Interview: the House of Francis Kurkdjian joins LVMH
The Maison Francis Kurkdjian has announced its sale to LVMH. We meet its creator, a perfume composer with an unusual history.
Numéro: You announced on Monday March 20th that the Maison Francis Kurkdjian will be joining the LVMH Group…
Francis Kurkdjian: Before us all my little comrades have all sought refuge in the lap of a big group [Éditions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, Le Labo and Kilian with Estée Lauder, Serge Lutens with Shiseido, Byredo and Diptyque with Manzanita Capital… editor’s note]. If everyone had stayed independent there would have been a perpetuation of a real niche market. But only two or three actors share this market. We had to put a considerable amount of energy into everything only to platform after five years. We needed to feel supported in the dimension we wanted to give the house. LVHM approached us and got to know us. It is a genuine partner joining us today as the major shareholder.
You’re the nose behind a huge number of perfumes including Le Mâle by Jean Paul Gaultier, Cologne Blanche and Eau Noire by Christian Dior, For Her (in duo with Christine Nagel) and For Him by Narciso Rodriguez, as well as perfume for Elie Saab, and My Burberry by Burberry… On top of that your own perfume company, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, has created 25 perfumes. What led you to becoming a perfumer?
I’d never planned on becoming a perfumer… I grew up in the suburbs in an Armenian family with open minded parents who when I was a kid accepted me wanting to do classical ballet every day after school. There was the cane at my lessons and our feet were strapped to the barre to achieve ailes de pigeon. It was very hard. I learnt constraint, discipline and endless starting over. Aged 13 I failed to get onto the Opera and slowly began to stop dancing until I was 25. Then I tried fashion. I was told I didn’t have a future in it. At the time perfume was a continuation of couture. And that was how I ended up here. It all worked out and I never even questioned whether I liked it or not.
“I never planned on becoming a perfumer.”
You signed your first perfume at the age of 25 which is an exceptional feat. And that creation, Le Mâle by Jean Paul Gaultier, quickly became one of the world’s best-selling fragrances.
My beginnings in the business were pretty unusual. I’d created Le Mâle just after I finished studying, when most perfumers experience their first success around the age of 45. After having been to perfume school I got a job at the Quest fragrance company. At the same time I was doing a course in luxury marketing. It was there at a graduation ceremony that Chantal Roos - then the president of Jean Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake perfumes - gave me her card and asked to meet me. I entered her office on July 20th1994 under my own name because Quest had told me I couldn’t go to her on behalf of the company. I summarised my brief. And she was impatient to talk to me about Jean Paul Gaultier. But it wasn’t my world. She talked about an exercise around a men’s fragrance, the olfactive sensations of lavender on the skin of a chic man who’s just been swimming in the sea… and then she said to call her if I had any ideas. The perfumers went on holiday. I carried on working discreetly, and it was her who came back to me. There was panic at Quest who thought it outrageous that such an important woman in the perfume world should be in contact with a newbie like me. I was put into the hands of a perfumer. I saw her again and she was interested in my trials. Suddenly Jean Paul Gaultier validated the choice. For the four months of work it took to finalise the project I was all alone. My only support came from the girls who weighed out the raw materials. When Quest found out that my perfume had been chosen, it was complete hysteria. Le Mâle was released and was an instant commercial success. Quest sent me to the USA. I realised then that my life as a perfumer could be short lived, almost like the rocket that had gone off too soon.
“I realised that my life as a perfumer would be short. As if a rocket had gone off to soon.”
Was there something missing then?
No, but there was an anticipated wear in relation to the job. I compressed my life as a perfumer by two decades. I was treated like a dog. I had doubts. The success was so great that I thought the story of Mâle would resume my entire career.
So your journey into perfumery began with a certain singularity, a sort of solitude?
No, not a solitude, but an independence yes, accompanied by a vision and a commitment. My path has been a wide reaching fan of my activities and my freedom. As well as working as a perfumer, I have continued doing artistic collaborations in the shape of olfactive installations like the one I did at the Château de Versailles [the ornamental lakes by the Orangerie were perfumed with orange blossom in tribute to Louis XIV’s penchant for the scent. Editor’s note]. I learnt how to make choices. Leaving Quest for a smaller and more human company like Takasago was one of them. Working on the creation of made-to-measure perfumes was another, doing perfume differently, using other means and making them for other people too. And the creation in 2009 of my own house with my partner Marc Chaya.
“I learnt how to make choices.”
Establishing your own perfume house, was that the ultimate goal?
No, my house was never going to be a finality. It was a happy accident, linked to me meeting my partner. My house is a part of what I like about perfumery, a little something extra.
What is your process, how do you operate when creating a perfume?
Whether I’m working for me or for other houses my process is always the same. Starting from a brief I have to succeed in building my story. I have to find the word or the name that will be the frame in which I will evolve and determine my creative journey. On a daily basis I have 25 to 40 projects on the go, sometimes even 50. The lexical field has a dominating place.
“On a daily basis I have 25 to 40 projects on the go.”
What project are you working on at the moment in your own house?
I’m thinking about a new perfume for 2018 based around transgender. Today there is a redefinition of sexuality. It’s in the corner of my mind and I don’t really know yet where it’s going to take me. Without being caught up in any sort of social demands, I like the house to be connected with what’s going on in the world, obviously taking into consideration the 18 months’ time lag necessary for me to move an idea into its commercialisation. I am a citizen and I want to be fully aware of what’s happening. This connection nourishes me. Now I have the means to express myself differently, to commit myself too. In fact every Monday I help out at a soup kitchen. I’ve got the means to do it and so I make the time to do it.
What has been your greatest olfactive adventure?
Well obviously there’s been the opening of my house because all odds were against us. And then there’s my project with Syrian artist Hratch Arbach, presented at the 2014 Nuit Blanche in the Saint-Séverin Church in Paris. I created three scents evoking blood, earth and jasmine that perfumed 20,000 wax nails laid on the floor. Every visitor chose their nail and let it melt on a monolith liberating the fragrance. This collaboration was very important to me. In my job we only ever talk about beautiful things and beautiful materials. We’re disconnected from the world. That kind of project anchors me in reality.
“In my job, we only talk about beautiful things and beautiful materials.”
What are your favourite creations?
I don’t like anything. You learn how to break everything down because if you like something too much, you get stuck and can’t see beyond it. I always look ahead, towards something I haven’t done. The rest remains imperfect.
For you what relationship does perfume have with the brain, the body and desire?
Work-work-perfume, the perfume-brain relationship is my daily life. Alas I myself haven’t worn perfume for years now. I love the hint of a perfume that fades away in the nape of the neck. When you rub up against someone and their odour comes off onto you. It’s so beautiful, and sometimes very sexual. It’s a sensation of humanity. A look can tell lies, even looking straight into the eye. The mouth can too. But not a perfume, or an odour. A hated perfume provokes rejection by the body.
“I love the hint of a perfume that’s fading away in nape of a neck.”
What do you think about the perfume of tomorrow?
I’m very happy because everything is going in the perfumer’s direction. When I started out no one talked about niche brands. Then along came Serge Lutens, and Frédéric Malle. The future looks pretty sunny; it no longer belongs to composition houses, but to the perfumer who has taken a real place in the heart of the houses. In reality the perfumer should have the same positon as a designer of fine jewellery…
With perfume being a volatile liquid, is it more difficult for a perfumer than a designer to materialise it?
It’s not because a perfume is immaterial that I don’t have an idea of the bottle or the visual that should accompany it. Serge Lutens is a make-up artist, and he knew how to create a whole world in perfumes. It’s true that for perfumers it is more complicated, because history has seen us go from a hyper-artisanal era to a hyper-industrialised one without the artistic dimension being considered in our craft. From the moment we got the new molecules, it wasn’t to do olfactive installations or fun things, it was always just about making perfume and selling as much as possible. Perfume became a financial tool and not a wide open field of potential exploration. We got left behind without acquiring an aesthetic vision of perfumery.