“I treasure heritage, but I hate tradition,” says Francis Kurkdjian, the perfumer who rocketed onto the fragrance scene in 1995 at age 24, after creating the blockbuster Le Mâle for Jean Paul Gaultier.
Kurkdjian then conceived scents for brands such as Narciso Rodriguez, Giorgio Armani and Lancôme before launching his eponymous label with Marc Chaya in 2009. Eight years later, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton purchased a majority stake in Maison Francis Kurkdjian.
The perfumer keeps pushing boundaries with his brand that includes, alongside fragrances, scented detergents and hair mist, and other out-of-the-box endeavors meant to express and use perfume as an art form. These include dreaming up The Smell of Money for artist Sophie Calle in 2003, magically scenting the Château de Versailles’ fountains with metallic rose in 2007 and 2008, and filling Paris’ Grand Palais with fragranced bubbles for a musical happening in 2011.
“I try to open new fields of expression using perfume as a scented experience — just for the beauty or the mystery of it,” says Kurkdjian.
You May Also Like
Every project has meaning for him. “Each [gives] an opportunity to grow spiritually and to learn from it,” he says.
For perfume development, Kurkdjian always starts focusing on “what is happening now, what moves me,” he explains. “It’s not only artistically. It’s about society, what is changing. The starting point is always something from my own experience, something I feel, something I believe.
“Then, once I have a general feeling of it, names are very important,” continues Kurkdjian, whose perfume monikers include Petit Matin, Oud Silk Mood and Baccarat Rouge 540.
“I can’t work if I don’t have a precise name in my mind. The name is basically the title of the frame within which I start searching for my ideal perfume. If you have the wrong name, to me, you have the wrong perfume,” he says.
For Kurkdjian, who oversees the entire artistic direction for his house — everything from the color of the bottles to the music in a commercial film to fonts — consistency is key.
“The company is creative-driven, not marketing-driven,” says Kurkdjian. “You have to have a single message that is understandable.”
Art is fundamental. “The artists I like are people who do something with their bodies, with their hands — they create something tangible for me,” he says. “I always refer to ballet, because it was a passion when I was a kid. It’s something in my body, in my heart.”
Kurkdjian is friends with the Labèque sisters, concert pianists, and chef Anne-Sophie Pic.
“Being close to creative people at that level helps to give me energy,” says Kurkdjian. “It opens my eyes and nurtures me a lot.”
He is not loath to appropriate others’ advice.
“Chantal Roos taught me to immerse myself into someone else’s universe,” Kurkdjian says, referring to the executive who chose him for the Le Mâle project. “[She] said once that you always must infuse a part of classicism in your scents. Do things you believe in.
“Narciso Rodriguez… said ‘classic’ is not a dirty word,” continues Kurkdjian, adding a strategy often expressed by brands today is to “break boundaries.” “If you break the rules, basically, you lose people. You have to move the rules, make them evolve.”
Early on, perfumer Calice Becker helped Kurkdjian realize the importance of diversification, rather than specialization — so he’s sure to use a wide variety of raw materials, and has created men’s and women’s scents from prestige to mass.
He conceived of his house’s scent range to be like a “fragrance wardrobe,” covering all categories. “Like in the way Saint Laurent did with clothing —you go from black tie down to a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt,” says Kurkdjian, who has in-depth knowledge of the fashion world and worked alongside designers such as Rick Owens (“I love his thinking”), Hedi Slimane, Emanuel Ungaro and John Galliano.
Karl Lagerfeld’s motto “never look back” also resonates. “You have to always look forward,” says Kurkdjian.
Inside the Mind
What’s an early exposure to fragrance?
“When I was born, my father bought [my mother] a perfume by Courrèges, called Empreinte.”
What is your favorite object?
“My baby grand piano. I love the piano and have been playing since I was seven or eight years old.”
What is a favorite book?
“’The Prophet,’ by Kahlil Gibran. Every time I have a question about life, I go back to that book.”
What is a favorite pastime?
“I love cooking. I am more into comfort food, like family-style. I love to eat steamed vegetables and fish. I love doing an apple tart, a cherry flan. I love to create things sometimes.”