written by Nina Slesinger

At the Clue Perfumery studio, there are surprisingly few smells. Inside the light-filled space, there is instead plenty to see. Overlooking Wicker Park’s buzzing six corners, the blue line shakes past every few minutes. There are crisp shelves of small amber bottles, drawers of labeled tinctures, small laboratory appliances, scales, a work desk and computer. The light-streaked studio feels romantic and efficient, like if a wizard got a job as a lab tech.

The three different perfume bottles spread out over a white table.
Black and white film image of Clue branding on a piece of paper.

Image by Wil Driscoll (left) and Nina (right)

Clue was born out of pandemic curiosity. Many of us explored food, Laura Oberwetter studied smells. After taking a class at The Institute of Art and Olfaction, she started playing around with materials and developing scents. She shared her work with her longtime best friend, the designer Caleb Vanden Boom, and he came on board to develop a visual language. The result is Clue Perfumery, an eccentric and deservedly buzzy line of three excellent and unusual (and often sold-out) perfumes.

Clue is a rare thing, or, in fact, many rare things: fragrances are hand-mixed, the branding is blissfully free of old-school eroticism and exoticism, and the source materials are not the fields of Southern France, but the forests of Wisconsin and other wholeheartedly Midwestern signifiers.

At the studio, Laura begins my tour with a gesture toward her “organ,” essentially a perfumer’s toolbox. I ask, is there a standard organ? She tells me no, and with awe, explains that there is no set vocabulary in the language of fragrance. Some perfumers have hundreds of vials of materials, some restrict themselves to a tight 200 or so, retiring one material when a new one is introduced.

I’m learning from Laura that to be a perfumer is to be an enthusiast for everything else besides perfume. She shows me the black desk lamp, a hand-me-down from her dad, and then grabs a bottle of immortelle from her organ, offering me a sniff. She asks if I notice that the flower smells hot, and, yes, I do! The lamp sat on the desk at her old job–a job she’s quit since Clue took off–and she became obsessed with recreating the scent of the overheated light bulb. She found that immortelle seemed to possess the sensation of heat and dust, and made it a central note in Warm Bulb, a cozy fragrance that is somehow the spitting sensual image of its name. Last week, I threw on a sweater and felt immediately nostalgic, but couldn’t quite place what for. I realized I’d worn Warm Bulb the week prior and the scent lingered. It’s warming and familiar.

An image of a clean desk with shelves full of ingredients for scents.
An image of the Clue Perfumery studio space filled with shelves of viles.
Clue studio desk with branding materials on the table.

The other scents in Clue’s repertoire are just as nostalgic and strange. “You know when you were a kid on the playground, kids would tell you that there was beaver anus in vanilla ice cream?” Laura asks me. I unfortunately have to admit that no, that was not in the repertoire of rumors at my elementary school. Whatever: she explains that what these kids were teasing each other about was technically true. Castoreum, an ingredient derived from beaver castor sacs, was occasionally (but no longer) used to amp up the musky, creamy flavor in some vanilla ice creams; there's a traditional Swedish schnapps flavor that translates to “beaver shout.”

Laura used castoreum in her first fragrance, With The Candlestick, to evoke the hint of fear she felt as a child in church. The other notes build a heady cathedral: communion wine, gooey wax, and smoke. I grew up attending mass every Sunday, and with this scent I was right there in the pews. The third scent in their debut trio, Morel Map, is a green fragrance crafted in tribute to the annual hunt through Midwestern forests for prize mushrooms. It took me straight back to a summer hike in Kettle Moraine, the trail surrounded by neon orange chanterelles.

It’s so easy to get carried away by fragrances that claim to “transport” you, whether to the gardens of the Mediterranean, or a market in Marrakech, or a sailboat in Polynesia. Clue’s scents, on the other hand, stay close to home. They turn me inward, to my own memories and personal associations.

“There’s gravity in committing to a scent,” Laura says. It’s part of why she started Clue. What do you feel? And say about yourself? What do you want to remember? It's less about the notes than the vibe, which Laura argues is underestimated. She says "I know that it's impossible to pin down, and I know it seems so ambiguous, but if you ask what vibes you want in a scent, that's a much easier way to get to the core of the answer."

An image of the perfume bottle for "With Candlestick" against a smokey red background.
Image of pefume bottle with smoking candlestick on top of it.

Photo by Steven John Miner (left) and Wil Driscoll (right)

Perfume is also an object, and Caleb Vanden Boom has designed equally evocative counterparts for Laura’s creations. When we met at the studio, he was easygoing and lackadaisical. He seems to find inspiration everywhere, like he’s turning over stones and looking for worms underneath. I had stacked my meeting with them in between errands and brought an old Kodak Brownie camera with me; I’d been buying new film and thought I might as well take some photos at the studio on the antique toy. Caleb gravitated toward the camera and experimented as we talked. I couldn’t help but notice he smelled the inside of the camera when we opened it to change the film.

Clue’s branding is trendy, with knobby caps on the glass bottles and graphic lettering, but it’s also playful, with doodles and synesthetic color swatches for each of the three fragrances. The silhouette of the bottle is like a skeleton keyhole, conjuring storybook magic and intrigue. Caleb noted that many perfume brands aim for neutrality, the design can be an afterthought. With Clue, he wanted the design to be a companion to the scents, with visual interest, a sense of play, and no stuffiness. Indeed, the bottles are fun to hold and look at, joyful little sculptures.

Caleb also recently quit his day job and now works on Clue and freelance projects full-time. At the agencies he used to work for, he would design meticulous brand identities and guidelines, and then hand them off to the brand, never to be touched again. With Clue, he can stay with the identity he crafted, breaking the rules he wants to break, letting it live and breathe and age.

Laura and Caleb’s decade-plus friendship has yielded a trusting creative and business partnership. They appreciate the same things and believe deeply in each other’s talent. I was struck by their lack of possessiveness over their respective work, despite the delineation of their distinct roles. There’s an easy and generative dynamic between them.

A black and white film image of Laura and Caleb standing in their office. Laura stands with her hands in front of her, Caleb with his hands behind.
An image of a perfume bottle layered over the studio space. A window is open, letting in light.

Before I left the still-bright studio to step back into the bustling street below, they shared with me the first tests for their fourth fragrance. It's whimsical and surprising, and I promised I would keep it that way–a surprise. As I smelled the materials and they described their vision, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s all delightful: delightful to hear them talk about what they are passionate about, delightful to see their unusual references, delightful to witness them with each other, delightful to walk home and smell my wrist. For an industry awash with pretense and marketing, they’ve found a purely joyful expression of both art and brand.