We are thrilled to spotlight our Marfa Muse, perfumer Maya Njie, shot by Alex Cameron.
A self-taught perfumer with a background in surface design and photography, Maya’s natural intuition in scent lead to the launch of her niche, highly coveted perfume brand in 2016 which is sold at Liberty and Net-a-Porter. Her gender-neutral scents take inspiration from her Swedish and West African heritage, with high quality artisanal blends capturing nostalgic familial memories.
Maya wears the Parachute Parka in stone with reverse white and pale sage.
On a Swedish Childhood
My sisters had already flown the nest by the time I was 9 so even though I wasn’t an only child, I sometimes felt like one. My mum is Swedish and my Dad is Gambian. They got divorced when I was young but thanks to my mother, Gambia still had a big influence on my life – the music we would listen to and the food we would eat. Every couple of years, my mother would save up and take me there for the winter.
She was a nurse and was very creative in that she loved sewing, cooking and knitting and her mum was a seamstress. I’ve always had a sewing machine and that’s something I picked up from my mother. Although she had no expectation of what I should do when I grew up.
On growing up mixed race in Sweden
Sweden has some diversity, and while I had a fair bit of it in my block of flats growing up and there was some at school, there was not much in the media or on the beauty shelves - there were no products available for my hair for example. London has been a few steps ahead in comparison and that was part of the draw.
On moving to London
I was 19 when I moved to London back in 1999. I worked at Carhartt for 7 years, travelled for a few months and then in 2008 I had my daughter. Becoming a mother made me want to try a more creative path. I’ve always been into photography and traditional dark room practices- and decided to start a surface design foundation degree as a mature student in 2010 at LCC in Elephant & Castle.
I studied different mediums but found myself gravitating towards photography and textile design. Having that creative outlet spurred me onto exploring multi-dimensional work.
My final project was a mini childrenswear range. I designed and printed the fabrics myself, all based on African and Scandinavian influences - two cultures intertwined. I made a few pieces – knickerbockers, dresses, skirts and collars.
I took inspiration from my heritage via old photographs which were taken from my mother’s photo album. They show a traditional Scandinavian setting but with an injection of different cultures. The photos have a familiarity to them that are relatable to most I think but show a representation that was new to that Swedish generation.
On exploration in olfaction
I scanned and colour picked the photographs which made me consider what the people and places could have smelt like. I wasn’t there at the time (of the photo being taken), but I’d visited similar places and knew what the home or forest smelt like and I decided to do my own interpretation of these photographs. It’s a multi-sensory approach: what is a colour as a texture or a smell? This led me down the route of olfaction and the exploration of raw materials.
I had the responsibility of being a new mother so after I finished my degree I worked as front of house at an arts hub in Hackney. I was based on reception and would scent my surroundings with the perfumes I was developing. This gathered a lot of interest from visitors and tenants and they soon became my first customer base.
On the language of perfume
As a self-taught perfumer I might not have the vocabulary that is typical of a “nose”. I’ve found that communicating fragrance in a non-intimidating way is the best way forward. If I am explaining a note to someone during a workshop for example, I want to make it relatable… synesthesia is great for that. Often when I smell something, a colour pops into my head or perhaps a musical note.
If I’m making a fragrance connected to Gambia, I might listen to the Cora, their traditional instrument, any music that inspires and feeds into what I’m trying to convey.
Other composers I enjoy listening to are Philip Glass, David Axelrod, Michael Nyman or Ravi Shankar’s album Passages. I also love West African Folk music: Mandè Foli and Yandé Codou Sène, two female singers both born Griots who are amazing.
On perfume ingredients
Favourites include bergamot, which I find uplifting and invigorating as well as neroli.
In the heart note spectrum I love: iris, ylang ylang, lily of the valley.. and if you dig deeper into the base, smoky notes I like leather, birch tar, cedarwood and sandalwood.
On the challenges of starting a business
There is a big chunk of what I do which has zero creativity and is about cosmetic law and legislation and when I started on my own I found that quite daunting and overwhelming. There is so much else to think about when it comes to perfumes or anything that is applied to the skin.
On instigating change
I’d loved to introduce more structure into my day so as to ensure more creativity as that can often fall by the wayside when you are running a business. That, and learning to swich off from my business when I need to.
I’m most proud of my determination and growing a business and employing staff in an industry that isn’t particularly known for its inclusivity and diversity. It’s only in the past year or so that I have seen a slight shift which is welcomed – long may it continue.
My advice for other entrepreneurs is to stay determined and keep going. Focus on your journey and don’t worry about or compare yourself to what others are doing. Have patience - sometimes playing the long game is the best way forward.
Photography by Alex Cameron
Interview by Carolyn Asome