Founder Feature: Maya Njie
We're big fans of the striking collection from London perfumer, Maya Njie, and were excited to learn more about her brand, process and aesthetic.
Q. Your fragrances and branding have a notable confidence and clarity of vision. How would you describe the overarching aesthetic of your brand?
A. Simplistic, colorful, nostalgic and contemporary.
Q. You’ve said that your fragrances are grounded in your family’s Swedish and West African cultures. Can you tell us how these cultural influences are realized in your work?
A. The aesthetic of the brand is definitely Scandinavian in its simplicity and direct communication. I believe that the personal photographs that are part of the visual fragrance narrative tell a story on their own that points towards mixed influences and backgrounds.
The typical Swedish backdrop is visible and further enhanced by the West African heritage and influences. I love cedarwood and use it a lot, that combined with cardamom and vanilla is very Swedish. Tobak is the one fragrance that reminds me of both my granddad growing up but also Gambia and its wood and leather craft markets. Tobak covers a lot of ground for me in that way. Tropica is reminiscent of the beaches of The Gambia; sea salt, oily skin, sunscreen and fizzy drinks.
Q. When you were working as a visual designer and photographer, how did you first become interested in adding scent to your artistic palette?
A. Being inquisitive about how something or someone smells is second nature to me and it's what completes a picture or narrative in my mind. Having a creative outlet at university gave me so much and made me lean towards exploring olfaction alongside my photography – it made so much sense once I started pairing the two.
Q. Has scent always been a prominent part of your life?
A. Yes for as long as I can remember. It would be through candles, incense, beauty products, stationery and perfume. Always present in one form or another.
Q. What do you love and/or loathe most about working with fragrance materials?
A. Discovering a material that I love can really have an effect on how I feel, I love the power of ingredients in that way and the excitement it gives me when I blend them in a way that enhances that feeling. Patience is a virtue when it comes to formulating a fragrance and time isn’t always on your side. I do like the maturation process of perfume making though. It slows the manufacturing time down and you have to respect that and just let your ingredients work their magic.
Q. What is your philosophy in terms of perfume’s relationship to the expression (and perception) of personal beauty?
A. I am more likely to leave the house without make-up than I would without perfume, it just gives me more satisfaction and a feeling of security than beauty products could. I feel like I make a statement with the perfume I wear, it doesn’t have to be loud or overtly daring, just individual and personal – a representation and extension of one’s style.
Q. What brought you to London originally?
A. I arrived here not long after my 19th birthday with my best friend Malva. As teenagers we were very influenced by British culture and wanted to experience it, really. I’ve been here ever since.
Q. It seems as though you’re hands-on with every aspect of your line — formulation, bottling, branding design, and beyond. Which part of your business gives you the most joy?
A. Most of it to be honest. I love working on new fragrance ideas and experimenting with ingredients. Taking photos and working with color is always a lot of fun. I also love packaging design and exploring different avenues. Multi-sensory projects often contain all of the above and I get to do a bit of everything.
Q. Nordic Cedar was your first scent and it really is wonderful. Can you tell us a bit more about it and also how you felt upon its completion?
A. Cardamom is my favorite spice hands down and I knew as soon as I got my hands on some essential oil that I wanted to blend with it. Its power when backed up by patchouli and cedarwood is everything I needed. I wore it myself for a couple of years before I launched Maya Njie as a business. In a way it’s the fragrance that pushed me to pursue perfumery professionally, however, when it was made there was no intention of ever sharing it with anybody!
Q. What is the most important thing you tell your perfumery students?
A. To finish a perfume can take months or even years so don’t be too hard on yourself. If you are passionate about perfumery keep practicing and learn as you go.
Q. Perfume has traditionally been a category dominated by white men, which we hope and believe is changing. Do you see a shift, and do you have specific advice you would give to other women and people of color who might want to start their own brands?
A. I hope it’s changing too. I would like for big companies and corporations to make changes from within and make an effort to be more inclusive, both behind the scenes and in their campaigns. Are the customers that buy your products represented on your teams and in your advertising? If not – why is that?
I have seen a shift in how consumers make conscious decisions in how they shop, yes. They want to know who they are supporting and feel that they can relate to that person or brand. There is more interest in spending money with the independent businesses and away from the high street.
I think it takes a lot of determination to start your own business, especially as a woman of color. My advice would be to work hard, keep going, make sure that you have people around you who believe in what you do and support it. If they have the opportunity to offer advice, take it. That has been really helpful for me.
I have had no investment or cash injection and it has taken me years to get to where I am today, where I can have staff to help me with production and management, etc. Focus on what you are doing and what you are good at and stop comparing yourself to others, it only distracts you from the tasks at hand.
Don’t forget to take your foot off the gas and enjoy yourself from time to time too!