Chasing the Scent of a Brooklyn Fragrance Lover

Carlos J. Powell wasn’t at the front rank of the fragrance machine. Luxury brands didn’t invite him to party at their ateliers in Venice or to go rose picking at dawn with influencers in Isparta, Turkey.

Mr. Powell, who lived in Sheepshead Bay and was known to his fans on YouTube as Brooklyn Fragrance Lover, worked as a children’s shoe salesman at Lester’s Clothing and Shoes for 35 years before he was laid off early in the pandemic. He roomed with two cats, Claude and Jean (named after Jean Claude Ellena, a master perfumer), and his fragrance collection, with bottles numbering in the thousands.

A hard worker, spiffy dresser and preternaturally talented smeller, Mr. Powell was also the ur-New Yorker, living paycheck to paycheck and doing what he loved in his off hours. Unlike some of the niche personalities who have proliferated on YouTube and TikTok, he was more passion than polish, from the earworm-ish opening jingle that he composed for his videos to his uninhibited enthusiasm for both the scents he dissected and the mixture of people he dissected them with. His guests ran the gamut from famous “noses” and career chemists to nieces and colleagues from the Lester’s shoe department.

Brooklyn Fragrance Lover’s following of almost 69,000 was a fraction of the 1.4 million subscribers to Jeremy Fragrance, the German-born Ken doll look-alike who vlogs in evening dress. Nor was Mr. Powell in league with Junior Barreiros, the upbeat Brazilian who reviews fragrances in Portuguese for more than half a million. But Mr. Powell was without rival in other ways, this five-foot-six Latino man who loved Broadway musicals and Oreo cookies.

While Mr. Powell didn’t outwardly begrudge the fragrance world’s superficial values, he didn’t adopt its algorithm-dictated priorities. Browse his channel and you’re more likely to land on a boisterous holiday song medley, with him accompanying friends on keyboard or piano, or a goofy “Niche or Designer” game night. Videos with clickbait names like “12 Sexiest Men’s Fragrances” or “What Colognes Women Can’t Resist” were rare and reluctant concessions.

‘Our World Isn’t Nice’

The video that best encapsulates Mr. Powell’s spirit may be the one chronicling his night out at the 2018 Fragrance Foundation Awards ceremony.

He was a nominee in the Consumer Choice Vlog category, for a video that he had shot the night of the previous year’s ceremony, with his dear friend and fellow vlogger Steven Gavrielatos.

A 10th grade English teacher who lives in Jersey City, Mr. Gavrielatos is the founder of the Redolessence fragrance review channel on YouTube, which has 150,000 subscribers. The two appeared in many of each other’s videos, which they filmed in batches every week, often until 1 or 2 in the morning.

When their sessions took place at Mr. Gavrielatos’s home, Mr. Powell often slept over. In an industry in which the word “collaboration” is so often a cynical marketing ploy, the pair’s version of teamwork stood apart.

The awards night video opens in Mr. Powell’s apartment, where Claude the cat and a panoply of waving cat figurines keep our hero company. He spritzes on Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute, slips on his Brooklyn baseball cap and Men’s Warehouse rental tux, and off he goes.

At the ceremony, Mr. Powell stands to the side of the red carpet. He greets Jeremy Fragrance, a fellow nominee, who seems keen to keep moving through the crowd. Mr. Powell’s face lights up when he spots the master perfumer Olivier Cresp. (Others on hand, like Jane Krakowski and Naomi Campbell, have no such effect.)

We jump cut to the moment when the winner is announced. Jeremy Fragrance ascends the stage like a dastardly Disney prince. He thanks the room, then proceeds to lower to the floor and do 10 one-armed push-ups. The crowd goes wild.

“We were both feeling a wide range of emotions,” Mr. Gavrielatos recalled. “Carlos liked Jeremy, and always had an appreciation for his hustle. But that night he was upset. He thought, ‘This is my only chance. Jeremy’s subscriber count was growing 300 percent faster than either of ours were, and he was like, ‘If we don’t win this year, we’re not winning ever.’”

Mr. Powell’s spirits had recovered by the end of the ceremony, when he was handed a bag of fragrances on his way out. His excitement got the best of him. He turned to Mr. Gavrielatos and suggested, “Want to go to your place and shoot some videos?’” It was a late night.

Mr. Powell dreamed of building up to 100,000 subscribers. His other dream was to release his own scent. He and Mr. Gavrielatos began to work on a fragrance line called Redbrook.

The brew was mixed at the Society of Scent, an indie company that favors the “slow scent” movement and is in a former button factory in the South Bronx. Overseeing the potions lab is Jean-Claude Delville, the master perfumer behind the famous scents Cabotine de Gres and Clinique Happy. The firm’s creative director and founder, Frederic Jacques, spent more than a year going back and forth with Mr. Powell and Mr. Gavrielatos, discussing ingredients and design elements, bottle shape and marketing copy. “It is essential to get not just the notes but the narrative,” he said.

There was a setback last fall, when Mr. Powell, 56, who had long struggled with diabetes and other health complications, vlogged about a stay in the hospital for low potassium levels that had sent his body into shock.

Then, last month, after asking odd questions during a conversation with Mr. Gavrielatos’s wife, he stopped answering calls. Police sent to check on Mr. Powell found him unresponsive in his apartment; paramedics could not revive him. His stepbrother, Billy Davidson, Jr., said the cause of death was thought to be a heart attack.

“It was all very sudden,” said Nina Pelton, a singer, longtime friend and the voice on the Brooklyn Fragrance Lover jingle. “The morning I heard about it, my first thought was: Thank God he was home and with his cats.”

Mr. Gavrielatos is moving ahead with their genderless potion, which is scheduled to come out on Sunday, March 21, timed for a holiday called National Fragrance Day, and perhaps more meaningfully, Mr. Powell’s birthday, March 19. Redbrook’s debut scent is called the “Underground” edition, after the two-hour commute between their homes (and their south-of-the-radar status in the world of Big Scent). The first run, of 1,000 bottles, sold out via pre-order earlier this week. A new batch is in production.

Identifying a formula that encapsulated their distinct aesthetics and tastes had been a challenge. “They had their differences: Carlos was gay and in Brooklyn, Steven is an English teacher who lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter,” Mr. Jacques said. “Carlos was more bling, Steven is more classic.”

What most excited him about the pair, he said, was their shared passion and groundedness. “Our world isn’t nice — it runs close to the fashion world, and there’s an element of attitude more than kindness,” Mr. Jacques said.

The friends were more interested in being knowledgeable than they were in being well known. The formula Mr. Jacques and his clients landed on is less of a middle ground between their individual preferences than something new altogether. It’s also lovely, brighter and sunnier than what you may imagine if you heard that its primary notes are patchouli, pink pepper, ginger and vetiver, kin to fashionable scents from D.S. and Durga and Le Labo.

Finding the Fragheads

Mr. Powell’s first passion was music. He taught himself how to play the piano, the accordion, and trumpet, according to Mr. Davidson, whose father, a wholesale shoe salesman, married Mr. Powell’s mother, Hilda, a hairdresser, when Mr. Powell was 12.

“He got really into theater as a little kid,” Mr. Davidson said. “Being a kid in the ’80s, in a heavily Italian neighborhood as a half-Dominican and half-British-Panamanian kid, he had a lot to deal with.” Mr. Powell attended summer camp at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in Delaware County, N.Y., where he met Ben Stiller, another camper, Mr. Davidson said, and told of forming a band, with Mr. Stiller playing the drums.

After completing his high school diploma at City As School, Mr. Powell landed a job at Lester’s in Coney Island (later, he moved to the Upper East Side store). As a young adult in the early 1980s, he was focused on his band, UBoy, and exploring the club scene. He also dabbled in musical theater, writing music for Off Broadway companies.

More recently, he organized the Godspell 2016 Project, a reprise production featuring the original 1978 cast of Edward B. Shallow JHS 227’s staging of “Godspell.”

Mr. Powell’s affinity for fragrance gradually tipped into an obsession. At first, he traded in the patchouli oil he had favored as a teenager for the moss- and pine-heavy scents that reigned in the ’80s. “He loved Pierre Cardin Pour Homme and the original Polo,” Mr. Gavrielatos said.

His passion was fanned further in the early 2010s, when he fell in with a group of fragheads who called themselves “The Goodsmellas.” This society of men, several of whom worked in law enforcement, went on weekend sniffing expeditions, sampling new perfumes and taking in the city’s scents. The West Village fragrance boutique MiN NY functioned as their clubhouse, the way Supreme used to be for skaters. “We were normal guys,” said Edward Libassi, who runs the YouTube channel Frunkinator.

Most of these die-hard fragrance fans had their own YouTube accounts. Mr. Powell created a Facebook group called Peace, Love, and Perfume, which became a hub for industry players and fragrance obsessives. He started his own YouTube account in 2016, and worked his way up to posting three videos a week: short, sweet and adorably enthusiastic. “He loved life, he loved to be happy, and he was very jovial but not juvenile,” Mr. Libassi said.

The GoFundMe page that Mr. Gavrielatos set up to raise money for funeral arrangements has received contributions totaling over $38,000. A stunned-looking Jeremy Fragrance posted his response on YouTube: “that’s very, very shocking and very, pretty, pretty, pretty hard-core.”

The master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, the creator of Mr. Powell’s beloved Amber Absolute by Tom Ford, delivered an Instagram eulogy to his friend: “You were not just a spritzer, you would show up at events, organize videos with perfumers to get some real info, and always bring some good mood too,” and revealed the secret formula in Mr. Powell’s honor. “That’s a big no-no, and a very big deal,” Mr. Gavrielatos said.

Donna Quinones, who works at Lester’s, recalled Mr. Powell as a playful colleague who liked dressing up in Halloween costumes, pulling pranks on his co-workers, and often trying on new scents throughout the day. “Whenever Carlos walked in, you smelled him,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Oooh what are you wearing? That smells a little citrusy,’ or, ‘that smells a little woodsy.’ Most of all he loved the comments.”

Tiff Benson, a perfume blogger and one of Mr. Powell’s best friends, remembered their regular dinners and salsa dancing sessions as a source of joy and support for Benson, who is Black. “He understood who I was as a person, and that’s super-rare especially in this industry which is so white and male and European,” she said.

One of the reasons Mr. Powell championed underdogs, Ms. Benson reasoned, was that he was one.

“A lot of the people he was talking to on his videos were people nobody had heard of,” she said. “The industry is so small, if you talked about a small brand, it could be life-changing, and he knew that.”

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