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Sometimes the best ideas come to you when you least expect them, like in the shower. Or, in the case of Junior Adesanya’s incense brand Cremate (available in the UK) stuck down a Youtube wormhole at 4am. Emerging from a loop of late-night Reddit and random web searches (if you want to know what’s inside a bowling ball, just ask), Cremate combines Adesanya’s alchemical talents with a timely focus on wellness and mental health that reframes incense as more meaningful than just smoke and ash. Like he says, “Up until then I just wasn't in the best place, existentially.
“I’d always been into incense and was wondering about how you make it, not because I wanted to start a brand or anything, purely out of curiosity. It turned out there are quite a few ways, and I started getting really into all the different techniques. As I kept reading, I decided to make my own, rather than spend loads of money on Kuumba, and began experimenting in my room.”
From those first attempts at mixing essential oils and tweaking ratios until he had a scent ready to dip cones in, Cremate has expanded beyond incense and burners to include home fragrances, merch, collaborations with Adidas and New Balance, and its own cultural programme. It brings a counterculture edge to the mindfulness movement while coinciding with our current obsession for curating the spaces we live and increasingly work in.
“I remember taking it to the shop I worked in and burning it instead of our usual incense. Customers were trying to buy it off me, but I only had 20 loose cones in my pocket. I said, give me four weeks and I’ll have something to sell. The rest is history.”
“Customers were trying to buy it off me, but I only had 20 loose cones in my pocket.”
Taking a break from working singlehanded through lockdown on everything from production and packing to social posts, here London-based designer Adesanya discusses the modern relevance of ritual, what gets an incense stan excited, and how burning Cremate can serve a higher purpose.
Ben Perdue: When did you first get into burning incense yourself?
Junior Adesanya: My mum's Roman Catholic and I went to a Church of England school in Southeast London, so it was always there at church. But I started to burn it myself in my mid-teens. Satya Nag Champa sticks from corner shops in Soho, like they burn in Supreme, or that radgy stuff off Deptford market wrapped in foil that all smells the same and gives you a cough. That was a rough intro.
BP: Was its meditative image always part of the appeal for you?
JA: I’m more drawn to the ritual. Having a religious background from such a young age I rebelled against the devotional side of things as I got older. So, I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I’m definitely spiritual or karmic, and I think incense became my link to other communities and ideas.
BP: What is it about burning incense that feels more real or raw than lighting a candle?
JA: It’s the controlled destruction. You're burning something and the product is ash. Candles feel more contained and cleaner. With incense I feel like even though you are in control, there is this potential for things to go wrong. And with a nice burn, when smoke rises up in a straight line that almost looks static, visually that has a lot to do with it. The heavy smoke, the ash, there's a rawness to it all.
“The heavy smoke, the ash, there's a rawness to it all.”
BP: As you’ve been making it yourself has the craft become something you love?
JA: A hundred percent. In terms of creativity, I've always looked to the older heads and artisanal slow grow situations in terms of brands and music. Take your time, do your 10,000 hours of practice until you master it. I've always had that hands on approach. Even so, four years ago it would never occur to me that I’d be making incense full-time today. But now I am it makes perfect sense. Making incense can be just as ritualistic as burning it.
BP: Did you pick it up online or have you reached out physically and learnt from people that way?
JA: You know, it's mad, this whole thing of craft versus modern technology, because you can look up anything and become well versed just through Youtube videos. I started with natural perfumery and applied that to the craft of incense. To be a trained perfumer takes lots of study, and that knocked me initially, because I wanted an official piece of paper that said, I can do this. But there are a lot of self-taught natural perfumers who are well respected. So, that gave me confidence. I’ve made peace with that because there are great artists who weren’t traditionally trained. The majority is self-taught, and books are the best resource, but I also reach out to a few perfumers and talk with them.
BP: Coming at it with an outsider perspective is all part of Cremate, but can the world of incense get super specialised and specific?
JA: There are definitely more sought after, revered, and hyped incenses. The essential oils used come from biomasses, like plants and flowers, including types of wood that take time to mature and can be hard to find, so that bumps up the price. There’s a Nippon Kodo incense made from an almost extinct tree found in one Japanese village that takes 200 years to grow, so it may never exist again. And you have traditional incense that is hard to get, made by the handful of Tibetan monks per generation who master the skills to make it. And then high fashion brands do luxury incense like they do perfumes, so that comes at a price too.
“There’s a Nippon Kodo incense made from an almost extinct tree found in one Japanese village that takes 200 years to grow, so it may never exist again.”
BP: Is there anything unique about the ingredients you mix yourself?
JA: So, the mixing essential oils then dipping the cones isn’t as garden variety as I thought it was. A lot of popular brands just use fragrance oils. They’re cheap and easy to reproduce but give you one flat note that can overpower a scent. Essential oils are more nuanced but unpredictable, and can be very subtle, making them harder to work with. Plus, there are 130, so you really need to train your nose.
BP: Having grown up with it, how do you explain incense’s new relevance as a lifestyle product?
JA: I think it's an amalgamation of the whole holistic, slower approach to life - things that were rejected as being too hippie back in the day, like veganism and being pro-Earth - and a focus on interiors being the new luxury. Since Covid-19 it’s all about what rug you have, what glasses you drink from. Functional things to be proud of. It’s the mindfulness and wellness narrative told through a counterculture lens.
“It’s the mindfulness and wellness narrative told through a counterculture lens.”
BP: Has that crossover of lifestyle and fashion in stores now had an impact on who you work with?
JA: I hadn’t noticed until it became a thing. Fashion was my background but there was always politics involved. With lifestyle brands like Cremate there's more scope to work with anyone. There was never really a direct link between scent and lifestyle, like you have with furniture. Now people want to be a part of the that world.
BP: Does partnering with places like Bankrupt give you access to that wider likeminded community?
JA: Those shops are hubs. That's what I saw in Bankrupt, it gave me major nostalgia for places like Hideout, back when stores were hangout spots. Bankrupt has that feel - dudes outside skating, dudes inside chilling, just a phat group of people. With the shows as well, everything just marries up perfectly. It’s the blueprint for bringing together these varied communities, ideas, and disciplines in one space.
BP: When did the mindfulness and relaxation narrative become part of your philosophy for Cremate?
JA: I feel like that was more of a personal journey. I’d been dealing with anxiety and mental health issues for the best part of 10 years. Cremate helped a lot just in terms of the ritual of sitting down, making it, and burning it. It’s always going to be part of my personal routine. And I've had feedback from people saying it’s part of their wind down too - they get home, put music on, burn incense and chill. It's their cue to say, day done. I’m trying to give people insights into things that could potentially help. It’s a supplement to that higher purpose. Cremate has taken on a lot of my mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, that's why it feels like a living breathing thing.
“Cremate has taken on a lot of my mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, that's why it feels like a living breathing thing.”
BP: When lockdown hit it felt like in some ways people who struggled with certain mental health issues were almost better at dealing with it, having spent so long preparing for the worst in their heads. They already had the tools. Does that resonate with your experience?
JA: That’s such a good point. When the first one hit, I came out of it a lot better. I’ve always been a worrier. When everything slowed down, and everyone was on the same level, it felt like calm. I could think, not panic, and figure out my own shit without the expectations of having to be somewhere. My friends who were less inside their own heads before this had a harder time dealing with it.
BP: And has it made Cremate more relevant than ever, because of the importance of it being part of a ritual that helps centre you?
JA: In the first lockdown the major sell was that everyone was inside, so let’s make the place smell good. People bought it once and enjoyed it, so they used it again and again, and I think people started steadily burning all the time, because of the ritual. Like we said earlier, putting a cone on meant time to chill out.
BP: Does it feel good to hear that kind of feedback, like you’re helping people through it in some way?
JA: The little messages I get from people saying, I love your stuff, I love what you're doing, and sharing their stories. That keeps me going right now. And the possibility of being able to do big things soon and having those conversations again. It's just a matter of when and where, so I'm really excited.
BP: It feels like the world is hungry for more cultural projects from Cremate because of what it stands for, is that an important part of where you want to take the brand?
JA: Completely. The product almost becomes secondary because the brand is an amalgamation of my interests, so giving back was always something I wanted to do. With music I’ve done projects like the Know Wave show, and now I’m planning film screenings geared towards wellness and mindfulness, with proceeds going to mental health charities. Maybe even a mass guided meditation down the line. That’s the beauty of having something that isn't tied down, that people don't expect things from, because you can go anywhere with it.
All photography: @aidancushway
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