George Patrick Michael Bowler; fragrance specialist: b June 22, 1978, d February 15, 2023
George Bowler believed scent was the most powerful and rousing of all the senses.
No matter what our background, age, race or taste, whether it be jasmine, freshly-cut grass, pipe tobacco or burnt wood, different fragrances hold poignant meanings for us all, he once said.
“They transport us back to a particular time in our lives, reminding us of an old flame, a holiday, our childhood, or even a broken heart…”
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Fragrance was the second great love of his life.
From the simple beauty of the bluebells in his mother’s garden to the pleasure of harvesting damask roses in Bulgaria, the world of scent was an awakening to Bowler, who died on February 15.
He was working at Francis Hooper’s WORLD Beauty when he became enamoured with fragrance and its ability to evoke and awaken the senses.
At that time he was at a crossroads in his career.
His parents encouraged him to seek out some formal training in the industry and offered their support to do it, which led him to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP), the birthplace of the fragrance industry.
Nestled in the hills above the Côte d’Azur, the GIP accepted only a dozen students worldwide a year, but Bowler was adamant he would be among the chosen ones.
In the lead up to his application he studied hard training that nose to identify hundreds of scents. To further his case for a coveted spot on the course he went all out on the actual application form. Imagining the millennials applying would do so via email he instead wrote his on high quality parchment embossed with his initials, scented it with vanilla and sealed it with wax.
He was accepted and would go on to be one of only two Kiwis to graduate from the course. Bowler, who often dressed for the part in Breton stripes, was in the top two of his 2015 class – no small achievement considering many of his classmates were the offspring of those already high up in the industry.
He was enraptured by his life in France, remarking once that his surrounds in the Côte d’Azur region looked like something Cézanne would have painted.
“I always thought he’d sort of amped up his colours, but they were in fact there. I was in a freakin’ Cézanne painting,” he effused at the time.
His studies took him to the Valley of Roses in Kazanluk, Bulgaria, where he observed the harvest and distillations of the Damask Rose. He learnt from the crème de la crème of the fragrance industry.
Master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena held a tutorial at the institute which, in the perfume world, was akin to having the Pope round for tea.
He was part of a group from the school who created bespoke fragrances for the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, in honour of renowned Rococo painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Bowler made a fragrance to interpret Fragonard’s La Chemise enlevée. He was tickled that director Sofia Coppola was among those to sample it.
Bowler had said he was destined to be in the fragrance business.
His interest in perfume went back to his childhood.
As a boy he remembered his parents dressing up for an evening out and appearing in a miasma of scent.
“Before they left for an event, my mother would appear looking very glamorous in a new evening dress with her hair perfectly coiffed. She would be surrounded by a heady mist of Christian Dior’s Poison that followed her like some formidable, floral entourage,” Bowler recalled.
He used to raid his father’s fragrance cabinet for the good stuff – Aramis or Drakkar Noir. His Nana wore 4711 Cologne, a scent that would forever conjure up memories of prayers before bedtime when she looked after him and his siblings as kids.
Adopted by high school sweethearts Mary and Pat Bowler, George became a kid brother to Phoebe and Sam.
He lived a charmed childhood in the Wellington suburb of Kelburn. The Botanic Gardens were his backyard and the days he spent there mucking around with his siblings and their mates seemed endless.
At St Patrick’s College he excelled in the arts. He was remembered at his service at St Mary of the Angels as a performer, a storyteller, a creative soul whose good looks later earned him the title of ‘Gorgeous George’.
After a short time studying architecture, Bowler got jobs at Country Road and at Café Astoria. He later travelled to London where he worked for Peter Gordon at Providores in Marylebone.
Providores was known as the ‘Wellington of the North’, such was its reputation for hiring folks from the capital. Bowler was said to make the best flat white in London.
Customers, kitchen staff, front of house – they all loved him, says Gordon.
“George was a magnet for good things. He loved London. He loved the big city, and he just blossomed there.”
On his return to Aotearoa he became a recognisable face in hospitality: Anise, Matterhorn, Good Luck, Mighty Mighty. His customers and colleagues became his friends who followed him from place to place.
It was around this time Bowler agreed to become a ‘donor daddy’ for two friends.
His sons, Luca and Heath, were the first and truest loves of his life. He took them for walks, read to them, baked them cakes.
Fatherhood was a long-held dream fulfilled. He was utterly besotted with them, his close friend Sarah Deans says.
Bowler made the move into fashion, working in retail, buying, marketing and PR for Workshop, but a job at WORLD would send him off onto a career path he would walk for the rest of his life.
Francis Hooper, co-owner of WORLD, was his personal fragrance tutor.
Hooper says Bowler was a charismatic and fun character with a sharp wit and a great sense of humour.
“He was camp and irreverent in the best possible way, and was a wonderful man to be around. His natural warmth and charm made him a favourite among our clients.”
Bowler’s ambition was to have his own fragrance house and one day work with fellow students from his year in Grasse. Those 11 students sent his family a letter upon hearing of his death addressing it to their ‘class dad’.
“To see the world through George’s glasses is to see the world through the eyes of an exceptional designer,” they wrote.
After his time in France, during which he did a two-month internship with niche fragrance house Arquiste in Manhattan, Bowler returned to New Zealand, but he struggled to settle back into Wellington life. He lost his way, according to his friends.
He moved to Sydney to take up a job with Louis Vuitton where he led the fine fragrance department as a specialist adviser working with exclusive clientele.
In Sydney, he met the third love of his life, Brad, with whom he remained close friends after their relationship ended.
When the pandemic hit Bowler struggled again with his mental health. Depression and anxiety moved in and he returned home.
He always found peace staying with his parents – tattoos of a swallow on each wrist with the words ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ testified to the closeness of their relationship. Depression was his frequent visitor, and he often came home to revive and rebuild before launching forth again.
A year later he moved to Melbourne to work at Le Labo Fragrances, this time designing and tailoring perfumes to customers. But the Black Dog followed him there.
He fought that beast valiantly, a friend remarked. But for Bowler, whose mates say shined a glowing light over people’s lives, there were too many dark days.
Bowler had planned and choreographed much of his funeral service, from the music and the speakers to the pallbearers and the flowers – brilliant blue hydrangeas.
Those big beautiful blooms sat atop his coffin looking like something Cézanne would have painted.
Sources: Pat and Mary Bowler; Sarah (Kerr) Deans; Lucy Revill (The Residents).
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