Eau de Rimbaud

A young cognac scion finds poetry in perfume.

by Jennifer Weil


In all of France, there are few private libraries more impressive than the one in St. Brice château in Cognac, the seat of the Hennessy clan. The walls are hung with ancient Flemish tapestry and the shelves hold rare treasures such as a complete edition of Diderot’s L’Encyclopédie, dating back to 1772. Fragrance maker Kilian Hennessy, 35, spent his first five years on the estate and still spends hours in the library during his frequent visits. “It’s fantastic,” says Hennessy, who was named after his grandfather and LVMH cofounder, Kilian Hennessy. “It’s my favorite place there.”

It was in the library, early on, where Hennessy developed his “addiction” to books. And it is his love for books—18th- and 19th-century French literature, in particular—that informs the first collection of his fragrance company, By Kilian. “One of the greatest French poets, who is a poet of smells—of perfumes—is Baudelaire, with his Les Fleurs du Mal,” says Hennessy, who makes frequent references to Rimbaud, Verlaine, Balzac and Baudelaire when discussing his creations. His darkly romantic collection of six scents, L’Oeuvre Noire (the Black Masterpiece), is like a love letter to those authors.

Hennessy is sitting in his lavender-walled office on Paris’s Avenue Matignon. Dressed in an oxford shirt opened wide at the neck and well-worn jeans, he is boyishly handsome. His take on fragrance, however, is distinctly old-school. “I want to put perfume back on a pedestal,” he says, citing Chanel No. 5 and No. 19, Cristalle, Eau Sauvage, Fahrenheit, Diorissimo, Femme by Rochas and “all of the Guerlain perfumes up to maybe 20 years ago” as among the classics. Those scents, he says, were made with “the highest standard, with a vision.” But the craft of fragrance making, he believes, has been in decline, due to lack of training and the get-rich-quick nature of the business. “Now all big brands launch three perfumes a year,” he scoffs.

Hennessy became interested in fragrance while studying at the Sorbonne. He had originally planned to do a thesis on luxury but became so interested in scents that he decided to make his topic the semantics of smells. He took classes at Cinquième Sens, a fragrance school in Paris, and met some of the fragrance greats, including Maurice Roger, then president of Parfums Christian Dior. “Roger told me, ‘If you want to do the business, you have to learn perfume like an artisan,’” Hennessy recalls.

He interned at the fragrance house Firmenich and, after graduation, started training with veteran noses. Hennessy went on to develop and market scents for the majors, including Dior, Paco Rabanne, Alexander McQueen and Giorgio Armani. But by working for the large companies, he explains, “there was always the problem of someone’s taste against your own.” Furthermore, he disagreed with the very philosophy behind big fragrance launches: “All of the fashion designers believe that because they have an aesthetic sense, they have an aesthetic for everything.” So last year, craving the freedom to make a scent that was his alone, he started By Kilian.

“It was courageous for him to have created his own company,” says Victoire de Castellane, creative director of fine jewelry at Dior and one of Hennessy’s cousins. “He’s always had a certain strength. And I would say he’s the most artistic in the family.”

Many of the L’Oeuvre Noire scents have what Hennessy calls “a very classic touch.” For instance, his A Taste of Heaven, Absinthe Verte, a blend of orange blossom, Turkish rose and lavender, “smells like it could have been done a long time ago.” And he has no interest in the current trend of bizarre fragrance combinations. “I like perfumes to smell good,” he says emphatically. The collection includes two women’s, two men’s and two unisex scents. The women’s fragrances are called the Ingenues (a reference to Verlaine) and the men’s scents are grouped under the name the Artificial Paradises (harking back to Baudelaire). Starting in October the line will be sold at a handful of stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and the perfumery Aedes de Venustas, both in New York.

“Perfume should either be a shield, to create an environment of ease, or else a weapon of seduction,” says Hennessy, who wooed his wife, Melonie, with a scent he created for her. “Every new creation should open a new olfactory route—and not be a simple copy.”