Maria McElroy WWD ASIA MAJOR interview

A serious case of wanderlust helped Maria McElroy find her true calling.

Cover of WWD magazine

ASIA MAJOR – A serious case of wanderlust helped Maria McElroy find her true calling.

The term Renaissance woman barely begins to describe Aroma M founder Maria McElroy. After all, she's an artist, perfumer, aromatherapist, perennial student and traveler whose life, work and studies have taken her from the U.S. to Australia and Japan and back to America.

McElroy's somewhat prim appearance on the day of this interview – pale skin, pearl earrings, hair pulled into a neat bun and a parchment-colored sheath dress – doesn't give a sense of the adventuress within. But the blue and gray chrysanthemums splashed across the front of her vintage dress and her luminous green eyes hint at something dramatic beneath her serious exterior.

After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute with a masters in painting, McElroy decided to study aromatherapy. Instead of tracking down a local class, she packed her bags and headed to Australia, where she enrolled at the Queensland Institute of Natural Science. "Australia has a good reputation for aromatherapy and essential oils," she said simply

Her next major excursion was to a country whose culture had long intrigued her – Japan. She flew there with the intention of traveling around, but wound up staying for seven years. To support herself, she taught English to local children.

"I'm so small, I fit right in," said McElroy, who grew up in Salt Lake City. "I really had an affinity for the place. It really was a love affair."

While there, McElroy studied Japanese as well as a number of Japanese art forms. There was koto, a Japanese harp with more than a dozen strings. "You play it with picks on your fingers," she explained. Then there was ikebana, a traditional type of Japanese floral arranging. "You use a lot of branches," she said. "My favorite was quince."

It was a challenge convincing her iksbana teacher that she was a serious student and not some American dilettante. Coincidentally, McElroy's husband is a master of flower arranging, but the couple didn't meet in class. They were introduced at a cherry blossom viewing party. Even McElroy admits that this sounds like something out of a romance novel.

Her other class was in kodo, the Japanese incense ceremony. "It's similar to the tea ceremony," she said. "It's a game you play with poetry to try to figure out what the incense is."

Eventually, McElroy returned to the U.S. with her husband, Shinya Yokota, and settled in Seattle. Drawing on her knowledge of aromatherapy and incense, she created some environmental mists, and Yokota, an artist by trade, created the labels.

What McElroy really wanted to do was create a perfume line. "In the back of my mind, I wanted to do a geisha line. I must have been a geisha in a previous life. I spent a lot of time in Kyoto [the Japanese city where the geisha district of Gion is located," she said "Geishas are considered so mysterious here."

In the meantime, McElroy was building the distribution for her tiny company, which she christened Aroma M. "I've never had a sales rep. I would scout out stores and go in and talk to the owners. I didn't want my product in stores that weren't appropriate." Terra Verde, the natural products store in SoHo, was her first New York location.

The line grew beyond environmental mists to include essential oil blends called M Synergies, body oils, bath oils, soaps and beeswax candles in sake cups. Still longing to create a geisha perfume, she blended a green tea scent and unveiled it at the Extracts show in 1997. Called O-cha, which means green tea in Japanese, it also contains notes of sweet orange and clary sage. Two other fragrances followed under the Geisha label Hana-cha, which means flower tea, features notes of jasmine and bergamot, while Nobara-cha, which means rose tea, is a blend of rose, sandalwood and amber.

When she applied for the Geisha trademark for fragrances and cosmetics, McElroy was surprised to find it was available. The only other Geisha trademarks were for a tuna company and a scissors manufacturer.

If McElroy had procrastinated over her project, she might never have secured the rights to the name. In October 1997, a book entitled, "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur S. Golden, was published to critical and commercial success. Suddenly, geishas were all the rage.

The original Geisha fragrance collection, which McElroy calls the premium line, is sold in approximately 100 doors, including Bergdorf Goodman and Kirna Zabete in New York, Palmetto in Santa Monica, Scarlett in New Hope, Pa., and beautycom.

Last year, the Custom Geisha collection, created exclusively for Sephora, was launched during the opening of the Rockefeller Center Sephora. Consisting of three scents named after geishas, it has since rolled out to 25 Sephora locations, including stores in Japan, and sephora.com. Haruka contains notes of green tea, bois de rose and sweet orange, Yachiyo features ylang ylang, cedar and jasmine, Ihara's notes include rose, geranium and sandalwood.

The eau de toilette sprays in the premium line retail for $75, while those in the custom line retail for $55. Both lines also include cream perfume in a glass container with a copper chrysanthemum top for $50 and scented rice powder for $60.

For her next project, McElroy hopes to develop a men's fragrance inspired by a trip to Turkey. But this project has taken a back seat to some more practical matters. McElroy and her husband are moving once again. This time to New York.

"All my energy is going into this move," she said, during a break from real estate rounds in Brooklyn's DUMBO area. "But we have to be here. New York is the center of my business,"

– Kerry Diamond

WWD SEPTEMBER 2000 43

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