We caught up with Wendy Gray, half of the mother-and-daughter duo behind NorthburN – the North’s first and only fragrance house
With a factory based in Cramlington, a shop in Whitley Bay and already in negotiations to open up their second store in the North East, it’s safe to say that mother and daughter duo Wendy and Laura have made their dreams of creating a home fragrance brand that blends style, luxury and quality a reality. And then some.
That achievement becomes all the more impressive when you find out that, just five years ago – when NorthburN was still very much in its infancy as a business – Wendy was diagnosed with breast cancer.Visit NorthburN
Incredibly, the pair have succeeded in establishing themselves as the owners of the North’s first and only fragrance house. Having developed the business from Wendy’s kitchen table, they still create each and every one of their fragrances themselves – despite the fact that they’re now churning out thousands of eau de parfums, candles, wax melts, diffusers and bath bombs every month to satisfy the ever-growing demand for their popular products. And hot on the heels of their recent Home Fragrance Retailer of the Year award win, there looks to be no signs of slowing down just yet.
We caught up with Wendy to find out what NorthburN is all about, how fragrances can conjure feelings, how difficult it was to develop a successful business whilst undergoing cancer treatment, and why we should all be burning candles in the garden… (carefully, obvs).
What’s NorthburN all about?
We’re a fragrance house, so we create our own fragrances and then turn them into products for your home. That’s our USP, really, as we’re the only fragrance house in the North. Candle companies tend to use off-the-shelf fragrances, whereas we blend all our own fragrances and work with a huge fragrance manufacturer, who then creates our oils for us in bulk. That means the scents we use in our products are very unique.
Tell us about your creative process.
Every fragrance starts with a feeling. We want to conjure memories with our products.
We created fragrance we’ve just launched – Sicilian Bergamot – during the first lockdown, when we had that mini-heatwave. We’d taken our fragrance library home and were sitting in the conservatory, playing around with scents to try and create some escapism. We wanted something really fresh, as though we were just about to go out for drinks with the girls in the afternoon! So it’s always been about recreating those feelings and memories through our fragrances – and never more so than when we couldn’t actually experience them.
How long does it typically take to create a fragrance?
It varies. The fragrance I’m working on at the moment has been a work-in-progress for five years now!
When I was having treatment for breast cancer, back in 2015, I lost my sense of smell – which was obviously a bit of a catastrophe, having a fragrance company! It came back randomly on a night out – it was actually my first night out in Newcastle again. We were on Grey Street and it just came back all at once. So I whipped my iPhone out and was jotting down all the notes I could smell!
I started developing it and the perfume is just about there now. Hopefully it’ll come out later this year. I’ve said I wouldn’t launch it until we could have a proper party! So that’s going to be called ‘Grey Street’.
How did you first get into the world of fragrances?
I had a beauty business, but it got to the point where I was working from about 9am to 9pm, because I was so busy. I had to operate a closed book because I didn’t have the capacity to take on new clients. So I started thinking: ok, how am I going to grow the business? And the answer was through products. I thought candles would be a good place to start because they looked easy to make… it took me about two years to figure out how to make a really good candle!
I launched NorthburN in November 2013 with five blends. I was expecting to sell the odd one to my beauty clients, but it really took off! Then Laura wanted to join the business so, by the beginning of 2014, I was in the treatment room and she was developing NorthburN further.
And that overlapped with your cancer journey?
Yes. At the end of 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I had to make the decision to close my beauty business. During my treatment, Laura and I decided we were going to concentrate entirely on NorthburN – so that’s what we did
I had an operation, chemo and then radiotherapy. The day after my last radiotherapy session, Laura and I drove around looking for units for the business because we’d just landed our first big contract. When we got the call, I was actually at home, in my pyjamas, with not a hair on my head! But we found ourselves a unit, moved in within two weeks and completed our first big batch shortly after that.
You’re a mother and daughter team – what’s it like working within the family?
We have so much fun! We’ve always had a really good relationship. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then there’s a heightened word exchanged! But we have such a laugh, and we both have the same vision for NorthburN, so it’s great.
You’d imagine that it could sometimes be quite difficult to agree on fragrances because, obviously, there’s an age difference! But surprisingly, nine times out of 10, we both agree on the final fragrance. Laura’s favourite might not necessarily be the same as mine, but we couldn’t have something in our collection if one of us really doesn’t ‘get it’, because our collections are very personal to us.
You’ve recently won Home Fragrance Retailer of the Year at the North England Prestige Awards 2020/2021. How does it feel, getting that kind of recognition?
It feels like all our hard work is starting to pay off. We’re starting to feel that shift in the business. We’ve gone from a very small company that literally started on the kitchen table, to having a factory, a shop, and we’re in negotiations to open our second shop, so it’s incredible.
We always laugh because we don’t tend to think about it too much, but every now and again you look around and think: can you remember when we used to order 250ml of that oil? And now we’re ordering 25 litres! We used to pay 10kg of wax and it would last us a month – now we buy a ton. Looking back, it’s crazy how far we’ve come!
What’s NorthburN passionate about, as a brand?
That we’re inclusive. Our thinking is that you don’t have to be rich to smell amazing or have a home that smells amazing. We’re also passionate about giving each and every one of our customers the NorthburN experience, regardless of how much they buy. So whether you come in and spend £300, or buy one packet of wax melts, we want you to leave the shop feeling a million dollars – that we’ve taken the time to speak with you, get an idea of exactly what fragrance you want and the reason you want it, and let you go away knowing how best to use your product, feeling happy and confident.
Everyone deserves that little bit of luxury. And everything’s better in life if it smells amazing!
Fragrances change with the seasons. What home fragrances should we be looking for as we head into Summer?
You’re wanting something that little bit fresher. We’ve got some complex citric fragrances which are amazing – like Mandarin & Bergamot. As well as those two top notes, that fragrance has jasmine, sandalwood and amber, which makes the overall scent really rounded. A lot of citric fragrances can be quite sharp, whereas this one is nice and smooth.
A lot of us are focusing on making our outdoor spaces fabulous at the moment. Can you use NorthuburN’s fragrances outside, too?
Definitely! I’ve always burned a candle outside when we’ve been eating or having drinks in the garden. What I didn’t realise was that nobody else did! The assumption is that the fragrance is just going to disappear and get lost in the air, but you’d be amazed. If you think about a fragrance inside your home, it’s competing with lots of other scents. Take it outside and you’ve got a clear background note, so you can smell more of its layers. Certain fragrances smell insane when you’re sitting outside – Green Orange & Thyme is one of them. That’s another citric fragrance, but it’s also quite woody and masculine as there’s cardamom and black pepper in there.
What’s the best fragrance for a date night at home?
Mine would be No.1 in the Hotel Collection, Black Truffle & Cassis. It’s rich, sexy, sophisticated and beautiful. Even with just have a couple of tealights, it would fill your whole room.
When you go out and about in the North East, where are you most likely to go?
My favourite restaurant is Peace & Loaf. I love cooking and, without blowing my own trumpet, I’m quite a good cook, so when I go out to a restaurant I like to be served food I know I wouldn’t have a clue how to make myself!
Kith & Kin is amazing too, they put combinations together that you wouldn’t think of in a million years. And their vegan offerings are off the scale. Whitley Bait do the best tuna sarnies you can get! And another of my favourite places is Fenwick’s Food Hall – sitting in Fuego, having a look at Saltwater Fish Company… I could go in first thing and come out at night, I love it!
What are you most excited about for the future of NorthburN?
Laura and I are planning on concentrating more on our perfumes. Whilst we will always be a home fragrance company, our perfume side of things has gone through the roof during lockdown. We don’t create eau de toilettes, we create eau de parfums, so they’re really good quality and long-lasting. And they’re always a little bit different – we try to create those perfumes where people will ask you: what are you wearing?
We’re also excited to do more body products. We first brought out our bath bombs and salts because Laura has always had eczema and has never been able to use scented products in a bath. So we don’t test any of our body products on animals – we test them on Laura! Everything in our range is suitable for sensitive skin and, as well as smelling amazing, also acts as a skin treatment. So we’re excited to go further down that route as well.
Or pop into their Whitley Bay shop and say hello: NorthburN, Boutique 200, Park View, Whitley Bay NE26 3QP