Meet Brooke Lean, the fragrance founder with a sensory superpower

11 August 2022
By Sarah Murray

Why the maker of The Virtue's fragrances works in the dark, creating scents from France, & more.

The Virtue founder Brooke Lean. Image supplied.

Step inside The Virtue’s flagship store in New Plymouth and you’re instantly transported to another realm. Everything from the tone of the lighting and the colour of the walls to the textures of the furniture and the almost inaudible music playing in the background has been specifically chosen to help you forget about the outside world. You’ll notice all this, but mostly, you’ll notice the scent.

“The intention is for it to be a full sensory experience,” says founder Brooke Lean.

And that it is. When people visit, they tend to linger. Photographer-by-trade Lean opened the store in 2017 and stocks a mix of items: vintage furniture, her own prints, beautifully curated knick-knacks, books. Fragrant fresh flowers are for sale each day, and there are also her own scents, produced under The Virtue moniker. This line began later in 2017, and what’s unique about it is that every single smell is inspired by a memory or a photograph.

“It’s more of an all-around feeling,” says Lean. “I try to place myself into the memory and let it envelop me. From there, the smells just come. The real challenge has been to discover what they are, so that’s been the learning for me. It’s been guesswork, but now I feel like I’ve got the language to explain it. I spent 20 years polishing my craft of photography and I’m only just starting the rough sandpaper on the perfumery.”

Take her favourite, a potent gardenia-based fragrance called 1987, which was the year that Lean was five. “It’s the smell of my school teacher when I started school,” she says. “My mum handed me across to her and it was the smell on my teacher’s wrist, [one of] those really heady 1980s fragrances that were so intense and overwhelming. That was an experience that was pivotal, and that scent was attached to that memory so intensely.”

To say Lean has a keen sense of smell is an understatement. Although she’s quick to tell me she’s not a trained perfumer, it’s clear she has a natural talent.

“My family will tell you that I’ve always had a really strong sense of smell and could be really over stimulated at times — by smells, light, sounds and things like that,” she says. “My sensory perception has always been heightened and I’ve always loved perfume and fragrances.

“We didn’t know at the beginning how it would play out — would we find smells and sell other people’s?” she says of The Virtue’s fragrance journey. “We sourced beautiful foreign scents and candles, but nothing was quite right — I needed it to be more. But once you start…! It evolved into where it is now.”

Room sprays by The Virtue. Image supplied.

Some of the offerings include a selection inspired by her 2016 trip to Cuba. They have names like Cienfuegos, La Habana and my favourite, Castro, an intoxicating potion made up of notes of tobacco, rum, violet and musk. “The smells came in as a way to reinforce that Cuban experience,” says Lean.

Lean had spent most of her career as a wedding photographer, and although that medium may seem worlds away from perfumery, she maintains there is a connection. “Being a photographer, I was always trying to tap into that nostalgia, trying to capture a little of that person’s soul. I always wanted to be able to move someone  through my imagery. Initially, the perfume was a way to add another dimension to that medium. I wanted to be able to attach a sense of smell to the imagery [for others] like I do [myself]. When I experience a scene, those smells are always intricately attached, whether I notice it or not. I can almost taste it.” 

There’s a moodboard on the wall in Lean’s office. It’s a living thing that starts with photographic imagery, then is dabbed with scent-scrawled writing and other collected items that help bring to life the story she’s trying to tell. Interestingly, though, although she might chase the light as a photographer, she’s extremely sensitive to it, which is why she prefers to work in darkness.

The Virtue offers perfumes, room sprays, candles and incense. Image supplied.

“My office space is all dark,” she says. “It’s about shutting down all of the senses, and there’s a reason why — it really calms my nervous system when the light is taken away.”

With The Virtue’s chosen perfumers located in Grasse, France, the process to get their fragrances made has been a little different from the norm, given that they’re based on the other side of the world (during a pandemic). Thankfully, there’s a space in Lean’s store (which is housed in an old law office built in 1863) that acts as the ideal smelling room — an old safe with a big, heavy door. It’s in here that she keeps the ingredients and pours the perfumes.

“[The perfumers in Grasse] interpret my information and my writing and the moodboards and what I think I want the main hero notes to be in the fragrance,” says Lean, describing the production process. “From there, they use their own skill set to build the fragrance. They send it back to us in small samples and I sit with those. They tell me what’s in them to a certain degree and I say, ‘More of this, less of that’. At this point, it’s all done online. We started it in the online world, so it’s been a removed process. As soon as those doors open up, I’m on the first plane and I’m heading to Grasse, baby! I want a seat at that table.”

Whether Lean is here or in France, it’s clear she has a nose for the business of fragrance — and we’re looking forward to smelling what she creates next.

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