Douglas Little, Alchemist and Founder of Heretic Parfum
Everything that Douglas Little touches turns to magic. With a deeply rooted background in all things naturally wild, and an honest interest in studying the stars (what most would call the art of astrology), Douglas alchemizes elements and concepts into new worlds and exotic fantasies, transcending what it means to conform to the masses. Douglas founded the sexy perfume brand, Heretic, where every day, he dives deeper into the rabbit hole that is all-natural fine fragrance. There is simply nothing else like it out there. Read on to take a trip through Douglas's world.
What was the journey that you took to Heretic, and to where you are now?
My father was a photographer and my mother was a model, and then a makeup artist. My earliest memory was being three years old and sitting in the dark room with my parents developing photographs. My life always very revolved around that creative process — I’m a Scorpio with a Libra rising. At the age of eight, I was given a gift of a pack of tarot cards, and it ignited something dormant within me that set me off on an astrological path, and I never stopped. Once I understood that there was this incredible, secretive, magical world out there, it opened up all sorts of possibilities in my life.
I was an only child, and to be honest, I never felt like I fit in, so I sought my own path and just wanted to do my own thing. My mother was an avid gardener, so I would garden with her a lot and that really encouraged my interest in plants. I grew up in Los Angeles, and became obsessed with poisonous plants, and carnivorous plants. I began to understand all of them. In any of my free time, I would go to botanical gardens, botanical shows, occult shops, fragrance shops, and I was learning old forms of art. By age nine, I was doing calligraphy with old masters at UCLA.
I found that I had a great interest in essential oils, so I started collecting them, and by age twelve, I had bought bottles from some company and was making all my own oils and selling them to my mom’s friends. They were very classic “psychic store” things — it’s funny looking back, because I genuinely just enjoyed doing it. I realized early on that my path was always going to involve fragrance in some capacity. As a child, I was always smelling things that were quite exotic and strange, because they took me someplace else. As I grew, I began to understand the power of fragrance in our lives.
When I got out of high school, I went to the Art Center in Pasadena — my major was in graphic design and packaging. I was doing a lot of art at the time, and was involved in this big art show. A creative director from a large cosmetic company in California came to the show, and that night, offered me a full-time job. Within six months, he put me on a plane and I was off to Germany, doing all these conferences with them. So at age nineteen, my world went from being a college kid, to having to be very adult. I had to leave college to take the job.
My role there was as a graphic designer, but he realized that my passion and my skill set were so much broader than that. Within another six months, I had moved to a junior art director role, and what I loved about working within the professional beauty realm, was that it allowed me to combine everything — fragrance, product development, concept, packaging, advertising, marketing…all of it. I was working with very vanguard individuals within that industry.
I stayed with that company for nine years, and when I was just about thirty, I was done with that nine-to-five, corporate nature. I wanted to try doing something on my own. The aesthetic of that company was quite severe, minimalistic, and very chic, but my heart has always been one of a hopeful and a hopeless romantic at the same time, and I love things that are very referenced, and have greater historical value to them. So in 2003, I decided to start my own company of home fragrances, called DL & Co. It was born on the idea that things are both beautiful, and dangerous.
The first collection of fragrances was inspired by poisonous flowers, and I launched a fragrance called Thorn Apple. It was a very signature black silk hatbox with a custom glass vessel, and a very rich apple fragrance that was heavily laden with patchouli. It was the most expensive candle that had ever been launched. I debuted it in Maxfield in LA, and within a year, the company shot off like a rocket — it was unbelievable.
I had taken my 401k and everything I’d ever saved up, as well as all of my knowledge from working in this very corporate world, plus my understanding of marketing and trends, and sunk it into this company. I felt like the world was missing this baroque, romantic aesthetic, but what I didn’t realize was that we were on the crest of a trend that was about to break. I launched the product, and then the world moved into the realm of McQueen’s skulls, and the neo-baroque bedroom aesthetic. My brand was perfect timing for all of that, so it really took off, and I ended up needing to take on a business partner to fund more product development. But again, I wouldn’t have had that kind of capability had I not been working for that big company for so long, because I was able to see what it takes to make brand work.
In 2004, the president of Barneys allowed me to have a pop up up, so I would go in and sell candles on the weekends, and we did amazingly well. He wrote me an email saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it, and we’ll give you more space.’ It started to build and build.
But unfortunately, this story does not end well. Like a lot of creatives, I hastily took a business partner who was the wrong fit, and he wanted to take the brand mass, but my vision was to keep it niche, small, tight, and to keep growing it as a small American luxury brand. In 2008, he started pushing me to do QVC and Home Shopping Network, and I was like, ‘That’s just not where my heart is…’ At the time, I was getting more requests for personal art, outside of DL & Co. People would come to my space and see the collages that I would do, or shadow boxes I was creating. So I decided to follow my passion for art, and to be honest, I really wanted to do a natural fine fragrance, but I wasn’t given that ability within the company.
So, I decided to part ways. I left the company, and followed my window installations. I started doing that and environmental and visual installation work — working with Van Cleef + Arpels, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman. A couple years ago, I worked with Giovanna Battaglia, and we designed the Diamond Horseshoe and did a fully immersive supper club here in NY that heavily involved the use of fragrance and art and design.
I suddenly felt like I had experienced the culmination of my career, where I was able to combine all of the things that I’d learned, and funneled them into something else. But along this path, I’d also been feeling like something was missing — another product. Which then led me to create Heretic. I’ve now been working on that for four years.
Though fragrance has always been a part of your life, were there any defining ‘ah-ha’ moments when you knew exactly why it’s what you’re suppose to be doing?
When I was twenty and with the cosmetic company, I took a trip to France and thought to myself, ‘I would love to see if I can know more about the perfume industry while I’m here, because this is the heart of it…’ I ended up taking a day trip out to Grasse, and met this amazing perfumer and she just fell in love with my youth and passion. I was suppose to be there for a day but ended up staying a whole week, and we kept in close contact. I kept going back and was doing little trips and intensive short studies with her, and that had me become very, very passionate in natural fragrance — I knew that it was my thing.
When I came back to the states after that first trip, I kept up with it and was meeting a woman here named Mandy Aftel, who became my mentor and teacher. She continued my training in natural perfuming. She is so magical, that I don’t know how to describe her other than to say that she’s a unicorn. She gave me the foundation to be able to spread my wings and do natural perfumes in the way that I want to do them.
I’m attracted to fragrance because it is something invisible in this world — it is completely unseen, but has the instantaneous ability to transform an okay experience, into something extraordinary — or into something horrible, but either way, it’s the invisible partner in the room. For me, fragrance is something that is dynamic because as a perfumer, you have the ability to give someone something transformational.
The other thing about fragrance that just wrecks me, is the specific way we interact with it. It’s the only sense we have that’s directly connected to the brain — there’s no veil. There’s no organ between the two. When you smell something, you’re breathing through your nose and the molecules are immediately hitting the limbic area of your brain. Which is why when you smell something like popcorn, you immediately remember being nine years old and in a movie theater kissing someone for the first time. Your brain logs these sensory memories with fragrance in really dramatic ways.
Natural fragrances and synthetic fragrances can both do the same thing — they can both recall the same memory. The difference is that natural fragrances have more mucky, dirty, raw qualities to them that synthetics can’t capture. They can be close, but synthetics are still pretending to be something else. For where I’m at right now, the idea of pretending is so obsolete. I’ve spend a long time feeling like I had to build a facade — a beautiful facade that was wonderful — but at the end of the day, did I really want to be in a Victorian suit with my curly mustache pedaling candles? No. And culturally right now, everything is about stripping down and getting rid of the facade. It’s more about who you are and what you have to say.
Naturals represent this in a really magical way. They are what they are, and there’s no getting around that. People stray away from working with naturals in the fine fragrance world because for so long, we’ve been taught that a rose needs to smell perfect, so people have spent years trying to eliminate any aspect of soil or dirt or cross pollination in that fragrance — they’ve weeded it all out to create what’s now considered “the perfect rose”.
But in my personal opinion, I have no interest in the perfect rose. I’m much more interested in the rose that’s got a little dirt on it, because it’s a much more interesting situation. There are lot of euphemisms and analogies that parallel there as well, because my customer is a customer who is looking for something that represents who they are, and they’re interested in being the person that’s not pretending to be perfect anymore. That’s a big component for my motivation behind the brand, and it also segues into fragrance development and the concepts behind them.
There are plenty of natural fragrances out there, and they’re wonderful, but they’re still telling the same story — they’re telling the story of a woman picking flowers in Provence, or the girl in Switzerland with hay in her mouth, or the dirty hippie in a shop with roll on patchouli. It’s never been taken to a level that’s really sexy, and a little dangerous, if you will. So that’s where Heretic comes in.
Where did the name “Heretic” come from?
During the years when I was freelancing, I was asked to speak at a lot of trending conferences. During a particular panel, I was specifically asked about fragrance, and I said that what I believe is going to happen, is that we’re going to see a backlash against all of these celebrity endorsed fragrances, and I said that I firmly believe that the public is losing faith in fragrance because anyone can have a fragrance now — I mean, Doctor Phil’s wife has a fragrance. I told them that I believe that niche fragrances are going to be the future, and more specifically, that naturals will become a trend. This was about three years ago, and at the time, we were seeing a trend with small batch coffee companies and organic wines. What gives anything validity anymore, is people being interested in something that is different. People are going to pay a little bit more money for it because it’s new and exciting.
There was another perfumer there who said, ‘What you’re talking about is really non-applicable to the masses,’ and I said, ‘We can agree to disagree.’ And they said, ‘Natural perfuming is really the work of housewives at home. It is relegated to people who are doing it as a hobby, and the work of natural perfume is the work of heresy, because you can’t replicate it, so for big batches of fragrance from season to season, there will be a difference in experience.’ I said, ‘Well, case in point, because you’re proving that what I’m talking about is with small batches.’ We agreed to disagree, but I went home that night and what they’d said about my work being the work of heresy just set my hair on fire, and got me to thinking. That night, I was up at one o’clock in the morning on USPTO.gov doing a trademark search to see if the word “heresy” or “heretic” was available, and much to my surprise, it was. So that next morning I called my lawyer and we trademarked Heretic every which way, and it became the name of the company.
Really, the word heretic has no bearing on it — people associate it with religious aspects, but the word means “someone who is diametrically opposed to the common ideas of the masses”.
What exactly do you make your fragrances with?
The products that I use are obviously all natural, and the alcohol I use is corn alcohol. They call it a “perfumer’s alcohol”, and my reason for using it is not centered around health benefits, though that’s certainly a part of it. My reason for doing this is because I wanted to provide a natural product that harnesses the raw, wild, insane aspects of nature. For me, nature has always been a source of beauty, but as beautiful as nature can be, it is also terrifying, and that is the dual part that I’m speaking about with Heretic. It’s a duality that really speaks to you, because within all of us, we have a beauty but we also have a terror — we have a masculine and we have a feminine that lives deeply within all of us, and this brand represents both of those aspects, and it’s something that I don’t believe there is anything like going on in the marketplace. Yes, there’s definitely an esoteric quality to the brand, but I wanted that to be there. I wanted there to be a sense of mystery and a sense of the exotic and the strange within.
This brand is for someone who is looking for something as unique as they are — someone that is not looking to walk the same path as the rest. This brand is for those that have decided to move in a slightly different capacity. Sure, it’s a big concept to wrap around a perfume brand, but it’s very dear to my heart, and I strongly feel that there are a lot of people that would not like to smell like the rest of the pack anymore. In my branding, I talk about the wild and feral aspects of nature, and the fact that nature is a seductive force. The fragrances bring these things to light. A lot of them are smokier, and conjure ideas of incense and temples.
I work with fragrance as way to be able to paint a picture of unusual places in people's minds. And that’s the other thing about fragrance that’s so magical — it’s like painting a picture. If I work with a lot of frankincense and myrrh, benzoin and peppers, then I can paint this picture that becomes a churchy, exotic, and spiritual place. If I work with smoke notes like birch tar, then all of a sudden, it starts to conjure an idea of campfires and a cozy home.
Fragrance is quite magical, because it is an alchemical world. It truly is alchemy because it is about taking ingredients that are unbelievable on their own, but when you start to combine them, they turn into this explosive, mind bending experience.
What daily practices keep you rooted in this knowing of where the marketplace is headed, and where Heretic comes in?
It’s a daily meditation, and it takes having a great support system around me to hold the torch. But in the end, it all comes from within me. It’s one of those things where every day when I wake up, I can’t tell you how much I love to do what I do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s challenging right now because I’m trying to run a business, and I have other projects that I love to do too, but honestly, when working with these materials, I fall into another consciousness. Each of these fragrances and I have such a deep relationship and I understand them.
Ultimately, if I really look back on my work and what it is that I’m doing, the nature of it is in giving people an experience. I’m so passionate about getting people closer to that sense of dreaming, of fantasy, and of being a kid again — of marveling at something and thinking in a more abstract way. I love seeing people find magic.
How does astrology play into your life today?
Mysticism has followed me my whole life. It’s been challenging and scary at times, but it’s followed me the entire way. The mystery in the tarot cards was really intoxicating for me, and I wanted to find out the meaning and reason behind it. One thing let me to another, and I’ve lived my life walking a mystical path ever since.
I was raised Irish Catholic, so the idea of involving mysticism in my world was one that was very much diametrically opposed to the belief systems of my family. Funny enough, my family did support my interest in it. I really believe that the idea of mysticism, astrology, and the occult allows you to look at things through a different lens. No matter how much you subscribe to it, we’re all just looking for a reason. In some aspect, it can allow us to be able to assign blame to things, but in another aspect, it explains a lot of things. For me, there are too many coincidences for me to discount it all completely. And I’ve allowed it to lace my world in a way where I don’t assign blame — for instance, I have an assistant that won’t work on certain days if the moon is void. She’s very specific, but I don’t do that.
I think another reason why mysticism has been so intrinsically involved with my world is because it brings me closer to nature, and nature for me has been my biggest inspiration in all capacities. Following the cycles of the moon has allowed me to have a deeper relationship with myself and an understanding of myself.
I get very frustrated with the fact that people don’t acknowledge that we have masculine and feminine sides — all men and all women do, and mysticism teaches us a deeper understanding of these sides of ourselves. For me, it allows me to be a better person — I’m able to process information in a non-judgmental, accepting way. That’s why I wanted to work in this field — I wanted to be able to understand both aspects of my life, and to be able to drop into them at times without labeling. I firmly believe that having this knowledge of the occult is so primal. There’s no way that I could exist in New York without it.
It’s about keeping yourself open to what comes forward. I’m constantly reminded that I need to be receiving more. Especially in this city, so many times we set ourselves up for guardedness — when someone comes into your life, it’s natural to have your guard up. And mysticism has taught me to breathe more, and to get more in touch with my own spirituality, and allow what needs to come forward, to come forward. It can be very intense.
And what it comes down to, is what you do with what comes forth. I can give people this seed that’s about to germinate within themselves, but ultimately, that’s something that they have to take on their own. And I think that makes life more exciting.