Frances Shoemack on her natural fragrance brand Abel Odor — and French pastries

A champion of what she believes is our most underrated sense, the olfactory world has always held a distinct allure for Frances Shoemack. Trouble is, she finds many synthetic scents unappealingly overpowering, so there was only one thing for it — to explore how complex and beautiful 100% natural fragrances can be by founding her own brand, Abel Odor.

So Frances, after studying viticulture at Lincoln University, you began your career as a winemaker — when did you decide to pivot to perfume? When my husband Dave and I moved to Amsterdam in 2011, I fell in love with artisan fragrance houses, but I couldn’t find a natural perfume in that category. That was the impetus for starting Abel the same year.

Having established the business in the Netherlands, what led you home to New Zealand? We always knew we’d move back at some point — it was just a question of when it would feel like the right time for our little family [including sons Rufus (8) and Arthur (6)]. We must have had a sixth sense, because we made a decision to move home in time for summer 2020 and left Amsterdam at the turn of the year. Our container of furniture arrived a few months later — the week before the first Covid lockdown.

ABOVE Bear Construction helped manage the Abel Fabriek build, and the stainless steel fit-out was made by Metric Sheet Metal. “It was amazing to create something with craftsmen who fully understand the possibilities and limitations of the material,” says Frances. When sourcing other items, she went as bespoke and local as possible, conceiving this chair and table (and the tall table and stools at the bottom of this web page) in collaboration with then Auckland-based Matan Fadida, having lighting and a rug curated by the capital’s ECC team, and ordering vases from Lucy Coote of Salad Days.

As well as making a new home for your family in Pōneke/Wellington, you’ve built a new base for Abel Odor, which you’ve called Abel Fabriek… It’s been so exciting for us to really put down roots for Abel Odor. The fabriek [Dutch for ‘factory’] has so many purposes. First, it’s a perfume factory; we produced our first New Zealand-made line in it earlier this year, and export it to more than 25 countries. Second, it’s an innovation hub, where we have our own lab and experiment with new ideas. Third, it’s the home of Abel HQ, with our offices upstairs. And last but not least, it’s a community hub — we’re open to the public four days a week as a kind of ‘cellar door’ experience, and have plans for a monthly event programme. 

ABOVE There’s a Dutch word, ‘gezelligheid’, that conveys what Frances hopes to instil at Abel Fabriek. “Loosely translated, it means ‘cosy’, but it’s more than that — it’s the light, the atmosphere, the social interplay,” she says. “Although there’s pressure and we’re often working to tight deadlines, keeping the gezelligheid vibes going and making the workroom feel more like an ergonomically designed home than an office is what we aim for.”

What kind of environment did you seek to create? The first step for us was really understanding the function of the space, then using that to inform the design and aesthetic. Stainless steel is the most inert and appropriate material for a factory and lab, so it became a lead visual cue. My brother James Durcan is an architectural designer, so we and the Abel Odor team — a bunch of creative types — put together a plan and started working with local craftspeople and specialists to bring it to life. 

Talk us through a day in the life here… Beginning with a fresh palette and focusing on the creative side is my ideal. I start early and when I don’t have to jump straight on calls with Europe or the US, I love to spend a bit of time in the laboratory looking at our latest trials or new raw materials when it’s nice and quiet. This is also the time when our São Paulo-based perfumers, Kiwi Isaac Sinclair and his French wife Fanny Grau, are most likely to be online.
I’m usually the first in, but it’s not long before the team arrives in dribs and drabs, often in time to join a call with Marieke Nooteboom, our US commercial manager in Boston. There’s quite a hustle and bustle upstairs;
we’re a close-knit bunch and as well as the hard work, there are loads of laughs and cups of Yorkshire tea, the latter thanks to our operations and impact coordinator, Yorkshirewoman Siobhan Oldale. Downstairs in the fabriek, depending on the day, it’s all go with production, or we’re welcoming locals and tourists behind the scenes.

When you started out, the general consensus in the industry was that it was impossible to make chic perfumes using only natural ingredients… It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now — it’s just harder and more expensive. Today, we have a broader palette of ingredients than ever, driven forward at pace by investment into green science. We use some incredible biotech ingredients — many of which are sustainable by-product ingredients — that mean we don’t have to resort to non-renewable, non-biodegradable petrochemicals like the vast majority of the industry in order to make our perfumes sophisticated and long-lasting.

Other than scent, what everyday rituals enrich your life? A year ago, Dave and I got really into cold-water swimming. I can’t overstate the impact on my mental health and overall wellbeing of 10 minutes a day in Wellington’s icy water. I was doing it daily, but I’ve since transitioned to ‘most days’ — although Dave hasn’t missed a single day in more than 12 months.
Another ritual I’d hate to give up is our family croissant date at Baker Gramercy on Friday mornings before school and work — carrying on a tradition we started not long after our eldest, Rufus, was born in Amsterdam. Yes, that is a lot of croissants!

Interview Alice Lines
Photography Bonny Beattie

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