Scents and Sensibility: How a Novel Inspired a Perfume Line

Hi Wildflower photos c/o Urban Outfitters

It’s pretty normal for a perfumer to build a story around a scent. It is less normal for a published author to create a perfume–and scented candles, and her own company–inspired by her book. Which is part of the reason Tanwi (pronounced “thaw-knee”) Nandini Islam, creator of Bushwick-based perfume and scented candle company, Hi Wildflower, is unusual.

“I’ve always been into scents, and collected perfume, and it has been very much a thing I’m in love with,” Islam says. “Writing has a quality of being attuned to smell, so I think that is something a little bit unique in terms of the way I think about writing, and being a part of sensing.”

Islam’s debut novel, Bright Lines, was released last month by Penguin. With the book, Islam said she tried to create a time capsule of a vanishing Brooklyn, specifically of the Clinton Hill she moved to in 2004 after college. “A lot of time it is a love letter to that Brooklyn, of a decade ago,” she said.

Islam first moved to New York City with her parents, both of whom are from Bangladesh, when she was ten. Bright Lines also delves into her deeper familial, cultural past with a trip that some of her characters take from Brooklyn to Bangladesh.

“Writing a first novel is so much about where you come from and how you’ve become who you’ve become, and the people that that concerns,” said Islam. Hi Wildflower allowed her to take that story and transmogrify it into a smell. “I wanted to continue the themes that are in my novel,” said Islam. “The themes belong to the world of my characters, a world of botanical knowledge, storytelling through scent, and how makers and hustlers create communities with one another.”

The idea for a scent and candle business came to Islam in part in 2012 when she was the brand manager at 3rd Ward. Before it shut down due to money issues, Islam had been laid off. She had just sold her novel and needed a new project, not to mention, money. The time she spent among so many creative entrepreneurs at 3rd Ward would not be in vain.

“At 3rd Ward, I learned a lot about the beauty of branding,” she said, plus: “”The idea of going into an office again seemed unappealing,” Tanwi continued, voicing what most people feel always, especially among the creative set.

As a kid, Islam did a lot of science fairs with her dad, who had a PhD in chemistry (now he calls Islam the perfumer “the happy chemist”). He taught her how to make bleach, about the greenhouse effect, and plants–which is partly where Islam’s love of flora comes from. Islam’s mother kept an extensive beautiful garden. In Bangladesh, flowers are ubiquitous, Islam explained, appearing on clothing and celebrated in seasonal festivals.

But love for a thing alone does not a business make. Hustle does; like her characters, Islam has a lot of it. Her first job out of college was as a community organizer in Bushwick. Afterward she worked with high school kids throughout Brooklyn schools, squeezed in an MFA at Brooklyn College, and wrote freelance for various places, like Elle.com, all while completing her novel. After 3rd Ward, she was prepped for the hustle of owning a business.

She started selling at Renegade Craft Fair, then began hitting up businesses she shopped at. It was carefree and bold at the same time. “It’s just kind of expanding to the places that I think embody that spirit of creativity and adventure,” said Islam. “There is a story behind each project,” (she creates scented candles for individual business, like Donna in South Williamsburg) “and each candle has an original poem that I’ve written to pay homage to what that scent is, what flower or tree.”

Her products appear in boutiques throughout Brooklyn and across the country; online at Urban outfitters, and at Urban Outfitter outlets across the country in the next months. She also ships her scents across the world.

Hi Wildflower the name pays homage to her worldview: not to take things too seriously. The “i” pokes fun at the “everything has an ‘i’ in it moment,” as well as the idea of high luxury. Wildflowers, rather than the groomed kind, match her spirit. “There’s a tenacity and resilience in wildflowers,” said Islam. “They kind of exist on the fringe.”

And like everything that thrives, Hi Wildflower took off because Islam learned not to be afraid of failing, as a writer or business owner. “We are the fragile generation in terms of our emotions,” she said. “We’re not all going to do it for everyone. You have to be Zen about it. Or that’s what I’ve found.”

If Hi Wildflower does fall on hard times, Islam is ready with a plan B: “DieWildflower.com,” she jokes. But given what she’s done with the first, it promises to be exciting.

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