Paola Bottai has been passionate about perfume for as long as she can remember. In fact, her nose is so sensitive she used to feel ill whenever she picked up a bad smell on the street. Now a top perfume creator, Paola has turned her lifelong fascination with aromas into a burgeoning career.
For the petite 35-year-old, perfume is more than a flight of fancy, it’s an obsession. Paola’s sunny studio finds its home in the apartment where she grew up, in Rome’s elegant Parioli neighborhood. She recalls her childhood predisposition for perfume as she brushes her fingers across the quirky personal collection that sits on her bookshelf, before settling at a table covered in tiny vials filled with potions from faraway places. A fragrance formula often comes to mind, “Like a musician thinking of a melody, I smell the aroma in my head first then I try to recreate the idea that I have in mind,” she muses.
Her nose travels around the world in a heartbeat––the colorful vials in front of her contain vetiver from Haiti, tuberose from India and sandalwood from Australia. Nearby, there’s a copy of The Little Prince, Bruce Springsteen discs and posters from the Coen brothers’ classic, The Big Lebowski. All are sources of inspiration.
Her working life began in the music industry, but Paola was always drawn to perfume. After a summer course in the French perfume capital, Grasse, she was hooked. She was one of only a dozen students selected from around the world for a one-year intensive there.
Since she returned to Rome, Paola has built a name for herself by creating original men’s fragrances. Her clients range from large fashion companies to niche players, and collaborations with Rome-based accessory houses Chez Dede and Men’s Heritage. Together, she believes they are adding a new dimension to creativity in the Italian capital.
Paola draws inspiration from the neighborhood where she grew up and continues to live.“It’s my village, this is my little town.There is a perfume shop nearby, owned by a family friend, where I used to spend my afternoons as a child, playing or doing my homework. These quarters of Rome make you feel like you are in the centre of the world but have a very strong human element. Did you see how many people I greeted on the street?” Her studio is also her home, a place she returns to after travel to collapse onto the couch and listen to music. Time out plays its own special role in energizing her creative spirit.
You have to limit your imagination. Creativity has to be focused.
Paola builds a fragrance like the layers of a pyramid. She blends fresh aromas like mandarin, citrus and bergamot with more complex fragrances that linger on a collar and make someone remember you long after you’ve gone. Each formula is unique. It’s always a challenge, “You have to limit your imagination… Creativity has to be focused,” she notes.
When Paola creates a new fragrance, she prepares several samples for her clients, complete with original designs for the bottles, caps and labels. Once the formula is approved she takes it to a laboratory near Venice. There, a team of experts produce large quantities of the perfume according to her precise formula and strict government guidelines. Nothing is left to chance.
Asked to design a fragrance for the MINI Gentleman’s Collection, Paola began with a concept of elegance. She wanted to come up with something that was both classic and also current. A fragrance of contrasts, it has something metallic about it but is somehow warm as well.
As for the future, there may be a signature fragrance on Paula’s favorite shelf one day. “It will happen in the future. But while my work is going well, I don’t feel the need to do it. It is beautiful to have your feet on the ground and take small steps.”
This portrait is part of a collaborative series, produced by Freunde von Freunden and MINI and is co-published by Cool Hunting. These features take a personal look at three Italian design talents behind the MINI Gentleman’s Collection—men’s accessories created for the launch of the MINI Clubman. We tell the inspiring stories behind the design, focusing on the craft used to create these special products. Read the full interview on Freunde von Freunden.
Images courtesy of Rocco Rorandelli