When asked to name a famous perfumer, most will fail. While everybody knows the name or the brand of their favourite scent, its real creator with the magic nose, usually stays unknown. The one exception is Francis Kurkdjian, a perfumer who has created over 40 perfumes, including the Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier, My Burberry and Her for Narciso Rodriguez. Years after reaching a massive success at the age of 25, he co-founded with Marc Chaya his eponymous fragrance house in 2009. By doing so, he wanted to go beyond perfumes and candles, flirting with art and challenging the disconnection between the old-fashioned perfume industry and today’s lifestyle.
Did you create your own company to claim your place in the spotlight? Or what was it that triggered you to make a name for yourself?
I started my own business because I wanted to do things I couldn’t do anywhere else. At a young age, I got introduced to the perfume industry and experienced my first big success very early on. My career was super condensed. It was almost like an immediate immersion into the real world. When I look at my peers now, I feel like a veteran. Setting up Maison Francis Kurkdjian was part of my retirement plan. It was my way of doing things that no one else was doing in the industry, like launching scented leather, infuse laundry detergent, children’s bubbles, and home scents.
Would you state the perfume industry is old-fashioned?
The more I worked in the business, the more I thought perfume was becoming disconnected from today’s time. When I launch a new product, I ask myself what luxury really means. To me, it’s not about value but the meaning of a product. People can now pretty much afford anything. What is considered important is peace, space, and silence: things that are intangible or invisible, like perfume. The idea to play it out in a different place and different ways is a statement. Perfume is becoming old-fashioned. It shouldn’t necessary come in a bottle.
Perfume is becoming old-fashioned. It shouldn’t necessary come in a bottle.
To you, perfume can take on any shape possible. I would say your vision is quite revolutionary.
There’s nothing revolutionary about my vision. The result might be innovative, but it’s simply an expression of my time. As I say to every newcomer in the company: “You’re entering the first perfume business in the 21st century to hold the full name of its perfumer as a brand name.” It’s kind of silly when you think about it.
What could be the plausible reasons for companies to hide the name of their perfumer?
It is because perfumers gave up their names to fashion. In the 17th and 18th century, they were the real creators but then fashion took over. Coco Chanel was the first fashion designer to put her name on a perfume bottle. Selling them was extremely profitable, and other designers soon followed. The fashion industry reaches out to millions of customers. Perfumers were hidden behind the craft and the fashion brand. In the early nineties, you saw an increased interest in the making and the story of a product. People wanted to know where the product came from and wanted to catch a glimpse behind the scenes. This movement shed light on the perfumer. When I started my career, my name wasn’t even in the press kit. Nowadays a perfumer is a creator who doesn’t just create a scent. He also has to be a good communicator.
You do an excellent job since there’s a story behind every product. Is it part of your strategy to focus on the story and not necessarily on the ingredients?
When I collaborate with other companies, I always end up fighting with them, for they always want to go back to the ingredient. That doesn’t make any sense! Over time perfumers have used the same ingredients. You don’t say Picasso is great because he uses red and blue. Creating perfume should be explained in the same way. You can compare it to music. You don’t listen to notes or instruments: you listen to the music in its entirety. Music conveys feelings, and it moves you, or it doesn’t. In my eponymous house, I have a territory of free creativity, and I am more than happy to focus more on the story I want to tell or the emotion, than on the ingredients I use.
Is storytelling an easy way to appeal to an international audience?
It sure is. I always look for a universal story that speaks to everyone because in Japan people experience taste in a very different way to people in Europe. We all have different tastes although you can touch people with the same stories. Perfume is about storytelling. But instead of words, you use scent. When I travel, I love meeting people. I want to know how they think, what moves them and how they are different from me and why. To understand all that, I create stories. So you see, perfume is about more than just a scent. Mimosa, for example, is a flower that only speaks to Europeans. You don’t have it in the US. Or vanilla is popular in Europe, but not in Asia. A good perfume is the one of which you forget what it smells like.
To talk about scent, you have to use the right vocabulary, which most of us can’t. I, for instance, find it quite hard to verbalize a smell.
Most people do. Moreover, they are shy to express what they think because they sense there is an absolute beauty in the same way as there is in art. Who decided that the Mona Lisa was a masterpiece? Scent is very personal. It’s difficult to explain something which isn’t visible. When you smell perfume, your brain works with its own data, which is based on your personal background. If you would describe to me the smell of the pie your mother used to bake, I will experience it very differently from the way you do because your memory of it is different from mine.
Since perfume appeals to emotion, would you compare your job to art?
Yves Saint-Laurent summed it up very well when he said: “Fashion is not art, but you need to be an artist.” I think it’s the same with perfume, and why it isn’t considered as an art form. Art takes inspiration from different facets of life: happiness and darkness. When you think about poetry, movies or literature you can always find beauty in something dark, sad or ugly. Perfume, on the other hand, magnifies beauty. No one ever commissioned me to create a perfume for an ugly woman who’s a total loser. My job is to bring people happiness. Fashion tackles the same issue in pursuing beauty. There’s a line you can stretch but never cross. Perfume is conventionally sold in a bottle. But when I make art or olfactory installations, I can do whatever I want and show my dark side if I want to. One time I created a perfume based on war together with a Syrian artist, Hratch Arbach. The combination of the two was fascinating.
You talk very passionately about perfume as if it has always been your calling. How does one go from being a ballet dancer to being a perfumer?
I am trained as a ballet dancer, but I was never talented enough to pursue it as a career. My brother is an excellent pianist. I play the piano too, but I didn’t have what it takes to become a great musician. I decided to focus on perfume because it conveys everything: spectacle, storytelling and there’s the obvious link with fashion. When I think of it: ballet is not so different from my metier. In both cases, you repeat and question yourself over and over again. My job requires rigor, self-criticism, and it’s a kind of maniacal discipline. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to get it right. It is my job to summarize it all in a tiny bottle.