When Jean Paul Gaultier Le Mâle was launched in 1995, its creator, Francis Kurkdjian, became a perfume star. That auspicious debut was followed by a succession of high-profile releases that have made the 50-year-old one of the most respected perfumers of his generation.
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Chances are you’ve worn one of his scents without knowing he created it. These fragrances include: Elizabeth Arden Green Tea EDT (1999), Lancôme Miracle Homme EDT (2001), Guerlain Rose Barbare EDP (2005), Narciso Rodriguez For Him EDT (2007), Elie Saab Le Parfum EDP (2011), Carven Pour Homme EDT (2014) and Mr Burberry EDT (2016).
In 2009, he launched his own perfume company, Maison Francis Kurkdjian. With releases such as Baccarat Rouge 540, Grand Soir, Oud Satin Mood, and Aqua Universalis, it has become a success story of the niche industry boom.
In this interview, the perfumer talks about his creative process, working with oud, and getting old.
When did your love of perfumery start? Apparently, you were thinking of becoming a ballet dancer.
That was my dream. It’s still my dream job. I’m too old now. But ballet is not a crazy passion the way people sometimes speak about doing something for passion.
My work is very demanding, but I hate fanaticism. No matter what its objective, it’s too much. Perfume is important, but not to the point where you become a fanatic.
I was a teenager when I started to become fascinated with perfumes. Not only the scent but I was also hooked on the whole thing – the name, the bottle, the story, the ad.
The 80s were a great era for perfume. When I show my team my references, usually I go back to that decade.
80s perfumes were very unapologetic and big.
Yes, for a scent to be successful, it needs to be big. I remember Fahrenheit, Kouros, Giorgio, Poison…
Your international debut was with Jean Paul Gaultier Le Mâle. Did you feel any pressure to repeat its huge success?
Yes, it was my first perfume. It changed the way men use perfume and it brought something different to the perfume industry.
But I don’t look backward. I don’t put my prizes on my chimney. Every time I create a scent I try to bring something new. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you don’t. It also depends on the brand you work for.
Congratulations on Maison Francis Kurkdjian celebrating its 10th year in business this year. There’s no doubting your creative flair. Would you call yourself a good businessman?
Thank you. I have a great business partner [Marc Chaya] who really knows how to take care of the brand.
I’m a good businessman but from far away. I felt it was the right time for me to launch my brand. But it’s more about creative / business. I’m not a good businessman for running a company.
Marc gives me advice and shares his creative vision with me. By far, the company has been successful thanks to him. I create scents, but he gives them resonance with the team in Paris. We now have 60 people in the Paris office. Every two years, we double the size of the company.
That’s a lot of people to worry about.
No, I don’t worry anymore. When we sold a majority stake to LVMH [the French luxury goods giant, in 2017], I felt freer, which is interesting. I did not expect to feel that way. If something happens to me, the company belongs to a corporation that is capable of pursuing what I started.
It’s not that I don’t care about the brand, but I care more about the people because it’s 60 families in France. In the US, it’s about 150 people. It’s a responsibility. If tomorrow I want to quit, say, I can do so and people can take care of the brand. So I’m very happy at the moment.
You’re admired by many people for your oud fragrances, although you actually create many other types of fragrances, too. How do you approach it?
Oud was basically an alternative to me for using the animalic notes that are more and more forbidden in perfumery.
I then asked myself: Should I use oud the way they do in the Middle East, or should I do it the way I think I should do it? Oud comes from India and it’s very popular in the Middle East, but I should use oud the way I use patchouli from Malaysia in European perfume.
What is a European perfume? What is a French perfume? So I went back to history because I love it. The glass-makers in Versailles were Venetians, the scented leathers came from Italy or Spain, and the laces from northern Europe.
What I love about France is its capacity to integrate people because of the idea of beauty and aesthetics and balance. I’m trying to be faithful to that idea of France, because when my grandparents emigrated here from Armenia [they fled the genocide], it was to the country of freedom. That was in 1922.
You also juggle your maison with your work for other brands such as Elie Saab, Burberry, and Kenzo. How do you approach them?
It’s a different mindset. The best comparison I can give you is if you’re an actor and you perform in a movie with a director on a set that’s not yours. Or as an actor you direct a movie.
When I work for someone else, first of all you need to read a script, which is brief, and you search for what can resonate with you. You’re given most of the work. I mean you’re given the material, the landscape is designed for you.
Whereas for my brand, I am the source of the inspiration, and then with my team, I build around it. It’s very egocentric. I’ve always been scared of that egocentrism because I see the damage it brings to the creative community. I got scared when I started working for some people and I saw the egomania and craziness. You don’t really want to become one of those monsters.
Tell us about your creative process.
We’re launching a new scent in six months’ time. Only now am I happy to smell it. That’s my process. I work on it. I smell it. I wear it. I’m not happy. I rephrase the formula, because at some point we need to launch it. I take another two to three weeks, then I’m pretty happy with what I’ve created. Now it smells good, but I know in a few weeks it won’t smell good anymore.
Do you get to a stage where you have to let it go, otherwise you’ll keep on changing things?
Yes, it’s not like a painting. I can’t be like Leonardo da Vinci changing my painting all the time. Sometimes it’s a formula. You have to freeze it.
A painter is never happy and he’s looking for the ideal. The ideal in perfume exists, but once you freeze the formula and it’s available to the public, you can’t change it, unless you have to reformulate it [due to safety regulations].
Which perfume do you want to be remembered most for?
Not yet. I hope I have a few more years. I give myself 10 years.
I was shocked when I saw Nureyev dancing in one of his last performances. I felt sad, even though I had much respect for what he’d achieved. It’s like a singer and they keep on singing their old standards.
I don’t want to become one of those artists, even though I don’t consider myself an artist, who were great and totally unable to quit. There’s something sad and heavy and heart-breaking about that. I don’t want to be a perfumer without something to say.
I think I have found for me the definition of getting old. It’s when you think it was better before, when you start saying it was better yesterday. I want to make sure I’m not going to be indulging in that kind of nostalgia.
How do you keep inspired?
You have to work at it. You have to stay connected with your era.
I try to take the subway and the bus in Paris. I know I’m part of the five percent of the global population who’s very lucky. I can go to the supermarket and chat with the cashier about life. I have that freedom of interaction. Some people don’t have that, because they are too famous.
What do you think about the rise of niche brands?
It’s like going back to the basics, the roots. It was comfortable for perfumers to rely on great couture brands to maintain their fame and craft. As perfume got democratized, perfumers did not stand up for standards and quality.
If you are a perfumer for big brands, you make a lot of money, you have a big car, an assistant, you are maintained in a big cocoon. But if you’re not careful, things can collapse, and this is what happened.
We have emerging niche brands because the big brands don’t deliver quality anymore. It’s hidden because of too much marketing and irrelevant concepts.
Richard Goller is a fragrance and grooming blogger. His blog is called Fragroom. A senior editor with 20 years' experience, his blog allows him to combine two of his passions: engaging content and the always-intriguing world of fragrances. When he isn't blogging, you'll find Richard indulging in his newly found passion for balcony gardening.