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Double Identity Double Harmony

Talking with Cathrine Røsseland over lunch at Sentralen in downtown Oslo reminds me of watching a painter on a city street. She is the artist, the canvas, the paint swirled on the palette, even the muse, all rolled into one. Her cobalt blue sweater and matching headband are a soft, luxurious complement to her dark skin. Behind her is a bank of windows covered in a mosaic of colourful film, aqua, yellow, and purple. Her orange fingernails flash as she manipulates her knife and fork. The scratch of utensils against the porcelain plate is like delicate music.

“If you just surround yourself with people who look like you or think like you, nothing happens.”

I’m here to share some coffee and a chat about what I believe is her perfume line, DoubleYou. Immediately, I realize that I’ve misunderstood the scope of her project. Her DoubleYou brand includes two fragrances—Norvége and Zanzibar—launched as a celebration of the sense of smell back in 2010. Though the brand hasn’t produced anything else in the last five years, the fields of her creative imagination are far from dormant.

“It has always felt like it’s been about more than just perfumes.”

Between us on the table sits a pair of small, shiny boxes. One black and one white.

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Cathrine grew up in small commune outside Bergen in the west of Norway, raised by her mother and maternal grandparents. Her roots on this side of her family extend back to the Viking ages, and her surname continues to be well-respected in that part of the country.

“My grandfather was the manager of the bank. My grandmother was the manager of the post office,” she says. Her clove-brown eyes are bright with memory. “When my grandfather died, everybody was there. The church was full. My two uncles and their sons were carrying the coffin. [My grandfather] was a huge man, so heavy. You could see them struggling. There was a sense of pride and of family. Super beautiful.”

But Cathrine’s sense of familial belonging hasn’t always been so certain. “I was the black sheep in my family,” she says. “I didn’t look like them. I wanted to do my own thing.”

Her father was from Tanzania, and he was never a major part of her life, but genetics are powerful. Catherine was the only black girl at her school.

“I was fortunate,” she admits. “I was the only one with my complexion. I was like the boy with red hair or the girl with the glasses. I was never bullied for it. I think I was something of a bully myself.”

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Cathrine’s strong personality had an affect on her creative side, too. While other “artistic” children were writing poetry and filling whimsical sketchbooks, she built furniture for her Barbies—a bed, a chair, a dresser—and she even tried her hand at blacksmithing horseshoes for a Barbie horse.

After deciding not to pursue art school, Cathrine embarked on a career in marketing. She worked in several creative industries, including television, music, and fashion. As a manager and buyer for the Henrik Vibskov Boutique Oslo, she travelled to Paris several times and met fascinating people.

“I liked being different and being around people who weren’t like me. That’s a huge advantage if you want to see something new or be very creative,” she says. “If you just surround yourself with people who look like you or think like you, nothing happens.”

One of these different, creative people was Barnabé Fillion, the photographer/yogi/perfumer would become the flint to Cathrine’s steel in a personal quest of identity and artistic fulfilment.

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For several years, Cathrine had been carrying the heavy question of her own identity around the world with her. She loved her Norwegian family and was enjoying life in Oslo, which she moved to in year 2000. She understood all the codes of Norwegian society. It was all she knew. And yet, there was a part of herself that seemed incomplete. While she dreaded the potential of losing her “Norwegianness,” she was increasingly curious about the roots of her Tanzanian family.

Zanzibar is a spice island. Large, rough, rectangular patches of cloves lay out to dry by the roadside. On a scorching day in 2009, Cathrine flew from mainland Tanzania into Zanzibar International Airport, and took a taxi north to a town called Nungwi. She rolled down the windows and thought back on the time she’d just spent meeting her father’s family in Dar es Salam.

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“On the African side, I didn’t know anything,” says Cathrine. “I didn’t know who they were, how they lived, or even what they looked like. It turns out, they are a hugely respected family. It was like a mirror image of [my] other side.”

The scent of the cloves tangled with sweet, pungent jungle flora and burning trash and hot dust and ocean breeze. Immediately she was inspired to create something for the African side of herself.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of contrasts, taking something that’s really different and putting it together and seeing what happens,” she says. She brings her fists together to rub the knuckles up and down against each other. “That kind of grind in between things that are very different, as it’s trying to figure out how it fits together, and then something new comes out.”

Like the contrasts of Zanzibar—jungle and beach, intense heat and fresh air, pitch darkness and bright lights—Cathrine could feel the two separate parts of her identity awakened by the introduction of these new roots. Not halves, but wholes. Her Norwegianness and her Africanness danced within her.

Home in Norway again, Cathrine decided to explore her new experience of dual identity in the form of perfume. She partnered with Barnabé Fillion for the project and invited him to join her at her family’s hytte (cabin) for a quintessential taste of Norwegian life.

“I let him experience summer in the mountains. You have this chill in the breeze, but the sun is still really warm. Everything is slowly, slowly coming to life,” she says. “He had to understand this to understand me.”

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They spent several days at the hytte. Barnabé sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by small, open vials, each containing a different essence, waiting for the right combination to inspire him. Over the next few months, he and Cathrine met five times. He brought draughts to smell, and the two of them would discuss which direction to take next, which scents to add, increase, or diminish.

The organic, sustainable ingredients they used are grown in a small French village, populated, says Cathrine, by “a mix of handcraft workers, hipsters and druids.” Using all natural ingredients requires the added ingredient of faith in production. With synthetic perfumes, it’s easier to know what scent you’ll end up with much earlier in the process. You blend oils and alcohol, and there is a level of mathematical accuracy. Working with natural perfumes means accepting that a batch of cinnamon, for example, from 2005 will most likely differ, at least slightly, from a batch harvested in 2010. Maturation will also change the way certain ingredients smell by the final stage. Catherine compares it to the art of ceramics.

“You make something and then you burn it and it comes out completely different. You have to know what you’re going for, but you can’t see it, or, in this case, smell it, before it’s done.”

She spritzes a small bottle of perfume on a small, white, paper stick and waves it in the air to dry, then passes it to me.

According to Cathrine, several people who had no idea about the origin of Norvége have commented, “It smells like our cabin in the woods.” Now, I’ve gone på hytte, too, so I worry I’ll pick up notes of stale cabin air, unwashed ski socks, or spilled beer when I inhale. But the beauty of perfume is that it answers a question other than that of literal smell. It’s the connotations that accompany the essence. It’s the artist’s interpretation, leant the weight of shared memory.

In the case of Norvége, Barnabé used coriander, lemon, and sandalwood, things that aren’t found in the fjords and mountains of Norway. Yet, the fragrance he interpreted evokes pine needles snagged in a faded rug, the smokey memory of hundreds of koselig fires in a corner stove. The shape through the window of a doe and her fawns grazing in a meadow at dawn.

When she passes me the paper stick carrying the Zanzibar fragrance, Cathrine hesitates and advises me to first lift my arm and sniff my own clothing to clear my nose for the next set of smells. “It’s a trick,” she says.

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Zanzibar is a vigorous, chasmic, intricate scent. In its development, they used Cathrine’s rich sensory memories of her trips to Tanzania, but also Barnabé’s experiences from owning a house in Morocco.

“He was interested in African spices, sandy, earthy, tobacco, leathery tones.”

These connections between scents and textures and colours, unique and surprising to someone like me, make somewhat perfect sense once spoken aloud by the artist. And it’s this perfect sense—these perfect scents—that DoubleYou presents in a pair of beautifully branded bottles.

“People always say don’t mix perfumes, but these two are made to be mixed,” she says, and passes me a third paper stick with both fragrances on it. The contrast between the two is initially strong—fresh springtime in the bright mountains grating against the ancient, dusky scents of spices in the jungle. Then, suddenly, the contrast is gone, and only a single harmony of fragrance remains. Sweet, rich, full of meaning. Cathrine’s Africanness didn’t eclipse her Norwegianness. Having honoured both sides of her heritage, she walks through life more whole.

As inspiration, Cathrine keeps a picture on her work desk of her Norwegian great-grandmother, Bertha Røsseland, a seamstress and entrepreneur. Meanwhile, Cathrine’s company name is Moshi, which is both her father’s family surname and a town in Tanzania—about the size of Bergen—at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

Today, Cathrine enjoys her work as a lecturer on trends for the School of Fashion Industry. “It sharpens what I do.” She also continues to work in communications, most recently on behalf of the Oslo Design Fair, advising the designers on brand-building, marketing, and product development. But her DoubleYou project remains a work in progress.

The tactile world of ceramics has piqued her interest. She is considering an apprenticeship that will teach her about the craft from the ground up. Whatever the next endeavour for this Norwegian muse and marketing maven, we can only guess it will be a powerful homage to beauty, and likely in a different medium from perfume.

“I think that it’s important in life not to be rigid,” she says. “There are so many options floating around. It’s kind of like picking apples from a tree. You don’t have to wait for someone to drop one on your head. You can climb the tree if you want to.”