Making scents: the secret ingredients to African luxury

The African continent used to be known for trade-route crafts and curio-shop artefacts, but there’s a new wave of African items making themselves known in the fashion capitals of the world. What are the secret fairy-dust ingredients that elevate our handmade products to luxury? 

African creators have remained connected to the source. We did not mechanise during the industrial age and the consumer era or entrench industries that can only make something if it can be reeled off in multiples of a thousand. 

We retained the skills and the ethos of “handmade”. In Africa, you can still walk into a workshop and meet an artisan who can make something tailored just for you. Another key element in African luxury is design. At every African’s heart is an entrepreneurial spirit: we are survivors of struggle, malleable enough to embrace change and celebrate doing things differently.

We collaborate, cross-pollinate and share ideas. I’ve lived on three continents and, when I came home, I notice a fundamental difference. Here in Africa, we start with a problem needing to be solved. We don’t compare with others. Instead, we connect to the people who can do things and make things, and we invent. This is African alchemy.

This became apparent when working with wood, glass and porcelain artists and with industrial designers. My medium is scent, but it needs to be packaged and it’s never been done in Africa before.

We started from the bottom up, with one of the biggest packaging hurdles — liquid and vanishing smells. The artisans embraced the challenge with innovation, a rare commodity in the developed world where buyers generally visit retailers to report back on what others are doing and find a way to do the same.

The third magical ingredient is creativity. Luxury is about never compromising on the creative idea. In a consumer market where budgets and briefs guide product development, luxury is a pristine world that elevates our mind laterally and aesthetically. It is a place of freedom, abandon and whimsy. Where, then, does African luxury go, and grow?

“Hard luxury” — watches and jewellery — are not part of the African lux lexicon. Here our focus is soft luxury — fashion and clothing, especially leather goods — and exotic consumables (like tea). For craft goods, buyers expect replications of a traditional look, so there is little room for new design and aspirational purchases, both of which are cornerstones of luxury.

To set ourselves apart, I believe it is important to embrace ideas immersed in local references; experimental (the French would call it avant-garde) human stories portrayed with refinement. I translate these into fragrance by sourcing the raw materials grown and harvested on the continent.

I elevate perfume ingredients that for too long have been classed as oriental fragrances, but that actually come from Africa. It is these resins and tree gum exudates that are our precious commodity in fine fragrance.

African fragrances are fresh (in an orange citrus manner) with warm resinous honeyed tones, hints of grasses and undulating hay. They are masculine in a way that matriarchal women can pull off. They are more natural, rich and earthy.

We actually make things here in Africa, so it’s not about sitting in a brainstorm with a marketing department to choose fonts and imagery to craft a brand. Here, we are connected to the materials that make the products that are luxurious.

Luxury and the future of it for Africa feeds into the natural resources we have at hand, the processing of them, and as much consumer-ready production as possible. It is about finding the reverence and provenance of these materials and artisans, and presenting them proudly to a global market that is eager for the new — and the real.

Tammy Frazer wrote a weekly column for the Mail & Guardian. These are her words.

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