For Michelle Pfeiffer, scent has always been the ultimate aide-mémoire.
Raised by a family of smokers, as a child she sought respite from the ashy miasma of her home by sneaking into a neighbor’s garden and swiping fresh roses, addicted to their aroma. As an actress, she's used the nuances of smell to get into character, most evocatively for her role in 2002's White Oleander as sociopathic poet and mother, Ingrid Magnussen. "In the book, she always wore a lilac scent," explains Pfeiffer, outfitted in a black suit as deftly cut as her famous cheekbones. "I didn't love it, but I wore it [while shooting] because even if you don't love your character, you have to embody them. Of all the parts I've played, that was probably the most unhappy I'd felt in a role. The olfactory bulb runs alongside the memory part of the brain and I couldn't wait to get out of that skin."
Pfeiffer became a fine fragrance enthusiast as her career ascended in Hollywood, but when she became a mother, she started to rethink many facets of her lifestyle—including the perfumes she was using to dress her wrists and décolletage. "I began to take a closer look at the products I was exposing my kids to," she explains. "And around the same time, my father and my best friend were diagnosed with cancer. So it was a real wake up call for me, and dramatically changed my view of health."
One day she stumbled upon the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database, which creates online profiles for cosmetics and personal care products, honing in on their potential hazards. "I went down the rabbit hole and when deep diving into different fragrances, the EWG would always flag them as very high hazard. So, of course, I took that to mean fragrance must be really toxic. I really, really loved perfume, but because I couldn’t be sure it was safe, I gave it up for 10 years." Eventually, however, Pfeiffer wondered whether there was a solution—and if she could have a hand in shaping it.
"I approached a couple of cosmetics companies, but they were all dead ends," she says. "Nobody was interested in being 100 percent transparent with their ingredients. That was really important to me and I just wasn't willing to put my name and face on anything I wouldn’t be willing to wear myself." So Pfeiffer shelved the idea until five years ago when, inspired by the broadening landscape of ethical and sustainably sourced ingredients, she set out to launch her own line. The collection, called Henry Rose, features a wardrobe of five original scents and is fully transparent about its EWG-verified ingredients. "There's so much white noise with confusing buzzwords and clever marketing, but if you have these verifications, all that work is done for you," she says. "If you never want to read another label, you don't have to."
From "Jake's House," designed to evoke the refreshing aroma of her grandparent's home in South Dakota by stringing together cool calone, citrusy hedione, and purifying white neroli, to her personal favorite "Torn," an ode to golden summer sunsets with a warm bouquet of patchouli indonesia and woody vetiver haiti oil topped off with sweet vanilla bean, each fragrance was intriguingly named and meticulously formulated by Pfeiffer. "Part of my learning curve was understanding that fragrance is such a personal thing for people and individuals respond differently to different scents," she explains. "I really had to expand my olfactory education and sort of put my actor hat on, looking at each scent like it was a character."
Elevating the art of fragrance while committing to better health standards, Pfeiffer is cementing herself as a trailblazer in the beauty market. But she's doing so thoughtfully, taking it one step at a time. "The brands that are most successful are the ones that've done one thing really, really well," she says. "You bring something to the public that didn't exist and it makes people's lives easier. That’s what we set out to do and are focused on right now." Still, Pfeiffer admits, developing Henry Rose has made her interested in further innovating around safety, sustainability, and transparency. She hasn't pinpointed exactly what's next, but it seems inevitable there's even more clean beauty disruption to come.
The Henry Rose collection is available now at henryrose.com.