Tanja and I met at Osswald in Zürich, one day after she arrived from the US. She greeted me with a big smile. I was surprised at how tall she was and how welcome she made me feel before our interview had started. She wanted to talk about the magazine and we began to warm up while exchanging histories about New York. That was the perfect start to a unique interview that I will cherish forever.
Darling: What was it like growing up around so many fragrances and perfumes?
Tanja: In those days Parfumerie Osswald had a much different selection of lines and products – it was not a niche perfumery as it is today. We were selling Chanel, Guerlain – all those major brands that can be found at all department stores. I actually didn’t like fragrance very much when I was a child! I would play with my mother’s miniature bottles – I really enjoyed that – but it was not an interest for me. Even as a teenager I never wore perfume! My mother wore fragrance, of course, so wearing something would have been a departure for me.
Darling: When you were a teenager, did you feel the weight and responsibility of being the next successor to Parfumerie Osswald?
Tanja: When my father remodelled our location in 1978, I distinctly remember him walking me through the construction site. It was all completely empty, and he told me that one day the store would all be mine. That definitely builds a certain expectation in a child, but my taking over was a long ways away! As you may know, my father passed away when I was 17; my mother then ran the store with the help of a store manager, for many years. At one point, she said to me that she didn’t want to anymore, and that if I wanted to continue the store’s legacy, I would have to come back from New York because I definitely couldn’t run the store in Zurich from there – especially if you’re new to the business! She said, “You have to come back and work at the store, and we will take it from there”. Which is what I did: I left New York with a heavy heart, moved back to Zurich, and began working at Osswald. That was my real beginning.
Darling: What was having that kind of pressure like: you being so young and being in a place that you love, and having to leave it?
Tanja: Well it was horrible of course; it was heartbreaking. However, life is all about choices, and I was presented with a choice, and returning was the choice I made. I could have said no and stayed in New York, but then my mother would have sold the business, and it would no longer be in our family. And who knows what I would have ended up doing in New York had I stayed? In the end, I did manage to find a way to move back to New York: I opened Osswald New York! Now, thankfully, it is possible for me to run the store in Zurich from over there, and I am able to travel back to Zurich frequently.
Darling: How did the family business impact you in other ways, and what does it mean to you?
Tanja: Well, in a way it was a relief because when you know that you are destined to take over a business, you don’t really pursue another career. I think in the beginning I was trying to get away from it, which is why I went to New York, to do my own thing. I studied creative writing, which had absolutely nothing to do with the perfumery and the business (although it helped my verbal and written fluency in English, which was necessary for the business!). However after graduating, I wasn’t pushing myself to find a job in journalism or anything similar, because I felt that I knew I was going to have to take over the family business one day.
Darling: Why New York?
Tanja: Because I fell in love with the city! I was eight years old the first time I went to New York. My sister, who is my dad’s oldest daughter from his first marriage, married a Jazz musician who lived in New York. So she moved there in 1980; we visited her back in 1983, and that’s when I fell in love with New York. Later, when I graduated high school, my best friend moved to New York with her boyfriend. It just seemed that New York was where I needed to be.
Darling: So it was like a chain reaction?
Tanja: Yes absolutely, but I feel that I decided at eight years old that I was going to live in New York, with that first visit. I visited many times in-between; I just always loved the city! Many years later, I have to say that it was the best decision I’ve ever made. It is a very special place.
Darling: It is! We had the pleasure of actually going to your store in Soho. So we wanted to ask, how did you come up with this idea? I mean we know about your love for New York, but what made you open a store there?
Tanja: When I had my daughter, I realized that my life would now be very different; that I would have few chances to be myself, to go out and do things that I wanted to do. In Zurich, it seems sometimes that when you don’t have the possibility to partake in something, your chance is gone and will not come back that quickly – that you missed out. I thought that was a little depressing. I felt since I had already lived in New York before, why don’t I go back to the place where everything is possible at all times, and I can do whatever works for me. Also, my husband is American and he never quite really fell in love with Zurich. New York is where we met and where we belong. I also felt that there was no place like Osswald in New York. There are numerous fragrance stores that are special, but nobody was doing the whole “beauty store” concept like the store in Zurich. By that, I mean a more classic approach to a beauty store: somewhere that you can find everything from makeup to accessories to skincare to spa cabins. And on top of that, where you can find the most wonderful perfumes. I thought that it was a very good idea, to bring this special concept to New York.
Darling: That is very unique, because like you said, there are many places selling fragrances but not exclusive brands – or they do not have this concept of putting all kind of beauty products together. How did Osswald evolve throughout the years?
Tanja: Well, back in the 1980s the most important brands were Estée Lauder, Chanel, and Guerlain – the more mass-market brands that are found everywhere. My father was the one who came up with the idea of opening a beauty salon in the basement of the store. It is now completely renovated, very modern and luxurious, but I remember that it was such an 80s design. And another room downstairs was actually used for fashion shows! We also had bathing suits, caps, bath accessories, and stockings. Very 80s! In 1994 my mother decided to completely renovate the store and hired a prestigious Swiss architect to do it. It was an extraordinary decision for those times. I think she instinctively knew that the perfumery had to change, that it needed to become a more special and exclusive place. That was the groundwork for Osswald as it’s known today – and how it still looks today, aside from a few smaller changes.
Darling: I think she accomplished pretty much what she was looking for.
Tanja: Yes, thank you. As the store became more exclusive, my mother also started to gain interest in niche, rare perfumes. Here’s a fun story! In 1993, she read an article about a fragrance brand called Amouage. She said she wanted to visit where the brand was produced and convince them to introduce their scents at Osswald. I travelled with my mom to Oman for ten days, and we met some of the most important figures in perfumery. People there were so hospitable, they all invited us to their houses. Everybody offered us mangoes, because mangoes were seasonal and special – I think I had enough mangoes for a lifetime! We were also invited on camel rides, and rode Jeeps over large sand dunes. It was a trip I will never forget and we became the first importer of Amouage in Switzerland, a brand which we still carry. As time passed, more and more niche brands approached us and our assortment became very selective, and we reduced the number of more commonly known brands in our portfolio. It was the beginning of the concept by which we still operate today.
Darling: Okay, a very interesting story! The store is just phenomenal, it is so relaxing and the smells are exquisite. It is a completely different experience from other stores. This is what I want to put out there to my readers, that Parfumerie Osswald is so unique, and that the work you do in New York is incredible. You do special shows and events: it is a completely different place than anywhere else.
Tanja: We indeed try to bring this special understanding of Swiss hospitality to New York. In both stores, our main priority is our clientele: we want everyone who walks in to feel special. Another essential point for us is our staff. Our staff is very well-educated and well-trained. They have an enormous knowledge that is just so impressive to me! Our catalogue of fragrances is well over 3,000 individual scents, and they need to know them all. The staff also must have very high empathy and the ability to understand our customers’ needs and wishes. It is a very serious job here: we can’t pick just anybody. They need to have a certain qualification, and the ability to build and learn from each other. It really is not easy.
Darling: I can imagine.
Tanja: We have a lot of long-time employees; we have built a little family! We grew very close.
Darling: So let’s talk about some expansions. At the moment you have the perfumery on the ground floor and the Facial Spa on the lower floor. Are you planning on adding something new ?
Tanja: We will definitely add to the store! We are considering the addition of microblading to our Facial Spa offerings, for example. Of course, we always add new brands. It is a key to our success to always find the latest, most precious brands and continuously offer something new to explore at the store. This is what we are known for, and it is our passion. At this very moment we are working on the plans to enlarge and rebuild the perfumery! It’s a very important and exciting project. It’s sort of a gift to ourselves for our one-hundred year anniversary, quickly approaching in 2021. We are getting Osswald ready for the next century.
Darling: Yeah for the big party!
Tanja: Yes! There is definitely going to be a big party. I want everybody to come; we will probably have to rent a place outside of Osswald, as all our friends, partners, and customers won’t fit into the store, even if it is expanded.
Darling: It’ll be a great event. Okay so let’s get a little bit more personal now: after having heard your story, I want to know how do you do all of this and be a mother to two kids!
Tanja: Well, first of all I have a husband who helps a lot, but he also works and honestly speaking, it’s not easy. I think every working parent can relate. It’s hard when your children miss you, and I miss them like crazy when I can’t be with them. I always try to make my visits to Zurich short but efficient. I think I mastered this quite well over the years!
Darling: And how about your children? You have a boy and a girl; do they already show interest in the business?
Tanja: My daughter does, very much. She likes to smell all of the perfumes, so she loves going to work with me. She is also very into makeup and dressing up. With my son, he doesn’t really get it yet, but my instincts tell me that he might be the one who takes over the business one day. In any case, I will not make my children work for the business until they are in their thirties. They need some time to do other things and experience life on their own terms.
Darling: If you had the chance to talk to your younger self, what would you say to her?
Tanja: I would tell myself to get a law degree! It is so much more useful than creative writing, and as a woman in the industry it makes you a lot more powerful.
Darling: Being a woman in the fragrance industry – or any industry! – could make you more vulnerable. My final question: what would you say to a woman, or generally to anyone, who is trying to achieve their goals? Any advice?
Tanja: I pursue what I want to pursue and I am definitely not a fighter. So, to them I say: stay strong and be the one that lasts the longest instead of the one who fights the most viciously. Women are incredibly tough so show that toughness, but not necessarily in an aggressive manner. Don’t jump to conclusions in the moment and try to ‘claw at somebody’s throat’, but rather stay calm, gracious but persistent. I think that this is how in the end you will get what you want!
It was a pleasure meeting Tanja and an honour to have her in our magazine. We hope to see her soon and to learn more from her stories.
DARLINGYOU Magazine – October 2017 Special – Pages 26-33