The Life of Christopher Chong, Told through the Memories of Smell | Savoir Flair
Scent Stories
The Life of Christopher Chong, Told through the Memories of Smell
article CHRISTOPHER CHONG
by Grace Gordon 11-minute read July 16, 2023

Through the power of scent and memories, Christopher Chong share's the story of his life as Savoir Flair reveals his Scent Stories.

article THAMEEN

Out of our five senses – taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell – there is only one that reigns supreme when it comes to triggering memory and emotion: smell. Since your olfactory bulb runs from your nose to your amygdala (the area in the brain linked to cognition and memory), scientists theorize that the close proximity of smell and memory is what causes an instantaneous link between the two. When memory is triggered, so is emotion, which is why it’s no exaggeration to state that smell is the sense most strongly associated with emotion. The musty bouquet of an old book with a cracked spine, the fresh rubber tang of a pencil eraser, the cloying sweetness of a vanilla cake, all of these scents can bring about a crystal-clear vision of a past experience and the feelings you felt back then can sharpen in an instant. Therefore fragrance – that intentionally bottled liquid made of combined essences and scent molecules – can be a transportive device for taking you on a walk down memory lane. 

Christopher Chong is something of an enigma in the world of perfumery. With a background in Comparative Literature (specializing in semiotics and psychoanalysis) and opera performance, he began his journey at Amouage as something of an outsider, where he worked for 15 years as a Creative Director – transforming the brand into a global name by making bold and unexpected choices. “My mission,” he shared in an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, “was to reach out to the outside world. To do that you need to tell the kind of stories that they can relate to. I wanted to take Oman to the world, so, I started to connect stories and cultures from other sections of the world to Oman, bringing them together and reinterpreting them into fragrances. Then, I would take the fragrances to the world.” 

While Chong is not himself a nose or a perfumer, he has an instinctual knack for storytelling and connecting big ideas. He didn’t approach his role as a product creator but as a product manager. “My role is to put together the story behind a fragrance, to translate it into something that someone connects with beyond the scent.” However, it’s a big task to transform a niche perfume brand from Oman into a brand with a global reputation. The work and travel required were non-stop. “At one point, the brand and I became one. I forgot who I was. Wherever I went, all I was able to talk about was the product. I lost my identity. I felt like a hamster on a wheel.” Eventually, Chong decided to re-prioritize. It wasn’t as dramatic as a crash – although Chong does describe it as a “reset” –  but the timing of his decision was, let’s say, fortuitous in some ways and unfortunate in others. As Chong departed Amouage, bound on a journey toward self-rediscovery, Covid-19 hit. All of a sudden, his plans evaporated. Instead of heading forward into a new unknown, he had reached a full stop. As a consummate city person, Chong ended up spending lockdown in the country, in the middle of nowhere. “It allowed me to appreciate nature, go outside, and breathe fresh air. I was able to appreciate seasonal growth and all the little changes in flowers, plants, and vegetables around me. I was able to see things in their true, natural form, not just as essences of bottled oils in a lab.”

Smell is the sense most strongly associated with emotion.

article THAMEEN

With the rest of the world also halted alongside him, Chong began to look up, both metaphorically from the grindstone of his career and literally. “Every morning I looked up at the sky, and every night I looked up at the stars.” It was there that he got a call from the universe. One night, while gazing skyward, he suddenly knew that he was ready to go back to work, but he didn’t share this realization with anyone. Destiny rang, this time on the phone. “A call came from my ex-boss who had left right Amouage before I did. He asked me if I knew about the brand Thameen, and told me he had been asked to ‘reboot’ it,” Chong shared. “Thameen wanted to reach the outside world, outside of one department store [for many years Thameen was available only at Selfridge’s in London], to speak to the world, to give the brand a stronger brand identity, to give it a soul and an attitude.”

While this is exactly what Chong had done for his previous company, he wanted to approach this opportunity differently – on his own terms. He didn’t want to bring his prior emotional, productive, and creative baggage to Thameen. “I wanted to start from a clean slate,” he said. That’s why he made the bold choice to enter in a different capacity, as a Brand and Artistic Director, “like an artist in residence,” he explained. “[In this way], I bring my own artistic DNA, my own artistic soul, and my own artistic attitude to Thameen. There might be a bit of tension at the beginning, but that is where originality comes from. That’s what will make us stand out among the gazillion brands popping out every single month.”

As he steers Thameen into a bold new future, Chong pays a visit to Dubai to introduce its new collections. We took the opportunity to tap his unique wisdom and storytelling style to find out what scents have informed his personal journey. From sorrow to success, this is Christopher Chong’s #ScentStory.

The Scent of Home Is...

I think the scent of home should smell like your kitchen because that’s the place where all family members like to congregate, meet up, and exchange all their ups and downs. It’s the room where they share all their emotional ups and downs as well. I think the scent is the smell of whatever you are cooking or baking. I think that defines a home.

The Scent of Childhood Is...

My father bought my mother a bottle of Chanel ‘N°5’ when they were first married. She wore it only on special occasions. You have to understand, I’m Chinese, and while recently Chinese people have started wearing perfume, in the old days, most Chinese people didn’t wear perfume. It’s not something that was so important in Asian culture. When I was three or four, I didn’t know any better, I saw this bottle, and I started spraying it, overwhelming the house where we were living. My grandmother got really furious, ‘You see that? You stank up the whole house!’

For me, it was like being transported into an Alice in Wonderland-like magical world that I could not, did not have the words and experience to express. For me it was beautiful. That explains why, from a very young child – I know this sounds a bit weird – I loved department stores. I love the ground floor in department stores, the beauty department, the smell. 

The Scent of Family Is...

The scent of family is loving each other no matter what. You cannot choose the family you’re born into. Family takes a lot of compromises. We always go around saying that we love all our family members, but the truth is, well, are you absolutely being honest with yourself? Sometimes you don’t like someone. It could be your siblings, sometimes it could even be your parents. It hurts sometimes to be in that position, but it happens. It happens everywhere around us. Family is hard work.

If I was to reimagine the perfect family smell, I think of cashmere. I think of warmth. When you are lost, a true family will bring you back in with no judgment. Families do not judge you, no matter how far you’ve strayed, they will always bring you back and wrap you up in their cashmere.

The Scent of Creativity Is...

It’s a paradox. It has to be something familiar because there’s no point in giving someone a scent so creative that they’ve never smelled before. It has to draw you to it with a sense of familiarity, a kind of déjà vu. Then, it’s almost reimagining it. It takes you on a new journey, a new perspective that you have never, ever thought of. I think that is a sign of an excellent perfumer. And that’s how I select the perfumers in my partnerships. 

For example, Thameen’s scent ‘Fanfare’ speaks to both the familiar and reimagining the familiar. We released it three months ago and it’s part of the new collection I brought to show Thameen’s new identity. ‘Fanfare’ is a reimagining of the flower market in Covent Garden [in London]. When you think about the flower market, you think of a lot of flowers. But Bruno Jovanovic, the perfumer took it in a new direction, offering a perspective that I have never thought about. He said, ‘No, that is not right because if you just focus on the bouquet flowers, what does that mean? You can be in a garden, you can be in a flower shop, you can be in your home.’ When he thought of the flower market in Covent Garden, he thought of the moisture in the air, its greenness, with a bit of citrus, and a bit of all these other elements in the air coming together.

I thought that was an extremely creative interpretation. He was able to take something that is familiar and make it new. I thought that was extremely talented of him to be able to take me out of my conditioned perception.

The Scent of Love Is…

There are all kinds of love. There is parental love, sibling love, platonic love, and romantic love. Then, there is love for your passions, but the most important love is the love you have for yourself, which is simple to say but very difficult to do. And what is the smell of that? It depends on the individual. It is what you truly, truly want for yourself. You wear perfume for yourself, and you choose one that defines who you are. You don’t care if 99.9 percent of the world says that is the most disgusting scent. But if you believe in it, that is true love. The problem with perfume wearing is that, most of the time people wear it for others. To wear perfume for yourself is true self-love.

For me, it’s more difficult to define since I am always using my own skin to test fragrances. I’m developing new fragrances up to two years in advance. I have all these modifications and submissions and then we re-work those. I’m always wearing something that I’m working on. I don’t know, I’m still on this self-discovery journey, trying to find who I am.

The Scent of Happiness Is...

The scent of happiness is my dog, Harper.  Sometimes I know she needs a bath and she needs to be washed. Still, no matter how tough the day has been, no matter how stressed I am when I come home, I cuddle her and I smell her. That gives me peace and happiness.

The Scent of Sadness Is...

Because I come from China, sadness always reminds me of incense, like a burning joss stick. To me, the smell represents death and funerals. In some parts of Chinese culture, they pay respect to their deceased ancestors on their birthdays and anniversaries by burning incense. That smell reminds me of the loss of loved ones.

The Scent of Relaxation Is…

Gourmand, which is completely opposite of my style. Before Covid, I had never baked a cake, but during Covid, I had a lot of time to watch these YouTube baking videos, so I embraced a new hobby. It was also a time for me to think about something related to fragrance, with its smells and sensations, but more than that, it was something to do. I used to bake a cake a day! It helped me to appreciate sweetness and taught me that sweetness doesn’t need to be sugary.

The Scent of Travel Is…

I haven’t been on vacation for 15 years. I am always working. I always dream of visiting Bhutan. One day I will go there. To me, it will have the scent of misty mountains. If I ever create a scent of mist or mountain air, that would be the scent of travel. 

The Scent of Success Is...

Success is not being afraid to win, not being afraid of being judged. Success is when you are so comfortable in your own skin and have such a strong sense of self-belief that it goes beyond all kinds of criticism, even constructive criticism. In my profession, there is a lot of judgment because everyone has an opinion, but a true sense of success is all about satisfying yourself and trusting yourself. If I think of a scent that connects with that, it also connects with happiness because when you are successful you are happy. So, this might sound really weird, but for me, that is the smell of a greenhouse. Seeing those vegetables grow from seeds is absolutely amazing. It’s a fresh, green smell for me. That is the scent of success.

The Scent of Power Is…

I have worked with many, many powerful people in the industry, but the truly powerful ones do not believe in traditional ideas of power. They are the nicest people that I can ever imagine working with. True power is security – being secure in yourself. 

Power is like sunshine, it doesn’t try to be powerful, it just is. When I think of how that is represented I think of sunflowers. Like a blossoming sunflower, you are spreading your power and spreading light to everyone around you. Everyone around you is part of your power. All of you together create that power, not just one individual.

The Scent to Avoid Is…

Cake [laughs]. I like to eat it, but I don’t want to smell like it.

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