Ellis Brooklyn Founder Bee Shapiro on How Fragrance Tells a Story, Plus the Inspiration Behind the Brands’ Signature ScentsFebruary 04, 2022
Ellis Brooklyn founder Bee Shapiro may have named the fragrance brand after her daughter and the borough where it all began, but make no mistake, it’s all about her. Each carefully crafted scent is an intimate love letter to a particular moment that shaped her as a person.
We recently sat down with the New York Times beauty columnist to talk about the soul-searching journey that led her from law school to the style section, the personal stories behind Ellis Brooklyn’s clean perfumes and where the brand is headed in the new year.
Tell me about your journey from law to journalism to entrepreneurship.
I started out as a hedge fund lawyer – I don’t think I made it a year. I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do. But, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t even know what I liked to do, so I did some soul searching.
I tried a bunch of different things and learned that I loved to write. So, I freelanced a bit and ended up writing about fashion at the New York Times. When the beauty editor left, I was asked to take over. Although beauty wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to get into, looking back, it was actually a big part of my life and I didn’t even realize it.
Plus, the cool part about writing for the New York Times is that they can assign you a topic that you might not be an expert in and it’s up to you to learn everything there is to know about it. I geeked out and fell in love with the whole industry and found fragrance to be especially interesting. Fragrance is so intricately tied to feelings and storytelling. For example, you can smell something that immediately evokes feelings about your teenage boyfriend without saying a word – it’s that powerful.
How did you navigate entrepreneurship?
I like to say that I started Ellis Brooklyn on the back of a bunch of favors. I knew a few things about fragrance, having tested so many different formulas and packaging styles. But other than that, I didn’t know much.
Funnily enough, at a baby shower, I met a fellow mom who worked in cosmetic packaging. After talking to her and picking her brain, she very generously introduced me to the box producer that I actually use now.
I’d chase threads of ideas down rabbit holes. There was a lot of pulling up my sleeves and asking a ton of questions. It took two years to figure out what’s what. Right before the launch, I was nervous, but I told myself I had no choice but to just do it. I had asked too many favors to not follow through.
Do you have advice for the budding beauty entrepreneur looking to break into the fragrance space?
Act like a reporter and ask tons of questions. Ask stupid questions. You never know what answer you’ll get. Also, going to trade shows is helpful. I still go, they help you get a behind the scenes look at what other brands are doing.
How do you become inspired to create the different scents?
There’s always been a thread of meaning behind each fragrance. I actually created the first scent, MYTH, for myself. Back when I was commuting a lot on the L train, it felt so tight with this mass of humanity right in my face. I wanted to make a fragrance that would allow me to reclaim my space and give me a moment of privacy, which, in this big city, is kind of like an urban myth. I wanted it to smell like white musk and to be sophisticated, sensual and clean without smelling too much like soap.
Also, SALT and SWEET were inspired by my work as a writer. When I interview someone, I always break the ice by asking if they’re a salty or sweet person. It’s become less about wanting a scent that isn’t available anywhere else and more about creating something personal. As I’ve grown, my inspiration has grown, too.
What inspires the stories behind each fragrance?
My scent journeys are always personal. For example, last winter, in the middle of the pandemic, I was going through a divorce. I had just started dating my boyfriend and we went snowboarding together. I snowboarded pretty often when I was younger, but it had been years since I was on a mountain.
Being back on the mountain gave me a new perspective. I forgot about my worries. I was back. The one thing that was missing, though, was the apres ski culture that I loved so much. So, to capture the freeing feeling of being on a mountain plus those cozy bourbon cocktails by the fireplace I’d been missing, I created APRÉS.
Do you have a favorite fragrance?
I would say MYTH and BEE. BEE, a cozy, yummy and boozy fragrance, is the complete opposite of the floral scents I was drawn to when I was younger. BEE was made to embody the experience of falling in self-love.
I came up with the idea for this fragrance during my own journey of finding self love and wanted it to be so inviting that when you spritz it on, you turn inward and self-reflect. It was weird for me to name the fragrance after myself – doing so felt like I was really putting myself out there – but it just felt right. Plus, the scent also has notes of honey, so to play along with the idea of a bee was fitting.
What fragrance trends are you excited about in 2022? What’s next for the brand?
Because we’re still dealing with the pandemic, I think we’re all loving the idea of escapism. It used to be so easy to go somewhere exotic and it’s way harder now.
I have this yearning to go to Capri or the Maldives, and the idea of capturing that experience in a fragrance is so dreamy to me. We have something coming in the spring that, like APRES, will take you somewhere you might not be able to go.
What advice – beauty or non-beauty – would you give to your younger self?
I wish I could tell my younger self not to overdo it and to be easier on myself. In my 20s, I was so anxious and would go on diets and work out like crazy. I'm turning 41 this year, and I have to say, my body is way better now that I don’t have any rules. It’s so freeing. Get to know yourself, it’ll make all the difference.