Maverick Life

A TOUCH OF VANITY

Storytelling with scent: A journey of beauty and luxury perfume

Images supplied by Agata Karolina

The House of Gozdawa is all about making moments through scent. Founder Agata Karolina recalls her career of making natural perfumes that are unique to each wearer.

“Perfume is one of the most incredible sources of beauty for me because your olfactory senses are the first you ever use from the moment you exist on this planet. We wouldn’t be alive without it, and yet, for some reason, it is the one that we ignore the most in day-to-day life,” says Agata Karolina, founder of the perfumery House of Gozdawa in Cape Town.

“But when something incredible passes by your nose, it changes your entire moment. Your life is completely shifted for that very specific second, you’re moved in one of the most deep and penetrating ways. That is beauty for me in the most exquisite of ways; to impact someone’s life in such an intense and unfathomable sense.”

Karolina began House of Gozdawa in 2015 and since then, has been creating luxury scents from the natural extracts of pure ingredients found around her, on the African continent.

“Natural molecules behave differently and impact on your olfactory senses entirely differently, it’s an entirely new game. It’s beautiful. Natural molecules are alive, and what fascinates me more than anything is watching from a molecular perspective how these natural chemicals are constantly changing. You and I could try exactly the same perfume, but it’s not going to be the same because your body, your diet, your age, your [skin] colour, your everything is completely unique to you and your physical being is yours,” Karolina explains.

“I coined the [phrase] ‘perfume for you, not everyone else’, and I find natural perfume more beautiful than any synthetic could ever be, because it really is yours. You wear your perfume. Perfume doesn’t wear you.”

With this in mind, she creates singular scents that are unisex, with notes that come together in surprising and incredible blends. 

“I don’t focus on gender assignment. I’ve always really liked what have been traditionally considered masculine notes for myself, for instance, and I’ve seen the same with a lot of men [who] wear florals and [scents] which are considered feminine.”

Photo supplied by Agata Karolina

Karolina focuses on creating sensory experiences that tell stories and make memories, all bottled in her luxury perfumes.

“Taking time, being able to enjoy ingredients, being able to connect with oneself, with the reality of a story, to find connection, that is what beauty is really about for me,” she adds.

While she admits that the “first years were tough” for her business, Karolina believes that natural beauty products are gaining popularity both internationally and in South Africa, which in turn has had a positive effect on industries like hers.

“The change in mentality in skincare in South Africa deeply impacted the way people started looking at natural perfumery. More people, thanks to online communication platforms, are becoming aware of things that aren’t working for them. It can be as basic as getting allergic reactions from products or having sensitisation to smell, like getting headaches,” she says.

“We’re also looking from a different perspective on how the world is no longer limitless. With climate change, everyone’s been discussing it for a long time, but I think it’s hitting home in a (more) impactful way.”

A history of Gozdawa

“I’m a first-generation South African – my parents are Polish immigrants, so I was brought up with their culture in terms of coming into tincture creation.”

Karolina’s grandmother was her first mentor in perfumery, teaching her  about scents and botanicals.

“She had a love for outdoors and for communicating what beauty was about in life. It’s very much because of her that I wanted to continue and give homage to the people that have taught me what I knew,” Karolina fondly remembers.

Her family’s love for nature has been impressed on to Karolina, who in turn weaves the ocean and the Earth into every product she makes.

“We’re just all a bunch of outdoor people that really love getting our hands incredibly dirty [and] focusing on beauty, and I think that’s actually, more than anything, the greatest luxury in life.”

“I also do outdoor forages for some of the ingredients, which is wonderful. I forage seaweed to produce extracts of the actual kelp itself to get that really beautiful sea smell. And in very tiny minute amounts, it’s quite phenomenal.”

Karolina sources the ingredients for her products in South Africa and throughout Africa, from Madagascar, Namibia and Kenya to Chad, Ethiopia and Cameroon.

“I work in the highlands with a lot of people and there’s a lot of people who are distilling for me in Stellenbosch. We already have about 700 different ingredients, which I work with currently,” she explains.

“A lot of the fragrances which I have been imbued by are not actually grown in mass enough to distil, purely because their ability for distillation is very poor. So the yield amount of oil which we would get from certain plants is so low that it doesn’t make sense for a lot of farmers to farm it. So what I’ve been doing is taking from nature the experiences of plants that I really like and then reconstructing the idea of those smells using available materials.”

While the name Gozdawa, as well as Karolina’s own heritage, has strong ties to Poland, her decision to work primarily with African ingredients is very intentional.

“The reason the South African market is so important is [because] a lot of the brands that we’ve always been exposed to, their focus has always been on either a European market, which is predominantly a white market, or for instance an American market or an Asian market. The African market has been ignored… So we’re being told [what] beautiful smells are like [but] these are not our smells.”

A time to reflect

While the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted many businesses, the lockdown allowed Karolina to dive deeper into research and making new perfumes.

“[The pandemic] allowed me to take stock in my company, it allowed me to push forward. I think I got really stuck in the day-to-day of what is expected, of making money, I had forgotten how to play as much as I used to in the very beginning. I had three months to literally sit with a library of ingredients and just smell and blend and make perfume for no other reason than to just have fun.

“There is, in fact, a new perfume which I’ll be launching in the next few months called ‘Oh Darling’, which came from that space [of] just complete frivolousness, fun and silliness, and trying to find joy in a time where things were really, really hard.”

Rudi Geyser/House and Leisure.
Rudi Geyser/House and Leisure.

Despite the opportunity to experiment with new perfumes, the hardships were very real for the brand that, like so many other businesses, was forced to temporarily shut down in the early stages of lockdown last year.

“A lot of my clients are in the hospitality industry, and at the end of 2019 we had just signed a whole bunch of exciting, brilliant new projects, and then come 2020 and the floor literally fell out from beneath us. In the Level 5 lockdown we couldn’t sell anything, so I decided to make hand sanitiser,” Karolina recalls.

“It’s natural-based and still the same belief system, but it was difficult because I was stressing about the idea of producing products which people are just buying because they’re petrified. And that was a very difficult thing for me to swallow.”

Karolina is using her research to develop functional fragrance within the House of Gozdawa brand, and has numerous launches planned.

“It’s looking at the way that different essential oils or scents actually impact the brain, and how that has an impact on the body or mood. Yes, the perfume first and foremost has to be exquisite, and smell amazing, because this is what perfume is about. But at the same time, it’s all about creating products which are good for the body,” she says. DM/ML

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