Beauty: Scent of a woman

In 1984 Antonia Bellanca got bored of running her New York flower shop and decided to create a perfume. The result was a sensation, and she's been following her nose ever since. James Sherwood met her
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Perfumer Antonia Bellanca is a shot in the arm for an industry dominated by the old scent houses and big designer conglomerates. She's a sassy, wise-ass woman who has consistently run rings round the major players since the launch of her first fragrance, Antonia's Flowers, a favourite among fashion editors and those in the know.

Here's shock number one: she smokes. "I must be the only perfumer in the world who smokes. God, when I first went to my perfume house they were horrified. Want one?" she drawls. "I have such a good nose that I have to deaden it once in a while. No, seriously, I believe people are born with this olfactory talent. I truly remember smells as a kid. I was a crazed wild-flower picker from way back."

Antonia's Flowers was born from Bellanca's olfactory passion. There were no megabuck backers or game plan to take on the big guns such as Estee Lauder, Calvin Klein or Lancome. She ran a flower shop in East Hampton, New York. "Antonia's Flowers is the smell of my shop," she says. "What you had in the early Eighties were New Yorkers who wanted fabulous flowers in their Hamptons homes. It was kind of funereal, to tell the truth, but it kept me in business. But I got tired of retail: it's like a party where anyone can come. Also, I'd started buying flowers more for the scent than because they looked pretty. Now that's great for the customers who are on the same wavelength but ugly flowers that smelt good are not what these ladies wanted. My olfactory thing was getting stronger than ever so I decided to do my own fragrance."

The giant houses are evasive about the perfume production process because fact would chip away at the mystique that makes us spend over pounds 30 on a bottle of oil and alcohol. What distinguishes Bellanca's rare interviews from the usual beauty-speak pap is her candour. She's not going to spin a line that the major notes in Antonia's Flowers (freesias) and her newer fragrance Floret (sweet peas) are made by her personally treading petals. "Oh please," she says.

Antonia's Flowers is a synthetic perfume simulating the exact smell of her chosen flowers. "Before, you'd go to the perfumer and say, `I want a rose,'" says Bellanca. "This is like going to a painter and saying, `Paint me a rose.' You get a subjective interpretation. On top of that, you'd get the perfumer's interpretation of a rose based on another perfumer's formula for a rose.

"The truth is they are all synthetic. Perfume is not natural. Put naturals, like marigold essence, on your skin, and you'd have hives. Also, naturals rot. Five years ago, everybody was insisting their perfume was natural. Now they're all bragging about it being synthetic."

You don't need a degree in pharmacology to understand why Antonia's Flowers was something new. "It was the first living flower fragrance. What the perfumers do is take each flower in isolation, put them in this vacuum machine - it sounds quite Frankenstein's monster, I know - analyse the scent and reproduce it."

After 18 months' experimentation and about 150 trial combinations, Antonia's Flowers was launched in 1984. It started as a well-kept secret between the ladies of East Hampton before Bellanca took testers to leading the New York department store, Bergdorf Goodman. "It was the era of Poison and Giorgio - all those sweet, heady, Eighties scents. I stood in Bergdorfs, wearing my Barbour jacket, and tried to get customers to try Antonia's Flowers. It was a disaster. All the ladies would walk past, swathed in fur, hold out their wrists and then say, `It smells like nail polish'. Nobody went for it. One of the counter girls saw me crying and she helped me along. Antonia's Flowers was a new kind of fragrance. The top notes were so strong and green compared to the sweetness of Poison. So you have to spray on the wrist, hold the wrist as long as you can and that burns off the top note and gets down to the sweeter notes."

Fourteen years later, Bellanca still goes to Bergdorfs in her Barbour jacket and wellies. New York matrons shriek, "That's Antonia?" when counter girls point her out. Only now she doesn't care. With the launch of Floret in 1994, Bellanca proved Antonia's Flowers wasn't beginner's luck. Both fragrances have been much imitated. One only has to compare Chanel's nude pink packaging for Allure with Antonia's Flowers to see how influential Bellanca has become.

"Everyone took my direction and created `environmentals' for the skin," she says. "But do you know what? They're all too strong. Fine in a candle. Fine in a room spray. But there's a difference between an environmental fragrance and one you want to wear on your skin."

Bellanca will relentlessly insist she is one of the little guys. But, like any maverick innovator, she must be vulnerable to powerhouse companies picking up the ball and running further with it than she can. "Please. Don't make me cry," she says with more than a hint of seriousness. "They have all the money. It's so stupid that they don't do their own stuff. It is wickedly weird. They wait to see what I'm going to do and they all copy."

Bellanca lives with her husband, Steve, and two children, Truman and Tess, in Cape Cod. She's moved on from East Hampton and she's pretty happy being "Teeny. Growing but teeny. Topical but teeny". In Britain, you'll find Antonia's Flowers and Floret only in Liberty and funky London cosmetics store Space NK Apothecary. You won't find her showing off her "lovely home" in Hello! or emptying her vanity case for Marie Claire. So why is she doing an interview? Just because she wants to. A new scent is under development but it is by no means ready for release.

If history repeats itself, Bellanca's third fragrance will be a blueprint the rest of the perfume houses will copy. Not giving too much away, here is the future of scent according to Bellanca: "I'm making an effort to bring perfume back to the skin. I'm kind of in the mood for something really sexy. Smell this," she says, offering me her jugular. "I think there's a little bit of tobacco in it. It's kind of like the scent you've worn the night before. Perfume is very private. You don't want everybody to smell you the minute you walk into a room. You want the guy lying next to you on the pillow to really get it".

Antonia's Flowers, pounds 55, and Floret, pounds 65 (100ml), available from Space NK Apothecary (0171-379 7030), and Liberty (0171-734 1234)

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