By: C. Shardae Jobson
The below Spotlight was the bio I wrote for an interviewee I had the pleasure of speaking with for my Zoe Report article, Black Women & Fragrance: A Love Story, published December 2021!
I thought it would be cool to share not just some background information on the interviewees separately, but also their quotes in full! This article was a challenge and joy to write, so be sure to check it out after reading about Waters!
I’ve got two more “Black Women & Fragrance” interviewee bios to share in the coming days! So continue to stay tuned.
Kimberly Waters, owner, and founder of the MUSE Experiences boutique
Harlem residents rarely wait for Sunday to wear their best, and this is especially true of its Black locals who for decades have been recognized and celebrated for their fresh fashion sense, alongside an entrepreneurial spirit.
“Harlem folks, we’re hustlers, we’re stylish! We got it all. And I want, in addition to looking fly, [I want folks to know that they can] also smell fly,” Kimberly Waters states over the phone. Waters is the Harlem-born, upstate-New York raised founder of the fragrance boutique MUSE Experiences, located in West Harlem.
“Our grooming is a part of our pride. We will make sure, even if going through some things that when we step out, we step out and be the best version of ourselves. I think it’s that type of culture, that as Black people and Black women, [that] keeps us going. And fragrance can play into that.”
Though she was already an enthusiast and perfume collector (she treasures her late aunt’s pocket-size Chanel No.5 from the 1960s), pre-MUSE, it was in the 2010s that Waters found her fellow fragrance-obsessed troop. She connected with Instagram influencers and bloggers at boutiques and department store events, at Sniffapolooza, and was inspired by YouTubers, such as the late Carlos J. Powell aka Brooklyn Fragrance Lover.
“[This time] was like my entryway into this space. As I was trying to figure out what my voice would be, I had exposure to this community. Now, it’s definitely grown. Like Black Girls Smells Good? That didn’t exist and it’s amazing to see. It was a small scale back in 2012. But we knew that there was something out there that was worth it [when it came to our passion for perfume].”
As a retailer, who has experienced being the only or one of two faces of color at a perfume trade show, Waters hopes that visitors are summoned by the “back in the day” feeling, merged with memories of her perfume-club days, within MUSE’s uptown townhouse.
Its design is ancestral and communal-giving, as Waters wants MUSE to harken to the Harlem Renaissance’s heydays of brownstone gatherings too. And amongst the niche and indie brands she sells, Black-owned scents are a part of the catalog, such as Aspen Apothecary and customer fave (and MUSE was the first American shop to sell) Maya Njie, whose founder is of Scandinavian and Gambian heritage.
The significant inclusion of perfume in the everyday lives of Black women is an ardent phenomenon that’s also happening internationally.
Waters recently discovered this during a sojourn to the West African nation of Senegal. While there, she dreamily witnessed for herself how Black African women share a need for aroma expression as much as Black women do in the states.
“Scent is a big part of their lifestyle every day” Waters says. “[The Senegalese like] very hearty, dark notes. Heavy woods, sweet gourmand fragrances.” She visited the Dakar-based, Black-women-owned and operated Olfactif by TR and met up with Marieme Soda Ba Diagne, who owns the online shop Parfumerie Bouton d’Or. “Africans like to be smelled and to be noticed.”
The desire to smell good is also impacted by the fact that deodorant is extremely sparse. “So their scent is more so their body odor.”
Due to this, the Senegalese need to be as invested in being as resourcefully driven with perfume as they are with smelling good. This reality links to Waters’ understanding of the historical context of the pull of perfume amongst Black wearers.
“We’ve been innovative in trying to use scent in how we share ourselves with the world, or as a survival tactic. We didn’t have access to essential oils [centuries ago], but we had the ingenuity to figure out what we could grow, and use lavender plants and certain things to enhance ourselves when we didn’t possibly feel the best. We’ve always made the best of what we had.”
Having returned stateside and as the bellwether of perfume shopping and discovery in Harlem for the last four years, it’s been an amazing full-circle time for Waters. It was in the 1930s that her great-grandmother moved to New York from Union Springs, Alabama. Therefore, cementing familial roots on the east coast and today, a family member who is essentially the “nose” behind, not a fragrance, but a Black-owned fragrance storefront.
“Harlem has always been a part of me. Being able to have a business here is extra special and Harlem is known for a lot of things,” Waters says. “But fragrance and the way that I’m doing it is not known and I wanted to change that, and let people know that you don’t have to go downtown and the department stores. You can stay right uptown and come visit MUSE and get your next fragrance.”
For more, please check out my article, in which this interview was a part of, exclusively on The Zoe Report!