How Harlem Candle Company’s Founder Teri Johnson Created A Luxury Candle Brand — From Her Kitchen

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Courtesy of Harlem Candle Company
Lenox candle from the Harlem Candle Company.

With its exquisite packaging — and formidable social media following — it's difficult to wrap your head around the fact that the travel expert Teri Johnson only officially founded the Harlem Candle Company in 2014. In a sea of minimalist-to-a-fault candles, the Harlem-based brand sticks out in the best way possible: Instead of offering yet another stark-white candle with teensy, tiny script, the Harlem Candle Company houses its products in jewel-toned and gold-accented tumblers, tapping into the aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance. And they look expensive, whether a $45 candle is only a blip on your spending radar or a special-occasion treat.

"You know, I decided to call it the Harlem Candle Company because I live in Harlem. I was making them in my Harlem kitchen," Johnson tells The Zoe Report over the phone. "But I also really love the Harlem Renaissance period. I like the way people dressed. I like the way people talked. I like the music and the art and the poems — the artistry and how creative they were. How it just became this place where people would come from all over the country to Harlem, and it became like this cultural mecca of African American artists and super talented people who wanted to be in the same place and to collaborate and to share and to grow and to build."

Courtesy of Harlem Candle Company

Pause. You read that right: the brand began in Johnson's kitchen. A self-proclaimed luxury candle consumer — "The very first time I was exposed to a diptyque candle I lost my mind," she says — Johnson stumbled upon a perfumer after walking into his fragrance storefront in Harlem. "And all I wanted to do was like smell everything in the store, because I had never smelled what ylang ylang smells like in its pure form. He had everything. So the woman who was working there, I asked her like, can I smell everything? And she was like, let me go get the owner," Johnson says. "We became friends. And so I decided one Christmas that I would, instead of like buying a bunch of gifts, I was going to just make candles for my friends and family."

Now, these candles are woven through with the stories of artists, creatives, and visionaries who inspire the scents, such the "Langston" Luxury Candle that purposefully evokes old libraries and the incense-soaked churches the writer frequented in Mexico. "I wanted to use Langston Hughes' creative space as inspiration. And so I read a lot about Langston Hughes, read one of his books, and I just wanted to understand who he was, what he loved, what inspired him. And from my research I found out that he was a big smoker, so I wanted to definitely put some beautiful tobacco notes in there. He did a lot of his work really late at night, and so I wanted a scent that was very reminiscent of, like, after dark," says Johnson. "You know, the scent of maybe some bourbon that got spilled on his jacket when he was at the speakeasy. I come up with all of that."

Courtesy of Harlem Candle Company

Johnson then communicates "the space and the scent" to the perfumers, who she notes are "fine fragrance perfumers, I just am lucky enough to have them working on candles." That said, wearable fragrances — along with personal care items like soap and lotion — are on the agenda for the Harlem Candle Company. "The fragrance house we work with, they're one of the biggest ones. So, they've already formulated our candle fragrance oils for for body," she continues. "But that's a whole other animal."

For now, fans of the brand need to be satisfied with candles, reed diffusers, and room sprays — for use in actual rooms, not as covert perfumes. "We have some customers, they're like, I love [the room sprays] so much I just spray it all over and I’m like, don't put it on your skin! You can put it on your scarf, you know? Your knit hat," adds Johnson. To shop the fan-favorite scents, visit harlemcandlecompany.com.

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