Everyday Icon: Perfumier and Novelist, Tanwi Nandini Islam

Whether she's writing fiction or concocting sustainable, small-batch perfumes this Brooklyn-based creative entrepreneur cites wildflowers as her consistent muse.
Image Credit: Tanwi Nandini Islam.

Image Credit: Tanwi Nandini Islam.

You might not typically expect fragrance making and fiction writing to go hand in hand, but Tanwi Nandini Islam isn't your typical entrepreneur. This Brooklyn-based author and botanical business owner shares stories through scents, citing wildflowers as the muse behind her interdisciplinary work. Below, we chat with Islam about the stirring power of perfume, her ethical sourcing process, and what it means to embody the spirit of a wildflower.

Your line, Hi Wildflower, is made up of small-batch perfumes, soaps, candles and skincare. Tell us about the inspiration behind Hi Wildflower and how it came to be.

Flowers are such an intricate part of human ritual – we commemorate new life, love, partnership and death with them. When I finished my novel, Bright Lines, I felt this profound gap within myself...the place this story had inhabited suddenly felt empty. I'd learned so much in the process of writing my main character Anwar, an apothecary, as well as his daughter Ella, a botany student who is grappling with their gender identity. While it may seem unlikely that a work of fiction can become a starting point for an indie perfume business, I think scent and storytelling are kindred spirits. The library of essential oils, resins, absolutes and perfumers' raw materials I'd collected over the years became a way for me to continue composing stories that evoke the natural world and human rituals.

It has been said that the sense of smell is closely linked with memory. What is the history behind the ethically-sourced botanicals you have chosen for your products? Is there a sense of nostalgia that accompanies these scents?

At the heart of each perfume is a flower or plant that is closely associated with something sacred, faraway and evocative of the spirit of wildflowers. So, for example, in my Mojave perfume, I use sustainably sourced Palo Santo from South America and wildcrafted white sage from Santa Barbara, to evoke that sense of walking through the stillness of the California desert. By blending these natural elements with notes of leather, dry, desiccated earth – a perfume is born.

We talk a lot on this site about ethically-made products, but this is the first we have heard of ethically-sourced botanicals. Can you explain what this means and how the process differs from the traditional methods?

The tradition of cultivating plants, trees and flowers for essential oils is ancient. There are family farms all over the world who continue this work, and I collaborate with suppliers to connect me with those farms. Most commercial perfumes are made by multinational companies in a highly controlled environment – and the use of rare botanicals is limited because REAL jasmine, sandalwood and rose are super expensive. So, I try to bring the beauty of those naturals to the forefront when creating my perfumes.

You are also a prolific writer and released your first novel in 2015 – Bright Lines, as you mentioned before. How do you "balance" two careers? Are there any personal mantras or mottos that help you stay grounded and get through a particularly hectic day?

I am still learning every day the necessity of balancing my two passion projects. It seems like I'm constantly working! Even when it's a simple Instagram post, or an interview for an article – I have to contextualize it all. But that's where I've drawn a personal line – I am a writer and artist first and foremost – and I have creative control over my brand. I'm never going to shy away from my personal and political beliefs or sacrifice my need for personal time. So, there are days when I don't go into the Hi Wildflower studio so I can focus on my writing. And there are other days where I just go in to make blends and play – because the heart of all of this is joy.

What are a few of your favorite wildflowers?

Wildflowers are the flowers that are forgotten, overlooked. They aren’t flashy or showy like roses or peonies. Some of my favorites are Queen Anne's lace, yarrow, shooting star and horse mint.

In your opinion, why is it important for us as women to explore and foster the "Wildflower" within us all?

The "Wildflower" within us all is complex, tenacious, worldly. I think a lot of times, as women, we feel we are not enough, that we need to be MORE – smarter, prettier, more successful, skinnier – and it's a big sham. To simply exist is to be in touch with all that we are – that is truly beautiful. That is the spirit of Hi Wildflower.

p.s. Meet another one of our everyday icons with an ethically inspired brand, here.