TANAÏS is the founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica and the author of the novel Bright Lines. Born Tanwi Nandini Islam, TANAÏS spent her childhood in various cities in the South and the Midwest before her family landed in New York, where she has now lived and worked for 25 years. Based in Brooklyn with a team of three, her company Hi Wildflower Botanica creates fragrances and beauty products rooted in natural ingredients. Like her writing, her products tell stories, ones inspired by places she’s lived in and visited.
I spoke with TANAÏS about balancing running her company with her writing career, her relationship with her Bengali culture, and the power of healing through colors and scents.
SHRIYA SAMAVAI: What were you like when you were younger? Where did you grow up?
TANAÏS: I was a shy, bespectacled kid and I loved to read and write my own little books. I think one of the places of refuge for me was always the reading corner in any classroom. My first consciousness of being a person of color happened very young, in a kindergarten in Alabama, where I was not only the youngest, but the only South Asian student. When I moved on to Missouri and later New York, I wore my difference with pride, something that I attribute to my folks, who always immersed my sister and me in Bengali music, dance, language. We were very connected to our community as young folks, both Bangladeshi and Bengalis from India, and I’m grateful for this strong sense of identity and self. When I moved to New York, I became more aware of fashion, fragrance and aesthetics—probably because in middle school you start to think about your personal sense of style. Fragrance was always a way for me to express my personality when I was struggling with my Muslim identity and all of the ways I wanted to dress but wasn’t allowed to. I went on to Vassar, was a Women’s Studies Major (we petitioned the department to call it Feminism and Gender Studies, but no dice), and moved to Brooklyn to be a community organizer and arts educator while going to Brooklyn College to get an MFA in Fiction.
Did you know you wanted to start a business? Did you intern or work anywhere that lead you to having your own company?
I’d wanted to start a business when I lived in New Delhi as an American India Foundation fellow back in 2006. I started a capsule fashion collection with fine silks and jerseys, and spent a lot of money that my mother invested in the company. However, it was not destined to work out and I folded soon after I returned to the States. This was a huge lesson in failure—how it hurts us but also teaches us to be sharper, stronger, and better at what we seek to do.
How did Hi Wildflower Botanica start? Did you have a business plan or did you know what sorts of products you wanted to make?
I started Hi Wildflower after I got laid off from a job at a startup, right after my 30th birthday. That was not the way I was trying to start my new decade, and I knew that I had already started to fall into a depression. I had also sold my novel, but no publication date was in sight because I had massive revisions ahead of me. I knew I’d gotten burnt by that gig and burnt out and need space to create. So, I booked a ticket to Hawaii, to immerse myself in nature and reconnect with an old college friend. This time among the flowers, ocean, lava rocks and the wondrous folks I met healed me. I came back home with a new sense of resolve and confidence. I’d learned a lot of skills at that startup, like branding, marketing and had even taken a beginner’s perfume course there—so I decided to go ahead and explore a new venture as an independent maker.
What draws you to scents? What is the process of creating a perfume?
I’ve always been drawn to perfume, and I write a lot about how perfume is a complex, cultural object, laced with so much meaning. Growing up Muslim, I did have issues expressing myself through clothing—I wasn’t allowed to wear anything above the knee or too tight—and makeup and fragrance were considered totally fine. My mother, like so many South Asian mothers, has a glorious collection of saris, perfumes and jewelry. I love adornment and expressing my personality through scent.
To craft a scent, I start with place, which is usually where I start when I write fiction. So, a lot of Hi Wildflower perfumes are inspired by places I’ve lived and traveled: Hawaii, Nairobi, Mexico, India, and, of course, Brooklyn and Bangladesh. I incorporate the ways that flowers and woods are ritualized across cultures, the historical relevance. So, for example, my Sándalo perfume has a Royal Hawaiian Sandalwood, a native tree in Hawaii that was decimated back in the 1800s because of overharvesting, which is now revived through sustainable farming practices.
You also create other cosmetics like lipstick, eyeshadow and nail polish. How did you expand into those products?
Beauty is a natural evolution from fragrance, but especially when wildflowers started as my inspiration. The phrase, Bloom on the Fringe became my tagline because I wanted to highlight how the fierce and brilliant and colorful folks I know often work and live in the margins. There is so much beauty in feeling like an outsider, as painful as it is, and I wanted to create moments of ritual and self-love. If I can create momentary happiness through color or fragrance I am here for that.
Penguin published your debut novel Bright Lines in 2015 and now you’re working on a new book. How do you manage being both an author and a business owner? How are the two connected?
Hustling is in my blood. I’m a child of immigrants and have seen my folks work in so many spaces that are seemingly disconnected—my mother has worked as a checkout person in a grocery store and as a portfolio manager at a bank—from her, I learned that we live many lives, we have many paths, and there is no one way to get closer to our work. Now, she is a Bengali medical translator, saving lives of her people across the diaspora every single day. So, for me, the natural connection between being an author and a business owner is that my business allows me the freedom to write. I have time, money, and energy that I would not have if I still worked in a traditional 9-5 capacity. The support from my literary community is beyond anything I could imagine. Some of my most loyal and loving customers are fellow writers who support my livelihood with each lipstick, perfume or candle.
As cultural products, books and beauty are ways we escape from the day-to-day grind of everyday life. My goal as a writer and as an entrepreneur is to tell stories in a way that illuminates our human condition—centered on narratives of brown, queer, femme folks.
Do you have any mentors or people you look up to?
The first person I considered a mentor was Kiese Laymon (Author of the memoir Heavy, How to Slowly Kill Yourself in America, and Long Division). He truly believed in me as a writer at the age of 20 and it certainly helped me find my way to this work. Since my youth, my mentors are really just my wondrous and talented friends, fellow novelists like Mira Jacob, Kaitlyn Greenidge and my fellow Bangladeshi-American writers like Tarfia Faizullah and Fariha Róisín teach me so much about craft, honesty, vulnerability and being a more loving person.
Did you grow up seeing yourself reflected in this industry? Is representation important to you?
I have never felt represented anywhere, not until now. Not in beauty, not in film, not in books. So, I take it upon myself to represent what I am and what I see. I’m right at the edge of millennial—whatever that means except to highlight that we are children of the Internet—and the Internet has made this possible for me, from connecting me to stores, customers, other creators.
What about the beauty industry do you hope to change?
I love how beauty is more about inclusivity than ever before. I want to be a part of that change and movement. I love that I get to create this work in a time where a mass retailer sells a brand like Fenty Beauty. Seeing our different skin tones and gender expressions in a beauty brand is really quite new, and I am grateful to be a part of that change.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their own business?
Create something that comes straight from your most imaginative self—we live in a very oversaturated world, so it’s important to distinguish your point of view and really own what you stand for. Starting a business is one of the hardest endeavors you can take on, so be prepared to fall apart and rebuild yourself, over and over again. Finding investors without connections is a challenge for most small businesses, so there is quite a lot of risk and investment that allows us to grow. I have friends who own their own businesses as well, other women who share my struggles. Connecting with them as we get on this wild entrepreneurial ride has been such a lifesaver. ♦