Throughout her distinguished (and still ongoing) modeling career, Leilani Bishop embodied what many would characterize as an “all-American girl” aesthetic. Yes, she’s got the long blonde hair, the bright green eyes, and that big, broad smile. But don’t confuse her for a wide-eyed girl from America’s heartland: Leilani is an earthy, born-and-bred Hawaiian who is fiercely protective of her home state and passionate about all aspects of her life – including running her eponymous fragrance line, Leilani Bishop.
Leilani spent most of her childhood in the lush island of Kauai before being discovered by a modeling scout at the age of 15. While she’s modeled for the likes of Balenciaga and Calvin Klein and continues to work occasionally – she recently was part of a Lands End shoot with Bruce Weber – she has of late shifted her focus to the launch and management her fragrance oil business. Ahead, she talks about what differentiates a Leilani Bishop fragrance from your typical perfume, how Hawaii has helped shaped her company’s ethos, and why she’ll never disclose her favorite beach on earth.
To begin, let's talk about your experience growing up in Hawaii. How has your upbringing influenced the Leilani Bishop line?
It was a dream. I’m honestly so lucky to have grown up in such a special place that has such an amazing culture. Hawaiians and Polynesians have this incredible connection to the earth and its indigenous species – there’s just this great respect for the ocean and the land. It’s, for me, a deeply spiritual place.
It’s also a very removed place – it’s a five-hour flight from the next nearest major airport and then there’s this massive time zone difference. So, living there, you have this feeling of being out in this vast ocean, alone, where things like hurricanes and tsunamis can greatly affect your world. It teaches you just how the amazing and powerful the elements really can be.
In this sense, the line reflects a great reverence for nature. It’s also about memories – scent memories. Each of the fragrances – Lilac, Pikake, and Orange Blossom – represents a time and a place in my life; Pikake for Hawaii, Lilac for my time here on the East Coast, and Orange Blossom for my many travels.
Speaking of traveling: You had a very successful modeling career prior to the launch of your company. What inspired you to start a fragrance business?
It’s interesting because modeling is so different today than it was even ten years ago. Now, with social media, everyone is creating a brand simultaneously while they’re modeling. The more “old-school” modeling experience I went through was more like, You’ll have your success and momentum in your 20s, then in your 30s you sort of peter out and figure out the next step. In this sense, it’s a tricky industry. You see very young people become extremely wealthy and live this lavish lifestyle, traveling the world … but if they don’t plan correctly, they can burn out early.
I was always very aware of this, and it was important to me to have that “next stage” plan. I wasn’t totally sure, but I knew that I wanted to continue to work in a woman-run industry [like fashion and beauty]. I also wanted to take advantage of the fact that I grew up in this industry and had connections that I could leverage in another capacity. I wanted to create a brand that spoke to who I was and where I came from – sort of this “all-American girl” from Hawaii.
When I had my son, everything slowed down a bit. I was home in Hawaii, picking flowers like I normally do, and a friend suggested that I should start a perfume line. It was kind of this harmonious, “a-ha” moment, where I realized everything was synching together – my experiences growing up, my travels, the industry I was already a part of, and what I really wanted to do. It actually took seven years from idea to launch, so I’m not sure I would have done it had I known that upfront! [laughs]
Your fragrances are single-note fragrance oils. Can you explain why you’ve elected to formulate in this way?
When looking for perfumes, I’d always try to find something that would capture a particular flower – so, in the case of Pikake, I was looking for that specific amazing smell. But I was frustrated with a lot of the fragrances out there because they just didn’t smell the way I remembered certain flowers smelling. I wanted to create a fragrance that smelled exactly like what these flowers smell like – their aroma isn’t buried in some top, middle, or base note.
How are you making them and how are they different from your average aerosol perfume?
These are pure, single note fragrance oils. To make them, scientists are literally re-creating the scent structure of the flowers on a molecular level, but are doing so without any additives. So there are no parabens, sulfates, or preservatives. In this sense, they’re “natural.”
As for oil versus spray, it really translates to how it stays on the skin. Since my fragrances don’t have alcohol, they’re not as immediately overpowering. The French have this expression, "sillage," which roughly translates to, “The smell of a woman when she passes by you.” I wanted the opposite experience. I don’t want to have my fragrance hit you before I’ve leaned in to say “hi.” I wanted a more intimate experience where the woman is the carrier; she controls when she leans in and when the aroma hits you. Oils allow for that – and, since they don’t have alcohol, they don’t evaporate as quickly as a spray-on perfume.
Can you share some words of wisdom on how to use your fragrance oils?
I think it goes back to the molecular – what I mentioned earlier. When we put on fragrance, we don’t often think about what went into it, what it is, and how it exists on our skin. I think it’s interesting to view fragrance as a living, breathing creature. So, when you apply a fragrance to your wrists and rub them together, you are actually crushing the scent molecules. You’re not allowing them to open up. I recommend applying my oils on your pulse points; as the oil sits on them it is being heated and the scent can open up. I also like applying it on lower points of the body, like your ankles and inner thighs, so the scent of the oil is able to rise.
I couldn’t conduct this interview without asking about your favorite beach in Hawaii. Thoughts?
Hawaii is such an emotional place for me and I love it. But the age of Instagram kind of makes me sad. People with 200,000 Instagram followers go to these really sacred beaches – some of which can be dangerous to get to – and they promote them. It feels a bit like an exploitation of natural world. With that said, I can’t reveal my favorite. But I do love the beaches on the North Shore for the texture of the sand and quality of the water.