Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

His nose knows: City perfume maker can concoct your personal aroma

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Michael O'Malley is the owner of La Parfumerie, one of just a handful of perfume shops on the planet that creates custom-made, all-natural fragrances.

O’Malley lives and works out of a house located at 145 Evanson St. — a three-story gem with its corner turret and purple-and-gold motif that looks like it was plucked out of a German fairy tale. A little over a month ago, the pony-tailed father of one was painting a room on the third floor when poof, it hit him.

"I’d had this idea for a new scent I’d been mulling around in my head for months," O’Malley explains. "I was upstairs, holding a paint brush, when suddenly it all came together."

O’Malley rushed downstairs to his parlour room, repeating the formula over and over so he wouldn’t forget it. Then he began reaching for bottles of oil — no easy task, he has close to 300 from all over the world — and began applying drops from each onto a slip of paper.

"This is called Grace," O’Malley says, dabbing a visitor’s wrist with his latest creation — the 21st perfume he has marketed worldwide since founding La Parfumerie 20 years ago. "People ask about the creative process and in a way, it’s like any other type of art.

"There are perfumes that have taken me weeks (to create) and others that took years. But when that moment of inspiration hits it’s always the same. It’s just a tremendous feeling."

During the 1970s, O'Malley divided his time backpacking across the Americas and earning a math degree from the University of Winnipeg. The latter paid dividends in 1990 when he started his first business, Mike the Friendly Math Tutor.

During O'Malley's first six months teaching calculus, he thought back to a trip he'd taken to California, during which he encountered people who made their own perfume. Up until that time, O'Malley had never been one for scents of any kind. But after being exposed to one resin in particular, well, why don't we let him explain what happened next...

"Frankincense was the first thing they let me try. I put some on and I don't know how to explain it -- it was just this deep, meaningful experience," O'Malley says. "I fell in love with the whole idea of what they were doing and realized this was something I wanted to do, too."

After immersing himself in reams of literature -- and training his nose -- O'Malley used the cash-flow from his tutoring gig to kick-start La Parfumerie in 1993.

O'Malley's first location was a "hole in the wall" in Osborne Village. That was where he developed his first commercial fragrance, Shiva. (No, it wasn't inspired by his neighbor at the time -- a KFC restaurant.) That was also where O'Malley began booking one-on-one appointments with people who were looking for a perfume they could call their own.

"Some people have very unique skin chemistry," says O'Malley, who moved his business to the Wolseley area in 1999. "You can have a person who loves scent but almost everything they try on ends up smelling bad. So what I tried to do was figure out something that would work for them."

To date, O'Malley has created personal perfumes for thousands of customers from every continent, save Antarctica. Heck, a man who lives in Korea was so intrigued after reading about La Parfumerie on the Internet that he booked a flight and showed up at O'Malley's door, two days later.

Personal sessions are approximately one hour in length. O'Malley starts things off with a Q and A, primarily about what you've worn in the past. Then he leans in close and -- there's no delicate way to put this -- takes a big whiff. Don't worry if you rushed over; a little bit of sweat is a good thing, he assures.

"When I'm smelling you, what I'm interested in is harmony. The same way a musician is looking for harmony between notes, I want to make sure that whatever I come up with will harmonize with your natural odour."

Next, O'Malley fetches different oils, which he asks you to sniff, one at a time. When he figures out what direction to take based on your likes and dislikes, he starts mixing a perfume before your very eyes.

When O'Malley's work is done -- and the customer is satisfied with the end-product -- it's time to choose a name.

"I tell people to name their perfume as if they were naming their child, because you might be using this for a long time. There are people I made perfumes for in 1994 who are still coming back once or twice a year to get a refill," he says, noting he taught himself how to blow glass in order to add another unique wrinkle to his business, in the form of hand-made bottles and pendants.

O'Malley's fee is $100, which includes the consultation, design and a one-year supply. The price drops somewhat if you book as a couple or group. "A couple of months ago we hosted a perfume party for some women who've been friends since they were teenagers. This year they were all turning 75 and we spent an afternoon making custom perfumes for each of them."

Finally, O'Malley offers some advice when he is asked about the trend of public places being designated scent-free.

"The thing is there are so many people out there who are inappropriate with scent. Let's say you're at the symphony and there's somebody next to you wearing a whole lot of perfume you don't care for -- it's too bad people do that," he says.

"My whole thing is about subtlety. If somebody is intimate with you and in your personal space, you should enjoy their scent. But if it's somebody else, well, people probably aren't that interested."

La Parfumerie is open noon to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. For more information, or to book an appointment with O'Malley or a member of his staff, visit

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2013 D11


Updated on Saturday, June 1, 2013 at 11:18 AM CDT: Fixed headline.

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