When New Zealander Frances Shoemack was living in Amsterdam a decade ago, she searched high and low for a natural fragrance that felt luxe — but she couldn’t find one. That’s where the idea and desire to create Abel came from. She connected with master perfumer Isaac Sinclair to discuss her vision and voila, one of the world’s cleanest, most sustainable luxe fragrance brands was born. Now Abel — not pronounced “able,” but “ah-bell” — is getting the kind of attention that Swedish scent darling Byredo received when it ascended from indie luxe brand to cult status around 10 years ago.
Like Byredo, Abel has the same refined aesthetic that feels like the anti mass-produced celebrity perfume. That doesn’t mean its founder isn’t a star in her own right, however. Shoemack, who moved the company headquarters to her native New Zealand in early 2020, is one of those women who can command the board room in one minute, and then seamlessly slide into the role of mum to her two boys the next, and still finds time for herself and her husband. When I caught up with Shoemack, she was in Auckland for back-to-back meetings, about to fly home to Wellington, where she would juggle five meetings the next day with taking care of the boys, who are home during their two-week school break.
And on top of all that, her woman-owned and operated company is a leader in some seriously admirable initiatives, including: The use of 100% natural ingredients (the full ingredient and source lists are readily available to customers) and keeping everything vegan and cruelty-free. Abel also donates 1% of profits to planet-friendly organizations and will introduce carbon neutral shipping this year.
Get to know the CEO that’s prioritizing all the right things, from her brand’s beginning to how she manages work-life balance.
Is clean living in your blood? How did you decide to create a clean fragrance?
I grew up in rural New Zealand and my mother was a yoga teacher, so it was no surprise I was searching for a natural perfume. The surprise for me at the time was that I could buy almost any other product in a luxury, beautiful format except perfume! I assumed I couldn’t be the only one.
One of my favorite things to hear from customers is, “I can’t believe I’ve found Abel. It’s been 10 years without perfume for me and I’m so thrilled to find fragrances that don’t give me headaches (or another symptom) and are so beautiful.” There’s nothing more gratifying.
The fragrances are all unisex so they could appeal to anyone, but what is the ethos of the person buying it?
The Abel customer cares about nature and wants to bring the beauty of nature into their everyday life. Applying Abel connects our customers to the natural world whether they are in a skyscraper in Tokyo or in bustling downtown L.A.
Let’s touch on the natural aspect a bit more — why are clean fragrances so important?
Almost all perfume ingredients are synthesized from crude oil, aka petrochemicals, a non-renewable resource and one that is typically also non-biodegradable. For example, Greenpeace research showed synthetic musk — used widely across the industry and a known endocrine disruptor — accumulates in our ecosystem, specifically in aquatic life.
I’ve read that 95% of fragrance ingredients are petrochemical-derived and the majority are not tested for toxicity to people. What are some of the clean/green initiatives Abel is undertaking?
We try to make the very best perfume possible with exclusively natural ingredients, and everything we do is evaluated based on the impact on the planet and people. However, sustainability isn’t linear. For example, glass is endlessly recyclable, but also heavy and therefore has a higher carbon footprint for shipping. For us, it’s about defining our core values and doing our utmost to make the best decisions we can with the information we have.
You have a background in winemaking. How did your experience in the wine world help you in the fragrance world?
Most useful is having a vocabulary for, and the confidence to speak about scent — what I believe to be our most underused sense. Aside from that, both disciplines are really about where science meets art and finding harmony in the olfactory. Which is a pretty singular similarity between the two. When it comes to the way we make perfume, we’re even further informed by my experience in the wine industry — the way we bring the ingredients to the fore. In wine you say you can’t make a good wine with bad grapes and in perfume it’s exactly the same. The incredible natural ingredients are what make our fragrances so special, complex, and enduring.
Abel’s scents are all so soft. My personal favorites are Cyan Nori because it literally smells like the beach in a bottle and Pink Iris because it’s such a gentle floral. What are your favorites?
Cyan Nori was inspired by the ocean expanse of our home in New Zealand, and is not only our best seller, but is also a special favorite of mine for its vibrant ability to bring that salty beach vibe to any occasion. Likewise, Green Cedar and Golden Neroli both have special places in my heart. We created Golden Neroli while I was pregnant with my second son and I was so attracted to Neroli without realizing it has an incredible history as a hormone balancer. Issac and I created Green Cedar as a pet fave, working with some of our all-time favorite ingredients — cedar wood, magnolia, and cardamom.
What scent would you gift to someone whose fragrance you don’t know?
Cyan Nori. It’s our best seller and appeals to all ages and life stages.
Someone who needs a dose of calm?
Pink Iris is full of beautiful, calming ingredients. In particular, rose is known for its calming properties.
Someone who would like a scent that people notice and comment on?
I’d always recommend layering fragrances for something truly unique. Some of my favorite combinations are Green Cedar on skin with Pink Iris on clothes. Or Cyan Nori on skin and Golden Neroli in your hair.
You juggle a lot — being a parent, running a thriving business — are you able to carve out time to relax?
I absolutely do — it wouldn’t be possible without that. Yoga is my number one for time out and a sense of peace. I swim in the ocean most days, which has an incredible impact on my sense of wellbeing — it’s a cold south coast of Wellington ocean! My husband and I try to go to the sauna and plunge pool regularly and have a standing reservation with both the sauna and a babysitter. These days our kids are old enough to read, and love reading, so a family favorite is all cuddling up with our books on a Sunday afternoon.
You have the type of complexion people would describe as “porcelain.” What’s your beauty routine like?
Relatively simple! I only cleanse in the evening and like to spend time before bed with skincare rituals. Normally [I use] beautiful, natural products that smell incredible and feel luxurious to apply. In the morning, it’s a simple suncare and moisturizer before applying limited makeup.
Have you picked up some beauty tips in all of your globe-trotting?
Yes. As part of my role at Abel, I spend a lot of time in some of the world’s loveliest beauty stores, and adore getting tips from the people in the stores who are always the most up-to-speed with what’s amazing. As a result I’m always changing my skincare products and routines based on their recommendations, and the incredible plethora of brands and products to choose from.
Finally, what would you say are some of your biggest accomplishments to date?
Getting Abel to this point is definitely one of my proudest achievements; starting it while living in a foreign city (Amsterdam) and alongside having a young family and a healthy marriage. My biggest goal in the short term is to keep the incredible momentum we have with Abel going, while nurturing the other extremely important aspects of my life: family, relationships, and health.