Scent Selector: Ainslie Walker
As part of their Biennial, there’s photographic installation showing at the Art Gallery of SA in Adelaide, featuring the image of a boy leaping into dark water. The theme is a longstanding one for the photographer Tamara Dean – the edges of things, the feeling of taking a plunge into the unknown. There’s a palpable atmosphere to the work. But while you might not perceive it at first, the image alone doesn’t create that atmosphere.
There’s a scent in the air. And that’s Ainslie Walker’s magic at work.
It’s a couple of scents actually, one to evoke the location of freshwater, the rocky cliff, wet rocks, identifiably Australian; and one to represent the boy. It’s animalic, the pungent scent of skin, almost of fear, excitement, maybe anticipation…
The story of this boy’s leap is rendered through scent, yet our eyes have the lead, we use sight to orientate all our other senses. We’re much less conscious of the stories brought to us by our sense of smell. It’s not that way for Walker, who refuses to let me call her an Australian expert (maybe she’s take the title ‘Queen’?), but nevertheless boasts formal training as a perfumer, a longstanding and awarded career as a journalist, a consultant, trainer, educator, and possessor of one hell of a nose. In fact she describes being “nose-led” her entire life.
“It seems that smell is the sense which I am more aware of,” she explains, as simply as that. It’s an awareness not awakened through stolen sniffs of her mother’s perfume (although she ticks that box, it was N°5). Instead, Walker talks in captivating detail of more corporeal sensations from her childhood in rural NSW, a mantra of nostalgic smells she has clearly catalogued in her memory:
The smell of the pool – both indoor and outdoor. The smell of vomit covered with sawdust in the playground from kindergarten, the smell of my goat burping in my face while I milked her most days before school. The smell of sunscreen my mother used – it was a blue bottle with darker blue and red wavy stripes. The smell of the watercress in the creeks and freshwater on my skin after swimming in the dams and water tanks. The smells of my Dad’s sheds with various projects including the scent of him making a fibreglass canoe. Herb tinctures I manufactured as a naturopath and plants in my parents gardens…
It’s these scent memories that inform Walker’s work as a perfumer, whether she’s executing art-based installations or corporate creations, imagining the scent of a sapphire or the smell of summer in Bondi; and it’s her ability to communicate them that won her a Jasmine Award (the Oscars of fragrance industry) for best fragrance blog in 2014. She’d recently returned to Sydney when she won, leaving a thriving career in the UK as a product developer and spa operations manager after a harrowing encounter with a London cab driver.
Since then, I wonder if Walker’s nose finally feels at home, or whether it’s a melancholy return. Despite her obvious talent, I sense some sadness from the entrepreneur that the olfactory doesn’t get the respect it deserves. “It’s a constant uphill battle to forge forwards,” she says. “My business needs to be ever evolving to survive”. A woman who works with perfume still conjures up an image of a department store floor for some, rather than the years of training, national exhibitions and a thriving consultancy under her belt.
Walker’s deep dive into the olfactory deserves a title and I really think it should be Queen.
Ainslie sat down for a Q&A with The Accords, so delighted to share some of her favourite things…
Favourite smell in the world?
Country air in autumn and spring around Orange, night air in cold urban environments like London when smoke from fireplaces mix with the smells of gardens. And of course my beautiful Boston Terrier’s fur! The smell of a lover’s neck. Popcorn. People’s houses. (Ed: that’s more than one, Ainslie!)
First perfume you ever bought for yourself?
United Colours of Benetton I think. I also had an Avon one which was given to me as a child. Also Spiritual Sky Egyptian Musk and a violet one. And then Mostly Musk and White Musk by The Body Shop. Sometimes solid amber rubbed on my wrist. A plethora of essential oils as I started teaching myself from about 16 years old.
Favourite fragrance note, or favourite ingredient in your collection?
Lately I have been playing with lotus and tobacco absolute. My tastes are lightening in some ways. I used to love all the woods and vetiver, heavier and smokier notes. I have always loved amber. I love osmanthus. The real stuff – thick creamy, not watery as in many designer fragrances. I love iso e. Castoreum. Bulgarian rose. Boronia. Violet leaf. Violets. Roman chamomile. Orris. Geosmin. Tuberose Absolute. Fig. Bergamot.
Hell… what don’t I like is probably easier!! (Ed: fair call!)
I hate the laundry musks. They really ruin fragrances for me. I can be picky with sweet or fruity smells common in many designer fragrances.
Your influencers and inspirations?
Obviously all the perfumers (so many I could write here from generations ago through to now, especially the women who endured a fairly sexist career choice). Critics such as Luca Turin and Chandler Burr. Brand owners – the ones who have come up with concepts and products that really are innovative and breathe new life into the industry. Etienne from Etat Libre d’Orange for example. Naomi Goodsir’s collection. Saskia Havekes of Grandiflora. Carlos Huber Arquiste. There is so much “same same” and so many copycats I am always pleased to smell the standouts. Michael Edwards for his tireless lifelong work, support and mentoring. Jo Horgan (of Mecca Cosmetica), Nick Smart (Agence de Parfum) and Jill Timms (Peony Haute Parfumerie Melbourne) for making niche available in Australia.
I would love to meet more of the farmers of the raw materials directly as the ones I have met I really admire their hard work and risk they take for us, which is overlooked.
And perfume trend you wish would die?
The need to endlessly release flankers and fragrances every season. We are saturated. I wish companies would really consider if they are bringing us something new or already done… However, when you work with focus groups I think it can be the case that little variations on products that worked prior have appeal.
The next fragrance you want to buy is?
I have an order on the way from Peony in Melbourne with Naomi Goodsir Iris Cendre and By Kilian Moonlight in Heaven. I am also after Liquides Imaginaires Île Pourpre – a decadent fig fragrance.
A good day starts with?
A clear nose, inspired mind and smooches with the pooch – my Boston Terrier Bailey Chopper Walker!
Walker can be contacted for commissions at ainsliewalker.com.
Sharpen your own sense of smell and create a signature fragrance at The Invisible Accessory Experience, guided by Walker. Hosted by Courtesy of the Artist in Sydney’s Strand Arcade. Tickets available here.