people to support us so far — helping us to shape Aspen into something more than just a brand. It gives us the hope that we just might have a chance to take on Goliath. This unexpected support is one reason we created our initiative Aspen Amplifies, even though we are so early on in our journey. We want to bring awareness to trailblazing womxn of color in the way that others have uplifted us as our platform and voice grows.
How would you describe the general scent vibe of the entire collection?
Basically, imagine this: it's pre-COVID [days] in Miami. You just left an outdoor brunch that stretched from mid-morning into late afternoon. House music is playing in the background and mixes with the smell of smoky mezcal, fresh fruit, and white flowers that decorate the walls. Before heading home, you decide to walk on the beach, just north of all the commotion where the waves, the faint thump of bass and a faraway child's laugh are the only sounds you hear. As you walk, the breeze stirs, and something a little spicy and unfamiliar drifts past, jumbling with the salty, humid air and memories of the day.
What you just experienced was the way fragrances are communicated. At first it felt crazy to us to communicate this way, but during the heaps of reading and learning we did, we realized that fragrance composition is equal parts art and science, so we had to learn the languages — how to talk fragrance notes and accords, but also how to communicate a feeling.
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I love that your scents are blended with CBD. What benefits does this offer?
CBD is amazing, we could go on and on about it and the power of plants, but for us this is personal. Self-care is such a buzzword these days, but it can also be a stressor. For Keta, making time for self-care causes her mild anxiety — the thought of using an entire hour to take a nice bath or remembering which of the 10 different facial serums go together doesn't feel relaxing. Being CBD users, and finally having convinced our mom to try it, we realized that more people are becoming open to the power of hemp-based CBD and there was an opportunity for us to infuse self-care into something we do already: wearing perfume.
Whenever [Keta] needs a moment of calm, she pulls out our pocket-sized CBD infused perfume, rolls it onto her pulse points, closes her eyes, breathes deep, and just pauses.
To shop: $79; aspen-apothecary.com
I can definitely relate! So what time of day do you think is ideal to wear one of your fragrances? I personally love wearing mine before bed, which may kind of be a weird thing to do.
We love that! It's way more mild than a lot of old-fashioned fragrances that project a lot. Projection is a fancy fragrance term for leaving a cloud of perfume behind wherever you go. One of our early testers and collective members told us she applies it before an at-home date night. She rolls it on and feels sensual and confident, and it helps mix things up, even if the home scenery isn't changing!
A second collective member told us he uses it to freshen up when he's on the go since it's a small bottle that can fit in his coat pocket. It's a great companion to have on the go. Another customer told us she didn't wear perfume for years due to headaches, but since it came recommended by a friend, she was willing to try ours. She uses it after she steps out of the shower and gets ready to take on the day. There is no one way to do it right. We are so here for making your own scent ritual and doing what feels right for you.
I've really fallen in love with this brand, I'd love to know what you are going to be up to next.
We are also excited to be launching our #LoveSmellsLike campaign. We know that fragrance is inextricably tied to memories, so especially in a time when we can't be physically together right now, we wanted to find a way for us to share memories with the people we love and appreciate. If you visit the link and tell us how your friend, relative or loved one "smells like love" we will send them a postcard for you!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
From non-toxic makeup and skincare to sustainability practices, Clean Slate is an exploration of all things in the green beauty space.
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