You might recognise Lucy Akhurst as the girlfriend of Simon Pegg’s character in the turn-of-the-millennium slacker comedy Spaced or as a face from the Sunday evening pot-boiler Monarch of the Glen. She’s recorded spooky voiceovers for EastEnders trailers, and directed the rather eccentric morris dancing mockumentary Morris: A Life With Bells On. But it turns out that her greatest role yet may have nothing to do with film or television. Akhurst is also a perfumer and, in her own quiet but very single-minded way, an industry maverick.
Like her acting career, her path to perfumery was unusual. She didn’t train at the École Supérieure du Parfum in Paris and Grasse or at one of the large fragrance houses. Instead, she taught herself with a “DIY kit of aroma chemicals and essential oils”. She released her first collection of La Maison Hédonique scents in 2017.
“The first one I did was Samedi à Paris for Chaz [Oldham, her husband, an actor, screenwriter and producer] because I wanted to take him back to a weekend we’d spent in Paris,” she says. “I wanted to create something that evoked that feeling. It had top notes of bergamot and mandarin, and was completely impressionistic and emotional. When I took it to Chaz, he just said, ‘That’s Paris.’” Another, Apéro, was designed to conjure up “the Côte d’Azur of the 1950s and 1960s, of Alain Delon and Romy Schneider”, while Comme un Loup – “very animalistic, quite claustrophobic, really sexy” – was inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella, Carmilla.
Akhurst relied on word of mouth rather than advertising (Naomie Harris, who she’d cast in the morris dancing film, was an early bespoke client, a service she still offers for around £10,000). She only realised that things had begun to get serious when a magazine called her to ask what she thought of the fact that Kate Moss wore her Cerf Blanc scent (with top notes of cardamom and mandarin and an oaky, peaty base, it was inspired by a night Akhurst spent at a private members’ club, hanging out with a rock band). “Someone got it to her, I don’t know who. I don’t have a PR, so it was all a bit of a surprise,” she says.
Her perfumes are now sold in London, Paris, Dubai and Doha, and Sadie Frost, her daughter Iris Law and Rhys Ifans are all La Maison Hédonique devotees. Rhys Ifans? “I see no reason why a woman can’t wear a leathery scent and a man can’t wear a floral. Why limit yourself?” Akhurst replies. We’re talking at the cottage she shares with Oldham in the grounds of Highclere Castle in Hampshire. Her laboratory sits across a muddy track in a repurposed barn. It’s an unlikely site for a burgeoning perfume brand. “I sent, purely on spec, an email to Highclere explaining what I was looking for,” she says blithely. “They wrote back within a week and said, ‘Actually, we have got somewhere coming up.’” She’s subsequently created two bespoke scents in collaboration with Highclere’s chatelaine, Lady Carnarvon. But we have met to talk about her new range of scents, Naikii, which, she says, stands for “natural, naked, kind”.
Like her first collection, the perfumes are vegan. “It’s a no-brainer for me,” she says. “I just don’t see why anything should have to suffer for us to smell good. They are natural, vegan and alcohol-free. That’s been a technical challenge: to make an all-natural perfume that doesn’t smell like an aromatherapy product and doesn’t have alcohol is tricky. Alcohol gives that lovely volatile ‘throw’ so you can actually smell it. I’m using a base derived from coconuts that is volatile but not drying. I have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only person using this maceration and production method.”
The new fragrances are adventurous and unashamedly idiosyncratic. Quiet Trees was inspired by Japanese shinrin-yoku (“forest bath”): “It’s recognised as something that is cleansing to your soul. A lot of the essential oils and isolates that you’d find in a forest, like birch or cedar, have been shown to have the same sort of effect as forest bathing. So I’ve made a scent that I hope is going to give people the same feeling as walking through a forest. It’s terribly calming.” Double Shot, meanwhile, brings together a hit of coffee with anise, chocolate and vanilla; a third (“I think I’ll call it Emotivate”) is “a bit like grilled peaches with rosemary and lavender”.
Being independent has enabled her to work with the kind of unusual essential oils that larger brands wouldn’t buy. “Because I’m small, I can go to a supplier who wouldn’t be able to supply Chanel or Hermès or Guerlain because they just don’t have that scale. Also, there are certain companies who are so excited about what independent perfumers are doing that they are prepared to give you really special things. I know that I’m the only perfumer in the UK using a keemun tea extract, for example.”
She’s unquestionably an outsider in the perfume industry, but does she think of herself as a disrupter? “I think British perfumers are seen as a bit disruptive because we do things slightly unusually,” she says. “In France, whether it’s wine, food or perfume, they have a very accepted way of doing things, whereas I think maybe the Brits are a bit more rock ’n’ roll. The big houses have extraordinarily talented perfumers who are putting out things that they have to put out and they are superb. But I can afford to play around a bit, which is rather nice.”
Still working in drama – most recently on Young Wallander – she has always treated perfume as a form of costume. “When I played Nina, an unconventional barrister, in the Netflix series Spotless, I wore Duro by Nasomatto. It’s a real take-no-prisoners scent. When I was Sophie in Spaced, I wore Dirt by Demeter, a kind of anti-fragrance fragrance.” For Akhurst, a perfume is about how it makes you feel, not what it makes others think. “My stuff is not really about being complimented,” she says. “It’s about being confident – and when you feel confident, you just crush it.”
This story was originally posted on 6 March 2020