Game Changer: Laura Slatkin

Written by April Long

Beneath Laura Slatkin’s soft-spoken demeanor lies a true Woman of Action. Not only is she a fashion plate, an incomparable hostess, and a philanthropic powerhouse, she is the home fragrance pioneer we have to thank for the fact that the category has become so vital. Slatkin first introduced luxury scented candles to the US market, along with her husband Harry, with Slatkin & Co in 1992. She went on to create home fragrances for a roster of brands including Christian Dior, Ralph Lauren, and Jonathan Adler, and launched her own blockbuster venture, NEST Fragrances, in 2008. Slatkin implicitly understands that a candle, when constructed with the complexity and nuance of an eau de parfum, can glorify our shared spaces and offer an invisible welcome when we walk into a room, while also acting as a silent but profound communicator of who we are and how we wish to move through the world. As NEST has branched out into fine fragrance and body care, the brand’s spectrum of unique and addictive scents has made it truly iconic. “When I first started the company,” Slatkin says, “I’d go to a dinner party and sit next to someone and they’d say, “What do you do?” “I have a home fragrance company called NEST Fragrances.” And they’d say, “Oh,” and go back to their dinner. But now, when I say that I founded NEST Fragrances, they say, “I love that brand!” To see someone’s face light up—that’s my measurement of success.” 

How does it feel to be honored with the Game Changer award? 

It’s as exciting as it is for an actress to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards. That’s how meaningful it is to me, because it’s before all of the professionals who I work with, compete with, and partner with. It’s just an extraordinary moment. 

When did your love of fragrance begin? 

In 1992, after I married Harry. Prior to that I worked on Wall Street, and I was buried in finance, so I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t until my brother-in-law told me, as an interior designer, that the final touch on a beautifully decorated home is a beautiful home fragrance. He showed me that to really create an ambiance in a home and please all the senses is something extraordinary. When we got into the business, I’d never even burned a scented candle before. It just wasn’t on my radar. But the first time a perfumer brought in samples for me to smell based on the inspiration I gave him, I picked one of them up and smelled it and said, “Oh my God, this is beautiful.” It really impacted me and moved me so that I could feel my whole body transform when I inhaled this beautiful fragrance. And then we lit it, and it filled the room with the most extraordinary scent. There was no question that this was perfection. It became our Bamboo candle, which has been our number one scent for 25 years. 

At the time, there was nothing else like it. Do you think that’s why it was such an immediate success? 

Yes, Slatkin & Co. started with 12 fragrances and went to 24 fragrances. Saks Fifth Avenue launched us on their couture floor, which was very unique at that time. Home fragrance was usually on the eighth floor buried in the back of the bra department. After that, we grew to be the number one luxury brand and everybody started getting into the business and coming to us for help in creating their assortments. When I started NEST Fragrances in 2008, my whole premise was, why can’t every scent be a Bamboo? Let’s raise the bar. Nothing gets launched unless it moves you, and impacts you, and transports you, in the same way that Bamboo did for me when I first smelled it. 

What else do you think makes NEST so special? 

There are a few pillars that we stand on. Number one, the glass packaging. You can put it in any room. If you have a modern house, if your room is green, if it’s orange, if it’s purple, it still fits in. That was really important to me. We also have the highest fragrance load in the industry in terms of the amount of perfume in our candles, and we have a proprietary wax formulation that we developed over 25 years that makes the candles extremely efficacious in filling a room with scent. That’s why NEST is loved. NEST is loved because each fragrance has a really strong personality; each one creates a different mood, and that mood is very apparent when you walk into a room. 

Is that what defines a good home scent for you? 

It’s one that really transforms the space. So much so that when people walk in, they say, “Oh my God, it smells so good in here.” That’s my definition. Those three words, “Oh my God,” are our guiding principles. 

What was your creative process when launching your fine fragrance collection? 

I’m always working with master perfumers for home fragrance. And in the back of my mind, I always wanted to do fine fragrance but never had the inspiration for it. What would it look like? What would its positioning be? It never really gelled until I was sitting in the library one day looking at some art books. And I came across this book on Mrs. Delany, an 18th century botanical artist whose work really moved me. From there, I commissioned an artist to paint paintings of flowers that I really loved, and then we took the paintings to the perfumer, who used the inspiration to create the fragrances. The collection was launched exclusively at Sephora in 2013, and today we are consistently ranked between 7 and 9 against 125 or so nationally advertised brands. I think what moves the needle is the passion, the creativity, the originality, and the inspiration coming together in a way that creates an authentic story. 

You recently opened your first New York flagship. Why was now the right time? 

We have NEST home fragrance in Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Nordstrom. We have fine fragrance in Sephora. The body collection was launched at Ulta Beauty. So we wanted one place where we can bring all of the categories together as a story. Because that’s the future for NEST, to start to bring together the brand in home, fine fragrance, and personal care now that it’s gained such incredible traction. To be this enormously successful in fine fragrances is really ground breaking. And there’s a different way of looking at fragrances today. It’s about having a whole wardrobe. When I wake up every morning, I have all eight fragrances in my closet and I say, “Who am I going to see today? What kind of mood do I want to create? What am I wearing?”, etc. It’s no longer about a singular scent. 

What kind of sensibility were you able to bring to the table when creating fragrances for other brands? 

We’ve created home fragrance for over 100 luxury brands, which has given me my PhD in fragrance. Working with perfumers, and understanding the various notes and how they blend together, was an extraordinary learning experience. But I also had to get into the psyche of every brand. What is their DNA? Aerin Lauder and Vera Wang are very different than Jonathan Adler, and very different from Ralph Lauren. Everything from the packaging, to the vessel, to the scent, it all has to be harmonious. I found it very exciting and interesting to delve into that. 

While you’ve been building this empire, you’ve also found time to do so much amazing philanthropic work. What are you particularly proud of in that area? 

When Harry and I started NEXT for AUTISM, we were thinking about how when our son David was first diagnosed, the best place to get an evaluation was Yale, and there was a four-year waiting list. I just kept thinking about that single woman living in Harlem, three kids, working three jobs to put food on the table, one with autism. So what I’m most proud of is the fact that we have partnered with the government to bring services to that population that doesn’t have the resources. Whether it’s our charter schools, which are located in Harlem and the Bronx, or whether it’s our brain center that we built with Columbia, Cornell, and near New York–Presbyterian Hospital, which accepts any insurance, nobody gets turned down, and provides state-of-the- art care – we’re bringing that excellence to a population that normally wouldn’t have access to that.