It’s old news that smell and memory are very closely linked together, with countless research papers having studied the phenomenon.
Without getting too jargony, this is possible because the anatomy of the brain allows olfactory signals to get to the limbic system very quickly.
With memories then come emotions associated with them, which is why people may feel drawn to specific scents which make them feel happy, nostalgic, inspired, and more.
Hoping to make a mark on the lives of Malaysians in such a way is local perfume brand SUKKA, which was started by Alia Alhaddad during the MCO.
Making “scents” of the pandemic limbo
Prior to SUKKA, Alia was a writer and teacher for many years in Singapore and lived in Australia before she decided to return to Singapore to work for her father in 2011.
He runs the family business, called The Perfume Workshop, which is also SUKKA’s parent company. It specialises in personalised fragrances for corporate door gifts, wedding favours, and religious use, making them since the 80s.
Their history in perfumery doesn’t end here though, as Alia’s father and brother are in the agarwood trade too, plus her brother and sister run their own fragrance companies in Australia and Singapore respectively.
Alia worked under her father for 10 years, learning his knowledge of running a business first-hand. For this job, she was also travelling twice a month.
But the pandemic would put a hold on that, and she soon felt the itch to do something for herself in Malaysia.
“It wasn’t necessarily the best time to start a business but I felt that instead of resting on my laurels, I would use the time to take stock of my business and describe my family’s journey as traditional perfumers transitioning into a new world,” Alia recalled.
“I was also missing my family a lot and I found great joy in creating familiar scents that uplifted my spirits and reminded me of the good times.”
While Malaysia remained in that state of limbo, Alia spent her time making perfumes, an act that pulled her through the difficult times.
It then hit her that the notes in the perfumes she was using were mood boosters, leaving her happier and more energised with one quick whiff.
With this in mind, starting SUKKA became the natural next step.
Embodying the multifaceted personalities of Malaysian women
To start, she leveraged her husband’s experience in marketing and IT as well as her family’s rich history in perfumery.
“I decided that my first line of perfumes would cater to the younger vibe, and produce fragrances that were functional, affordable, and had the necessary longevity that is usually not present in generic fragrances,” Alia shared.
According to SUKKA’s website, the brand proudly states that its scents are inspired by the “wholesome personalities of Malaysian women”, the meaning of which we had to clarify with Alia.
“To be wholesome to me means to respect conventional moral values but still have a bold mix of the irrepressible feminine soul and daring determination,” she explained.
“Every Malaysian woman I’ve met has expressed that in one way or another and lives her life under her terms.”
She further gave an example of her creative vision and goal, stating that a user of SUKKA could be a mother juggling two kids or a shy college student, but SUKKA’s scent “Rosey The Rebel” might evoke something more personal and closer to their senses.
This could be because, unbeknownst to the naked eye, the user loves heavy metal music or fixes motorbikes for a living. “Who would’ve known?” Alia mused.
Following her explanation, Alia’s wholesome vision became clearer to us, as they differ quite clearly from the way popular fragrance brands tend to leverage sex, sultriness, beauty, and status symbols to sell their scents.
Circling back to SUKKA, Alia loves weaving contrasts into the way she creates scents too, using layers.
“It’s the best way to express the multiple facets of our personalities. An example would be to combine a woody scent with a fruitier one, or a spicy with a sweet, or fresh scents with a more gourmand note,” she said.
Every ingredient that goes into a SUKKA perfume is carefully curated too, as Alia is able to leverage her father’s reputable sources who have a long track record with him and his business.
The ingredients are internationally and locally sourced in order to not limit SUKKA’s potential. For example, oils produced in Malaysia such as oud oil, citrus oil, patchouli oil, and many other floral oils are used at SUKKA.
Alia doesn’t stick to only natural ingredients either, as she acknowledged that synthetic ones can be very useful in ensuring that fragrances don’t cause adverse reactions to skin types, while protecting the environment against overharvesting.
Following in her father’s passionate footsteps
About a year into the business, lots has already changed for the SUKKA team. Alia went from being the only one blending and pouring scents until 4AM in the morning daily, to procuring better equipment, tools, and three assistants.
Today, she has a team of 14, split across teams in sales, corporate sales, digital marketing, graphics design, admin, and more.
Every fragrance is made in-house from scratch using formulas kept in a spreadsheet. Ingredients are blended, and after the extrait is created, it is mixed with sugarcane-based alcohol that’s supposedly more environmentally friendly.
Once the final product is mixed, the team does a skin test and paper strip test. After evaluation, the manufacturing process ends with pouring, bottling, nozzle assembly, collar crimping, and a fine mist quality control check before boxing.
In total, their small but mighty team can produce up to 700 bottles a day, the founder shared. On their website, there are seven different scents, with each 35ml bottle going for RM127.
Despite the difficult times and challenges, one of which is Alia’s continued search for work-life balance and free weekends, what’s kept her going is her desire to emulate her father’s devotion to his own business.
He used to travel around the world to source ingredients, and he was so particular about the vessels that would hold his fragrances that, at times, he would travel all the way to Egypt to design and hand-blow his own glass bottles.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to continue this trade and devote the same amount of love and passion to a business,” Alia said.
“I also loved watching my dad communicate with his clients and how detailed and meticulous he was when creating personalised scents for each individual.”
Following in his footsteps, she opened SUKKA’s Perfume Bar, a physical store where she’s able to spend time talking to customers before suggesting a scent.
Alia described the experience, “Sometimes [their] questions are general but most times, I will find out something that might seem completely irrelevant to perfume, but allows me to recommend something to a customer that will elicit an emotion and instant attraction.”
In line with this, she hopes to expand SUKKA’s line to formulate readily wearable scents for people’s homes, cars, hair, and more. As Alia aptly concluded, “The possibilities are endless.”