Q&A: Talking Beauty and Botany With Hi Wildflower Founder Tanwi Nandini Islam

Wildflowers. They’re sweet alyssum, they’re art, and they’re also a state of mind.

I didn’t fully understand the latter until I met my friend Tanwi Nandini Islam, the Brooklyn-based writer whose debut novel, Bright Lines, will be published by Penguin in August 2015. We first met at VONA’s weeklong conference for writers of color last year. It was there in Berkeley that we connected not only on the lifelong haul of making words land in an appealing line but also on all things horticulture and perfumery.

And on our shared love for old-school botanical illustrations!

From Hi Wildflower’s Brooklyn library: a volume of Ernst Haeckel’s iconic botanical illustrations.

Tanwi is the founder of botanica and magazine Hi Wildflower. (You might recall our plant/fashion blogging collaboration…) Inspired by the uninhibited spirit of free-growing blooms, Hi Wildflower launched its collection of fragrances, skincare, jewelry and candles just this past August.

Products are handcrafted in the apothecary’s Brooklyn HQ, and Tanwi’s sustainably and ethically sourced formulations are guided by an international perspective. In the store you’ll find fragrances like Hanalei — a spicy/jasmine/pink pepper dream — alongside a body oil invigorated by cardamom/geranium/vetiver, and an Herbal Steam medley of transporting botanicals.

From left: West Indies perfume oil, the Triad of Rose facial serum, and Chants, the gorgeous, magnetic custom-made perfume Tanwi created for me.

Seed paper comes included with orders. (Read on for what flowers to expect…)

Needless to say I went — y’know — wild for Tanwi’s products, the Triad of Rose facial serum (which turns skin into pure silk), the herbaceous, ocean-and-bay-rum-spiked West Indies perfume oil, and the Wildflower + Woods cleansing nectar in particular. And then there was the custom scent Tanwi created for me — which has rocked my entire world.

I wear it almost every day: Called Chants (!), this fragrance is a work of art for your pulse points, a combination of tobacco, oud, sexy, fleshy florals (tuberose, osmanthus, neroli, oh baby) and fossilized amber pierced through the heart with spearmint. It is exactly how I’ve always wanted to smell.

Brooklyn-based author and Hi Wildflower founder Tanwi Nandini Islam.

We caught up with Tanwi to learn more — about capturing “a lei in a bottle,” her favorite flowers and her own go-to scents, and how Johnny Osbourne fits into all of it…

What motivated you to start Hi Wildflower Magazine and Hi Wildflower Botanica?

I’ve always been drawn to wildflowers. They’re a muse for me. I wanted to create a space that interlaced my love of nature with my work as a writer, so Hi Wildflower Magazine was born. That was the first incarnation of the brand, part street style, part interviews and essays that focused on culture, feminism and flowers.

I always knew that I wanted to segue into scent, though. It’s like creating a whole universe, a culture of things that thrive on the fringes but bring joy, color and complexity to the world. Now, as I’ve been focusing on Hi Wildflower Botanica, the magazine is being refocused, and I hope to make their connection stronger as I build the brand.

Fragrance selections also include solid perfume inside boxes handcrafted out of metal, beads and mirrors in the traditional ‘lac’ ware tradition by artisans in Rajasthan, India.

What places and people have inspired your formulations?

Ah, I work late into the night, for everything. It’s when all is quiet, and the good ideas come. I think the scent Lovers Rock is a good example of how indulgent and playful making perfumes is — the basic truth is that perfume allows the wearer a certain evocation, of memory, of a vibe. And Lovers Rock is evocative of the Johnny Osbourne records my boyfriend and I listen to, and simultaneously recalls the scent I associate with one of my oldest friends. Tobacco pipe, clove, black pepper — all wrapped into sweet notes of tonka, vanilla — for a mellow, spicy, grounding scent.

Another perfume, Hanalei, is this tropical, spicy floral that recalls these long drives I’d take from Hanalei to Waimea Canyon when I stayed in Kauai. Hawaii truly feels as though you’re on the edge of the world, with verdant hills looming over you on one side, the great Pacific on the other. How to capture the scent of a lei in a bottle? Strands of pikake and ylang ylang that punctuate a welcome, or a goodbye. That’s what I wanted to capture with Hanalei, that spirit of Aloha when you wear the scent.

What are your favorite flowers? 

Oh, I’m a tropical woman at heart — give me hibiscus to stare at any day of the week. I love jasmine, geranium, the tiny blossoms of wax. Garlands of marigold, carnation and rose take me to South Asia, and make me very happy. Black-eyed susans and thistles, too.

Ayurveda plays a role in your formulations. In what ways?  

When I lived in New Delhi six years ago, I was deeply mired in reading everything I could about Ayurveda, as well as taking courses to study the three doshas, Vata, Pitta, Kapha. I’m a Vata-Pitta, so a blend of air-fire, creative-passionate. In terms of food, there are certain foods that help maintain a corporeal balance — the same applies for our skin. There’s no dominant regiment; we have our individual needs that must be met. In that same vein, the skincare collections of Hi Wildflower Botanica hold a “wildflower” at their center, a sort of parallel to these doshas — Rose, Chamomile, Wildflower + Woods, Jasmine — and lets it address different skin types’ needs.

What are your go-to scents?

I’m not a purist for the all-natural, I admit that whole-heartedly. It’s just not realistic for me, since I love the edge where the beautiful meets the gritty, much like the way I feel about New York! For naturals, I love Mandy Aftel’s Honey Blossom, Providence Perfume’s Hindu Honeysuckle.

My go-to: I love Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanilla. I recently fell in love with Jasmin Reve Au Pays de la Fleur d’Oranger. Of course, there’s Santal de Mysore by Lutens — I love redolent, spicy, seductive, oriental (I hate using the term, but c’est la vie in the land of perfumes).

Why do you make natural perfumes?

I ask myself this, and for now it’s because: a.) I love using raw, real botanical materials in all of their beauty. b.) They must be re-applied over several hours, and it becomes a sort of ritual. I love rituals. I love the meditative dab and rub of a natural. Synthetics have components that can last 200 hours! There’s no running from the scent.

With a natural, the ritual of reapplying is as important as the scent. You run toward it, dance with it, lay with it. That sort of thing. I have this character in me that becomes enlivened with perfume, I love that version of myself when I interact with others, go to a party, embrace my boyfriend. Scent is fantasy, it’s fun — and it is not that serious!

What’s so great about wildflowers? 

California is probably the land of the most gorgeous wildflowers. When I was traveling down the Central Coast with my partner, we stayed in Big Sur, explored Carmel. On the beach side were huge stone crags, perfect for sitting on. From every crack burst forth succulents, California poppies. Wildflowers are wild, adventurous, strange and native. They persevere. They grow everywhere.

Seed paper comes included with orders. What flowers are we planting here?

These are made by Greenfield Paper, and include: sweet alyssum, catchfly, Siberian wallflower, black-eyed Susan, baby blue eyes.

Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam (August 2015, Penguin)

BRIGHT LINES, Tanwi Nandini Islam’s debut novel, will be published in August 2015 by Penguin.

Can you tell us a bit about your book, and how it influenced Hi Wildflower? 

I’ve been working on my novel, Bright Lines (Penguin, 2015), for the last eight years, and one of the main characters, Anwar, owns an apothecary on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. I’ve been going to those Muslim fragrance oil shops for years, and it’s where I first got into this library of attars (traditional flowers steeped in sandalwood oil). A lot of folks will buy these oils from a vendor off the street, your Egyptian musks and Frankincense oils. Many of them smell absolutely delicious. But all of my fiction and nonfiction deals with people who embark of creative hustles, the sort that take them out of the office, the mundane.

I love writing about artists, musicians, perfumers, designers of all stripes — and it made sense to me to reincarnate the research behind Bright Lines into a project that would lend itself to a deeper exploration of those themes. I’m drawing a connective thread between the different things I make, and I hope that Hi Wildflower will render some wisdom for my novel-in-progress, The Rivers. This is a progression, an evolution. I never seem to take the straightforward route in life, and Hi Wildflower is a part of my story. I meander. I wonder. I revel and sulk. And then I start again.