NEW YORK — After 36 years of working in the fragrance industry, Roger Schmid has made a name for himself as a maverick of sorts, often searching out new ideas in the most unlikely of places. Now, having retired from his post as head of fine fragrance at Symrise and, most recently, head of innovation in July, finding the next great source of inspiration is foremost in his mind, and he’s not afraid to go to India, or Asia, or Africa, for that matter, to find it.
“The Charles Revson of tomorrow may be in India, you know, Mr. Patel or something,” he said.
And Schmid is only half-kidding. He has several projects on his plate these days, including creating a travel book with graphic designer Peter Schmidt, continuing his work with the creativity school he began in Milan with photographer Fabrizio Ferri, and expanding his new fragrance-centric consulting firm, NoseAbout. But perhaps his most ambitious undertaking is a project that combines elements of all three: an arts academy he’s developing with author and conservationist Kuki Gallmann and her daughter, Sveva. The Italian-born Gallmann, who owns a 100,000-acre farm in Kenya, penned the best-selling 2000 memoir, “I Dreamed of Africa,” about the deaths of her husband and, subsequently, her 17-year-old son. Now she dedicates her life to preserving land and spreading a positive message about Africa.
Schmid met Gallmann a few years ago, he said, when she was thinking about growing botanicals on her land and needed an expert to guide her through the process. Now, he is acting as “an international director-ambassador of sorts” for the academy, helping to spread the word beyond the realm of Gallmann’s farm, which is located on the Great Rift Valley. Appropriately enough, the academy will be supported by the Gallmann-created Great Rift Valley Trust, of which there will be outposts in North America, Europe and eventually Asia. “They found Lucy, the first human, [in the Great Rift Valley],” he said, referring to the skeleton that was uncovered there, which is thought to be more than three million years old. “It’s the birthplace of humanity, where the artists of the world will be able to go to create together.” In fact, Schmid likens the project to the Sundance Film Festival: “But not for movies, for everything.”
In February, Gallmann staged the aptly named “Prelude,” a 10-day seminar designed as a starting point for the project, which featured musicians, choreographers, acrobats and poetry readings and culminated in a performance. Schmid developed a fragrance specifically for the performance, which was used to give scent to blankets distributed throughout the audience and, while he is open to doing something similar in the future, Schmid said he will not limit his duties to the realm of perfume. “Scent is something I’ve been involved with for so long,” he said. “But this is really more of a quest for innovation.”
For her part, Gallmann, who, with Sveva, was visiting New York recently representing her nonprofit organization, the Gallmann Memorial Foundation, sees Schmid as an arbiter of the senses in general, and someone who can help her broaden the scope of her project. “The formula worked, but now it’s time to expand, it’s an idea whose time has come,” she said. “The idea is to bring back to Africa the best of creativity in all fields, from the performing arts and the creative arts. There’s always a focus on the eyes and the ears, but I believe it’s important to focus on the five senses, and [Roger] is the perfect person for this.”
Schmid hopes the academy — which already consists of two structures on Gallmann’s land, including accommodations for attendees — will provide a forum not just for artists, but for businesspeople as well. Each project will be on an invitation-only basis, and will culminate in a product, such as a performance, a CD or even a fashion collection. “On the same campus, you’ll have a musician meeting the head of marketing,” he said. “Part of the problem [in business] has a lot to do with the creative person never meeting the salesperson never meeting the marketing person.” And Schmid said he thinks Africa is the perfect location for such a movement. “In the last few years, everyone has been talking about a lack of innovation and inspiration, but when you go to Africa, you have no choice but to be inspired,” he said. “That inspiration is derived from nature, you have this feeling of being part of something.”
In the light of recent negative depictions such as the novel-turned-film “The Constant Gardener,” which is set in northern Kenya, Gallmann says she is tired of her home getting a bad rap and, while she has read the book, she said she will not see the movie. “It’s a biased book from someone who has hardly been to Africa, it’s a cliché,” she said. “And I admire the writer, he’s written very good books, but this was not one of them — when he came to Africa, he had a certain thing in mind that he wanted to write.” Indeed, Gallmann has dedicated much of her life to dispelling the view that Africa is a place of poverty, despair and ignorance; the academy, she hopes, will contribute significantly to this cause. “What I want to bring to the world is the Africa of creativity,” she said. “When I wrote ‘I Dreamed of Africa,’ I said something like, ‘Going back to Africa was like a memory.’ Our mother, Eve, was African. Our vision is to make it a Garden of Eden.”
If Gallmann is the voice of hope, of vision, then Schmid is the business-minded voice of reason, and they make a good pair. For now, he’s eager to get started on the academy’s first project — which Sveva explains will “be based on drummers from all over the world” — in the upcoming months. And, while the realm of African earth beats and dance is decidedly worlds away from the bottom line Schmid has somewhat left behind, he hopes it will translate in one way or another into the business world. “Today, everyone talks about the speed of communication, but our problem today is a lack of communication,” he said. “We don’t want to exclude the business environment, we want to create seminars and workshops where [businesspeople] can find inspiration.”
And perhaps the next Charles Revson.