Tell us a bit about Handsome London and how the brand began.
Rich: We started working on the brand about two years ago. Before Handsome London, we’d each experimented with various start-up projects, some of which had got traction, some which hadn’t. As we were both living in Shoreditch and working for online companies, we knew we wanted to do something different, something that wasn’t just another dating app. We wanted to create something physical.
Originally, we’d planned to produce a hand cream brand. That was actually where the name ‘Handsome’ came from. But after some initial research we realised that development times for those products can take years.
Jason: We were put in touch with fragrance specialist Sarah McCartney, the owner of west London perfumery 4160 Tuesdays. We chatted about the idea of a fragrance brand, came up with a brief focussed on the concept of ‘London’ and worked in collaboration with Sarah to make it a reality.
Why did you choose to create scents inspired by London?
R: Funnily enough, neither of us are from London originally. We’re both from Celtic nations, Jason is Irish and I’m Welsh. But having lived here collectively for 18 years, we have a shared love for London. I especially have been known to get quite defensive of it on occasion.
J: Rich will genuinely watch the London Olympics Opening Ceremony once a month. I’ll often hear the music when I come home from work! [Laughs]
A big inspiration of ours was lifestyle brand, Saturdays NYC. We loved that their products really embodied the essence of New York but realised there weren’t many similar skincare brands with a London influence. Or at least the gritty, concrete London that we love.
There weren’t many similar skincare brands with a London influence. Or at least the gritty, concrete London that we love.
R: We first started by pinpointing our favourite London locations. Redchurch St. has always been a special place to us. We would spend almost every Sunday on that street, wandering up and down. Our fragrance Redchurch is inspired by those Sunday mornings.
J: During our time in London, the street has completely transformed. You now have one end of Redchurch Street which feels like the well-groomed West Village, whilst the other end has managed to hold on to its East End roots.
R: During the concept phase, we would walk up and down the street with Sarah, taking photos of the area and scribbling down what we could see and smell. It was these notes that helped us craft the final scent – cardamom from Indian restaurant Dishoom, apples from Albion cafe, green tea from T2 and woody scents from the Owl & Pussycat pub.
Did you go through a similar process for your other scent, Master Jojo?
R: Yeah, but for this fragrance we wanted to create something totally different. If Redchurch was a lazy Sunday morning, Master Jojo was a dirty, sexy Saturday night.
J: It’s heavily inspired by our memories of nights out at Madame Jojo’s before it closed down in 2014. It was one of the many Soho gay bars that was disappearing at the time, and we wanted to pay homage to it.
R: The scent is really intense and powerful. It’s made completely of base notes – patchouli and sandalwood. People seem to either love it or hate it.
It’s interesting that each scent reflects a particular point in your lives. Was that a conscious decision?
J: Definitely. Master Jojo reminds me of being a hedonistic 24 year old, whilst Redchurch sums up the past few years – a somewhat more sedate time of my life.
R: That’s the powerful thing about our scent, it can evoke really strong memories.
J: Before Rich and I got together, he used to wear a really nasty scent. It reminds me so much of him every time I smell it, even if it was fucking vile! [Laughs]
Can you tell us a bit about the packaging too?
J: One of the problems we found with the creative process was distancing ourselves and looking at our challenges objectively. This was especially apparent when we came to designing the packaging. If it was down to me, our branding would have looked like Cath Kidston! [Laughs]
R: We created the packaging in parallel with the fragrances. We wanted something that was very simplistic and timeless but embodied the urban, concrete element of east London we loved.
J: Rough around the edges, literally.
One of the problems we found with the creative process was distancing ourselves and looking at our challenges objectively.
What do you enjoy most about running your own business?
R: We’ve both always enjoyed working on side projects. When I was younger I used to drink and smoke heavily. One morning I woke up and realised I was destroying my body and decided to give up. It led me to launch a healthy eating blog about my experiences in 2012. I used to joke that I went from being a binge drinker to binge thinker.
J: He literally turned into Gwyneth Paltrow overnight. [Laughs]
R: The pleasure I get from doing Handsome London or any of these previous projects is far greater than any I would receive from my day job. It’s an addictive process.
What brought you to London?
R: Originally I didn’t want to live in London at all. I thought it was filthy and disgusting and overwhelming. I moved here in 2007 without and job and lived in a hostel for a while. I was there for a week interviewing for jobs before scoring my first gig working in radio. From there on in, I was hooked.
J: I actually tried to move to London on three separate occasions. Each time I arrived with a huge fuck-off suitcase only to return home almost immediately with my tail between my legs. On the third attempt, I moved in with a group of people who I got on really well with. I think sometimes you just need one person in a huge city like London to connect with. After that, I was like, ‘this is it, I’m here forever.’
R: And then we lived in a house share together…
J: But we weren’t together.
Oh right, is that where you guys met?
R: Yeah, although funnily enough, I was actually seeing another guy at the time.
J: I was essentially the loser who was in love with his gay housemate! When I moved to London I still wasn’t out and technically still ‘straight’ [Laughs]. I vividly remember chatting with a friend about our celebrity crushes, shortly after I’d moved in. I claimed mine was Rachel Bilson, from The O.C. What I didn’t realise is that your average straight guy would have no idea who Rachel Bilson was, unless they were regularly reading Grazia (like I was!)
You mentioned about the closure of Madame Jojo’s earlier. How have you seen the gay communities change since being in London? How has it affected you?
J: Over the past two years, the London gay scene – especially in the east – has changed dramatically. It’s caused communities to become much more blended, which obviously has both positive and negative implications.
I do think there is still a very real need for gay venues though. I personally still don’t feel comfortable walking down our street holding hands or totally at ease in some straight bars. That in itself is really unfortunate.
R: As a community, we’ve definitely made a lot of progress. However I still haven’t seen a huge shift in attitudes of the wider population. Since gay marriage was legalised in the UK, I think a lot of straight people assume that gays are now completely accepted. But that isn’t the case at all. Whenever we’re in public together, we still have to subconsciously assess the situation and adjust our behaviour to suit.
Since gay marriage was legalised in the UK, I think a lot of straight people assume that gays are now completely accepted. But that isn’t the case at all.
How connected do you feel to the gay community?
J: I never feel consciously part of a community, in all honesty. It’s become so diverse – for the better, of course – but my sense of disconnect may be in part due to how much it’s evolved.
R: I agree. My experience of the gay community was using Gaydar, going on dates and drunken nights out. Handsome London has been an interesting platform for us. It’s allowed us to meet some really cool gay guys, away from the typical gay bar setting. It’s really great to form these connections and friendships through a different avenue completely.
What’s next for you guys?
J: Our goal for next year is to design a beautiful online sampling experience. There’s a lot of work to do to get to that point but that’s the exciting part.
We’d certainly like to still be working on Handsome London in the next few years. The size isn’t a big factor for us. If it’s global and really successful then great but as long as it’s something we really enjoying, that’s the main thing.