Interview: Sarah Rotheram, CEO of Miller Harris would love to create a perfume for singer Adele

Reta Lee
Editor-in-Chief, Lifestyle
Sarah Rotheram, CEO of Miller Harris. (PHOTO: Miller Harris)

SINGAPORE — Before stepping into 1880 private members’ club to meet Sarah Rotheram, the CEO of perfume brand Miller Harris, I had spritzed on Tuberosa, my favourite scent that’s made from tuberose, a night-blooming flower that attracts bats and moths to its succulent smell. As you can tell, the brand dabbles in very niche scents, that leaves you feeling whimsical and dreamy. The way the scent draws you in; it’s so easy to fall in love with the fragrance house, as did director Sofia Coppola and actresses Jane Birkin and Kristen Scott-Thomas, who count themselves as fans.

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The English perfumery was launched in 2000 by Lyn Harris and Christophe Michel, the former who had trained in France for five years at one of the prestigious perfume schools in Paris, followed by Robertet in Grasse. Not just perfumes, the house went on to create bath-and-body products as well as candles, which was gifted to Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of USA, by Samantha Cameron, the wife of former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. News of the friendship candles went on to make headlines, generating 400% in sales for the brand on their website and stores.

Today, with stores across Covent Garden, Canary Wharf and Kings Cross, Coal Yard in the UK as well as international stockist (you can find the brand in Amaris, Paragon Level 3 as well as Sephora Singapore), the brand continues to attract adoring fans and one of then is none other than Sarah Rotheram, who was appointed CEO in 2017. Her background is rather interesting, if so I must note, that she first started out as a textile designer, who then went on to lead Bristish fragrance brand Molton Brown (which was acquired by Kao Corporation) and later, Penhaligon’s. With her experienced background, we’re excited to see what the perfume brand will do interestingly next.

Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore sat down with Sarah to discuss the brand’s storytelling, to collaborating with artists and upholding sustainable beauty.

(PHOTO: Miller Harris)

It's been two years since your appointment at Miller Harris. How has it been?

It's been great fun! I've always been a little bit in love with the brand. And 20 years ago, when our founder started Miller Harris, there wasn't really a niche perfume category. There were a few niche brands, but it wasn't really a category that people understood. So she was always creating; she was like the rock and roll perfumer creating these amazing perfumes that had this very kind of London vibe to them. So that's what we do today. I've always been a sort of a little bit in awe of the brands and it was a bit of a love affair that I've ended up here.

What’s your proudest moment working for Miller Harris?

My proudest is probably the fact that I think we've created a tone of voice that sets us apart from most of our competitors. We create modern dreams and stories for modern Bohemian. We've surrounded ourselves with amazing talent from artists to photographers to sound engineers and perfumers; obviously we have these amazing creative mash of talent to tell these stories. We’re kind of the London you see down the side street and you want to have a little look at. So my proudest moment is kind of being able to put all of that vision together and actually starting to see that happen everywhere. It's a huge personal achievement, to get to the point where I can pick up the phone and pretty much anyone I speak to totally gets what we're doing. It's a really nice place to be, from a creative talent point of view.

To make perfume for and probably someone music-related, I reckon. Someone iconic like Adele because she's from London.

Do you work with influencers? How do you choose the right people to collaborate with?

I guess, like picking the right collaborators, maybe friends of the brand to tell the story.

From a commercial perspective, all of our collaborations have started from that point, which goes on to a genuine, authentic journey. And I think in today's digital world, that is even more important because customers want to understand what's going on behind the brand to know your values and integrity. We don't do marketing. We do storytelling. We've done three fragrances, for example, working with one of London's best florists, McQueens and that started as a completely different project. We were getting them to do floral installations for us, and I was in their workshop going, Oh my God, this smells amazing! The Royal Opera House, they came to another one of our events, and we had lots of dialogue. And it came about naturally. I think that's when you get real creative brilliance when everyone's kind of feeding off of each other.

What other new projects we’re expecting from Miller Harris?

So we've just about to launch a campaign, which will probably come to Singapore a little bit later. We're about to launch it in the UK, where we're working with a singer and songwriter.

Ah, can we get her name?

Yeah, her name is Hannah Yadi, a London-based singer-songwriter. But she's not a model; we really love the fact that she was more than just a face. There's snippets of her and she's beautiful, curvy. And you can see it in some people you meet, who just project, the spirit, the light behind the eyes, and it's so different to a model a campaign. And she's absolutely beautiful. We would never just use a face. This lady is so empowered to be more than just that. And I think that fits very nicely with where we are as a brand.

Is sustainable beauty something that the brand is striving for?

We have an internal motto that's like, thousand footsteps covers many miles. So we've been doing a lot since I arrived; the first thing I did in my first week was buy everybody a water bottle and reusable coffee cup. I'm also very, very proud of our supply chain, as all of our materials come from a sustainable source. By November, we will be launching a whole new Bath and Body range, which is all around using recycled plastic. With sustainable palm oil, sustainable rapeseed oil, we've done a huge amount of work and more importantly, to make a difference in our culture, thought process and our design process.

For example, last year, Christmas is incredibly wasteful. Typically in the beauty industry, with all the wrappings and offerings. So we created a 100 percent silk scarves, printed with Miller Harris’ prints. It was so successful, we've done it all-year round, and worked with different fashion designers and textile designers. Sometimes we use cotton, but we wrap using silk. So the idea of that it’s too beautiful to throw away. We did a whole campaign on how to wear your scarf, but also how to wrap it in a Japanese or British way to wrapping your book, that your friends can pass on as a gift. Not only was it sustainable, but we sold 10 times the volume on 25% of the carbon footprint. So we were able to sustain massive growth in the US with 75% less is of the weight of shipping. So lots and lots of small changes which the customer hopefully won't notice, because we're still a luxury brand. But we're doing it with integrity. Integrity is a very important word with a brand. So you know, the retail landscape is just very competitive, right?

(PHOTO: Miller Harris)

So I read that you have an interesting way of interpreting scents, whether it's words from a book that you've read, or I read this article where you were at a British pub with a friend and you wanted a scent of the environment. Is there an idea you’d wish it had taken off but it couldn't transpire with the team?

Some do things just too early, is that, right? When I was at L’Artisan Perfumer, we made scented, leather gloves that took me forever to figure out how to do this. I don't know if you know this true story of Grasse (a town on the French Riviera), the home of perfumery. Grasse used to be a tannery place where they made leather and to soften the leather in the old days, you basically use animal urine.

So they started growing lavender around the area and used lavender oil on top of the urine to hide the scent. And you see in the old movies, where they kind of hold their gloved hands to their nose, that's because the gloves have a scent. European cities were quite dirty for the dust and smell.

The scent lasted for years; I have a pair at home in a box and they still smell wonderful. I thought it was a fabulous idea is to bring something from the past and trying to replicate it in this modern time; one day someone else will be doing it.

Currently what is your favourite note?

I switch; I'm terrible because whatever I'm working on next, I kind of tend to fall in love with but I go back to a lot of rose peony. I like big white florals. I like those flowers like the scent you get often here in Singapore, you know, when the sun goes down, you get that spider lily smell that's kind of a little bit chocolaty. I love furrows like that.

Which landscape always comes to your mind when we talk about scent?

Probably a British landscape just because that's where I'm from. I think it's probably quite reflective of me as well.

Which place in the world gives you a sense of freedom or escapism?

So where I live is just outside London, and just a few moments in the middle of the fields, you’d see no one. It’s quite amazing and there is a sense of freedom in that because it's just you in the landscape. We have north of Wales where you can walk up to the top of a mountain, where you see for miles and the air is cold. And you know, there's a sense of real escapism there. But I think the place that I thought the most beautiful most still the most escapism ever have is probably Kerala. I love India; the waterways and the sunlight, it's amazing.

If you could create the sense for anyone dead or alive who will it be and why?

I always struggle with these questions. To make perfume for and probably someone music-related, I reckon. Someone iconic like Adele because she's from London. Or Annie Lennox because she's a feminist and she's got a point of view.

Will we be seeing an installation-concept store in Asia?

Yes, definitely. So we have three stores opening in Hong Kong the next three months as well as in China.