Largely due to the Black Lives Matter movement, there has finally been more recognition of Black-owned beauty brands. But when it specifically comes to fragrance, Black perfumers are still missing from the conversation. Think of the all those romantics fragrance ads you see in magazines or on television: We usually think of the French (Chanel No.5, Dior J’adore, Guerlain Shalimar — to name a few). Particularly after Louis XV became king of France in the 18th century, the capital of the perfume world was considered to be Grasse, France, which is known for its beautiful roses and jasmine. Since the perfume industry has historically been based on family businesses, the French had a monopoly — and it’s that lack of access that has locked out BIPOC perfumers that would bring diversity to the category. While today perfumers come from all over the world, Black-owned brands are still practically non-existent.
After a hard 2020 for much of the beauty industry, the fragrance world did more than stay afloat: It is estimated to have a global market value of $32 billion last year. That being said, it shouldn’t be so difficult for a typical consumer to be able to think of just a single Black-owned fragrance brand. Dallas-based Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba, owner and perfumer of Pink MahogHany Fragrances is helping push things forward. “I feel the main contributing reasons behind the fact that there are not many melanin-filled perfumers are because of the lack of knowledge that career fields such as perfumers exist and are a viable option as a profession, as well as the barrier of entry to prestigious perfumery schools due to not being a ‘legacy’ — meaning no relation to master perfumers. Plus, the lack of diversity, support, and mentorship from companies who could potentially employ perfumers or perfumer apprentices,” she says.
For Dunlap-Mwamba that last reason is a huge part of generating more diversity. Major influencers in the fragrance industry like The Fragrance Foundation are helping make progress. The nonprofit organization aims to provide mentorship and education to BIPOC members through their recently established Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative and its coinciding committee. One way they are making it more accessible is by lowering its membership costs for indie founders.
We sat down with Dunlap-Mwamba, a Black female founder, who’s breaking the mold. Below, she chats about how she broke into the industry, the challenges she’s come across while starting her own business, advice she has for other Black perfumers who want to break into the biz, and more.
Sunday Edit: Tell us about how you got started in beauty and what inspired you to get into the fragrance industry in particular?
Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba: I received my online education at Perfumer’s World for perfumery fundamentals as well as The University of Texas at Arlington where I studied the Business of Music. The main inspiration for my entrance into the fragrance industry was my desire to bridge the gap between ingredient education and the semi-conscious to conscious consumer. Many unrelated conversations turned to sensitization to certain fragrance notes, and in my research to further understand why this was happening, I found myself becoming more intrigued with the compositional structure of fine fragrances. I began purchasing small quantities of materials to create trials without some of the materials some individuals had adverse reactions to, and the more I disclosed what I was doing, the more people became interested. Public interest contributed to the creation of Pink MahogHany, which I started in 2005.
SE: How is the composition of your fragrances different from others?
Dunlap-Mwamba: I compose my fragrances with a proprietary organic perfumer’s alcohol blend that sometimes includes organic cane alcohol. Other times, a specific organic Perfumer’s Alcohol is used, which is 190-200 proof organic ethanol. Because I’m a musician — I’m a perfumer, but also an EC-12 music educator — I correlate vocabulary terms often used in music to my fragrance creation. For example, “notes,” “accords,” “top,” “middle/heart,” and “base” all have dual meanings to me. When I create a song, I like to map out several factors before trial blending. I allow myself time to become fully aware of how I want the “scent-song” to “play” on the skin — or “flirt” with the atmosphere if I’m creating a room spray/diffuser blend. I decide on a theme if there is one, a main “soloist” that are the more prominent fragrance notes, and what I want the beginning/middle/conclusion of the fragrance to consist of. This process can be quite lengthy because sometimes I leave a “song” unfinished to revisit later when inspiration hits. I currently have approximately 60 ideas just waiting for the right conclusion!
SE: You mentioned that it’s difficult to break into perfume if you’re not a “legacy.” What’s the process like for getting into perfume school?
Dunlap-Mwamba: The selection process to be admitted to perfumery schools mostly consists of filling out an application for admission, followed by each school’s criteria: a cover letter and other requested information, along with possible pre-assessments. The main perfumery schools can be quite a challenge to have acceptance due to the limitation of students in each cohort. There are usually around 12 students, and tuition can be upwards of $16,000. Because this is little-known information, it poses quite a challenge for aspiring perfumers of color, especially when we represent a vast minority in this situation.
From my research, there are no known scholarships to offset these steep, out-of-pocket costs. There are some lesser-known, U.S.-based perfumery schools and programs made affordable and available for aspiring perfumers, but the larger schools have the monopoly on the industry due to their clout, longevity, and the graduated master perfumers who now work for large fragrance houses or on luxury fragrance projects.
SE: How do you keep the price point for your fragrances affordable?
Dunlap-Mwamba: As a direct result of the pandemic, I have actually had to increase the pricing of my collection to reflect that of my suppliers, as some materials used in the collection have become more difficult to source and are available only in smaller quantities. I work closely with both U.S.-based and French-based companies and only purchase from a handful of verified, trusted suppliers who have no issue with making sure I obtain all necessary SDS — Safety Data Sheet — documentation to protect my interests, as well as the consumer and my private clients’ interests. Each company I work with provides a unique business partnership for me; one company is specifically for essential oils only, another for the newest aroma chemicals, and main supplier for pretty much anything I can think of.
SE: In addition to being a BIPOC-owned company, what do you think makes your brand and products different from the rest of the fragrance market?
Dunlap-Mwamba: Besides me being a female, minority, and self-taught perfumer, I infuse my musical background into each fragrance I create. I also keep a personable aspect of the brand, connecting with each individual and aim to create more of a fragrance family, as opposed to a ‘following.’
Jean Carles’ [an early 20th-century French perfumer] method sparked my interest early on regarding learning how certain notes “play” with one another. His method breaks down the complexity of creating nice blends called accords. Studying this method helped me to evaluate nuances between varying ratios of certain fragrance notes. For example, if a beginning perfumer desires to create a Chypre accord, instead of using just one ingredient that’s in the Chypre category, using several notes that have similar olfactory profiles is suggested. Each similar fragrance note is used to create several trials in varying ratios to be evaluated over at least 72 hours. It can be a lengthy process, but it’s undoubtedly helpful for a perfumer — especially self-taught — to train their nose.
SE: You often talk about how fragrance is tied to feelings. What do you mean by that?
Dunlap-Mwamba: Just as certain types of songs, visual pieces of art or even weather changes evoke certain moods and feelings, I believe fragrance also creates — or re-creates/causes one to revisit — specific feelings. If I were to just say the word ‘lemon,’ chances are your mind immediately thinks up the color yellow, you salivate thinking about how sour an actual lemon is, and you ‘phantom smell’ its bright, citrusy aroma, right? That’s exactly what fragrance as a whole does: It triggers all of our senses and even takes us back to specific memories — regardless of positive or adverse — and aids in creating new memories.
View this post on Instagram
SE: Speaking of, what’s your favorite memory that’s tied to a scent?
Dunlap-Mwamba: I remember being at a popular bank as a college student in 2004 and running into a nicely dressed gentleman in the heat of the summer. He was ahead of me and held the door for me. His scent trail had me so mesmerized, but I was too hesitant to inquire what he was wearing. I silently basked in his fragrance and tried to stay close just to keep experiencing this mysterious fragrance. The next day, I went to a local mall at Saks 5th Ave and sniffed around for a good hour. I tried my best to describe the scent profile to the fragrance specialist, but she was stumped. She had a tray of new releases, and the more bottles she gave me to spray, I grew less optimistic that I would ever find the fragrance in question. Finally, one bottle caught my eye due to the color, and when I sprayed it, I was immediately taken back to my experience with the gentleman at the bank. I purchased it shortly after, and it has been my signature scent ever since! It was Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermés former master perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, who also happens to be my favorite perfumer!
SE: On that note — pun, intended — do you have favorite Black perfumers?
View this post on Instagram
SE: What’s the best story you’ve heard from a customer?
Dunlap-Mwamba: I love all the stories I receive, but my favorite has to be from men who purchase the discovery set and fall in love with Pas Encore Nommé. It’s an Eau de Parfum that is generally marketed more towards women due to its sweet, gourmand olfactory profile. I remember a customer who purchased it for his wife initially and ended up having to purchase another bottle for himself because his wife refused to share and hid her bottle from him!
SE: What are some of the challenges you’ve come across in the industry? Do you think they were specific to starting a beauty company?
Dunlap-Mwamba: One industry challenge has definitely been having access to the type of instruction that the major perfumery schools provide. Granted, since the pandemic, online options are more available, especially since some of the perfumery institutions are overseas. Another industry challenge has been making a true name for my brand and being taken seriously as a self-taught olfactory artist. If the research is done on self-taught perfumers of color, one will find that the roster is quite short. Funding for this category as an indie brand of color has also been somewhat of a challenge.
SE: Who are some of your favorite Black-owned brands?
Dunlap-Mwamba: I love the power of social media ads to help make me aware of other brands of color, and I’ve found so many due to being “social.” I’m all about brands with a mission and nice aesthetic and some brands of color that I support are: Haus of Blanca, Simi Sienna, Afro Soca Love, Kingdom & Will, WrldInvsn, FAWM Kids, and King Kulture Collection.
View this post on Instagram
SE: Do you have any advice for other Black perfumers who want to enter the field or launch their own beauty brand?
Dunlap-Mwamba: Be patient with the learning curve and the process. Don’t rush to completion for the sake of attempting to keep up with another brand competitor that seems to be ‘further along.’ Each brand has its own unique identity. Take time to study your brand to obtain clarity on what your unique identifier is and stay true to it. Find what’s not being capitalized on and creatively implement it, keeping your target market/ideal customer in mind.
SE: What makes you excited about how brands are championing for diversity? Is there anything that gives you pause?
Dunlap-Mwamba: I’m very excited to see all of the initiatives being set regarding diversity advocacy. I have to admit, though, that a part of me feels like the momentum and diligence may wane over time. I fear diversity will have to continuously and purposely be re-visited to remind the public of its importance, which may induce a general feeling of plateauing or regression.
SE: What’s next for your brand? What are you excited about this year?
Dunlap-Mwamba: Due to an overwhelming demand for my mentorship, my goal is to offer a platform that will help me leverage my time as a solo entrepreneur but provide a quality avenue for aspiring perfumers and the like. I look forward to seeing [positive] movement in creating more quality opportunities for aspiring perfumers of color.
We only recommend products we have independently researched, tested, and loved. If you purchase a product found through our links, Sunday Edit may earn an affiliate commission.