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Francis Kurkdjian, Hitting the Right Notes

Francis Kurkdjian, Hitting the Right Notes

This interview first appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the spring of 2018.

Interview by Mark Benjamin. Photography by Maud Maillard.

When it comes to fragrance, the reach of Francis Kurkdjian’s creative output is hard to match. After blending some of the most iconic and memorable scents for fashion houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Kenzo, and Yves Saint Laurent, the master perfumer founded Maison Francis Kurkdjian in 2009 with his business partner, Marc Chaya. The collection began with a handful of notable and successful fragrances. Today, the house’s wardrobe includes more than 15 families of fragrances, to be found in more than 500 high- end shops, including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and Maison Francis Kurkdjian boutiques worldwide. He speaks with us over the phone from the house’s head office in Paris.

MARK BENJAMIN: Your interest in fragrance began at a young age. What are your earliest memories of scents or fragrances? Is there one that stood out and initiated your journey into fragrance?

FRANCIS KURKDJIAN: One of my earliest olfactive memories, besides Madame Rochas, my mother’s perfume, is my grandmother’s cellar in her apartment. When I was a kid I used to play in this tiny room where she stored all kinds of spices and oriental ingredients that she used for cooking. The overall scent was just incredible because it was a blend of sour, sweet, salty flavors—cinnamon, cumin, thyme. I remember those.

But what brought me to the craft is an article about perfumery I read in the glossy pages of a French magazine when I was 14. I discovered that the couturier/fashion designer was not the one who was creating the perfumes. There were people behind the scenes, and those people had a very special craft and gift. Around the same time, I saw the movie Le Sauvage, which features iconic actress Catherine Deneuve and actor Yves Montand. In it, he plays the role of a perfumer on a remote Venezuelan island.

MB: Your grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide and later settled in France. How has watching the Syrian civil war unfold and the displacement of millions of refugees affected you? Can you tell us about your collaboration with the Syrian artist Hratch Arbach in 2014 and the smell of blood?

FK: I have always been concerned about civil wars and genocides. I remember the war in Bosnia when I started my training as a perfumer in the early ’90s. And even before, at school, when France hosted Cambodian refugees. I am always affected in a very deep way, always thinking about my grandparents and their energy. They had to survive camps, hunger, thirst, disease, and terror.

Hratch Arbach and I worked on Mawtini, a multi-sensory art installation with scented wax nails that was displayed in Saint-Séverin Church in Paris for the contemporary-art festival Nuit Blanche. It was an installation for the unification of people and especially for peace in the Arab world. It approached the themes of suffering and appeasement in several stages—musical, filmic, sculptural, olfactory. On entering the church, unique scents were released by the wax nails— perfumes that recalled jasmine, earth, or blood. I was really touched by the profound meaning of Hratch’s project and was very proud to contribute to this ephemeral work of art. The messages delivered and the place where the installation was exposed were the source of emotions shared by all. It was a tremendous multisensory and human experience.

History keeps circling, you know—it’s a cycle. That’s unfortunately the sadness of being human. We think we learn but we never learn. We forget what happens. That’s the sadness of it. Even though we now have testimonies, witnesses, and teachers, we don’t believe that such atrocities can come back, but they come back. When you think about what happened in Darfur, when you think about what’s happening in Asia now with Muslims, what’s happening now in Syria, and with the Palestinians, who knows what’s going to happen?

MB: How did you become interested in art? Are there any artists you dream of collaborating with? I’m trying to imagine what a Francis Kurkdjian x Marina Abramovic collaboration would smell like.

FK: I believe that art is a family affair, in a way. My grandmother was a very wise woman. She loved art, she was a very blue- collar type of woman. When [her family] was living in Turkey before the genocide, she was part of a working family with
land, property—they were very large farmers back then. She was raised at the American college in Turkey. She spoke five languages—Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, and French. She was very wise and very clever. She loved music. We
used to listen to the radio a lot and we had a radio program similar to NPR in France where you can listen to classical music.

My grandmother loved classical music, my mother would sing, and my father was a composer and piano player. Music, classical music, was a part of their culture and life. I started to play the piano when I was six years old. I went to ballet school at the same age. This part of my family is very active.

I would love to work with Marina Abramovic. [In 2013], she collaborated on a new version of Ravel’s Bolero that I remember well. I venerate the American artist James Turrell, who is the master of light. And there is also the Venezuelan artist Elias Crespin—his kinetic pieces are pure poetry.

MB: In your youth, you wanted to be a ballet dancer and to attend the Paris Opéra Ballet School. Experiencing a fragrance, especially for the first time, can feel a bit like watching a dance. Even your olfactory installations are arranged in three acts—for example, for Make Music New York, an olfactory installation held at the city’s French Consulate in 2008, the first act saw rose-scented bubbles being released onto Fifth Avenue. Guests followed these into the building, where hundreds of scented candles had been arranged, which in turn led to the final act—a space upstairs that had been perfumed with a special fragrance to complement the music of Émilie Simon.

Do you find dancing/performance and fragrance similar experiences?

FK: There is a relationship between dance and perfumery and it’s the notion of space, air, and body. A dancer must occupy the space if he wants to stand out on stage,
the music needs air to vibrate and come to your ears, and perfume needs both. It needs to occupy space to exist, to be noticed by others, and air to be transported. Moreover, perfume, like music and dance, is also linked to body language. A perfume lives on skin, you play an instrument with your body, ballet is all about the body, of course. These two arts are so much in resonance! More than is immediately obvious.

MB: Your career unfolded after the creation of Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier in 1995. You then went on to create fragrances for a huge number of fashion houses before founding Maison Francis Kurkdjian. What was creating for a brand like compared with creating fragrance for yourself and the house?

FK: I always compare this to acting. You can act in a movie as an actor, or act in your own movie as a director, the producer, and the actor. You can imagine right away the challenges you have.

When I work for other brands, I am in competition with other international fragrance suppliers and perfumers most of the time. I work to a deadline. I am given
a budget and, usually, I have to deliver a good tester fragrance, meaning a fragrance that appeals to the maximum number of people. It’s a different way of working, but challenges are there. When I work on my own, I have a blank page. I am in charge and responsible for what I create, from A to Z. I can’t hide. Therefore my inspiration is key.

When I opened my own fragrance house in 2009, I wanted to share my vision of scents and luxury with the public. I have envisioned an entire scented line where there is a harmony within all the product forms. This line is inspired by Paris with a spirit of French and Parisian elegance, sophistication, glamour, and chic. It is
built on all my past experiences—from my beginning in 1995 with fine-fragrance creation for luxury, fashion, and beauty brands, as well as custom-made/bespoke perfumes and artistic collaborations in Paris, Versailles, New York, and Shanghai.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian is a fragrance wardrobe with style, chic, elegance, and sophistication. When I create a perfume under my own name, anything can inspire me, as long as it becomes the beginning of a story that I can translate into a fragrance.

MB: You described how things were different back then at the launch of Le Male—how it was all about the designer, and the perfumer was not even credited on the press release. Today it now seems to be all about the perfumer, with lines including your own, Jo Malone, and Frédéric Malle. Why the shift, do you think? Were you ready for the renewed attention? This shift does not exist only in the perfume world. It’s everywhere. People want to know what’s behind the scenes of everything, what is backstage, who does what, how…

FK: When I started, it was all about the designer and the brand. The perfumer was behind the scenes and hidden from the press. The perfumer has gained more and more importance and recognition, even though he is not necessarily the decision maker of the final fragrance. A perfumer is a creator who doesn’t just create a scent, he also has to be a good communicator now.

MB: Today, it seems the face of luxury is changing from one obsessed with rarity and quality to one consumed with newness and novelty. What does luxury mean to you?

FK: For me, luxury is the attention given to details—it goes through the quality first and, of course, the craftsmanship. Maison Francis Kurkdjian is a quality house, not a luxury house. I am obsessed with quality at each step, from the carton board that we use for our packaging to the size and proportion of a cap or a bottle to the texture of a cream. Being expensive is not an issue if the quality is met!

MB: In an interview for W, with former beauty editor Jane Larkworthy, you mentioned Jacques Cavallier, the creator of L’eau d’Issey for Issey Miyake and Acqua di Gio by Giorgio Armani, as being one of your inspirations. In what ways did he inspire you? Is there anyone from outside the fragrance world who also serves as inspiration?

FK: Jacques Cavallier was an extraordinary perfumer in the ’90s. I believe he was, along with a couple of other perfumers, a model for many young perfumers back then.

MB: Fragrance creation can be like an Old Master painting—the process is quite laborious, sophisticated, and time-consuming. Does it require complex mathematics, formulas, and an intimate understanding of chemistry? Can you give us some understanding of your creative process and the complexities involved?

FK: No, creating perfume has nothing to do with chemistry, and the only math you need to know are addition, subtraction, and multiplication.

People think that rigor is the prerogative of science and scientists. That’s not true. An artist needs routine. Think about pianists, ballet dancers, and how Picasso and many other masters sketched their ideas before reaching the final point.

For me, each creation is a new challenge. To tell a new story, to bring something that women or men will desire, is always very challenging.

The creation of a perfume happens in two stages. First, there is the time of reflection, during which I imagine different fragrance accords in my mind. When I have a very clear idea of what to do, where to go with my emotions, I begin the time of composition and go to the lab to create the formula. My approach to creation is more
or less always the same. Inspiration is the invisible part of creation. Although it takes a team effort to manufacture and launch a product, the first creative steps are rather lonely and it takes about 18 months to cover the entire process.

MB: Do you see fragrance visually? Can you share some of your favorite inspirations for Maison Francis Kurkdjian fragrances?

FK: Inspiration is by far the hardest part of my work and the most challenging as time goes by.

My inspirations are not driven by raw materials—classic and modern art, couture, and lifestyle inspire me as well, but I always try to focus on a universal feeling. It must be an idea that everyone around the globe can understand in their own language and apprehend with their own feelings.

Timeless elegance can be translated in different ways, but everyone can understand what it means. It’s the same with the idea of an ode to femininity.

Once I have envisioned that idea, I translate it into a name that becomes the name of the fragrance. To me, the name is very important. It defines a frame for me to work within. A name is unswervingly tied to a fragrance. Once I have it, I dream about the actual scent and imagine the scent that goes with that name. I only start writing the formula after that stage. Because if you don’t know what you want to say, you don’t know what raw materials to blend together. A painter uses colors, a musician notes—as a perfumer, I use scents.

MB: How did you meet Marc Chaya? Tell us about that first encounter. Was it always your dream to start your own line?

FK: I met Marc Chaya at a dinner after a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show back in 2003. During our dinner Marc asked me what I did for a living and I said, “I am a perfumer.” He didn’t know that much about perfumery, so we talked about it for a while. He was really surprised not to know my name despite the number of fragrances I had created.

With time we became friends and realized that we shared the same vision of lifestyle and definition of luxury. Plus, we had complementary professional and creative skills. Little by little, we started to work together and, in 2009, we finally co-founded Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

Marc’s vision and sense of business have been the key points behind the success of the house.

MB: You have also spoken of a perfumer’s creativity having a lifespan of 15 years, from the age of 25 to its peak at 35-40. However, many great artists tend to produce their best work in their fifties. At a show celebrating Matisse, Turner, and Rembrandt, the Tate Modern in London described their so-called “late work” as the most radical and mysterious art of its time. You turn 50 next year. Don’t you think the next decade could be your best?

FK: You have 15 years to reach the peak
of your art. I’ve noticed there are very few artists [who are an exception to this rule]. Basically they reach an ideal of beauty and when they reach that status or dream, they don’t move forward. All the moves they make after that are very small—they don’t move as fast as they did when they were younger.

MB: The fire dies down a little bit… the ambition?

FK: Maybe the fire, but they also reach their ideal and they don’t have to move forward because they’ve reached where they wanted to go.

In your example, you talk about very few artists. I try to make this rule—but maybe
it is a lie—for myself [LAUGHS.]. It’s a daily fight. I will be 50 in 2019, but anyway, for me, the most exciting part of life is always what lies ahead. I always think about the next fragrances to create! So who knows? It could be a wonderful decade.

MB: I’m curious about how you live? What does your house look like?

FK: My house is a big mix of many things. I love to mix all the new, also the expensive and cheap, in a very unexpected way. For example, my sofas are very cheap, because I love to put my sheets on top of them. When I had little money and moved to New York, like, 25 years ago, I bought a very expensive white sofa. I remember that a friend of mine came over and after the first day she got some makeup on the arm of
the sofa and then the next day she got it dirty with her heels and basically ruined it!

I was so unsettled about it because I realized, when your friends come over, you cannot ask them to take care of things more than you do, because then you become a slave to the object. And I think what is around you is there to help you, or to please you, or to enhance your mood, and not to drive you crazy by the need to take care of it. That’s my way of living. I like practical. I like to feel cozy… I have a baby grand piano at home and I love to mix decor—mixed up with recycled things I’ve found in New York. I don’t like to feel decorated.

MB: What’s your favorite thing to play on the piano?

FK: I love Chopin. I play Chopin, Bach, a little Debussy, many composers from the 20th century.

MB: Are there any new fragrances that you are working on that you are able to share with us?

“A name is unswervingly tied to a fragrance. Once I have it, I dream about the actual scent and imagine the scent that goes with that name. I only start writing the formula after that stage. Because if you don’t know what you want to say, you don’t know what raw materials to blend together. A painter uses colors, a musician notes—as a perfumer, I use scents”

FK: Right now, I am working on a couple of fragrances to be launched mid-2018. With this new story, I embrace a subject that is shaking up and changing society at the moment. It’s about what’s happening right now in society with gender fluidity. The interesting thing is I was able to create one fragrance dedicated to men and one fragrance dedicated to women, but they are not labeled for men or for women. There’s nothing that says on the bottle if it’s for a man or a woman—basically you decide according to your own sensibility. You decide which one is for you. And they are built with the exact same ingredients, both of them.

The idea is to show that I can sculpt from the ingredients in the same way a sculptor can sculpt from a model. It’s like in fashion—silk as a material is not gender- bound. Silk can become a tie, it can become a dress. It becomes masculine if it becomes a tie or feminine if you create a dress. Those concepts are very cultural because, if you go to Africa or the Middle East, men wear dresses, so the idea of masculinity is very cultural. It’s a seed that is put in a man’s head. It’s the same reference here in the US or in Paris. So my idea for the next fragrance are these two fragrances that use the same ingredients, about 45 of them, in both formulas. Then if I change the balance of the ingredients in one formula or the other, you will have to decide which one suits you.

MB: One of the remarkable services you offer for select clientele at Maison Francis Kurkdjian are custom-made fragrances. Can you tell us about the clients you’ve created fragrances for? Any fun or interesting anecdotes? Can you explain your process of creation when a client approaches you for a unique fragrance?

FK: My clients are all perfume lovers looking for passionate and exceptional refinement. Clichés would want applications to be totally outlandish and out of the ordinary, but in the vast majority of cases, they are not. Who would like a perfume that smells bad, even if this notion is very personal and therefore relative?

I nevertheless have had very specific requests, such as perfuming a swimming pool in Spain, creating a perfume inspired by the smell of a horse for a riding enthusiast. A famous fashion designer asked me to compose a perfume whose story I could summarize as “the fragrance of dead animals surrounded by dead lilies”. I’ve also created a bespoke fragrance for a private yacht.

The first contact for a bespoke fragrance is always over the phone between the client and me. During this conversation, topics such as preferences in terms of perfumes—likes and dislikes—personal motivation about the bespoke scent, timing and terms of sales are covered. That allows me to get a feel for the client’s personality, environment, tastes, and memories.

After the phone conversation, an estimate with the creation fees is sent for approval to the customer based on their comments and requirements. After approval, a meeting is set up for a face-to-face and smelling session in order to define the exact terms of the project. During this session, the requirements are more detailed in order to define a range of creation and a fragrance territory. A few weeks later, I send the first fragrances to the customer, or we meet in person. Discussion and modifications ensue until final completion of the fragrance. Each time I present my fragrances to a client I provide small samples—5ml—so they can wear them at home, in normal conditions. You do not choose a perfume just because you like the top notes.

MB: Why did you decide to present a laundry detergent—Aqua Universalis—within the Maison Francis Kurkdjian line?

FK: At first, the creation of this fabric-care line was to fulfill my personal needs and use! At that time of my life, I was living in NYC in a townhouse with no private laundry. So I used to drop my clothes at the laundry across the street. This is how I discovered Tide and Down, my two worst enemies back then. These products are so scented with heavy fragrances that I could not work. So I decided to create my own laundry detergent, by which I mean create the scent that would be used with it, for my everyday laundry, from jeans to T-shirts, socks and underwear, towels and linens as well, for machine and hand wash of course.

I wanted a fragrance that conveys a sense of clarity, sun, fresh air, and luminosity. So I used the scent of Aqua Universalis—a scent that quickly became one of my worldwide bestsellers—but I had to change the formula to adapt it to laundry care.

MB: If you had to pick one fragrance to be with you for the rest of your life, what would that be and why?

FK: Actually, each of the scents I have released under Maison Francis Kurkdjian represents to me an ideal olfactory form and a creative challenge. Aqua Universalis
is a fragrance that I have been particularly proud to create for my house. Its name says it all, as it has a universal/global appeal. From Australia to Singapore, Hong Kong to London and New York, its genuine freshness provides a feeling of wellbeing, as well as a sensuality that each of our customers has been able to experience.

Baccarat Rouge 540 is an amazing fragrance with an incredible and distinctive trail. Aqua Vitae and Absolue Pour Le Soir are also two scents that are very dear to me.

MB: Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, One Direction members, Lady Gaga, and Kim Kardashian are just some of the celebrities who have collaborated on very lucrative mass-market fragrances. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but you have never produced a mass-market celebrity fragrance. Have you ever been approached? What drives the endless fascination to smell like or embody a celebrity? You created a fragrance that smells like money with Sophie Calle in 2003. What do you think celebrity smells like?

FK: I made one by mistake. It was for a male singer, I can’t remember. It was a Jay-Z fragrance maybe. It’s not my background really. I’ve never been in touch with a celebrity in such an intimate way that I could create a fragrance for him or her. I think these celebrity perfumes that I would do would be very genuine and not just meant to create money.

MB: What do you think drives people to want to smell like a celebrity, though?

FK: Maybe the same thing that made my mother want to smell like a Saint Laurent woman when she was wearing a perfume by Saint Laurent. I believe there has been a shift in who we are right now, I believe there has been a shift in our references.
I don’t want to get into politics for this interview, but when you think about who is voting for Trump… You wouldn’t have had this happen maybe 60 years ago in the US, so there has been a big shift in who we are taking as a reference.

In France, at the end of last year, we had two iconic men who died. One was Jean d’Ormesson, a 92-year-old aristocratic writer and academic, a great writer with lots of references—he was truly amazing. He had an amazing aura. The day after,
the French singer Johnny Hallyday died at 74. And now today you have celebrities wanting to be celebrities, and mass culture is basically very different. It’s a different era, not better or worse—it’s just different. I’m not the type of perfumer who can collaborate on a mass fragrance like that.

MB: One of the less well-known things about Andy Warhol was his obsession with fragrance. He is said to have had a collection that he called his “permanent smell collection,” which was made up of hundreds of bottles, many half-used. Halston cologne, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet eau de toilette, Braggi cologne, Ma Griffe by Carven, Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, and Devin cologne by Aramis are a few he collected.

Warhol once said: “Of the five senses, smell has the closest thing to the full power of the past. Smell really is transporting. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting are just not as powerful as smelling if you want your whole being to go back for a second to something […] The good thing about a smell-memory is that the feeling of being transported stops the instant you stop smelling, so there are no after-effects. It’s a neat way to reminisce.”

Warhol began amassing his collection of semi-used perfumes in the early 1960s— “Before that, the smells in my life were all just whatever happened to hit my nose by chance,” he wrote. “But then I realized I had to have a kind of smell museum so certain smells wouldn’t get lost forever.”

Do you agree about the inherent qualities of smell, memory, and nostalgia? Do you have a smell museum or a collection of fragrances that you keep? Any smells that have been lost?

FK: Two days ago, I was holding the tiny box that I still have from when I was a teenager. When I first entered the perfume world, I started to collect perfume samples. Two days ago, when I was with a supplier,

I started to dig into that collection of samples. I told my supplier I would love
to do an inspiration [from one of the samples]—I love this scent, it inspires me.
It was an old Givenchy perfume, it’s incredible. There is a lot in going back to the history of fragrance as a way of creating a new product.

The olfactive memory is the most ancient memory we have as human beings. It is very primal. Each of us has different reactions to scents. It is undeniable that there are emotional and psychological effects attached to each of them.

In Versailles we have the Osmothèque, the world’s only perfume archive. They have more than 3,000 perfumes there, including 400 that are no longer to be found.

MB: It’s no secret that the musician Prince had hundreds of songs and several complete albums that he never released to the public. Are there fragrances that you have created but never found fit for release? Do you have a vault?

FK: I have created fragrances for people who are important to my life, are dear to me, or I respect. It’s my way of telling them how much I love them. These fragrances are private for the time being and not meant to be sold. Some fragrances have never been selected for a project. I have always believed they should not come to life if no one has liked them. Perfume is not something you can store for years and release because the timing is right.

MB: People usually do not think of fragrance as something trendy like fashion, but many ingredients and notes do trend. What would you highlight as some of the current trends that people buy into and may not be aware of? What will be the next?

FK: Perfume reflects its time. Our taste in fragrances evolves the same way as our taste in food, music, or fashion evolves with time. However, the senses linked to the visual or acoustic evolve far faster than those linked to the olfactory territory such as smell and taste. This is because it takes more time for a culture to integrate a new taste or a new smell. For example, it took about 10 years for the oud trend to become mainstream. It started with M7 by Yves Saint Laurent, an avant-garde scent. Maybe not commercial enough to become a game-changer, but it truly brought a new ingredient to the market.

The gourmand territory is not a trend anymore, it is a fact. It belongs to the normality of the fragrance market, whether it’s blended with flowers or woods, for women and for men. I do not look at trendy ingredients and trends in general.

I follow my vision as an artist. Trends wash out creativity, resulting in the feeling that everybody is doing the same thing.

But what we can say is that, for 30 years, the market was driven by American taste— it was mostly French and European before that era. Now the Middle East, Russia, Asia, and Brazil are taking over. Fragrance reflects who has the power and the money! That’s why we have, for example, oud-based fragrance that became a true family on its own, the same way gourmand fragrances became popular. There has also been a comeback of very sexy, glamorous, and over-feminine fragrances. Couture fragrances are back in the prestige market, while celebrities’ fragrances are popular. The market is very open. There are no specific olfactive families—not oriental, floral, woody, nor fruity—and this trend works on a global basis.

MB: Has there ever been a smell you’ve wanted to capture and struggled with?

FK: I run after an idea of beauty, an ideal fragrance. One day I may create and find it. That is the day I will stop creating fragrances. That I know.

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