Published November 12th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
In her studio adorned with vintage furniture, crystals, dried herbs and hanging plants, Jill McKeever sits at her desk making a custom perfume for a friend’s birthday.
Beside her, colleague Tara Milleville hand wraps fragrances and other products in dark-colored tissue paper.
This is For Strange Women, a natural perfume store based in Kansas City, but serving strange people all over the world.
The primarily online brand started as a passion project by McKeever in 2009, when she decided her hobby of making natural fragrances might be a way to quit her “normal job” and combine all of her creative skills.
“It was kind of like a creative project,” McKeever said. “I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t have a business plan for it, or any idea that it would last longer than a short time. I was just trying it out … and it turned out people just had a really great reaction to it.”
For many who have only ever bought fragrance from the headache-inducing perfume counters of a mall, it sounds ridiculous to buy a $30 vial of perfume oil they’ve never smelled.
But McKeever’s artistry shines through not only creating scents, but in marketing her products.
The mystically macabre photos on the brand’s website draw customers in who have never caught even a waft of the scents, and give enough of an idea of what the fragrance is about.
The background of antique trinkets with a name like “Decadence and Debauchery” evoke the rich, dark and sexy feeling created by the scent.
Like most perfume marketing, the aesthetic is crucial.
Most important to McKeever, though, is that when the product arrives, it’s everything customers were promised.
“I do want to make it really enticing to order, and I do want visuals and everything to be beautiful, but I also have always been sure that once it arrives, it still exceeds (a customer’s) expectations of what they are,” McKeever said. “Because the scent is the most important part.”
In keeping with her aesthetic, product-first approach, McKeever doesn’t advertise. Customers find her shop by word of mouth, or by being interested in natural scents.
“It is kind of like a little secret group of people that come here and find something that’s a little bit more artisan, a little more original,” McKeever said. “We spend a lot of time putting things together and making them in a very specific way that I think they appreciate and come back for.”
Everything in For Strange Women’s products are plant derived, which has a couple of benefits.
For one, McKeever knows her products don’t have any of the chemicals found in synthetic perfumes. Traditional perfumes irritated her skin and were unpleasant to her sensitive palette, which is what led her to the craft in the first place.
“I find (natural materials) to be so much safer than synthetics, and I think that they are overall … a lot more pleasing to wear and they make me feel closer to nature, closer to memories or certain experiences.”
Natural fragrances also create a perfume that melds with a person’s own scent rather than masking it as synthetically produced fragrances tend to do.
“Because plant oils are just not as strong as lab created synthetic chemicals, your natural body chemistry does mix with it, instead of get covered up by it,” McKeever said. “It can bring out some of the really nice elements of your own scent as well, instead of just flatlining the whole thing and creating something that covers everything.”
McKeever knows the personal scent of those close to her and can help match them to complementary scents. She gestured at Milleville, standing nearby, and noted her colleague’s natural rose-like scent.
Milleville subtly sniffed a strand of her own hair – the best place to identify a musk – as McKeever went on.
To assist anyone without a (scent)sitive person like McKeever around, For Strange Women has a quiz on its website. Based on the smells they like, the connection they want to have and the season that speaks to them most, customers will be matched with a signature scent.
For Strange Women also has scent suggestions based on astrological signs for those ruled by the stars.
Or, if they’re in the area, folks can book an appointment to come and sniff around the studio.
While someone’s personal chemistry might change over time, there’s a certain comfort in returning to a scent again and again that McKeever sees from her returning customers.
“A lot of times it has more to do with psychological comfort of like, every time you go back to that scent, you feel a certain way, and it triggers a certain memory and you have a good experience from it,” McKeever said.
For customers wanting to embrace the changes of their chemistry, McKeever offers a perfume subscription with custom scents for each lunar cycle.
The lunar series is a favorite part of the business for long-time customer Shala Holzschuh. Each month the new and limited edition scent reminds her of the creativity that first drew her to the brand almost five years ago.
“It just takes you to a different place every time you get your different perfumes,” Holzschuh said. “It just kind of takes me away.”
McKeever continues the series for the same reason. It keeps her from ever reaching a stall in her craft.
“I could easily just kind of get to like a burnout point and be like, well, you know, I have a perfume line, I don’t need to keep making more,” McKeever said. “I’ve always had to keep up with that schedule, and it keeps me creative.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.