Making scents of a city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am

'LOOKING BACK on my career, it doesn't really fit together. When I was small I had a real passion for beauty products: I grew up in South Wales, and when my mother went to London and bought face creams, I'd collect the boxes. But I read Latin and Spanish at Oxford University, and then moved to London where I worked as an equity analyst for Schroders.

It was when I was given L'Oreal to analyse that I realised I wanted to be in the beauty industry. So I moved to L'Oreal, where I became head of skincare.

In 2007 I left my job there and moved with my husband to Vietnam, where I started Cochine. I now realise I couldn't have done any of this without the years I spent at Schroders and L'Oreal.

I was completely struck by Vietnam; I had expected a sort of less-developed Bangkok, and instead found this hidden gem in Saigon, with its French influence, beautiful landscape and architecture. There's an innate style, a kind of chic to southern Vietnam - it's unlike anywhere in Asia.

We had a magical life there. We lived in a villa by a river and would go to friends' houses on an old speedboat in the evenings. I'd ride a bike to the bakery in the mornings to get bread; there was this jasmine tree, and the smell was amazing.

The fragrances there are different. The climate is different, and the soil is fertile; unlike in London where there's smog everywhere, and the flowers are flown in from Holland. I wanted to encapsulate this essence of Saigon; this elegance, romance and style, its nostalgic past.

As soon as I started working with fragrances, interesting projects started coming my way. We're supporting a project in Vietnam which is growing sustainably farmed agarwood, for example. It's a rare and valuable essential oil, so we're reintroducing these indigenous trees to Vietnam. There are 30 small farms in Vietnam and we've got the first small bottle of oil from production in our products.

Sustainability has to be at the core of a brand. Our candles are renewable palm wax, packaging is 90 per cent recycled card, our bottles are recyclable plastic and we source oils from local practises.

For each of our fragrances I picked one scene of Saigon. White jasmine and gardenia is the scent-filled, sun-drenched streets; water hyacinth and lime blossom is reminiscent of lazy afternoons on the river banks - fresh-cut grass and blue skies.

For me a bath filled with essential oils is one of life's luxuries. My house is full of candles. I think fragrances almost define you; we associate certain scents with different people.

I wanted to create sophisticated French-style fragrances that you could wear on your skin, and then put them into candles. As one of the first Vietnamese luxury brands, having unrivalled quality is important.

So I worked with a New York-based international fragrance house, a lucky break; I met someone who shared my love of Vietnam and was keen to help. The rose fragrance, for example, has 60 different oils in it - something that I just couldn't have done alone.

We started selling our products in Saigon's top hotels and stores, then we launched in Hong Kong - at Harvey Nichols and Indigo stores. We started selling in just one store in Britain in December and are rolling out there next year. It's amazing; we've had emails from people all over the world asking where they can buy our products. One day I'd love to have Cochine standalone stores.

I thought we'd be in Vietnam for longer - I was so happy there - but after two years my husband's job moved us to Hong Kong. It worked out that the timing was great though; the move to Hong Kong has made running the business much easier.

If I was to do a Hong Kong fragrance it would be ginger lily. One day, I was walking at the top of Victoria Peak, and it must have been in season; the smell was incredible. People ask me if I'll do Cochine Bangkok and other cities, but no - we will never be a brand of 30 fragrances. It will always be Saigon.'