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The smell of sweet success: Glasshouse Fragrances founder Nicole Eckels shares her journey

11 November 2021

Nicole Eckels tells FQ how she successfully created one of the world’s most-loved home fragrance brands.

WORDS BY Fashion Quarterly New Zealand

Nicole Eckels

Quite unlike our other senses, scent has a hypnotising ability to evoke memories, and transport us to another time and place. For some it’s the smoothing on of sunscreen on the first sweltering day of summer that brings fond childhood memories rushing back; for others it’s the scent of a lost loved one’s favourite fragrance on a cherished item of clothing that helps us revive fading memories. For Glasshouse Fragrance founder Nicole Eckels it’s the memory of her mother that first ignited her passion for fragrance. Eckels recalls the moth-to-butterfly moments when her mother would disappear into her room to then later re-emerge smelling and looking amazing. “Everyone would change as a result of her change. The power in that was extraordinary, and there was always a scent associated with that. I was very obsessed with that power, that transformation.”

But it wasn’t until much later and purely by chance, that she once again tapped into the transformative power of fragrance. In 2006 Eckels had recently relocated to Sydney from New York when she found herself on what turned out to be an impossible quest: replacing a much-loved candle. “So, I did as everyone did back then, and went straight to David Jones in the city,” she recalls. What Eckels thought would be an easy purchase turned out to be anything but.

“What I discovered was that there was nothing that fit what I was looking for,” Eckels says. In New York, the home fragrance category was already burgeoning, “We were spoilt for choice, so many fragrances, so many price points,” she says. But in Australia the opposite was true. “You either had the incredibly luxe fragrance houses that offered candles or the other end of the spectrum—the mass-market, cheap scented candles.” So following in the footsteps of many beauty pioneers before her, Eckels took matters into her own hands. “It was a clear light bulb moment for me, I knew the success of the category overseas, so I swiftly went home and started experimenting in my kitchen,” she says. 

But tapping into home fragrance in Australia, when the category was largely uncharted territory, wasn’t straightforward fifteen years ago. “Launching any new business will be fraught with challenges and ‘learning opportunities’ and I had my fair share of them,” admits Eckels. Since luxury heritage brands with hefty price tags dominated the home fragrance space at the time, Eckels says it was challenging convincing anyone in Australia that there was a demand for an offering that disrupted the norm. “No one in Australia believed there was a market for a high-quality candle that didn’t cost a fortune—they thought I was crazy,” she recalls. But rather than admit defeat, Eckels trusted her instinct and put her years of beauty retail experience into practice. 

“I decided they needed to experience it to believe it, so every time I walked into a new potential retailer, I gave them a candle and asked them to burn it,” she says. The response was just what Eckels had hoped for. “Without fail customers would come up and ask where the fragrance was from, and just like that people understood there was an appetite for this product.”

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The manufacturing of such a product—a luxury candle without the steep cost most were accustomed to paying—brought with it its own challenges when establishing the brand says Eckels. “Standard practice within this category is to outsource everything,” she explains. But Eckels wasn’t satisfied with what outsourcing manufacturing would mean for the business. “Quality control can be hard and if you don’t have a consistently superior product, you very quickly won’t have a business,” she says.

Although it was not without its challenges, Eckels boldly decided to bring all manufacturing in-house. “It took its time, but I can now proudly say we are world-class in our manufacturing capabilities.” It was a decision that’s undoubtedly paid off for Eckels. While many home fragrance brands take manufacturing offshore, the fact Glasshouse Fragrances bears a ‘Made in Australia’ label is something that Eckels is proud of. In her factory in Sydney the team is able to oversee the quality of every single candle—everything is hand wicked, hand trimmed and hand poured. It’s a point of difference that’s undoubtedly helped Eckels carve out a niche in what has become an increasingly competitive market. 

Glasshouse Fragrances Gingerbread House candle

On the scent

With a profusion of home fragrance products and brands launching on the regular, one might assume that connecting with a consumer who’s spoilt for choice would present its own challenges as Glasshouse Fragrances turns fifteen. However, while Eckels is well aware of the remarkable growth the category has experienced, she says having been established for so long has helped them maintain their position as a market leader. “Most importantly being so consistent in the quality and creativity of products, it hasn’t really created any challenges.” 

2020 was indeed a disruptive year for the beauty category in its entirety, but Covid-19 had a particularly fascinating impact on home fragrance. At the height of the pandemic, US-based media outlets and brands reported an influx of negative comments attributed to the effect Covid-19 can have on sense of smell. And while many of us put our make-up into hibernation indefinitely, candle sales were booming as we turned to soothing scents to transform our homes into sanctuaries. “Covid-19 cemented the importance of making our homes feel beautiful and not functional. We spent so much time within those four walls, we wanted to love being there,” says Eckels.

One common trend Eckels observed was customers who would have one candle for their hours working from home, and a different scent for the evening or the weekend. “They used fragrance to help mark their days,” she says. It’s a definite shift that Eckels says is here to stay. “Creating a space that feels beautiful, and fragrance is so much a part of that, is something that has continued into 2021 and really seems like a change in behaviour.”

As for whether the last year has put a damper on her inspiration, Eckels, who has been back in New York for some time now, says that the last year has reminded her there is beauty in the everyday.

“I was recently asked if the Covid-19 travel restrictions have meant I’ve felt limited in my sources of inspiration, but in fact, most inspiration comes when you least expect it and in the most unusual of places,” she muses. For Eckels, inspiration is everywhere. “Walking down the street can be the greatest source of inspiration, likewise photos and memories.” 

As for budding beauty entrepreneurs hoping to cut through an overwhelmingly cluttered market, her advice is simple. “Trust your instinct. Know your market and make sure you truly offer a point of difference.”

And although Eckels believes it’s important to take advice and opinions on board, when crunch time comes, you need to be true to yourself and your brand.

Eckels says, “Do your research, listen to the opinions of your peers and mentors, really consider them and take them on board, but at the end of the day go with your gut. Not theirs. It is your business, and you are the one that will be dealing with the consequences of the decisions.”

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