Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Photography by Bonnevier Ainsworth
Words by Jenny Pashkova

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MASTER PERFUMER FRANCIS KURKJIAN’S LIFE STORY UP UNTIL NOW READS LIKE THE THAT OF AN INCREDIBLE FRENCH BOOK OF ROMANCE ADVENTURE, BRAVERY, RISK AND FOLLOWING YOUR HEART (OR NOSE)

Shortly after graduating from perfumery school, Francis Kurkdjian won an apprenticeship at Jean Paul Gaultier, where he created a new fragrance for a training exercise. That scent became Le Male, which, 20 years on, still remains one of the world’s best-selling men’s eau de toilettes. He was only 25. It was a startling rise for a boy brought up in a small town in the east suburbs of Paris, whose only dream was to become a ballet dancer. Now the founder of his own eponymous fragrance house, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, he specialises not only in creating new smells but turning them into extravagant 3D installations. “My aim is to give people a modern vision of what fragrance means,” he says. “How it accompanies each of us in our daily lives. How is it a part of us.”

How did you start out in perfume?
I applied to ISIPCA (the perfumery school in Versailles, France) aged 20 and won my first fragrance project at Jean Paul Gaultier. There was not even the shadow of a perfumer in my family but I grew up curious about everything and developed a love of handicrafts. After a short-lived career as a classical ballet dancer, I pursued couture. Unfortunately, my pencil refused attempts at design! Aged 14, I read a piece about perfumers in the glossy pages of a French magazine, VSD, featuring Jacques Polge’s Chanel, Jean Kerléo’s Jean Patou, Françoise Caron, Jean-Louis Sieuzac and Annick Goutal. It was a revelation.

Can you give an example of some of your perfume installations? What has been your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite. Each olfactory installation is the opportunity to engage in a dialogue between the public and a place by using smell as an emotional medium. I worked with the French artist Yann Toma to create a drinkable scented water for an art exhibit in the South of France, and also created the fragrance‘The Smell of Money’ for French artist Sophie Calle. I’ve created olfactory installations for the Castle of Versailles, recreated the scent of Queen Marie Antoinette, scented couture shows and so on. My last two installations were the creation of a scent to per- fume the fountain of the Biennale des Antiquaires in the Grand Palais and a multi-sensory art installation with the artist Hratch Arbach, with scent wax nails.

Do you still create perfumes for other brands?
Yes I still create scents for other companies. I love that. It opens my mind; nurtures my creativity. When I create for someone else, I enter a world that is not mine. It is like learning a new vocabulary to create a story that is not necessary yours at first sight. For the past 20 years, I have worked for some of the greatest designers and creative people in the world. From Elie Saab to Jean Paul Gaultier; Narciso Rodriguez; Hedi Slimane, while he was working at Dior; Giorgio Armani; not to mention brands such as Ferragamo, Guerlain and now Christopher Bailey at Burberry.

What is the first fragrance you created for your brand and how did you choose its notes and ingredients?
Aqua Universalis was one of the first perfumes I’ve launched for Maison Francis Kurkdjian. It translates the feeling of freshness, the space between your clothing and your skin. It’s about fresh, crisp cotton. It’s today one of our star products and the reason for this is because it represents the perfect balance between the brightness of a contemporary fragrance and the depth of a classic scent. It’s a truly French- style with a unique blend of modern white sheer flowers, bright musky notes and a soft woody base.

How did you create Le Male?
I was 25 years old when I started to create Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier. I was fresh out of the perfumery school. At the same time I did a marketing course after work. I met the CEO of Gaultier’s fragrance business during my marketing scholarship. She gave me the project to work as a training case and apprenticeship. After our first meeting when I presented my ideas for the project, she said she would present them to Jean Paul Gaultier himself for his opinion. He liked one of the routes. That one became Le Male after eight month of hard work and commitment. Le Male is the quintessential fragrance of masculinity. As a modern classic, Le Male symbolises the idea of the contemporary sensuality by Jean Paul Gaultier. The fragrance is built on a sensual lavender accord supported by a very soft and comfortable musky base combined with a creamy vanilla accord. It’s the men’s scent by excellence! Part of the sensual accord, a cocktail of top notes such as cinnamon and cumin enhances the idea of sensuality and brings a sophisticated final touch. The sillage/ aura/trail of Le Male makes the scent very unique in the fragrance world. It’s sexy without being heavy and gives the wearer distinctiveness.

Can you tell us how you pinpointed the scent of Marie Antoinette? What were the notes?
It all began when I met the historian specialist of perfume, Élisabeth de Feydeau, in 2003. She was writing a biography about one of Marie Antoinette’s perfumer, Jean Louis Fargeon. We knew the taste of the queen for flowers, especially roses and iris. We knew, too, that the queen loved fresh cut bouquet, almost different from the heavy musky and amber fragrances generally used at XVIIIème century. Reading the perfumer Fargeon formulas, I realised that I could compose a fragrance in that way, using only unique natural raw materials. The first formulas were amazing, with a smell too strong for our nose of XXIème century. But step by step, inspired by the garden, and by the sensibility of this woman, the perfume was born. The Queen of France, coming from Austria, was eating boiled vegetables and meat, having a bath every day, riding a horse. She was happy to be out of the “cour” in her little paradise, either at the Trianon or later at Le Hameau, with her flowers and animals, living like a peasant. This was really a scandalous behaviour at the time: The Queen of France, one of the most powerful and influential countries in Europe, living as a peasant! She was out of everything and this gave me the direction to create “Sillage de la Reine”. Then the most difficult part was “talking” with someone who disappeared 200 years ago! I found a great help on Marie Antoinette’s life through Stefan Zweig’s biography of her, reading the book of Mrs Frezer who inspired Sophia Coppola for her movie about the late Queen. There was definitely a Marie Antoinette momentum at that period. The other difficulty was to compose a fragrance respectful of the rules of creation and composition of the XVIIIth century in harmony with the level of smell of our period.

What new launches do you have coming up?
I just launched Pluriel. The idea around this perfume was that individuals have multiple lives not only in one day but during the course of our life as well. This is how and why I came up with Pluriel (Plural). Then I asked myself what would be the associated scent with such a name? I decided to explore the idea of a timeless fragrance that will gather all the facets of our personality. However, I rapidly could not envision one single scent carrying all my emotions. Women and men are so different. Hence, I decided to add the French adjectives féminin (for feminine) and masculine (for masculine) before each scent. Both fragrances are inspired by the same idea of timeless elegance. During their creation, I was obsessed with the quest of what makes a fragrance timeless, what are the elements that convey the idea of passing through Time. In my mind, each scent on its own had to be the essence of femininity and masculinity with no doubt, no question. That was my creative challenge.