Malaysia has inspired the perfumes this man creates

As a fragrance designer, Lee is inspired by culture and heritage. Photos: Josh Lee

Ever wondered if the scent in your city could be bottled up as a perfume?

One Malaysian fragrance designer has done just that, paying tribute to his hometown – George Town in Penang – a heritage city known for its rich history and culture.

Born and raised in Penang, Josh Lee Chun Yee, 39, was educated at St. Xavier’s Institution up until Form Six.

A Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) graduate, the chemistry degree holder continued his studies in European fragrances and cosmetics. He then obtained a master’s degree at ISIPCA (International Institute For Fragrance, Cosmetics and Flavour) in Versailles, France.

In 2004, he was awarded Best Student Award for the Postgraduate category by IFEAT (International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trade) based on his final year thesis.

Upon his return from France, he started his own brand Josh Lee Fragrances in August 2012.

In 2013, Lee was selected as one of Prestige magazine’s Top 40 under 40 for Young Achievers Award. The following year, he was listed as one of the 20 finalists in the Alliance Bank SME Innovation Challenge, coming out as one of the top contenders among 500 companies.

In 2016, he launched Nyonya, the third fragrance in his Malaysian Heritage Collection. As of now, his Malaysian Heritage Collection is complete with three fragrances: George Town, OUD and Nyonya.

“I am always inspired by food, culture and heritage. That’s why my fragrances are based on heritage and culture, which makes them more special rather than just standard commercial perfumes,” explains Lee in a recent interview at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya.

Lee’s Malaysia Heritage Collection features art deco square bottles that come with eco-friendly packaging.
Lee’s Malaysia Heritage Collection features art deco square bottles that come with eco-friendly packaging.

In the following Q&A, he elaborates on his quixotic journey as a fragrance designer.

A perfumer is not a common career path in Malaysia. What inspired you to become one?

When I was younger, my father used to spray his cologne on me before I left the house. Moreover, I grew up in a family that owns a baking ingredients shop.

The shop was always filled with the aroma of comforting flavours like chocolate, vanilla, coffee, strawberry and pandan. Since then, I have always been intrigued by different scents.

Where does one go to learn to become a perfumer? Are there any programs available locally?

I am a dreamer who is passionate about scents and all I wanted to do is study perfumery.

Unfortunately, there are no local programmes dedicated to fragrance study. The closest course to perfumery in Malaysia would be Chemistry.

After my degree in Chemistry at UPM, I was recommended by Alliance Francaise in KL (where I took French classes) to further study perfumery at ISIPCA, the top perfumery institute in France. Originally founded by Guerlain, ISIPCA has produced numerous famed master perfumers. During the two-year programme, I learnt how to create and formulate perfumes, cosmetics and skincare products.

I also had to learn about business and marketing in my second year.

Among your Malaysia Heritage collection, which one is your favourite?

I like Nyonya the most. This fresh floral fragrance embodies the graceful femininity of a modern Nyonya (also known as Peranakan which refers to Straits-born women of Chinese and Malay heritage).

This Eau de Parfum is a blend of bergamot, neroli, Nyonya flowers (peony, rose, jasmine, lotus, champaca and orchid), cedar, sandalwood and musk. This perfume embraces flowers as part of the Nyonya culture, which makes it so unique as compared to other perfumes.

How different are your fragrances compared to international brands?

The uniqueness is highlighted by indigenous ingredients such as hibiscus and spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, jasmine and sandalwood.

We are one of the first premium brands to be certified halal by Jakim in Malaysia. We also have the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) certificate. All of my fragrances conform to international quality standards set by the IFRA.

What is the process of creating a fragrance?

The first step is to come up with an idea and concept. The blending process is not that difficult, as the most difficult is being willing to spend a lot of time on research.

In the case of George Town, I spent two to three months just trying to understand the city from a historical, social and economic perspective. People would ask me “Why did you name it George Town?” or “How does it relate to the city?” Hence, I felt the need to create a fragrance that was imbibed with the historical essence of the city.

Also, I made sure that it would relate to the population’s imagination and perception. Next, I will focus on putting all the ingredients together. After mixing, we will run a few market tests to ensure that the perfume is ready.

The whole process, from conceptualisation to the filling and packaging of the perfume, can take roughly a year.

What were the challenges behind the process?

For us, it was all about publicity and trying to get people to be aware of a local fragrance brand.

Moreover, I own a small company where I’m the only one performing the main responsibilities which include the development phase, marketing, sales and even business development.

In spite of everything, I always have time for myself.

Besides Penang, are you thinking of any other state as inspiration for future fragrances?

I’m always inspired when I travel to places that have diverse cultures and food.

When I launched Nyonya, I kept in mind that this fragrance is a tribute to Malacca, Penang, Singapore and Phuket, Thailand.

Actually, I am thinking of Kuala Lumpur as my next destination. However, I would require a period of time to study and produce a scent that could really represent KL. Or perhaps I would get inspired by our local food instead of other states in Malaysia.

Next year, I will be launching another collection that will also consist of three fragrances. This collection’s theme will be based on garden trees.

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