Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Twenty Blotters For... Karyn Khoury

Pick a blotter... read the question... give a short, snappy answer!

You may not know her name, but I'm pretty sure you know her work. Here's a list for you. Estée Lauder's Beautiful, Pleasures, Beyond Paradise, Sensuous and Knowing. Prescriptives' Calyx. Tom Ford's Private Blends. All of those perfumes - and many, many others - owe their existence, at least in part, to Karyn Khoury. As a creative director at the Lauder group (her official title is Senior Vice President of Corporate Fragrance Development Worldwide) she has played a key role in the conception and construction of several undisputed American classics, with the result that she's now something of a living legend in the industry. Her career - which began in the late 70s at an olfactory materials production company - has seen her collaborating with some of the most renowned perfumers of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as Mrs Estée Lauder herself, and various other members of the Lauder family, including Evelyn and Aerin. In short, she is a treasure trove of knowledge and experience.

During a recent visit to London, she agreed to have a chat with me about her career - which marked the first time she'd granted an interview to a UK-based blogger - and I decided that the best way to kick off our encounter would be to dig out my question-bearing blotters, a prospect she met with a chuckle and a twinkle in her eye. Following our little game, my conversation with her spanned a range of topics, including her relationship with Mrs Lauder, her thoughts on some of her most important scent creations and, of course, her views on the Lauder company's acquisition of Frederic Malle. But you'll have to wait a tiny bit longer to read about all that. Today, it's over to the blotters...

In the beginning

At what age did you realise that you would enter the perfume industry?

I was 25. It was pure accident. I was an administrative assistant. I had gone to secretarial school and I had done all my work in that field. You have to remember, at that time, no-one knew that the perfume industry existed. Journalists weren't writing about it. People didn't know. Who knew it could be a career? I applied for an administrative assistant job at a fragrance house, for a woman who ran evaluation, who did what I now do. She became my mentor and set me on the path. Her name was Grace Brady. Unfortunately, she's no longer alive. I worked for her and the five evaluators. Then, over time, she would train me, so after work, at night, two or three times a week, we would smell. She took me through the original Haarmann & Reimer genealogies. We took it family by family. And that's how my career started.

Can you remember who introduced you to perfumery?

On a professional level, it was Grace Brady. But on a personal level, it was my mom. One of my first memories - I was quite young - is of my mother, all dressed up for a special evening out with my dad. You have to remember, this was the early 60s, and she had one of those little fur stoles they would wear. And I remember my mom leaning down to kiss me goodnight, and me smelling her and her perfume. She was wearing Ambush by Dana. Many years later, that memory and that image still stay with me, so that's how I first learned to associate fragrance with something special and pretty, and women being all dressed up.

What are some of your most memorable smell-related childhood experiences?

My mother is Italian. I am a second generation American. One set of my grandparents came from Italy and one set from Syria. Khoury is Syrian. It's my maiden name, although I am married. One of my favourite scent memories is when my mother and my aunt - we lived in a town house and they lived on the top floor and we lived in the middle - would cook. The smell of sauce and spices! They cooked like my grandmother taught them. No recipes. A little bit of this. A little bit of that. And I can still remember Sunday morning and the way the house smelt. It was just, just amazing. And here's another memory. I love the smell of Coppertone suntan lotion, because when I was a child, that's what my mother used on us, and it takes me to weekends on the beach with my parents.

What is the first perfume you ever bought for someone else?

I'm not sure it was the first, but I remember buying a gift set of Charlie as a birthday gift for a friend. Charlie was very, very big in the 70s. All of us were wearing it.

If you could go back in time and meet your younger self, what advice would you give her?

That is an amazing question! I would say two things. One: believe in yourself. It took me a lot of years to become convinced about myself and become confident that I had a talent and an ability to do this. In fact, when Grace Brady wanted to promote me to be an evaluator, I said No. And she said, 'What do you mean, No?' I said, 'I don't think I can do this. I don't think I have the talent or the skill.' She told a perfumer who worked with us and had been part of the team training me. I'll never forget, he was this big, gruff, Italian guy. He called me in his office. And he yelled at me for twenty-five minutes. 'What are you doing? You know you have the talent! You know you have the skill!' And I walked out an evaluator. And number two: have a little bit more patience. When you put Italian together with Syrian... [she smiles and shrugs]

Complete the following sentences

Without perfume my life is... less colourful.

One perfume which I particularly admire is... Terre D'Hermès.

The perfume industry needs to... come back to its roots and rediscover artisanship.

The perfume world has lost... courage.

If only people who buy perfume would... let themselves experience it and connect with it as emotionally as they can.

Which of these do you prefer?

A movie or a book?

A book.

Mozart or Madonna?

Madonna. That's the hidden side of me, that people don't think about when they meet me.

Thinking or feeling?

Absolutely: feeling.

Tradition or innovation?

Hmm... that's hard. Probably more tradition.

Main course or dessert?

Main course. I'm not a cake person.

And finally...

Does perfume criticism have any value?

I think it does as long as the person doing the critiques is knowledgable, and that's not always the case. Often these perfume critics have an ability to connect with consumers that helps gets a message out. But I believe it's critical that the person have knowledge.

Are IFRA regulations harming perfumery?

They are challenging perfumery. Very strongly. When the regulations first came out, with the famous 26 ingredients, all major companies, including Estée Lauder, had to make the decision: do we take these ingredients out or do we list them? We made the decision that we would list them, because we felt we did not want to modify the character of the fragrances. When the regulatory changes started happening, Leonard Lauder said to me, 'You will personally manage each and every adjustment that has to be made. And you will then tell me that a consumer will not be affected by it.' We treat it as seriously as creating a new fragrance.

Where will the perfume industry be in five years' time?

Good thing for you, I brought my crystal ball from New York. I think that - with the focus on the niche and luxury markets, with innovative steps that some houses like ours are taking in terms of how we're approaching our new launches - we are going to have more of a return to quality, artisanship and signature. I think we will have gotten far better at telling our story and sharing that with consumers.

Should we keep treating perfumers like rock stars?

I think so. I think that for many years, as you know, perfumers were behind the scenes. They are artists who deserve to be celebrated, in the same way that somebody celebrates Andy Warhol. Like anything in life, we have to manage that respect and acknowledgement, without it becoming their reason for being.

Does perfume have the power to change the world?

Absolutely, because I believe that perfume has the power to change people. It has the power to affect their emotions and self-perceptions, as well as their perceptions of others. And isn't that what changing the world is based on? It starts with people.

Do check back soon for more from Karyn Khoury. To read the other interviews in the Twenty Blotters series, please click here.


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