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Interview: Jon Bresler, Founder of Luxury Fragrance Brand LAFCO New York

Tracing product developments–from exquisite blown glass candles to meticulously formulated soaps and now technically superior room sprays

For Jon Bresler, scents should speak for themselves. As the founder of LAFCO New York, a luxury fragrance and natural skincare brand, Bresler decided to forgo visible branding on his candles. This move emphasized LAFCO’S commitment to handblown glass vessels, and the carefully configured aromas emanating from within. Still, launching candles without branding is a bold move—one that continues to underline Bresler’s values and intentions: to blend the spirit and aesthetics of traditional European apothecaries with the technologies of perfumery today. We sat with Bresler at LAFCO HQ, nosing fragrances set for release toward the end of this year and the beginning of next, to learn more about his passions and the personal narrative behind the beloved brand.

LAFCO was born from a quest of self-discovery, during which Bresler accumulated various skills and amassed industry credibility through interwoven endeavors. “I come from a family of lawyers,” Bresler says. “I went to law school and started practicing law and was just miserable. This was the mid-80s, in the height of the AIDS epidemic. I was living with somebody who died. I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to do something else.’ I quit. I had no idea what I was going to do.” A Swiss pharmaceuticals company that Bresler had freelanced for in college offered him a one year contract, so he moved to Zurich. “That is where the odyssey of natural skincare started for me,” he continues. “I developed this passion for botanical skincare and started visiting all the pharmacies and thought that maybe this was something I could do. I came back to the US and decided I would start a company importing natural skincare products from Europe.”

Bresler coupled small successes with minor flops. “The criteria for what I wanted was: old, European, and as artisanal or family-owned as possible,” he explains. He created the retro men’s shaving line Musgo Real in 1992. Later, while working with a historic Portuguese soap manufacturer, he stumbled upon their defunct printing factory and vintage wrappers. He transformed this into a line called Claus Porto in 1993. “That was pretty successful for us. It got us going as a business,” he says. “Our biggest customer was Neiman Marcus. There was no luxury soap on the market yet. These were different than everything else.”

Bresler’s biggest break ultimately came by way of the historic perfumery Santa Maria Novella, which he kept visiting while on scouting trips to Florence. “It was owned entirely by the last two family members. They didn’t want a distributor,” he says. “They could hardly make enough product to meet demand in Italy. That was, until they took on an investor. They moved their factory from the pedestrian zone of Florence to outside of the city and they ramped up production. On one visit they said ‘OK, you can be our distributor.’ That was the beginning of something different. For me, it was everything I wanted. It was what I had dreamed of when I started the business. I took it as an opportunity to learn. It was not about making money, it was about finding some happiness in life.”

Bresler took it upon himself to learn everything about fragrance, from Santa Maria Novella and their natural, essential oil fragrances to those from the classical and synthetic categories. As a distributor, he took on items from the famous Italian perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, known for his bombastic classical style. To round out his offerings, he began to work with the molecular perfume organization Eau d’Italie. “This was my perfumery school,” he says. “We talk about perfumery in the language of music—notes and chords, to form an orchestra. To me, this required a knowledge of all three categories.”

In 2002, Bresler was contacted by the owners of the famed Italian hotel Le Sirenuse. “They said we hear you are the distributor of Santa Maria Novella. We are looking for a distributor. They had decided to make a fragrance to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Given that it was a Baroque place, with modern furniture, they decided to go to the most modern perfumer—Bertrand Duchaufour at Symrise. He is the holder of the most patented fragrance molecules that there are. One of his molecules was the smell of hot terra cotta. That is Le Sirenuse hotel. They came out with their first fragrance, which was sea air and hot terra cotta. It was completely synthetic.”

Soon after, Bresler pursued an idea to develop his own fragrances designed around rooms in a house—and a new division of LAFCO was born. “From 2007 to 2015, we created LAFCO collections based around home decor and color, using traditional craftsmanship, handblown glass and 82% soy. I decided to make what I thought was the ideal combination of natural and synthetic, and do my best to match the gestalt of the type of room we envisioned. It was very successful. It grew to four times the size of the rest of the business—and it was our own line, it was an expression of us. In 2015, we made it our focus. We went from multi-brand to mono-brand.” By this time, Bresler had five Santa Maria Novella, which he sold to the brand. He hired a president for LAFCO and committed to making fragrance. “I was able to make my own formulations based upon my interpretations of what was important,” he adds.

Bresler cherishes LAFCO’s independence. He finds it inspiring. “We can do things that are designed to be expressive as opposed to moneymaking,” he says. “Sophisticated consumers want to be challenged. They want to learn something. They want to be provoked a little bit.” Bresler applies this belief to the scents he weaves together, as well as the materials he houses them in. He spends as much time laboring over glass techniques as he does technical innovations in fragrance development. “For our Absolute Collection, the glass is made in a factory that’s been in existence in the Czech Republic since 1712. It’s an old Bohemian glassmaker. We have been experimenting with a glass process called machia, or stain. It’s about building up layers of glass shards and melting them in. Each glass takes about half-an-hour to make.” As for the fragrance components, they were collected through a historic cold-extraction process. It’s one historic craft set into another. In many ways, this epitomizes LAFCO.

Bresler takes scent development inspiration from his surroundings. “It comes from all over,” he says. “It comes from smells that I like and places that I like. It comes from gardening. It comes from memories. Sometimes it comes from food. They just pop into my head.” Sometimes fragrance houses bring LAFCO something to experiment with, and Bresler ends up reconfiguring it. LAFCO excels at elevating common scents—from their creamy (or oaky) maple to a summery fruit candle that features cantaloupe, cassaba, salt and lime. “You do not get the sense that it is edible; it’s more of that fleeting moment of a fragrance,” he says.

Earlier this year, LAFCO debuted a soothing Restorative Retreat gift set. The trio of candles within were designed to be burned alone, or in any combination of two or three. “I designed it in such a way to introduce them together to create something that is not feasible in one fragrance,” Bresler says. “I often pair other LAFCO candles, too. My favorite example is Den, the second candle we ever made, and Grapefruit. From one, you get rich dry wood. The other gives you citrus. Put them together. Smell them. We could never create a fragrance that has both of those qualities because they’re so different. When they’re burned together, a complementary marriage of scent does indeed occur—much in the same way that a person’s home is composed of vastly different but equally loved scents that merge to define it.

This summer, LAFCO introduced a series of room mists designed around a patented odor-targeting technology. “This can be sprayed after malodors occur, or before,” Bresler says. “The targeting lasts beyond the amount of time you detect the fragrance. It can even be sprayed on safe surfaces.” Bresler explains that the active component is a biodegradable fragrance additive. It’s not designed to mask malodor, but to cancel it out. Each room mist is a balance of science and poetry, where the active component is paired with the scents of Chamomile Lavender, Fresh Cut Gardenia, Champagne and more. Bresler had to develop each scent profile and then reconfigure them molecularly, with support from a proprietary AI, so that positive scents weren’t also cancelled out by the technology. It’s effective—and refreshing.

Bresler looks at his vast roster of releases and sees value in them all. “All of your products cannot be winners,” he says. “You build an image around the stable of all the things that you are doing. Some are big moneymakers. Some are supporters. We try to do things that we think are important and useful. Ultimately, we are a fragrance company—and we like making fragrances.” To nose a LAFCO candle is to connect with Bresler’s unwavering vision and to inhale a scent composed of one person’s immense learnings.

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