It wasn't until I first rolled streaks of Hi Wildflower's Sándalo perfume oil up and down my inner arms, at the curve where my upper jaw meets my neck, and in a long straight line down from the spot in between my collarbones to several inches below, that I realized I now knew what I had always been meant to smell like: smoke and salt, air and embers. Like I've just emerged from the ocean after running in to put out the fire on me, in me, of me. Despite the smoke and salt, or maybe because of it, Sándalo is a clean scent, vaguely powdery; it's the smell of destruction but also rebirth, of new beginnings.
It's also the newest scent in Hi Wildflower's perfume collection, and as I sat with company founder, Tanwi Nandini Islam, trying on the different scents and admiring the array of jewel-toned, super-saturated lipsticks and nail polishes she'd arranged in front of me, she explained to me the scent's origin:
I wanted to kind of bring alive the royal Hawaiian sandalwood groves that grow on the Big Island, which is rapidly forming itself because the volcanoes are spitting out magma into the ocean, and that's hardening and cooling into an island. I wanted to evoke that oceanic sandalwood. I want to feel like there's sandalwood and wind and ash in your hair. Hawaii is such a far-flung place that has such a colonial relationship to the mainland, and the nature there is brimming with complete otherworldliness.
This type of boldness serves as a strong stance against any demands that women make themselves—digestible for public consumption by all smelling or looking a certain way—and this resistance is a through-line in all of the Hi Wildflower beauty products. Islam explained to me the mentality behind choosing such bold, super-saturated hues for the lipsticks and nail polishes:
I'm really into high pigment. We've been in this kind of millennial pink, mauve zone for a while, and, of course with any trend, it's like, what's the next thing? I think hot pinks and reds and really bold colors are something that I'm drawn to, just because I'm not interested in muting myself or washing myself out or blending into the scenery. I want people to feel emboldened by these colors, to kind of express that side of themselves that's a little more about drawing attention because I think that's what women need to be doing. All people need to be feeling proud about that piece of adornment that they're wearing.
This doesn't mean that Islam works only in brights or dark shades, but it does mean that she puts a high level of thought into what it means to present yourself to the world, continuing:
I do have some neutrals, but this concept of neutral is loaded with so much. What is neutral? What is nude? I wanted to have nudes and neutrals that work with a variety of people's skin tones.... [but] I'm not into minimalism. The brand is not ever gonna do that. I'm more like some of the young kids that are into color, into being born this way, wild, their own thing. That appeals to me much more.
That Islam's conscientious approach to beauty, her awareness that what most beauty companies define as "nude" is a particularly offensive four-letter word for women of color, is a testament to the fact that so many brands have long ignored the needs and wants of people of color. Though the industry is changing incrementally, it still has a long way to go, but Islam's brand is certainly pushing it in the right direction with its embrace of the kind of hues that can be worn by all skin tones. It's an intelligent, thoughtful approach to beauty, and is perhaps reflective of the fact that Hi Wildflower is something of an ancillary career path for Islam, who is also an acclaimed writer. (If you haven't read her debut novel, Bright Lines, do so!)Photo by Gabriela Bhaskar, via Hi Wildflower
On the connection between her two, seemingly disparate professional paths, Islam explained that "creating things is a part of my nature," but acknowledged that part of the reason she needed to find something of her own to supplement her writing was because of the challenges of a creative career. She said:
Really at the heart of this was feeling like someone who is always unemployable, which sounds really weird because I have a good education and I have experience. But if you work in nonprofit for 10 years, trying to get a job at a media company or in branding is impossible. It's actually not possible. People are like, "Well you've never done this stuff before, so why do you feel like you could do it now?" All this life experience was kind of invalid when I was trying to find work. So I was like, "I've got to make my own work. I have to make my own fucking business and my own branding and my own thing." This is all me, I've not hired anyone to brand it. I've not hired anyone to swatch the colors. I make all the perfume. It's very much because I couldn't get a job at Tom Ford or at a media company or whatever. It wasn't happening. It was like, "I had to make my own life."
Being in control at this level means that all the images of Hi Wildflower are well-aligned with Islam's sensibility, leading to things like what she unofficially calls her "beauty and brains campaign," in which some of her favorite writers and artists are seen wearing her lipsticks. Islam explained:
Photo by Gabriela Bhaskar, via Hi Wildflower
All the models in the campaign are artists and writers who I love and respect for what they do. Just seeing them in their space and putting color on their lip, and being like, "This person's an author, but this is a whole other character we're creating from a person who has devoted their life to writing fiction." To me, that is a way to kind of cross-breed and cross-pollinate this passion of mine, and bring it to the community that I feel like has made me the artist and the writer that I am. If you look on my Instagram or see the people who are purchasing, so many of them are writers, posting photos of themselves being like, "I have 60 deadlines, but I'm wearing my perfect red lip." They're not even getting this [for free], they're buying it. It's not like I'm like, "Here, put it on Instagram, here's a lipstick" or whatever. They've been looking for something that supports someone who's in their world, but also making them feel like a million bucks, which to me, it's a grind out there. It's very easy to feel unpretty and uncool when you're just sitting in front of a computer all day.
And while that post-10-hours-in-front-of-a-computer feeling of drabness is all too familiar for me, ever since I've started swiping on the deathly deep Black Datura (its dark purple hue is inspired by a poisonous nightshade blossom) before going out at night or adorning my finger nails with the inky, shimmery Midnight at Joshua Tree, I've noticed a different feeling, a new consciousness of the way my lips and hands are moving through space; it's a consciousness I like. It reminds me of the way in which the effort I put into my work can be translated into the way I treat myself, that I can care for and celebrate who I am as much as what I do. Catching flashes of myself can come as a surprise, the vivid colors momentarily stun and delight; they make me pause, the ever-present smell of Sándalo makes me breathe deep, centering myself around myself. It's beauty as meditation, yes, but also liberation and exploration. And it's beautiful.
Hi Wildflower perfumes, nail lacquers, and matte lipsticks can be found here.Photo by Gabriela Bhaskar, via Hi Wildflower