A few months ago or so, I sat down with iconic perfumer Francis Kurkdjian to chat perfume. This was my second time meeting Francis but my first interviewing him and he was as ever, candid, fun, cheeky and fascinating. You see, I’m a bit of a Kurkdjian fan boy and interviewing the man himself was a bit of a pinch myself moment, after all, I had spent much of misspent youth dancing in gay clubs surrounded by an atomic cloud of Le Mâle, and there I was meeting the very man that made that perfume. As you can tell from the ensuing conversation, he did not disappoint.
It was an interesting time to meet Francis Kurkdjian too – just after the launch of Gentle Fluidity, a duo of fragrances that are inspired by gender fluidity and share the same materials in different proportions. It was also the tenth year of Maison Francis Kurkdjian, his eponymous brand which was acquired by luxury conglomerate LVMH two years prior. Francis and I talked his new fragrances, not fitting in, the innovative products within his Maison and how social media is impacting the beauty industry and his favourite pair of leather trousers – it was an eyeopening discussion.
TCPB: For a large part of your career you’ve spent time creating fragrances for famous brands that aren’t your own, what inspired you to go out and create your own brand?
FK: During the creation of Le Mâle (Jean Paul Gaultier; 1995), I noticed that it was not meant for me, the way the business side of creation was set up. I knew I would not fit in. I thought so because I saw older perfumers, almost at the end of their career being very frustrated at what they were not capable to do any more. I was 24, so when I say older, I mean perfumers in their 60s. They told me almost not to pursue being a perfumer because it was over. I was interacting with perfumers in their 40s and 50s who told me that the business was changing. The relationships between fashion brands, fashion designers and perfumers was so twisted in a way that all my dreams were falling apart. I told myself it wasn’t going to work.
Now we talk a lot about the perfumer when we launch a perfume, at the time, 25, even 30 years ago, that was not the case. Now, which I’m super upset about, is the fact that, on one side you see marketers who are building perfume brands and then you have the mainstream. It’s not even about the war between and niche – it’s more about the way it’s all organised.
Maybe I’m not an artist because I believe being a perfumer to create perfume to wear is not being an artist, but at least you have an opinion and you’re surrounded by so many people who tell you what to do. You are so directed, you are so channelled, at the end you are a guy or a girl who just mixes things to please the tastes of someone else, which is not the taste of the consumer, it’s the taste of the marketing director or the CEO of something, whatever. My goal was to interact with creative people and to translate what they had in mind and market that.
When we talk about your previous work, like Le Mâle and because that’s so directed by marketing people and evaluators…
She was unique – Chantal Roos was a unique personality in the business.
…so when we talk about your other work for fashion brands, does that feel like your work?
Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not. Sometimes it was possible to be opinionated, sometimes not. It depends who I was working with. My work at Burberry was very personal. It was under the guidance of Christoper (Bailey), of course you are following the vision of someone else but you don’t just follow it step-by-step. Christopher was mapping the road and I was paving the road, which is very different.
How did all of your previous work help you define what you wanted to do with your brand, Maison Francis Kurkdjian? Did it give you a sense of what you did and didn’t want to do?
I didn’t build my brand to launch perfume that I was not capable of doing. It wasn’t that I was so frustrated that I wanted to do a certain accord. It’s not about the scent, it’s more about the idea of being a part of a group and to have a vision that is collectively chosen, and shared, and then we move on together.
The perfume industry is so noisy now – there is so much noise, especially in the niche and luxury sectors. How do you get heard when there is so much din?
I don’t know, I don’t know if I even stand out. Do I? I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to the noise. It’s always existed in a way, more or less. In the UK you have more awareness of niche brands than you have in any other part of the world, maybe Italy is a bit like you, but in France the distribution process is very different. There is something that I love about England, there are many things about England that have been lost, like craftsmanship, it has been washed out a little bit, but you still have tailoring and you still have little niche brand perfumeries – there’s always something on the edge, and on the side – it’s very British. Perfume in France is different, it’s seen as aristocracy, here in England you are cooler. In France you can have debates while having dinner about perfume – it’s very serious. Here it’s more like, it smells good, it’s a product. It’s not taken so seriously.
How do I deal with the noise? I don’t know. I don’t care. Once in a while, I’ll hear a name multiple times and I’ll start to pay attention, but otherwise, I don’t know. When I was a young perfumer, the person who was running the business I worked for said “don’t look at others, look at your story, don’t try to knock off someone else, don’t try to be someone else, don’t try to be someone who you’ll never be”. If you have something to say, don’t try to take something you have seen.
It’s a question of quality, if you last – the quality of the product is important. The team you work with is important. I have an amazing business partner, no one really knows him, sometimes he’s upset I have to say – I’m the face of the brand. But my business partner is very instrumental on the back office, which sometimes doesn’t sound like a nice word, but if you don’t shape your brand on the back office, having the supply chain, quality control, this and that, shipping, stock, production – and if you are not well surrounded, you won’t survive.
When I think of many niche brands, there’s always a gimmick, whether that be a focus on materials or something new and different, whereas Maison Francis Kurkdjian feels simplified and accessible to the consumer, would you agree with that?
It’s not a marketing brand – it’s not marketed. Even though this project (Gentle Fluidity) sounds a bit marketed, in a way, because of the concept of gender fluidity, but I am responsible for it because to me, talking about gender fluidity is about talking about today. At the end I need to twist the idea in such a way where it’s an inspiration, and I claim that inspiration, but at the end you have to forget the inspiration. Whereas, I believe, if it would have been embraced by a marketing company, it would have stayed as “Gender Fluidity”. It would have been first degree in a way. I tried to bring a simple message and yet something global because who knows to talk about the perfume? I know how to talk about perfume from my perspective which is super sophisticated in a way or super complex, because it’s very hard to make it vulgar. You talk about it, perhaps in a less complex way, but it still might be complex. Think about the consumer here in London, in Paris, in Tokyo – you need to narrow down to a simple idea, and maybe I learned that whilst I was working in the USA, where you have to deliver a claim and you need to shrink your concept down to one sentence. If you need a dialogue or monologue to explain your concept you lose the interest. I got that from Alber Elbaz, when I worked with him, he told me once “you have two concepts right now – you globalisation and universal, it’s almost the same but it’s not”.
With these two fragrances, you have used the same materials but in different proportions to highlight different emphases. Where did the inspiration come from to work in that way?
Maybe it’s not very positive, but when we had the terrorist attacks in Paris I questioned myself about my role in society. When you have such a drama, a shock, seven months apart, at some point you say, OK the world is changing but I think some people have more responsibility than others, mine is maybe to bring a little more joy and everything that comes with joy – meaning to connect people, to make people fall in love, to create souvenirs and memories. This is the nice part of being a perfumer, you create memories. But it was a bit vain and I’d never consider my job as being superficial but the beauty world and fashion world that I’m close to makes you feel a bit lost.
There was a dichotomy between my life in my job and my real life. When I travel for brands I have the car and the chauffeur, the business/first class, and the hotel, this and that, but when I fly for myself for vacation with my friends I am Airbnb, I am Easyjet, even though I have the money to do it, there is kinda of gap between what I experience as a human. That started to annoy me a little a bit and I started to see how I could infuse what I experience when I wake up in the morning and I turn on the radio, I listen to the news, I read the newspaper, I take the subway and the bus, when I speak to a cab driver or an Uber driver, or someone, I wanted to reconnect and to see how part of my real life could interfere with my working life. Because when you see a perfume ad, I don’t know how women can do it. Men, it’s the same thing for me, I don’t see myself in surfing, skiing, it’s all about that – they all have muscles, they’re all tall, they’re all blond, their hair is in the perfect place. It started to annoy me a little bit, that kind of perfection, it’s too high, you’ve lost it. It’s so unreal.
I tried to see if I could infuse something from what I’m seeing. At the beginning it was more about the fact that fashion is becoming less and less elegant in a 20th century, almost 19th century way. When you look at people they are wearing sneakers, jeans and sweaters – we don’t have the formality that we used to have and to me this is a dramatic change in luxury. The way we see luxury today is by far very different from the way we would see it when I was a kid. That was my first idea and then it was hard for me to find a name – if I don’t have a name, I don’t have a scent. I talked with a French Journalist who is based in LA, I see her about 2 or 3 times a year, and she told me about gender fluidity and I was so amazed. At UCLA you have 19 genders and on Facebook you have seven, I think, and I started to dive in. I was at the point where I was approaching 50 and was having to admit that man and woman is disappearing.
For gender fluidity, I started to put myself in the place where I was asking what it is to be gender fluid, practically, because conceptually I have no difficulty understanding it. I thought it was interesting because on top of it are the questions of femininity and masculinity, which are two topics in my job that are every important – a masculine perfume and a feminine perfume – it goes not only into what it smells like but where are you going to sell it? How do you sell a gender fluid perfume, because there is no room in a department store? You have men’s fragrance on one side and women’s on the other side. Where’s the room for the people who don’t identify as man or woman? How do I label my perfumes? Then it was like dominos.
The industry has pushed the ideas of masculine and feminine, and perhaps a small amount of unisex between, do you think the consumer is ready for something without these labels?
I don’t know, we just launched it a month ago…. Sometimes I feel very confident and sometimes I do not feel confident at all. I don’t know, we’ll see. We changed the name a little bit two months before we launched. I called my business partner and said we need to change the name and the suggestion from a friend of mine was to change from “Gender Fluidity” to “Gentle Fluidity”. I think we helped the product. Some people will understand and some people won’t, which is fine. I’m not an activist, I’m just a little activist from my little window, from my little corner. It will be a way to raise the question in a different way. I’m sure there are places in the world where they will never get the idea of gender fluidity. Maybe they will change it afterwards.
I’ve never done something like this before – it’s quite modern for the house. I wanted modernity, maybe because it’s 10 years. I had a friend who works in fashion and his collections was very infused with the work of Thierry Mugler because he was working under the directive of Thierry Mugler. His very first collections were very much empowered with the Thierry Mugler look – the shoulders – we could see it was the sum. I believe my very first work, not Aqua Universalis, but Lumiere Noire and APOM were kind of a tribute to old stuff. I think the success of Baccarat Rouge 540 was important to me because the way I created the formula in Baccarat was dramatic in a way, very shortcut – I think the formula looks very much like me. When I designed Eau Noire for Dior, Hedi (Slimane) helped me to bring back the modernity I have. I am very conservative, I love kings and queens, I love chinaware, I love silverware but at the same time I have a disruptive attitude. I am one of the first gay perfumers within the French perfume industry, which is super formatted because it comes from Grasse with the farmers who are super manly, and I come come from ballet and playing music. It’s not so easy to be truly yourself. Now there are more gay people in the industry on the creative side.
When you approached Gentle Fluidity you were working with the same materials.
That happened at the end. I thought of the idea of one individual bouncing between masculinity and femininity. So you have to go up to the end of your idea – same materials, two personalities. Two months before we launched, I put the formulas next to each other and decided to make them, not look alike or smell alike, but to have the same components.
It wasn’t a case of saying you’d make one look like x and one like y?
No, the shape was already designed. At the very beginning, I was not lazy or maybe I didn’t think about it, because to me I wanted to have a fresh and a warm and you could decide, but I thought it was not right. If you go there you have to be loyal to the project and I thought it’s even more powerful. It would have been a nice project but I think the power of the project comes from the fact they do have the same nine ingredients.
I know you describe Maison Francis Kurkdjian as a fragrance wardrobe and I read a funny quote where you said that Aqua Universalis is the white t-shirt and Absolue Pour le Soir is the leather trousers. Where do these two fragrances sit in that wardrobe?
I’ve changed my mind since then. Maybe these are the two that are unrelated to that because when I said that, it’s because Aqua Universalis is easy to wear, as easy as wearing a white t-shirt or white shirt, and I was thinking of Absolue Pour le Soir as leather pants because first of all, it smells a bit like sweat, which is fine for me at least, and I was underground in New York a long time when I got these ideas.
I won’t ask for more details.
It was fun – it was fun to see it. I’ve never seen things like that in Paris, so it was kind of interesting. It was a way to explain that for some people, wearing leather pants is a daily thing and the reason why I say now I don’t think the same way, it’s because my business partner took it first degree and we started to put categories for each scent, saying “oh this one is more cocktail”, but my reality is not yours.
My idea of cocktail is not the same of yours.
So you can wear leather pants every day. I wore some 20 years ago, now I don’t wear them anymore. I don’t fit in them. Great pair though – Comme des Garçons, they were super cool. This idea of the fragrance wardrobe is more the idea of my job as perfumer is to bring you the diversity as if you go to a fashion brand and you have the loyalty to a fashion brand, and to me the master of that is Yves Saint Laurent, in my mind.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian has always been interesting in the sense that you’ve been quite innovative in the products you’ve launched. It’s not just been perfume, you’ve created scented bubbles, laundry detergents and leather bracelets. Is it important to you to innovate how scent is worn and experienced?
Your question makes me feel I’m very clever. I make it because it’s fun. I make it because to me, it makes sense. All of the products we have launched so far, to me they have meaning and they have depth in to the history of perfumes. I can show you a picture on my phone, of a costume of a perfumer under the court of Louis XIV. All of these little things you see, they are written in French, it shows at the time, the modernity of the perfumer was about creating scent for everyday use. There is popourri, this shows that the perfumer was creating interior scent, these on the shoulders are scented fans because at the time people had bad breath so they used the fan to prevent the odour, here you have toothpaste, here you have gloves. It shows at the time, the perfumer was scenting everything that it was possible to scent, to make people happier and to put people in a better environment.
What is the meaning of the bubbles? Fun – there is no other meaning. The meaning of scented leather is to bring back a scent to leather which has no scent. To me, the laundry has a strong meaning because, the time I was living in the US, there you have Tide and Downy, they are super strong scents. Why would your detergent and softener not have the same scent? It does not make sense. Why would you layer? For what reason? I went to P&G to present my idea because I wanted to have the stamp of a company that has the know how of creating laundries, so I went to Belgium for a meeting. I made a company presentation on my laundry project to have the same scent for darks, white and softener, and they were looking at me as if I was an alien – “what the fuck is he telling us?” To me it makes so much sense and the laundry products are my best sellers. The production is very limited and we are always out of stock. We do one production every year and it is very technological, very complex. There is a waiting list and as soon it is released, it goes. We cannot keep the product. I believe that there is a real need – I would do the same for the mass market and there is a need for people to have coherency.
Social media is becoming more and more important and brands are becoming more reliant. How do you feel about that, given that fragrance is a difficult thing to communicate at the best of times, let alone over instagram?
I have no idea. It’s a tricky thing because scent is not conveyed by the smart phone yet. It’s going to come soon, I believe, I’m sure. My theory links perfume and food. The reason why food is so important to us – it’s the only thing that brings us back to our humanity. No matter how perfect your virtual reality headset is or whatever experience you can experience, at the end of the day, or not even at the end, at the beginning of the day you need to eat. You need to feed the machine. It goes so far by eating and what is connected to food is smell. The sense of smell is the only sense that departs us from the machine and that brings people together. To me social media is fine, it’s OK, let’s do it because we need to do it. Also because you can do e-commerce, which is a big part of the business. It brings brand awareness too. But in a way, so far I will never be able to be there because being me is being smell. So perfume is going to stay a human relationship thing, which I’m super happy about. It’s going to deny the theory of Plato, the fucking philosopher who diminished the sense of smell – he annoyed me for 3,000 years stating that the sense of smell is the sense of animality and because of that creating a perfume is not seen as a piece of art. I’m very happy because for once, the sense of smell and scent is what separates us from the machine.
One of the things that social media and the wider internet has done, is create more awareness of fragrance. There’s more of a discussion around perfume and criticism. I wonder if you think whether there is value to that?
You’ve done your research. I like you so we’re not gonna go there.
I’m probably being a bit cheeky because I know you have strong opinions on this.
I’ve had a nice lunch, I’m feeling refreshed. It’s been a long time since I’ve been naughty so let’s go there. OK so you talk a lot, but you have a less people using perfume. So all the influencers and bloggers and all that stuff is nice to get together, but it’s a niche within the niche. Trends show that there are less users of perfume and more critics so I wonder if the critics are very good?
It’s a good question.
It’s true, the numbers of users of perfume is declining globally and the number of bloggers talking about perfume is rising. I question, why? Do I pay attention? Yes but now I laugh so much. 10 years ago I was upset and I was most ‘French’. Now I won’t be ‘French’ anymore. I read and think “OK you think this is crap, OK it’s perfect, it’s fine”. 10 years after, my company is still there, we still sell. For my ego I’m doing the moderating on instagram, people sending me smiles and kisses. Once in a while someone is upset, I say “Dear Madam, I’m sorry for your experience, how can I assist you?” and she’s super happy because it’s me behind the screen. I haven’t changed my mind, you have opinions and critics.
To me the judgement comes from the people, the real ones, the ones who wear the perfume. People can say “it’s crap”, I have no problem with people saying I’m not a good perfumer or I am a good perfumer but my art is not art, or it’s too sweet or too commercial. Fine, I don’t pretend to be an artist, I just want to make people happy and I don’t force people to buy my things. I don’t believe that people are so upset or too stupid that they can’t move to someone else. It’s not my mission to save perfumery. For me it’s more painful not to be considered – if you’re shouting at me, at least your paying attention, so I’m very happy – if you yell at me it means I exist. It would be worse for people not to comment.
I prefer to talk about things I like and people I like, rather than talk about things I don’t like and people I hate. It’s a question of energy. It’s better energy to share a movie you love than kill a movie you hate.
Francis, thank you, it was a pleasure to interview you finally!
What do you think about critics?
I think there’s value to having conversation and I am a blogger so I have to own that. I’ve always worked on the basis that I will write about the things that I’m passionate about and the things I like. I can’t see the value of saying “I hated this” because someone who reads it may absolutely love that fragrance. I don’t feel like I’m an arbiter of taste – I can’t say what’s good and what’s bad, I don’t have the technical knowledge to say whether something has been composed well or not.
It’s easy to say whether it has been composed well – composition is strength. Basically you’re an architect, you build a building, it falls apart, you are a bad architect. Are you a great architect? Does it not only stay up but does it bring something new? Then it’s a question of knowledge. Perfume is super easy, it’s like ice skating – you have the technical part, how many turns can you do in the air, then you have the artistry, the beauty and the elegance. A good ice skater stands out. People should be more relaxed, I don’t know why perfume generates so much drama – it’s just perfume. At the end, do I smell good? Am I happy to wear it? Did I have comments? Easy.
Gentle Fluidity, Gold and Silver, are available in 70ml Eau de Parfum for £150.
Images are my own. Sample sent by Maison Francis Kurkdjian for consideration. I was not paid for this article, nor did Maison Francis Kurkdjian have any say in the content.