Bottling Counterculture: Johan Bergelin on his Extrasensory Journey

Since launching the unisex perfume label 19-69 in early 2017, Swedish photographer and perfumer Johan Bergelin has continuously provided an olfactory escape into some of the most iconic moments of counterculture throughout history. With a limited-edition collection of scents that ranges from “Purple Haze,” a patchouli and cannabis-imbibed tribute to the creativity, freedom and indulgence of the 1960s, to “Rainbow Bar,” a vermouth and cardamom-layered nod to the notorious Sunset Strip hotspot of the same name, Bergelin’s commitment to exploring the invisible, extrasensory beauty of fragrance toes the line of time travel and memory reconnaissance. While in Paris, COOLS met up with the talented perfumer to talk about his many inspirations, the first fragrance he ever loved, his unique path to perfumery and much, much more.

Bottling Counterculture: Johan Bergelin on his Extrasensory Journey 1

COOLS: What does the name “19-69” mean to you?

Johan Bergelin: It’s a tribute to creativity, freedom, openness and exploration.

COOLS: What about perfumery fascinates you most?

JB: For me, fragrance is invisible, and that’s what has always fascinated me: it strikes your brain instantly, but it also needs time. Prior to starting 19-69, I was moving forward at such a fast pace at one point, but what I love about creating a fragrance is that it requires you to do the opposite.

COOLS: Throughout your career so far, you’ve been a hair stylist, a musician and a photographer. What have you enjoyed most about changing pace into the world of perfumery?

JB: Honestly, it feels like a luxury to be doing perfume now, because it’s the first time I’ve allowed myself time. I mean, with fragrance, you need time to develop it; you need time for the reflection. Before, when my job was taking fashion pictures, it was all done in an instant, and you can see the results instantly. But with fragrance, you need to make the blend first, then there’s a waiting period before you can even smell it.

COOLS: Can you talk about how the concept for 19-69 came about?

JB: Well, I hadn’t done hair for about ten years – I didn’t touch a head of hair – when I decided to make a collection of hair products, including shampoos and some solid products; and that’s how I met Silas Adler, of Soulland, now my partner in 19-69. It must have been eight or nine years ago now, when Silas had just started Soulland, and when we started to collaborate. At first, I was fixing and grooming his models, but then when Silas and I met, we started talking about how we should work together on something, because we had such a similar mindset. Then one day, we said to each other, maybe we should create a grooming brand together – one that isn’t based on some vintage, 1950s style, like so many other grooming brands out there. We talked about it for two years, until we decided that it should be fragrance based, and that we shouldn’t work with genders – fuck gender, gender is old now.

COOLS: What did you talk about for those two years?

JB: The process, really, the creative process. And asking ourselves questions, like: Why can we make a perfume? Do we have the right? I mean, in 2017, to create a product today, you need to make a good fucking product. There’s so much out there now. And it would need to be real; we ultimately wanted our brand to be transparent, naked, and 100 percent honest.

COOLS: As a unisex brand, 19-69 is breaking gender boundaries within the perfume industry. Would you say fragrance is innately gender-based?

JB: No, no, that’s a marketing thing. It has to be – the nose is the nose. We don’t have different noses, male or female; we have the same sense.

COOLS: Do you remember the first fragrance you ever wore?

JB: The first one I remember wearing was Karl Lagerfeld’s fragrance – his first fragrance. But I’ll tell you a fragrance I fucking loved – L’eau d’Issey, the first one by Issey Miyake. At that time, we really didn’t have niche fragrances as we do today. But that fragrance, it was so well made; it was a fragrance that felt like you’ve smelled it before, but you haven’t. This kind of experience where you didn’t even know something could smell like that, you know?

COOLS: How would you describe it?

JB: L’eau d’Issey? Water – there’s something “aqua-ish” about it. When I think about it, I get the color of mint green, which I love, that Art Deco green, the Miami green.

COOLS: And that’s the first fragrance you ever loved?

JB: It was the first fragrance that took me as a complete knockout.

COOLS: When did you discover your love for photography?

JB: I was 13 or 14 years old when I started wanting to be a photographer. I would follow my father into the darkroom at the newspaper where he was working and develop my own photos. I was obsessed with it. But when it was time to make a decision about going to university, I knew my grades were not good enough for going into photography school. I had no chance with my grades because I really wasn’t really a good student. So, I decided, “Alright, I want to be in fashion.” It was the time of Boy George, David Bowie, it was all this. When transgender fashion was just starting; we were all wearing make-up, we were wearing jewels, pearls, and making our own clothes, you know, and all this was so strange and fantastic. And I knew I couldn’t make it to photography school, and there was nothing else I wanted to do; and I wanted to work with girls. The nicest looking girls were hairdressers, so I went to hairdressing school. That’s when my parents sent me to Brighton, to go to school and to learn the trade. I knew hairdressing wasn’t really something I wanted to do, as such as being behind the chair. But I fell in love with hair gel.

COOLS: What about hair gel did you fall in love with?

JB: It was new at the time. It did not exist before; that you could put something on and transform yourself, by simply mixing sugar and water and boiling it. And then it was me fixing all my friends’ hair, and that’s how it started, that’s what led me to thinking I can do something with my hands. It was such a natural thing for me to do, but I was interested in the creation rather than looking after the people. I went on for a few years with the career in hair, but I quickly grew tired of the salon thing. Then I wanted to go into styling hair for photo shoots. At that time, there weren’t as many hair stylists as there are today.

COOLS: Was that around the time you started getting into fashion photography?

JB: Yeah, it was at that time I started to pick up the camera and take pictures again. In the end, I stopped doing hair in order to take pictures. At that time, I was living in London; I had my portfolio and was knocking on the doors of every publishing house in London. There were only a few publishing houses that had most of the magazines, but, one day, after arriving at the Condé Nast building, five minutes later I was given my first job for GQ, and it all sort of spread from there.

COOLS: How have you translated your experiences in the fashion industry into perfumery?

JB: Honestly, I have a very mixed relationship with the fashion industry. After working in fashion for 30 years, I still love it, but I don’t like how it’s constantly changing. There’s always some new – it’s always new, new, new. I mean, I like to have new things, but I also like progress. With 19-69, we wanted to create something that could be long lasting – something that could stay on the market for another 30 years and yet never change. And because of that timelessness, we also wanted to make 19-69 a bit educational, rather than elitist, and to show people all the different ways to have a personal relationship with a fragrance, rather than just seeing it the way we’re describing it. Fine perfumery, in my mind, can be very elitist; I’m not about that, not at all. So immediately I thought 19-69 should be approachable, and friendly; that barrier of elitism should be removed completely. So, that started with the journey, and letting people experience their own relationship with Purple Haze, for example. I mean, my experience with it is different than yours; you smell it differently because of your memories, because of your senses, you know what I mean?

COOLS: Yes, and I think that’s something uniquely beautiful about fragrance – that experience.

JB: Exactly, because fragrance is something that, even though you will try to control it, it’s uncontrollable – because it’s your nose, it’s your memories, and it’s your senses. You can control your eyes and see what you want to see, but the nose is something different. And that’s wonderful, isn’t it?

COOLS: It really is. It can be so personal and so impactful and in infinitely different ways.

JB: There was a guy who came by the showroom yesterday; he’s by himself, smelling our fragrances, and he turns around and he has tears in his eyes. He’s like, “This one is my Nanna. It smells exactly like my Nanna; she was the most important person in my life.” I’m even getting a bit emotional now thinking about it, because that’s the beauty of fragrance.

COOLS: How did you start the process of creating your collection of fragrances?

JB: When we started the development of our juices, we didn’t have any references. Our process was to start with the fragrance journey, to describe the sensation we wanted and to be as particular as we could be. It ended up taking 12 months before we had any of the fragrances in the direction we wanted them to go, but we always knew 19-69 should be about counterculture and that we needed to work with strong names and things that inspired us; this has always been a reference point for me. So, when I started to think about 19-69 and all about that particular year, we immediately thought of cannabis – and then Purple Haze.

COOLS: You mention starting with a fragrance journey – what is that?

JB: Yeah, it’s ultimately how I’d describe Purple Haze as a scent and the inspirations behind it. OK, Purple Haze, to me, is about Key West. I arrived there in the afternoon, when the city is constantly moving, and it’s so fragrant. Then I meet this guy in the streets who looks like Jimi Hendrix, and I become friends with him and he invites me back to his trailer. When I’m there taking pictures of him and documenting him, he tells me this story of how he was a musician and how he recorded an album with Jimi Hendrix, in Jimi’s studio in New York, when he was 17. Then when Jimi dies and the music was never released, he became stuck in this sort of character. He’s completely described in the fragrance journey of Purple Haze.

COOLS: So meeting this guy started your journey to create Purple Haze?

JB: Yeah, when he was describing his experiences to me, I’m taking it all in. I’m coming up with this very detailed essay of meeting him – and he smelled lovely. This guy smelled absolutely wonderful, in this little trailer with six other guys sleeping in shifts. So I asked him what he was wearing, and he said, “No, it’s the patchouli oil.” He’s been wearing it since “‘Nam,” he says: “I never change, I just wear this.” And then he says, “Man, it’s the weed man; it’s the fucking weed, man.”

COOLS: And that experience is what inspired Purple Haze?

JB: Yeah, so then I came up with the description – the story and a breakdown of layers – and I take it to the perfumers. First, it was the weed: OK, so we want to have smokiness; then we added cypress and patchouli, obviously, because we needed to have a patchouli-based fragrance with 19-69. Then we thought about the color “purple” – purple for Purple Haze – and that inspired the violet leaf. So, when you smell it, you should be imagining the color purple. Also, we thought about the different groups of fragrance, like fresh, green, woody and floral. It’s this combination of influences that allows the collection to talk to everybody; that’s why we needed to do six fragrances, because we wanted to include a variety of palates.

COOLS: What group would you use to describe Purple Haze?

JB: For sure, it’s definitely more toward the dry, woody notes. Chinese Tobacco would be smoky and woody, while Kasbah is also woody but it has the honey in there to elevate the dryness.

COOLS: So you take this fragrance journey and give it to your perfumers to turn it into a new scent?

JB: Right, I describe, for Capri for instance, the peel of the skin of the orange. For me, the fragrance journey is how I want to ultimately experience the fragrance. How it should feel the first five minutes, as well as in the next half hour. Then, by studying it and spending an insane amount of time with it, we start breaking down the layers, and that’s such a wonderful sensation, of understanding your nose. Everybody has that ability; you just need to practice it.

COOLS: What would you say is your main task at 19-69?

JB: My job is really to do all the curating and the picking. Obviously, I have a group of people around me, but the final choice is mine. That’s especially difficult when we start to go really deep into the process and make about a hundred different varieties.

COOLS: Your collection currently has five fragrances. What will be next for 19-69?

JB: The name will be “L’Air Barbès,” and it’ll be more of an urban-city fragrance. The inspiration is the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station in Paris. If you stand there long enough, it feels as if the whole world could pass you by in ten minutes; I find that truly inspiring.

COOLS: And how would you briefly describe the fragrance journey of L’Air Barbès?

JB: L’Air Barbès will be clean, urban and fresh. It’s about taking the train from Sweden to Paris, to go to Les Bains Douches for a night of clubbing, and where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. With L’Air Barbès – it’s really the one missing from the collection, and that will be obvious when you smell it.

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