Francis Kurkdjian is the Dick Page of Perfumers
Ahead of two fall fragrance launches, the iconic perfumer talks why he's against deodorant, layering scents, and selfies.
The man behind such iconic scents as Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male and Narciso by Narciso Rodriguez is nobody’s fool. Francis Kurkdjian is smart, thoughtful, passionate and opinionated. And we could talk to him for days; unfortunately, we only had about an hour. He recently stopped by the W offices to talk about his two Maison Francis Kurkdjian fall launches, and just about everything in between.
I can’t get over how many fragrances are launching for fall. The number grows every year.
Yeah. When someone comes up to the counter, it’s not, “What is good?” It’s, “What is new?”
I see you made a little film to introduce your new creations.
We did a little movie that we’ll be using on social media. Here’s the thing: You have to be on social media, especially if you’re a small brand, because you have to get the word out there.
Do you hate that?
No…Even though I’m not comfortable with it, because I do not like doing selfies, I don’t like to spread too much about my life. [But] I believe that when you work with journalists – and we work with journalists quite a lot – you have to do it. It’s just a question of how you do it. I don’t put selfies on my account, for instance.
Don’t ever do selfies.
I don’t do things like that. I post things that I like every once in a while, but I don’t do that stuff. It’s not necessary. And I’m lucky because it’s not a public job, you know? It’s not very visual. Once you photograph your desk with a formula on it, it’s your desk with a formula on it. I do that every once in a while because people love it, but the feel of jasmine remains the feel of jasmine. It’s not like fashion, where you can infuse more newness.
But hold on. I’m not sure I agree about it not being a public job. The perfumer is becoming more and more the celebrity.
It’s funny you say that, because I did an interview a few months ago where I said that one day a brand will pick a perfumer because he has followers on Instagram.
I’m sure! I’m sure it is going to go that way. I’ve been in the business about 20 years. That’s enough time to look back; it’s almost a generation. And my trainee, he’s been working for me for four years and now he works, instead of me, for Carven and brands I would usually take over. And now I’m passing it on…
Really? You’re letting him take over?
It’s what you do. I’m getting old and tired sometimes. And he is so enthusiastic about everything that I’m like, this one is going to take care of things, even better than I could do it. Anyway, I see things changing. 25 years ago, it was all about the designer. When I did Jean Paul Gaultier, I was at the press launch and they didn’t say anything about the perfumer. My name was not even printed in the release. From the [fashion] designer, we went to the “story.” From the story, to the ingredient, because it was, at the end of the 90s, all about the ingredients. There was a funny story for a fragrance launch about the blue poppy from the Himalayans. How weird is that? It doesn’t make sense.
Why doesn’t it make sense?
Well, poppy doesn’t smell, first of all.
And it doesn’t grow in the Himalayas, either, does it?
No. it doesn’t exist.
It made for a good story.
They thought it would be a good story, but in the end, it had a boomerang effect because everyone laughed at it. Like, Stop it. To me, that was the end of the ingredient story. And then it moved to perfumers. Jacques Cavalier was one of the first to ever be the star perfumer, because he had this heat. He was quite young and he made three hits in a row—the two [Issey Miyake] L’Eau d’Isseys and Jean Paul Gaultier Classic. He was a great composer. He opened the door for people like me because I was younger. And now, I see how fashion is moved by influencers being selected to create product instead of designers. If this happened to me tomorrow, I would just quit. I couldn’t handle it. I mean, it’s nonsense. I think we’re creating another big monster that no one will be able to control. It gives the feeling that, little by little, anybody could create a perfume.
It’s like saying you can layer perfumes. It’s my job to create a perfume. All of a sudden, you tell people that they can mix and match things. Okay, you do it because that’s your choice, but it means, in a way, that your perfumes are not good enough to stand by themselves. You might not like [a perfume], but at least don’t say, “Just buy them and mix them.”
How do you feel about the fact that a number of brands are launching perfume collections, then?
Chanel does a great job with that, in my mind. They are an example of building a collection, but it’s more like for connoisseurs. You learn something about the brand because each perfume says something about what Chanel is about—either a color, a texture, Boy [Capel, Coco Chanel’s lover], whatever. What I don’t understand is when brands keep doing collections with ingredient names. Because I think there is no added value to the brand. My feeling is when you do something for a connoisseur, you need to bring something more about the brand than something about the ingredient. And what is your distinction between Vetiver Amber and Vetiver Blee Blee and Vetiver Blah Blah?
Vetiver Blah Blah does have a nice ring to it…
But it doesn’t bring anything to your brand! Each perfume you launch has to build the brand and be part of its story. It’s like a jigsaw [puzzle], and your jigsaw can expand but you have to start with your core values and who you truly are. And, little by little you can enlarge the picture, but you have to think that the center point still remains who you are. Never forget that a perfume is a message in a bottle.
Wow. Does your nose get tired?
My nose? Or my brain?
Your nose. You said you were getting old.
No, it’s my brain, not my nose. You have to be connected to your time. I have a weird theory, and I know my business partner doesn’t like my theory but I’m pretty sure I’m quite accurate. Perfumers have a time lapse of about 15 years for creativity.
That’s almost like a dancer’s longevity.
Yes. I agree. From 25 to 35-40. And then you start to reinvent yourself. Some people did it perfectly, like Baryshnikov. Since I started super early, at 25 [creating Le Male] for Gaultier, I was concerned very quickly about what should happen at 40.
Meaning you had a plan?
No, I had no plan, but when La Male came into my life… It was the first perfume I did. Usually that type of hit–
Happens when you’re about 40?
More or less.
So you were precocious.
I was, for many years, competing with people who were, like 15 years older than I was. Now it’s the same because all my peers [from back then] have moved on. But basically, when I started at 25, Jacques was already 32, and others were 40 or 50. When I started doing bespoke, I was 30. When I built my company, I was 40.
Let’s talk about what sells a fragrance.
You have to grab the consumer’s attention right away.
Because the consumer has A.D.D.
Yeah, A.D.D. There is a gap between what an industry can like and the reality [of what sells] at the counter. The best thing that happened to me was, I had to do a recap for my brand. I spent time at the counter in unbelievable places I would never think to go to, like Newport Beach, or Tampa, Florida. Would I ever go there as a tourist? But when you go there for business and you meet people and you understand why they’re into perfume and why they get perfume, it gives you a picture. [I realized] there’s this huge lack of simplicity in perfume.
Lack of simplicity?
Yes. The message, when we talk about the message in the bottle, it has to be very clear and very simple to get. I discuss that with Mathilde Thomas [founder of Caudalie skin care], because we’re both French. She told me that when she came here, she had to repackage everything because she had too many messages on the product, and you can’t do that here. It’s like, as you say, that ADD. You have to stay focused, one message. My new perfume should have been called Perfume Life 24/7. But when I gave my team in the U.S. that name or Lights in Paris, which did they pick?
It has to be spoon fed, as we say here.
We say that too. Anyway, I learned all these things, because when I talk to a brand, there is my perfumer head and my business head. I have to think with both. It’s very interesting.
And you’re also thinking about the consumer in Newport Beach or Florida.
Or in Okinawa, Japan, which is another story because they don’t wear perfume.
But don’t you think that’s also why these brands are doing collections? To please someone everywhere?
Yeah. Collections are mainly tapped for the Middle East.
That’s where the money is.
The more expensive it is, the better they think it is. That’s also a thing in perfume that you don’t have anywhere else. The price tag gives the label quality.
Cache. What is your best seller in Dubai?
Baccarat Rouge 540, because [it's called] Baccarat, because it’s red and gold, and because of the trail [the degree to which the scent lingers]. To sell perfume today, you have to have a trail. Otherwise, it won’t work.
I want to have a trail, too, but I want it to be this sheer, thoughtful trail.
No, no. That’s a technical point. Today, to leave a trail, the choices are very limited. We don’t have the material yet. I believe that’s going to be the next generation. Perfumers who will be able to play with new molecules and product to achieve that.
Can you smell what I’m wearing today?
You switched fragrances. Usually you wear Le Labo [Santal 33].
I know, but everyone’s wearing it now. I’m pissed off.
I smelled it on someone in the lobby downstairs.
My point exactly. Now, I’m just slutting myself out, trying lots of different ones these days. I’m trying a few Verts. And I do think that the Vert category is getting a little louder.
In terms of notes?
In terms of the general zeitgeist. In terms of people hearing it in fragrance.
It’s related to nature, so everyone is talking about being more natural.
Let’s talk about your past. What is your favorite smell?
Oh, I have so many I love.
Give me three.
The smell of a hot, sand beach. The neck of someone I love, and I wear his deodorant. I made a mistake and I now have his with me. When I packed, I didn’t turn on the bathroom light, and I grabbed his instead.
What smell do you hate?
Oh, like normal people.
You hate the smell of normal people???
No! You know, what we all hate, like the smell of garbage when you mix sardines with all that stuff in summer. The streets of New York with all the garbage.
Frederic Malle said the same thing. Funny, I don’t think about that. What was your first fragrance?
Carven Vetiver. It was a gift from my mother.
How old were you?
I was young. Maybe 14 or 15.
What did your mother wear?
Oh, many things. Fidji by Guy Laroche. Madame Rochas. In a way, my mother was very traditional. Madame Rochas was expected, it was a best seller. She also had Empreinte by Courreges, very dark. She had very traditional perfumes, but, I believe, in categories that were not the best but they were very kind of special. Empreinte was a twist around [Clinique] Aromatics Elixir. Very chypre, dark, dirty. My father gave her First by Van Cleef and Arpels when I was born. Super classy. And then the first perfume she wore from me was Narciso.
I’d never done a woman’s before Narciso. I did Fragile by Gaultier, but Fragile was too dramatic for her.
If we pulled back shower curtain, what would we find?
Nothing, I wash with hot water twice a day. And once a week, I wash my hair with Christophe Robin Salt Scrub.
Oh my god, everyone is obsessed with that! And you don’t use shower gel or anything because you’re a perfumer?
No, because my dermatologist told me not to, so I follow her. Step by step. Every once in a while, I bring in my Christophe Robin pot and I have my Aqua Universalis shower gel, but I have no body problems. None, which is unbelievable. And every time I talk about it, people think I’m super weird.
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