It wasn’t long ago that Sylvie Loday was floating in an anti-gravity aircraft. The former engineer and NASA employee was deep into her research on the environmental impact of human presence living on international space stations.
But in 2001, she decided to use her knowledge of science to enter a new frontier—the field of scent. Now, the founder of Paris’s innovative perfumery Ex Nihilo is shaking up the fragrance industry through the use of unusual scents that evoke intense experiences (like skiing or racing a car) and high-tech blending (using an Osmologue, the brand’s own invention to create custom perfumes). “In spirit we are quite avant-garde, so I think we speak to the next generation of luxury clients,” says Loday. “It’s not just a thing you wear, but something that really speaks to who you are.”
We caught up with Loday to talk about the science and emotion of scent—and how a degree in astronautics is the unlikely key to creating powerful perfumes.
Tell us about your work with NASA. What did you do?
I was the daughter of two mathematicians in Princeton. I grew up in France but moved to the U.S. to study astronautics at MIT for graduate school. I worked with NASA for my thesis, and I was creating a little system for the International Space Station. They were doing experiments in space gravity, so people were living in the station, and there were some disturbances to the environment because of that. We were trying to record and understand this impact.
Did you go into space?
I didn’t go into space, but we tested what they call the KC-135 aircraft that replicated a microgravity environment. It’s where astronauts train and where many of the movies are shot. I did two of those flights, and they were some of the best moments of my life. You had this feeling of becoming a bird, flying through the air. I hoped that I could have done it many more times, but it’s quite expensive to run.
How did you go from astronautics to fragrance?
When I graduated MIT in 2001, there weren’t a lot of jobs, especially in engineering, so I decided to do strategy consulting for McKinsey, and one of my clients was [Swiss fragrance and flavor manufacturer] Givaudan.
I had always worn a lot of perfumes. When I was a kid I borrowed them from my mom, though they were not suited for young girls. When I got a bit of money, I started buying my own and experimenting with Angel and Voodoo—all these perfumes from the ’80s. I knew very little about how they were created, so when I got the chance to work with McKinsey, I jumped on it right away.
Did your training as an engineer help you in the world of fragrance?
There is so much innovation behind the scenes that very little people know about fragrance. All the work brands do to capture a new scent, develop new molecules, new extraction processes—as an engineer, that really interested me.
Beyond the technical, though, I think what was really captivating me was the emotion we could get out of it. I just found it amazing to be able to trigger memories. In that way, a fragrance is almost a partner of your life. I was really interested in driving emotions.
Why did you create Ex Nihilo?
We [Loday, along with partners Olivier Royère and Benoît Verdier] joined forces with the idea to take fragrance further than other brands. So many big brands were spending large amounts of money on marketing and advertising; we wanted to put everything into the product and the creation of the scent. It’s about experiences—not branding. It was also important that we give our perfumers a lot of freedom. We don’t have any constraints when creating a new scent.
You employ nontraditional scents like pink grapefruit, pepper, and tech juice in your fragrances. Where do you get your inspiration?
It comes from our day-to-day lives. I love skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer, so I get the most inspired by nature. Last weekend I was skiing in the Alps, and we were going through these pine woods, and the natural green and woody smell I just found stunning. I would like to create something that gives the sense of being cold and very warm in your coat at the same time.
How can you evoke a feeling like that with scent?
Take one of our perfumes, Bois d’Hiver, which means “winter woods.” If you smell it, you’ll find it has that spirit of the hot and cold. The cold part comes from white-pepper extracts—scents that are fresh and bright in spirit. The warm part works around a bouquet of wood—something warmer. The contrast gives you a shivering feeling, one that you are feeling both hot and cold at the same time.
Ex Nihilo is a technology-driven brand, too. Tell us about your invention, the Osmologue.
The Osmologue is at the core of our bespoke fragrance creations. Clients go through a verbal questionnaire in order for us to deeply understand what they are looking for, then experience all of our combinations and absolute fragrances in their purest form. The Osmologue, our high-tech robot, then makes the fragrance, weighing and blending to create a custom composition in only in a few minutes.
What’s your advice for someone choosing a new fragrance?
Choosing your fragrance is a matter of olfactory coup de foudre! The marriage of your skin and the fragrance will depend on several factors, such as your skin type, skin age, and the way you dress—but most surely you have to trust your feelings without constraints or preconceptions.
Do you have a favorite scent?
When I was young I loved floral fragrances. Now I enjoy the woody scents, as well as oriental scents. I wear all of our fragrances before they launch, and if I don’t feel happy when I wear them, we don’t put them on the market. Today, I am wearing something we are developing that hopefully you will see next year.