Wednesday, 18 May 2016

"Seventeen Families" - An Exclusive Interview With Francis Kurkdjian [part 2]

Part 1 of this exclusive interview with Francis Kurkdjian was published yesterday on Now Smell This; please click here to read it.

Persolaise: If you could place perfume anywhere in a department store, where would you like it to be?

Francis Kurkdjian: By itself.

Ah, but it's always going to be next to something.

Maybe it should be somewhere quieter. It should be in an environment where every brand could talk about what they are, not being lined up like tin cans.

Which young perfumers are you currently excited about?

Only one, because I know him very well. A perfumer I've trained for 3 years now. His name is Jerome Di Marino. He's with me at Takasago. It's not easy for him, because it's so different from my time. Everything is super regulated. 20, 25 years ago, when I started, brands were kind of separated. Guerlain was owned by the Guerlain family. Coty was not as big. L'Oreal was not as big. LVMH was not as big. Now, if you don't belong to the right supplier company, there are things you can't work on. Why are Givaudan doing all the Tom Ford fragrances? Because they're part of the core list of Estée Lauder. So basically, a big corporation divides its portfolio into parts, it gives one part to IFF, one part to Firmenich etc, and that's it. So if you don't belong to one of these big companies, you don't have the chance to play.

Second, the power of marketing and commerciality is so strong now. We have very few risk-takers. As a young perfumer, how do you stand out? These are questions I never thought about myself when I started, because the market was different and I had my hit when I was super young. But now I'm thinking that, maybe in 15 years' time - or maybe in 5! - I'm sure a brand will pick a perfumer because of the number of followers he or she has on Instagram. I told Jerome that he has to have an Instagram account. And he said, 'I do have one. But it's private.' And I said, 'Keep your private one. Lock it. But open a public one.'

Nowadays, you have to be a bankable perfumer. What does that mean? You have to have a long track-record of commercial successes. Some of them have to stand out. You have to know how to talk about your craft. You have to be nice looking in pictures for the press release. And you have to be able to speak. So now, being a perfumer is something totally different from when I started. 25 years ago, Pierre Bourdon was never asked to go to a press launch. Edouard Fléchier wasn't at the launch of Poison. But you know, one day I'll ask Fléchier if that's actually true. Sometimes stories are stories.

Do you think today's students at ISIPCA are aware of all this? Do you think they go into their courses with an unrealistic sense of the profession?

No, more or less, they are aware. You go online and type 'perfumer' and you get so many things. The BBC documentary. A Wikipedia page. If you really love the craft, then today, there's no way that you can't find out what it's like. People are so approachable. At ISIPCA we do one or two open days a year. It's challenging in a different way now, because it's more open.

Would you sell your company to Estée Lauder if they asked you to sell?

I would talk to Leonard Lauder. Why not? He's a very iconic figure. I've seen him only a couple of times from far away. I would love to have a chat with him.

Have you been approached by a big company?

What do we say? ‘Please talk to my lawyer.’ No, no, no, we are not for sale. You know, my company is very different from other companies. First of all, I'm not alone. I have my Pierre Bergé. At some point, I decided I wanted to open my own business, but not until I found the right guy by my side. I discovered that, in the really successful big ventures, the creative person was backed up by a business man. Marc Chaya has set up our company like a rocket. At some point, it was almost over-organised. We're small, but the building is super constructed. Marc basically built a shell around me, so things are always secure, in such a way that we were profitable after two years of running. The only failure would be me doing the wrong perfume. So we're not looking at being sold.

We haven't actually talked about perfume yet. Which recent discontinuations have you been saddened by?

I'm sad about discontinuations because they mean I have failed. Eau Noire was maybe too dramatic. I don't even know why Dior removed Cologne Blanche. Maybe it was not saleable. Fragile was maybe a bit too dramatic as well. They're gone... and I'm sad. I'm sad for the consumer. I'm sad about Eau Noire because, to me, it's one of the great scents.

You've never been an exclusive in-house perfumer. But you've essentially ended up being an in-house perfumer for a few brands, like Carven or Elie Saab. For Gaultier too, almost.

Ah, but with Gaultier, I was always in competition, right up to the end. Burberry is a different story. I love my relationship with them. It gives me so much energy and happiness.

So you're not interested in being in-house.

No. 10 years ago, I would have died for it. Totally! I'm now 44. Except for Olivier Polge at Chanel, who is a bit younger than I am, they're all old. Basically, being in-house is like your retirement.

What about Mathilde Laurent at Cartier?

She's young, but she's always been out of the loop, because she was at Guerlain, then at Cartier, and she was a bit out of the whole commercial thing, even though she's a very good perfumer. She was just a bit out of the playground. But every single perfumer who was in-house was not allowed to have a deal outside of the house. Why?

Because it's all about exclusivity, I guess?

Okay, but Pierre Hardy designed shoes for Hermès, then jewellery, and he has his own shoe company. Karl Lagerfeld has done Fendi, Chloe, Chanel. Why can't it be like that in perfume? It's narrow-minded. So I don't want to do that. I love my 360 vision on perfume. Freedom is the most expensive thing on earth that you can't buy. You have to cherish it.

Your latest oud, Satin Mood, seemed to revitalise your oud collection. Was that because, after you made the initial Mood trio, you decided you were going to look at the genre differently?

No. It just happened. I have no strategy. My business partner has a strategy. He could explain where we're going, what we're doing. In our narrow sphere, we are aiming to become the first digital brand, in terms of communication. He could explain all that. But creative-wise, there is no strategy. I didn't think, 'I did an oud like that, so I need to do an oud like this.' I have no idea. I loved the name. I loved the scent that goes with it. I gave a sample to my sister. She wore it super well. People loved it. I let my business partner smell it. He wore it. He loved it. We decided to launch it.

Why did you do a Forte version of Aqua Vitae?

Because Aqua Vitae was kind of a failure commercially. It's one of my favourite scents of mine. Marc loves it as well. And we were sad. And I wanted to give a fresh burst to it. Not to kill it. Like Absolue Pour Le Soir. I sold 28 bottles of that last year. In the whole world. Once we said that we were out of stock and we would be discontinuing it, people tried everywhere to buy it. But the sales don't go with the number of people trying to buy, so I don't understand. I've produced Absolue Pour Le Soir once in 7 years. I've just approved a new batch. And I love the scent. But commercially it's a total disaster.

So which one has been a surprising success for you?

Why is its success surprising? It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Yeah, people say so, but I don't see it. I shouldn't say that. I'm very proud of it.

Come on, you can't say you think it's ugly.

No, I'm not saying it's ugly. But it's predictable: it's a rose perfume called À La Rose and it smells of roses. My point is that, if I had kept doing fragrances like Absolue Pour Le Soir, the company would have been dead by now. I'm lucky that I have Aqua Universalis, slow runners like APOM and Lumiere Homme. They keep their customers' loyalty. But a company can't be run like that. At the end of the month, I have 17 people in my office in Paris, which means 17 families. You have to find the right balance between pleasing yourself and pleasing the audience. Sometimes you find your way.

Tell me about Baccarat Rouge 540.

It’s an amazing fragrance, I think. We'll see, but I think it's one of my masterpieces.


The way it smells. How people respond to it. The formula. The overdose of everything. And it's only synthetic molecules. I put in orange and tagetes and a few naturals right at the very end, but otherwise it's synthetic. There's a synthetic oakmoss, veltol and Ambroxan and hedione. It's a Jean Carles formulation. You start with two ingredients. You balance them. Then you add a third one. You balance the whole.

What was the brief from Baccarat?

I had no brief. They said, 'We want a perfume. Can you help us out?'

How long did it take you make?

[thinks for several moments and smiles] 20 years.



  1. This has been such an amazing interview, can't thank you enough. I almost died laughing when M Kurkdjian said they will soon be choosing perfumers based on how many Instagram followers they have. I have no doubt! I have very much enjoyed his thoughts and opinions; you asked great questions! Thank you again.


    1. Thanks so much for stopping by. And yes, I have no doubt he's right about the importance of image. That's certainly true in the writing world.

  2. Persolaise I think I just Love Francis Kurkdjian !
    So refreshingly honest honest I love that. I love his honesty !
    Some of his quotes are up there with Karl Lagerfeld for me and that is a compliment.
    I loved Absolu Pour le Soir . I am so surprised that Acqua Vitae was not a commercial success.
    APOM is a fabulous scent .
    Aqua Universalis Forte is perfection. I gave it 5 stars in a website review .
    His Ouds are top notch .
    Frankly I only have good things to say about Mr Kurkdjian.
    I hope Francis Kurkdjian does not sell his business ........

    1. Mimi, wow, you're certainly a fan :-) I agree that he's made many excellent creations for his own brand. And I adore Eau Noire and Fleur Du Male.

    2. I am so mad Eau Noire is discontinued . I wish they would bring it back . I want the big bottle !!

    3. I know. Such a gorgeous piece of work. Although some people reckon that FK's original formulation of it was altered some time ago.

  3. Great interview, Persolaise! I liked Part 2 even more than Part 1. (There's endless appetite in the perfume world for the art vs design debate, apparently, but I'm tired of it.) I hope Mr. Kurkdjian is reading, because I want him to know many of us who own a bottle believe Eau Noire is indeed one of the greats. I just got a gift (as requested) of MFK feminin Pluriel for my birthday last weekend, but if I had read this first, I would have asked for Absolue Pour Le Soir! I'm glad his company has continued to make this commercial disaster. The SA kindly gave me a sample of Aqua Vitae Forte with the gift, as well, and am now glad he decided to amp up that one, as well.

    1. Erin, thanks very much for your comment. Yes, I'm also really glad that he's still making APLS; it's easily my favourite scent of his.

      Happy belated birthday! :-)

  4. Another great interview. Best answer was the one at the end: a smile and 20 years.
    Most meaningful answer was about why predictable perfumes are sometimes necessary: 17 families

    You always come up with interesting questions. I look forward to you next interview. In the meantime I read all your other posts.

    -- Lindaloo

    1. Lindaloo, thanks so much; your words mean a lot to me.

      Yes, I also thought his final answer was great, and probably 100% true in many ways.

  5. Jeez...sounds like a very intense kind of guy. Thoroughly enjoyed reading both parts. Thanks!

    1. Danaki, yes, I suppose he is intense, but in a very likeable way, in my opinion.

      Thanks for reading.

  6. Wonderful interview! :-) It's funny,I think Absolue pour le Soir is the best perfume from the line and I love it. But, I can imagine why it doesn't sell well (it's the reason I never bought ta bottle). It's really a perfume for a sexy night out and it smells like that. It's actually amazing how sexy it smells but that means it wouldn't work well for everyday application and who invests that much money in order to smell like that a couple of times in a year? In today's climate of clean scents. But if it's getting discontinued, I'm getting a bottle. I can always wear it home for myself. :-)

    1. Ines, how wonderful to hear from you after such a long time.

      Thanks for reading.

      I take your point about APLS. I know someone who loves it so much, he bought a bottle, but he hardly gets any chance to wear it... although that may also have something to do with the fact that his girlfriend seriously doesn't like it :-D

    2. Honestly, I don't think my boyfriend would be happy either if I wore APLS near him. :-D

  7. I want to marry him😀 Jokes aside he's brilliant, intense, honest, passionate. Somebody that looks you in the eyes while stating his heartfelt opinions. I respect that. In fact, I love that. I ask no more of people. Of course like almost any die hard perfumista I adore his APLS. I'll be buying a back up bottle this year. Just in case.I wasn't crazy about Baccarat Rouge too sweet for me, but I'll retest

    1. Marriage proposals on Persolaise. What next? :-D

      I'm so pleased you're also a fan of APLS. And I wasn't crazy about the Baccarat either, to be honest.

  8. I stumbled across Absolue pour le Soir yesterday, and was totally blown away. It is flat-out gorgeous. So honeyed, bees-waxy, smokey, incensey and luxurious.
    What has been even more interesting is to read all the reviews and opinions about it since. All the references to body odours, urine, skank, etc. I really don't get it. Perhaps many of the reviewers are American and they like the super clean smell. But I guess that still doesn't explain selling only 28 bottles worldwide last year. What a shame that so many see this as offensive or unwearable. A total mystery to me. I could easily wear it daily, it feels comforting to me, like a warm honeyed fire.
    It also makes me feel very feminine, but is obviously truly unisex as many of its fans seem to be men.

    I will definitely go back and try it again, as well as try the Cologne and see the difference, but I'm pretty much already trying to figure out when I can afford a bottle! It will be interesting to see if I can understand what the offensive bit is to others the next time round. It may make me wonder if the perfume is causing offence to unsuspecting others, but again I sooo don't get it! And I'm not sure that I care.

    Francis, thank you for a beautiful perfume.


    1. A, thanks for stopping by.

      I totally love Absolue too. In fact, it remains my favourite in the MFK range. It does contain a pronounced civet note, which some people no doubt find offensive, but it's extremely well-balanced, in my view. By the way, in a different interview, years ago, FK told me that Absolue contains real civet... so there you go.

      I hope you manage to save up enough pennies soon :-)

  9. Someone should ask him about Creed's "natural ingredients" mission statement, Amouages "complexity" and how fragrances in general are priced. Is it based on costs of supply, emotions, or just a random process?

    For example, he comments that Roja Dove perfumes are dated; so what does he mean here? That trends need to be followed? Or that Elena is becoming "anorexic"; I understand what it means, but what is the impact of this to the industry and how should we interpret this?

    Interviewers tend to agree with the performer too much, with FK and his candidness, there really is a huge opportunity to learn more about the "art".

    Also, anyone notice when interviewing perfumers that niche brands are rarely referenced and just best sellers from designer brands? Why is Eau Savage good? Why is Shalimar good even despite its synthethics? Why is Terre d'Hermes loved even though it isn't natural but Chanel Allure (people compare Amyris to this) is bashed? Bacarrat Rouge is pure synthetics and a masterpiece that is priced at EUR190; why is another ambroxan bomb Dior Sauvage so hated?

    I don't want to accept "everyone is different" and "to each their own" as an answer because there is something we can learn from the pros if they disclose a little more information about what is considered good.
    Uniqueness? Best selling? Natural? Good value? Creative? What is it?

    I own Lumiere Noire, Amyris, Aqua Vitae Forte, APLS, APOM, Grand Soir, Baccarat Rouge, Oud and Satin Mood from his line. So I'm not bashing him; rather, I think we are missing out if we don't ask more difficult questions.

    1. Anon, thanks for your thoughts. All of your questions are extremely interesting, but unfortunately, there are only so many topics that can be covered in a limited interview slot. Hopefully, there'll be a next time...

  10. Francis Kurkjian is a great perfumer, not only that, a very candid person.

    I own Lumiere Noire, APOM, Amyris, Aqua Vitae Forte, Grand Soir, APLS, Oud, Satin Mood and Baccarat Rouge from his collection; so definitely a fan of his house.

    Unfortunately, I think this is a lost opportunity for us to learn more about the art and the business of perfume making when you have such a candid insider giving us his views on things.

    For example, wouldn’t it be great to learn his thoughts about Creed’s marketing brief about using “natural ingredients”, or Amouage about their incense, natural ingredients and complexity? Wouldn’t it be great to know why he thinks Roja Dove makes old and dated perfumes? So what’s the balance between following trends (and becoming mainstream generic) and being unique? He’ll know for sure how much of this is BS and how much is this is genuine.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn how fragrances are priced? Is it based on uniqueness, natural ingredients, cost of production, complexity, or how artistic it is? What is the mark up, why is it priced at $200 and not $50 if both a designer or a niches costs around the same (that is if it is)?

    Also, notice that when interviewing perfumers, designer brand perfumes from the past are frequently referenced but not niche brands? Why is Guerlain’s Shalimar or Dior’s Eau Sauvage and the likes mentioned all the time and not Green Irish Tweed, Jubilation XXV, or Musc Ravaguer as references or inspirations?

    Why is Shalimar and Terre d’Hermes so loved when they are clearly synthetics in the fragrance while mainstream designer brands are bashed because of “smelling synthetic”? Why is Amyris priced at what it is when many say it smells like a generic Chanel fragrance (I don’t think it is, but I’ll love to hear his thoughts)?

    Why is Dior Sauvage bashed by many of us despite it being a best seller and a compliment getter while Baccarat Rouge is considered a masterpiece even though it is completely synthetic (as Mr. Kurkdjian has admitted) and both ambroxan bombs? Why is one EUR 195 and the other EUR50?

    The “to each their own”, or “everything is subjective” just doesn’t cut it. Obviously, the great noses know more than us, and if FK says there is nothing interesting in the market when he goes stiffing, I want to know why. Is it because he is looking for innovation, uniqueness, what is it that these master perfumers are looking for that we common layman either are not or don’t grasp?

    Knowing this will elevate the public in understanding how to “appreciate” the art of fragrances much better yet at the same time, avoid becoming complete snobs.

  11. Most amusing....

    No, no, no, we are not for sale. You know, my company is very different from other companies.

    LVMH Acquires Maison Francis Kurkdjian


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