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Leanne Hirsh, Perfumera
Feature, Transplants

Leanne Hirsh, Perfumera 

Emmy-award-winning make-up artist and perfumera Leanne Hirsh landed in Topanga seven years ago.  

“I’ve been a make-up artist for forty years, since my teens,” said Leanne, who just won an Emmy for applying Jada Pinkett Smith’s make-up for her Red Table Talk show. Leanne has been helping Pinkett Smith get ready for her close-up for five years, receiving two previous Emmy nominations for her work with the acclaimed actress and talk-show host before this win.

Leanne has this make-up tip for the rest of us: “Less is more. A lip and mascara is good. A bit of a brown shadow helps. Colors change as we age and our hair gets gray. The answer is to embrace it all.”

Speaking from her perfume atelier and studio in the heart of Topanga, hidden away in Rosewood Studios (down the side of Froggy’s), Leanne explains the sweet smell of her success as a perfumera. 

Perfumera and Emmy winning make-up artist Leanne Hirsh at her Topanga atelier. Photo by Claire Fordham

“A perfumera is a little bit different to a perfumer, because I’m not a trained nose. I’ve never studied it in school, which I would love to do one day at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. I do more healing perfumes, so I create plant medicines and tinctures. Perfumera is a tradition in Peru and I come from that tradition.”

Leanne’s husband is Peruvian, and despite their marriage breaking up after thirty years, the two remain friendly. The Peruvian links are still strong. 

“My daughter loves my perfume now. She didn’t in the earlier years, but now she asks me to bring her bigger and bigger bottles. Her friends wear it too, which is lovely,” said Leanne, who started making perfume as a child.

“I loved making things, like putting old roses into water trying to make perfume. And it smelled terrible. Bluebells. Nothing worked, but I had the intention. I had a skincare line in the ’90s with a perfume element to it. That had an aromatherapy base, so I worked with scents then and this perfume line came together in 2008, when I started making perfume seriously. I didn’t launch until 2015. Quite a long time of just making things. I didn’t want to bring it out into the world until it was perfect. Of course, it never is.”

“The world we live in is so fast-paced and everything is intense,” she said. “We’re stimulated from all sides with too many terrible smells coming at us. We have to make our own little cocoon. Our own aura.”

Leanne doesn’t wear the same perfume every day. “I shake it up. I wear whatever’s in my bag on the day. Unless I have a new perfume I’m working with, then I wear that to test it. One of the things people say to me is, ‘you smell amazing.’ Half the time I don’t necessarily have any perfume on, but it lingers on your clothes and scarves. It imbues you.”

Leanne calls her creations “healing perfumes.” 

“My perfumes are different because, with most perfumes, a large part of them is synthetic. They might have some natural materials in them, but overall the bases are synthetic. I use 100-percent organic alcohol as a base, which costs five times more than regular perfume alcohol that’s denatured. All the plants in my perfumes have been gathered by me, made into medicine tinctures then put in the perfume, or come from essential oils, absolutes, that are carefully sourced. Because my business is relatively small, I buy small amounts. Some essential oils I use can cost me $1,500 an ounce.”

Some rare essences cost a fortune, $50,000 a kilo. “More expensive than gold,” said Leanne. 

Customers make an appointment online and come to Leanne’s atelier to choose a perfume that suits them best. “I only opened the atelier in September so it’s quite new. The idea is I can work here, see clients and do workshops and events in the same space.”

Does Leanne have a favorite smell? 

“I’d say nature. Today on my walk I smelled pine and oranges that had fallen from the trees. Pine needles and earth. There was dew. Things sprouting.”

Leanne’s perfumes can all be traced back to Peru. 

“Because my husband is Peruvian, we spent many years going back and forth, and worked with plant medicines there. Shamans did ceremonies with some now well-known plant medicines,” said Leanne.

Are we talking ayahuasca? 

“I’ve done ayahuasca for many years,” said Leanne. “Ayahuasca gave me the gift of these perfumes. They came from my healing journey with ayahuasca. I would get these incredible scents come through and I’d see things and formulas, not really knowing what they are. I feel the plants come through me. Because I have a good nose and appreciation for nature, I am able to work with it.”

Born and raised in England, Leanne first lived in Topanga more than 30 years ago, then moved to New York state, relocating back to Topanga in 2017.

“I wasn’t planning to move back to California. I was quite happy in Woodstock, a very sweet little upstate mountain town, artsy and musical. I would have been happy to stay, but there was this big push to come to Topanga and do something completely different. My marriage of 30 years dissolved, even though we are still very connected, and I had to make a decision where I could do both make-up and perfume and live. I had two children to consider as well. I wouldn’t have been able to do make-up there. I am happily here. I love Topanga very much. The nature, the quiet. This is kind of magic.”

Our local perfumera is unusual in that she makes her perfumes herself. “Even small niche perfumeries outsource the actual making of it. If I was a bigger company and had the funds I would have things made for me. Ideally, I’d have a team of people just making my perfumes. I could still do that from Topanga,” said Leanne.

Leanne’s mother was influential in her love of perfume and she points to one of her mum’s empty bottles of Rive Gauche by Yves Saint Laurent that sits on a shelf in Leanne’s atelier. 

“I would borrow it often. Mum had the body lotion, the bath oil, the perfume. You layered perfume in those days. It was very strong. The whole bed would smell of it. My clothes would smell of it. Mum would say, ‘You’ve been using my Rive Gauche!’” 

The world is mysterious to Leanne Hirsh and she doesn’t know what the future holds. “When people ask me where I’d rather live than Topanga, there’s nowhere. Maybe Capri. I don’t want for much. It’s very beautiful here. I live on a mountain and look at the view. It’s incredible. Apart from the floods, fire, and road closures. But I think that adds to its magic.”

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