When your debut fragrance is a global success like Le Male, success and notoriety is sure to follow. Francis Kurkdjian decided at the age of 15 to become a perfumer and prepared to attend the ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l’aromatique alimentaire), the premiere school for perfumers. His career launched in 1995 when he signed his first fragrance Le Male to Jean Paul Gautier. Having created fragrances for Christian Lacroix, Dior, Guerlain, Versace, and Yves Saint Laurent, he has also launched his own line and lifestyle brand Maison Francis Kurkdjian, which includes everything from perfumes and candles to incense paper and scented bubbles.
Ron Slomowicz: What inspires you to create a new scent?
Francis Kurkdjian: Many things inspire me. I always say that a fragrance is a story. A writer uses words, a painter uses colors, and as a perfumer, I use smell. There is always a purpose when you create a perfume, just as when you write a book. You want to get a point across. I want my perfume to say something about the people that are wearing it. My sources of inspiration are very diverse due to my education. I have education in music, I am a piano player and I used to do ballet and dance as well. I love art, part of my family was in the business. So I have many sources of inspiration. I love words because they very strong, the name of a perfume is like the title of a book. You have to find the right title so that people want to read the book. For me, a perfumes name is the same way. Are you familiar with my fragrance collection?
RS: You’ve made two of my favorite fragrances- Absolue Pour le Soir and Eau Noire (for Christian Dior)
Francis Kurkdjian: Let’s talk about Absolue pour le Soir. The inspiration for Absolue pour le Soir is very clear in my mind. I always start from a personal angle. My father used to put cologne on before going to bed. That was my personal experience. I try to spruce it up with something more universal. Absolue pour le Soir is about going out and partying in a very 80s way. I had in my mind Bianca Jagger in a little party dress with a glass of scotch and whiskey laying on the leather sofa bed. That was my inspiration.
RS: What is your process to go from inspiration, to conception, to chemistry, to release?
Francis Kurkdjian: I try to feel something in my body, like an emotion. Once I gather all my emotions, I go back to the lab and I write down the recipe of the perfume. I try to get the same result when I smell the final product, to match my feelings. My feelings and the scent have to give me the same emotion. When they match, I feel that I have found the right perfume.
RS: How long does that usually take you?
Francis Kurkdjian: It depends on how clear my idea is. I love to write; if you have a clear idea on what you want to express and you see a clear story in your mind, it can be easy. If your story is missing parts, you have to work harder on finding an idea. Sometimes when I create a perfume I can do very few trials because I have a very clear idea and can rely on my technique. I have been working on perfumes for twenty years, so I have a pretty good technique. If my idea is clear in my head, I usually go fast, if they are not clear it takes me longer. In terms of days or hours, it could go from a couple of hundred hours to sometimes three or four hundred.
RS: What are you currently working on for your next MFK fragrance?
Francis Kurkdjian: We just launched a pure perfume collection. The nest product that I just finished last week, is an Oud-based fragrance, will be launched during late March.
RS: Oud is very popular right now.
Francis Kurkdjian: Oud is now part of the perfumer’s palate. People say that perfumery is a very French art. When we go down to the raw materials, most of the natural materials that we use are not from France. Most of them are from the Mediterranean countries, some from South America, we use raw materials from India, Egypt, the West Indies, and the Far East. Oud was something that was ignored for many years by perfumers, but now I think it is part of the palate. The reason why is because in the Oud wood, there was a sensuality that we used to have with animalic notes that we put in perfume twenty years ago. To protect the animals we cannot use it any longer. Oud is a good replacement for it. The other reason is the strength; it is a very long lasting product. It is part of the customers palate, the same way that we have roses, orange flowers, jasmine and sandal wood.
RS: What is going to make your Oud different from the others?
Francis Kurkdjian: My talent is going to make it different.
RS: What do you see as the next scent inspiration coming after Oud?
Francis Kurkdjian: I am finishing my new perfume this month. I cannot tell you what it is right now because we haven’t released the name and it is not fully completed. When it is finished, it will be a couple’s fragrance, one is for men and one is for women. I have not gathered my story yet, but it has colors and feelings. It is about wind and grass. I want it to be very outdoorsy, green and sophisticated. It is airy, like a bright sunny day. I want it to feel very good and be optimistic.
RS: How did you feel when Neiman Marcus picked up your line for the United States?
Francis Kurkdjian: Two years ago when we presented the whole project we had almost nothing to show to Neiman. The first scent was not finished yet and the design of the bottle was not completed. I went with my business partner to see Hazel Wyatt, the head of buying in Dallas and she fell in love with what she saw. She wanted us, and part of the reason why we are now at Neiman is because I loved the feeling of a family business, although a big business. It reminded me of how my own company is structured. I was very proud because Hazel told us that Neiman Marcus launched Christian Dior in the fifties and she would be very happy to repeat the same with us. I was very amazed and honored by what she said.
RS: Is there any difference in your process when you create a scent for your line versus for another company?
Francis Kurkdjian: The only difference is where the inspiration comes from. It is like acting, when I do my own perfume, I am the actor, the director, the light and décor manager, I do everything. When I am creating perfume for someone else, I am given the script and I am just part of the creative process. I have someone that is going to take care of the name and design; so I am part of a team. It is a lot harder to create perfume under my own name versus under someone else. The process is still the same though. Less than ten years ago when I was working on Eau Noire for Christian Dior, I was working with Hedi Slimane, the creative direct and designer for Christian Dior men at the time and he had a clear vision of what he wanted. Part of my job was to gather the feeling, capture what he wanted, and then go back to my lab, and do exactly what I do when I create it for myself.
RS: With Eau Noire, immortelle is such an interesting note to work with for a male fragrance. Was that a challenge for you?
Francis Kurkdjian: Each fragrance is a challenge because they all have to have their own signature. I cannot repeat something that I have done already. Finding a new idea each time is very challenging. I do not ever think about raw material but rather the feeling. It is all about finding a new way of doing things and a new way of thinking of perfume.
RS: Speaking of new ways of thinking about perfume, I love the idea of your scented bubbles. Where did that idea come from?
Francis Kurkdjian: I had the idea when I was in New York City about ten years ago. I was walking down Soho on Broadway, and I saw a vendor with a bubble machine. One of the bubbles hit my eye and I realized that it was the same texture and base as shower gel. I knew how to make shower gel because it was my job to scent shower gels. I thought it would be cool to do the same for bubbles. The first time that I did the bubbles was when I did an installation in Autumn 2006 at Château de Versailles for the Festival Versailles Off. They wanted me to create something special for the opening; it was a sound and lighting event. This was where I tried the idea of scented bubbles. We transformed the basin of the Orangerie into a giant flouresccent Orange. The basin gave off the scent of orange blossoms.
RS: Absolue pour le Soir is my favorite scent of yours with its massive strength. Do you find that strong power scents are more or less popular in your line and in the different territories?
Francis Kurkdjian: It depends on which market you are speaking to. If you are talking about Singapore and Hong Kong, they prefer fresh, long-lasting perfume. Right now I am in Houston and my popular fragrance is APOM, which is an orange flower and cedar fragrance. There is a feeling of brightness, lightness, and sensuality mixed together. It really depends on who you talk to.
RS: When you made La Male did you have any idea that it would become as big as it did?
Francis Kurkdjian: No, I did not. I think I would have been scared because I was only twenty-five.
RS: What fragrance are you wearing right now?
Francis Kurkdjian: I am wearing a trial of my next perfume.
RS: Is there anything that you would like to say to all of your fans?
Francis Kurkdjian: First of all, thank you. When you work in perfume, it is hard to meet all of your fans and to say thank you. When you are an artist, you can have exhibitions and meet people that way. When you are a perfumer, its harder to gather people together and say thank you. Thank you for recognizing my work. I am very pleased that I can please other people; this is why I get up every day. My mission is to make people happy. If was a designer I would create clothes but I create perfumes to dress men and women in my own way.
For more information about Francis Kurkdjian, please check out his website. You can see pictures of his installations (including the bubbles) here. Interview conducted December 2011.
Question: How did you like this interview? Is there a question you would like to ask Francis Kurkdjian? Who would you like me to interview next? What would you like me to ask them?