It’s the morning after Halloween, and Marissa Zappas and Courtney Rafuse are sprawled out on a plush white rug in Zappas’s Bed-Stuy studio passing tiny, top-secret vials of perfume back and forth. Inside are the first samples of what would become Odette and Odile — which just launched as the first offerings from Gumamina, the pair’s new perfume house and olfactory brainchild.
While collaborations between commercial brands are common, they’re almost unheard of amongst independent perfumers — particularly between noses as exciting as Zappas and Rafuse. Zappas, who helms an eponymous company, and Rafuse, the creator of Universal Flowering, are the figureheads of the new wave of independent scent makers turning out singular, engrossing fragrances with unfamiliar ingredients and gutsy formulas from which more traditional houses tend to shy away. And though their formulas may differ — with Rafuse’s formulas skewing more heavy-handed, while Zappas’s are more conservative — they both see perfume as poetry.
Gumamina is the story of Zappas’s and Rafuse’s friendship, born of hours-long phone calls where they’d talk about the unique challenges of being small-business owners facing big demand. (In person, they have an easy intimacy — they finish each other’s sentences and share a vape.) A little over a year ago, they decided to make a perfume together that was just for them, where every step of the project — from the development and art direction to the design — was squarely on their own terms.
“I don't think any perfumer should ever work totally alone,” Zappas says. “To have another set of eyes is completely invaluable. Prior to this, I hadn't collaborated with a perfumer before, and I think Courtney and I were both pretty shocked at how helpful and fruitful it is.” Rafuse, who started the Odette formula for Zappas to finish, says it initially felt really vulnerable to share her formulas with someone who might go in and edit them. “Those are your sacred little prized possessions,” she says. “Now I'm like, that was the best decision.”
Both scents are named after Swan Lake characters (and fittingly sold with black and white cygnet toppers). Odette has notes of grapefruit soda, rhubarb, rose, orris, tonka, and musk, and is as crisp and elegant as a gin fizz. Odile, with its notes of blood orange, dark chocolate, rubber, suede, and musk, possesses a glamorous ferocity. “She goes really hard,” Rafuse says. “I've never made a perfume that lasted that long.”
Originally, Rafuse and Zappas planned to release both fragrances on their respective websites, but they quickly realized the formulas were so good they deserved a bigger release — they deserved their own house. So in August, as Rafuse and Zappas drove a rented Ford Mustang to Tatiana in Brighton Beach, they threw some names around when a song by the Italian singer Mina came on. Then, they spotted a dumpster tagged “Guma” and put the two words together. “I feel like the first time I said it, I was like, ‘No, this isn't just any other word,’” Zappas says. “This is something else entirely.”
They say they liked that Gumamina immediately felt like a matriarchal, authoritative figure — a name that doesn’t quite make sense, but it doesn’t matter.“Who is she? Who is Mina?” Zappas says. “You don't really know, but you think she's some older woman in a Pedro Almodóvar movie or something.”
Now, there’s a third person in the friendship, a woman whom both Zappas and Rafuse say they want to be. “I think she just gives us confidence,” Zappas says. “It’s hard to be public and have our brands out there and our work out there. It's very vulnerable and it's exhausting, so you kind of need a little bit of an alter ego.”