Denyse Beaulieu (Grain de Musc / The Perfume Lover) Interview

The Perfume Lover by Denyse Beaulieu
'The Perfume Lover' by Denyse Beaulieu - Image Courtesy of Harper Collins

Last year when I visited Paris for my first true fragrance journey, I held in my hands the tour from the Grain de Musc blog – which highlighted just about every perfumer point of interest on both banks. When I posted my first day write up on Basenotes, I linked to the tour and to my great delight, I received an eMail from blogger Denyse Beaulieu. We met the next day for coffee and I was enamored by her knowledge, experience, candor, and passion for all things fragrance. She typifies the term “bawdy broad” – the ultimate compliment that I give to a woman who speaks her mind and tells it like it really is. In her debut book The Perfume Lover, A Personal History of Scent (recently published in the UK and coming in 2013 to the USA), she tells the story of meeting perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and the creation of Seville a l’aube, using it to frame a life of loving fragrance, men, and life (but not necessarily in that order). The book is not only an amazing introduction to the world of fragrance but a refreshing course in perfumery told through narcotic vignettes that will force you to keep reading. I had the honor of interviewing Denyse on the phone recently, and here is what we spoke of.

RS: Your love and passion for fragrance and life comes through in your writing, both in your blog and your book. What inspired you to start blogging about fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: Basically, because it is so hard to write about fragrance, it was a real challenge for me as a writer. I have always loved fragrance, and the book was a way of exploring not only the making of a fragrance, but the making of a perfume lover. How do you become a perfume lover? How do you come to make sense of your life through scent?

RS: Was it a challenge to go from blogging to writing the full book, or was it a natural progression?
Denyse Beaulieu: I couldn’t just expand the blog. I took bits and pieces out of the blog to feed the book, but I had been asked to write a first person narrative by my editor. That narrative was provided almost miraculously while I was already in talks with the editor. Bertrand Duchaufour decided that he wanted to make a perfume based on a story that I had told him. He then agreed for me to be able to chronicle the whole development. That was really the narrative thread that I needed.

Denyse Beaulieu
Denyse Beaulieu

RS: So the two just happened at the same time? You didn’t have to come up with the idea to write about fragrance and your editor didn’t tell you to find a perfumer to write about?
Denyse Beaulieu: No, not at all. It all just happened almost at the same time and things clicked into place. I had been preparing a different project with my agent, who was seeing different editors. During the time that I was pursuing talks with the woman who did become my editor, Jenny Heller, I happened to mention that there was a perfumer who was interested in making a perfume based on a story of mine. She suggested making the development the narrative thread of the book. So I had to go back to Bertrand and see if he would accept the disclosing and he did. Things really happened when and how they were supposed to happen. The miraculous thing is that I never really sought out any of this. It sounds like a dream to say it. It just sort of happened.

RS: I love how the book is structured, every story brings up an image, flashback or a perfume lesson. Did you chart it out in your head? How did you do the structure like that?
Denyse Beaulieu: It really came organically. I wrote the book as Bertrand and I were developing the fragrance. As it evolved, it dictated the flashbacks, memories, the technical and historical explanations, or meeting people. For example, I sought out Serge Lutens because A: he had been very important in my life as a perfume lover and B: I wanted to find out how he worked with Christopher Sheldrake. He didn’t really tell me his secret, but he did say exactly what I needed to hear, which was to listen to what the perfume needed to become.

RS: I noticed when you speak to French people about perfume they don’t always make clear what they are trying to say and you need to surmise what they are saying.
Denyse Beaulieu: When you are working on a perfume in progress it is going to dictate its own terms. The difficulty is getting to achieve a form with smells that speaks to you deeply, that speaks to your initial story. That’s the difficult thing, you can lose track. Perfume making is like writing, or composing music. It is elaborate, at each fork you have to decide which ways you are going to go and sometimes double back. It is really a protracted process, so you really shouldn’t lose sight of the initial ‘wow’ that made you say that this is going to make a great perfume. That was my role- to not lose track of that.

RS: I noticed several times as you were making the fragrance, something new would come along and change the way that you were going and you would double back and change it to where it was going before.
Denyse Beaulieu: Not necessarily to where it was before, but Bertrand would go into a direction and I would really have to go back and center myself on the initial story. A couple of times I felt that he was pursuing something that interested him, but it wasn’t really the story. We would have our moments of doubt, and it was very scary because I had never done that before and he really demanded that I weigh in. I was scared that my opinion would make him take a wrong turn : that could really frustrate and confuse him. There were actually a few crises like that during the development.

RS: In a way, you were like the editor of the fragrance. As a blogger, you are free to write whatever you want pretty much. Was it a challenge to work with an editor in your book writing?
Denyse Beaulieu: Not too much though I sometimes got defensive about her suggestions. There is a culture in the Anglo-Saxon world of creative writing workshops, where you submit your work to a group and hear a lot of critiques, but in France, where I spent most of my life, writers don’t work like that. I really didn’t want too many people interfering, so the editor was the only person that I really listened to. I started by listening to myself, and after a while some of what she said made sense. It ultimately had to come from me. That is the same relationship that I had with Bertrand. I would bring something forward, he couldn’t listen at that point and then later on it all just clicked into place. At times he would bring in an element of the perfume and I said no, no- for example, lavender. The very first submission that he made to me had lavender in it. For me, that was a really masculine note and I rejected it. He brought it back much later, and all of a sudden it just clicked and shed light on the whole structure. That was the moment where I said, ‘yes, we are there.’ Of course we weren’t there yet, he still had dozens and dozens of mods to make. Sometimes he would listen to me, but other times he would go back to his ideas because he is a stubborn man. He clearly knows what he is doing, though. It is a dialogue which requires a lot of respect, listening, and trust.

RS: How long did it take to write the book and make the fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: They both took about a year and a half.

RS: Was it always the idea to package and sample the fragrance with the book?
Denyse Beaulieu: They actually aren’t going to be packaged together because the fragrance is coming out a few months later than the book. I do not work for L’Artisan Parfumeur, I was merely Bertrand’s guest during the process. They gave him freedom and he used that freedom to invite me, but I was not working for the brand at any point. Of course, when L’Artisan Parfumeur decided to put out the fragrance, they had discussions with HarperCollins. There is coordination, but either product can live without the other.

RS: At the end, how many revisions of the fragrance were there?
Denyse Beaulieu: We were up to 130 at the end and there were a couple more tiny tweaks. Since Bertrand had me to talk to on one hand and the team from L’Artisan Parfumeur on the other, he didn’t have that many people weighing in. Fortunately, everyone was in accordance at every major step. Nobody disagreed about what should be done. It goes a lot more quickly that way. It is still a super long process, a year and a half. I haven’t counted how many work sessions that we had, but there were dozens and dozens of little vials.

RS: Do you still wear any of the sample mod vials as much, or more than the final version?
Denyse Beaulieu: No, the final version is really the only one that I wear. I think that it will be my signature scent for a while. There were a couple of mods that really moved me, but they were not the complete perfumes.

RS: Has creating a fragrance changed the way that you critique other fragrances?
Denyse Beaulieu: Yes, of course. Now I know how hard it is to do. Bertrand is independent and people seek him out for his own style. It is a very different approach to somebody who is working for a big company and has to take into account what the marketing team is saying and what the consumer panels say. Those are the guys to whom I cut more slack because they are in the system. They aren’t necessarily giving everything that they can because that is not how the system works. When you have a lot of people interfering in the process, you are not going to produce something as moving or powerful.

RS: So with the independent perfumers, you may demand more of them because it is their unaffected vision, as opposed to something coming from corporate which has a more affected vision of it?
Denyse Beaulieu: It is difficult to tell, because if you have your own company, you’re really the only one deciding what you want to put out. When the company owner is the perfumer, you can say that he is expressing his undiluted vision. Sometimes perfumers work for niche companies but they are still in the system. It is difficult to know what’s going on if you are not actually there in the labs to see.

RS: Did you coin the term “scent slut” or did that come from somewhere else?
Denyse Beaulieu: I think that I coined it, but other people may have found it also because it sounds so good.

RS: In your book did you ever feel like you were exposing too much of your personal and sensual life?
Denyse Beaulieu: I have always talked that way and written that way. Freely, the way I live. I am accountable to no one and nothing but the writing. My life is my material, because it’s an eventful, novelesque life ! Since the perfume was based on a very erotic, sensual memory, it kind of drew those other memories of my life. Perfume has always been about death, life, healing, religion and eroticism. They are very powerful emotions and the perfume really pulled that out of me.

RS: Have you thought about your book being used as a text book for one of your fragrance appreciation classes?
Denyse Beaulieu: I would really hope that they would read it. Which means I would have to come up with other stuff to teach them ! Fortunately, there is still so much to be done in exploring the world of fragrance. I will never be short of material to develop.

RS: Have your parents or students read the book?
Denyse Beaulieu: My parents haven’t read the book that I know of. I know my mother reads my blog.

RS: Have you read the critiques of your book online?
Denyse Beaulieu: No, not really. What’s the use ? The book is done, it’s out there, people will make what they want of it.

RS: When you started your fragrance journey, did you ever imagine that you would have a fragrance made based on one of your stories?
Denyse Beaulieu: Not for a second. Not being a brand owner or able to commission a perfume with my own money, I never imagined it would happen that way.

RS: Now that you have worked with Duchafour, is there another perfumer that you would like to make a fragrance with, or are you strictly a one perfumer girl?
Denyse Beaulieu: I would love to work with different people. I am also thinking that I would love to seek out younger perfumers before they are all bent by the system. Great perfumers can certainly make very beautiful things within the corporate world, but it is not that easy. It is pretty frustrating most of the time. The young people can be creative and fearless and I would love to go reach out to them.

RS: They would have to be a strong one to stand up to you though.
Denyse Beaulieu: Not necessarily. We can be in tune with each other. I think that perfumers love to be brought to places that they wouldn’t go by themselves.

RS: Good answer. Do you think that your upbringing in an anti-fragrance household contributed to your passion for fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: It is a possibility. People usually assume that I am interested in fragrance because it was forbidden when I was a kid. My father maintains that I am sort of reinventing that story a little bit. I was a kid, so that was how I perceived it. He says that it wasn’t that bad and he just couldn’t stand it when it was too strong.

RS: I loved your chapter on blogs when you basically traced the history of the phenomena. Where do you see the world of fragrance blogging going next?
Denyse Beaulieu: That is a good question. I think that it is developing exactly like the perfume market. There are mainstream blogs and niche blogs that have their own particular sensibility and that have their own specific readership. I don’t know how much the readership can expand. I suppose that it can expand a lot still. When I started out reading blogs there were about five or six. Everyone knew each other and commented on each other’s blogs. Everybody had the same readership. It has become a much bigger world now.

RS: In the fashion world, fashion bloggers are a really big influence where designers court the bloggers. Do you see fragrance going the same way as that?
Denyse Beaulieu: Yes, it is an interesting thing. The fragrance world has lagged very much behind the fashion world in embracing that sort of coverage. In fashion it is perhaps easier to have a fashion culture because it is visual. Our culture is visual. You can post pictures of shows, etc. Perfume is more technical and you have a lot of trade secrets in it. It has been much more difficult for the industry to embrace outsiders looking in. For example; if you have a launch, it is going to be about 3 months before the perfume comes out. If you invite bloggers, they can obviously write about it the next day and you are going to ruin your roll out. The PR people do have their jobs to do and it is tricky for them to decide how to deal with bloggers. We can provide free PR, but we’re also loose cannons.

RS: With that being said, I have always found that when I read an article about fragrance, it really has nothing to do with what I am actually smelling. That is one of the reasons why I have always liked blogs more, it is more real. That’s where I thought that blogging would replace the mainstream journalism version of fragrance. What do you think about that?
Denyse Beaulieu: I am not sure that it will replace it, it does bring another view point since the bloggers are, in principle, independent. There is a limit of what you can write about fragrance in magazines since the magazine has perfume companies as advertisers. That’s why beauty editors don’t have much wiggle room to express themselves, though many are very knowledgeable about fragrance. There are some codes to go by since the advertisers want their perfumes discussed in a certain way. If you displease them it might cause friction with the advertising department.

RS: After Oud, what do you see as the next big note or trend in fragrance?
Denyse Beaulieu: I haven’t really thought about that! Oud is still going strong – Francis Kurkdjian just launched one. I think that Oud will shift. It would be interesting to see Oud become a note among other notes. To be used not only in French-Arabian perfumery but in the palette as a woody animalic note.

RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Denyse Beaulieu: I hope that they enjoy the perfume and the book. The perfume is outstanding, not just because I participated in it, but because it is utterly gorgeous. I hope they’ll enjoy it when it comes out this summer.

The Perfume Lover is available in the UK and will be released in the US/Canada in early 2013.  Denyse’s blog Grain de Musc is definitely worth bookmarking for regular reading.

Interview conducted March 2012.


Carlos Huber (Arquiste) Interview

From architect to perfumer, that’s a big leap. Yet Carlos Huber has done precisely that. His Arquiste line of scents are inspired by moments of history, a great parallel to his experience as a preservationist architect.  Together with perfumers Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier, they have created a unique batch of scents that have received a lot of buzz in the blog world and national attention as well (having been picked up by Barney’s for major distribution).  I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Carlos at the Elements Showcase in New York City.

RS:  You are a trained architect; what would you say inspired you to jump from being an architect to making fragrances?

Carlos Huber: I came to New York to get my masters in preservation at Columbia University. A lot of what I learned there was that when dealing with heritage and the past, there is much more than just restoring the building. I thought it was really interesting. I worked on two art exhibits that were in Italy. One was for the Venice biennale, the other one for the Manifest Art Festival. They dealt with culture, the idea of preservation and heritage in an artistic way. It really got me thinking about the different experiences that involve the past, not only the visual and physical sides of it. At that time I was friends with Rodrigo Flores and Yann Vasnier. About eight years ago I talked to Rodrigo about my love for perfume. He told me that if I was really serious about it, he would teach me. He told me that when I was finished with my job I could come once a week to talk about perfume. He told me that I could come and smell perfumes, go to the lab and do proper classes. At that time, I was an architect for Ralph Lauren doing store design. I worked on several renovations of spaces here in the US and abroad, from Paris to Kuwait to New York and anywhere else that they needed me. I gained a lot of experience while redesigning. I would read about history, which is my favorite subject. It is my openly nerdy part that I love and embrace. I would read books about the historic meanings of the French and the Spanish courts. I read about ‘The Isle of Pheasants’ in 1660 with Louis XIV. I would come to class and speak to Rodrigo about all the references to scent. Not only traditionally through a formula or what he wore as perfume, but what they used on the skin. I wondered if a scent that was made with Iris and Rouge was a perfume.  I read a comment about the cousin of the King and Mademoiselle saying that the pavilion where they met was so new, that it still smelled of pine and tar. I told Rodrigo that it would be fun to recreate the story from all of the different quotes that I had read. It was kind of a no brainer. He told me to try it, and do as much research as I could, then see if we could come up with a formula. At that moment I thought about my love for perfume, and how I could make it part of my career. That story popped in my head and I began to wonder how I could recreate a story of the past as a restoration architect. Just like any work of restoration, when you look at an old building, you look at what makes it significant. You look at what you want to highlight; whether it is the structure, the ornament, or characters that are involved. You choose a direction and put your 21st century hands on it, change and alter its course, then take it to a state of preservation. I thought that I could do the same with perfume. If you look at a story you can choose the structure that you want to highlight, decide the ornament, choose which characters are involved and treat your notes as characters. It was a very clear connection to me.

RS:  So your process is that you imagine a scene from time, research the notes- then after that do you run the fragrance? How does the actual fragrance get created?

Carlos Huber: The actual blending and formulation of the fragrance happens at Givaudan with Rodrigo Flores and Yann Vasnier. They are the actual chemists and the true perfumers. I don’t call myself a perfumer, they are the real noses that blend it and have the expertise of ingredients. I may have an idea where I really want to highlight something. For example the orange blossom, they would tell me that the orange blossom would not be possible with the way things were being made. We usually go back and forth with ideas and I either counter those or agree with it.

RS: It reminds me of a DJ working with a producer to make a track. They come up with ideas and the producer will come up with something and they work back and forth.

Carlos Huber: Yeah, it is all about collaboration. That is why every single work of art is not just one point of view. You have to have something else, objectivity. I wanted authenticity, and for my professors at Columbia to see that a serious project had come from what they had taught. I didn’t want them to see something that was just marketing; I was very disappointed from a lot of the marketing tools being used.

RS: Which fragrance is the first one that you created?

Carlos Huber: The first story that we focused on was Fleur de Louis and Infanta en Flor. It was a Spanish and French story of a meeting. Soon after that we started working on the other ones, they were all in tandem. They all took about a year and a half. Some finished before and after but Fleur de Louis, Infanta en Flor was the first idea to come to my head.

RS: Is your background Spanish and Mexican?

Carlos Huber: I was born and raised in Mexico City.

RS: Which perfumes based in Mexico did you create?

Carlos Huber: There are two perfumes that are based in Mexico. One is called Flora canto, which is a metaphor for flower and song. The Mexicans thought that a poem was a song flower. It is really beautiful because that have a refined culture and appreciation of flowers. They thought flowers had a mythological origin and that they were the way human beings connected to the natural world, hence having a supernatural quality. It is unavoidable that a lot of white florals and many fragrant, strong flowers originated in this part of the world, especially in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. There is a real abundance of the materials. The other one is Anima Dulcis, which is actually my thesis project from Columbia University. It is a restoration of a convent that is now abandoned and has never been restored. It used to be the most aristocratic convent in Mexico. It is very interesting to me because I could locate all of the history, archives, and the activities that the group of nuns were doing in the structure. One of the things that I discovered was all of the cooking recipes. Just as France is very good at keeping control and archiving their perfume and fashion history, Mexico is very good with their culinary history. I actually found all of the recipes that originated in this convent, which is what was is involved in Anima Dulcis. You have spices from two different recipes, one was a spice chocolate and a bread pudding called “megada Jesus Maria” which means crumbs of Jesus Mary. Jesus Maria was the convent. The spices that they used were interesting. They were very new in dealing with chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon. It was the first time in Mexico that they united ingredients from Asia, Europe, and America in one dish. It was the first fusion and they used European techniques.  Very early on when I was working on the project I could smell it. I could picture the courtyard, and from my architectural restoration I knew that there were no trees. There were pots of flowers and plants. One of them was Night Blooming Jasmine. It was beautiful to imagine the nuns working in the kitchen, then passing through the courtyard with the Night Blooming Jasmine and making their way to midnight mass. I derived the energy for that. I almost imagined their habits to be saturated with these spices and heavy brogue vibe. We wanted to communicate that in the scents. It is all those ingredients: cumin, oregano, sesame, vanilla, and coca absolute. We used a raw type of vanilla before the pollination of the vanilla orchid.  It was raw, natural, and more Mexican in a sense because it is before it reaches Europe and is processed.

RS: When you are creating the scents do you test them on your skin?

Carlos Huber: Always, I test them on my skin, my friend’s skin, as well as many others. The idea is that you don’t want it to smell the same; you want it to be unique and smell good on every type of personality, skin type, and chemistry. In the end you are an ingredient and that is what is interesting with my line. It is like you have been dropped into part of the story or the moment. You don’t want to smell like a nun or Louis XIV, but you want to smell like yourself in that environment.

RS: You have six fragrances out right now, are you working on more?

Carlos Huber: I am working on a new one that will launch sometime during the summer. It has a really beautiful story that dates more from our immediate history. It is a bit of a departure from a very traditional historic perfume. It is more about recreating a moment and what a moment means to someone. In the end these are important, not only because they are a history lesson, but they connect to you in a certain way. You can take it with you and infuse your own life with something a little more poetic. We are part of that world, it is our common past.

RS: Can you tell me a little bit about the new perfume that you are working on?

Carlos Huber: It is a boutonniere. It is a buttonhole flower and because of that, it is for men.  It is a masculine floral and is going to be very interesting. I can’t share too much, but it has never been looked at as a masculine floral and I think that we have the possibility to make it something very interesting. It is a happy perfume about celebration and partying.

RS: Which of your fragrances is the favorite of your boyfriend Nate Berkus?

Carlos Huber: He loves Flora Canto and Fleur de Louis. He loves florals and has very good skin for them. He wears Flora Canto and even though it smells like a feminine perfume, it is mintier on him. It is very interesting, the incense is more prevalent. Those are his favorites.

RS: Since he lives in the public eye, has he helped you with adjusting from going from a more private industry to a more public industry?

Carlos Huber: Great Question! I think so. I think that they are very different industries, and we still have very personal approaches. We don’t involve ourselves in each other’s careers, and we keep ours separate. We feel that we are different, and I want the line to be known for the perfume and the work of the perfumers rather than for the association with someone. He has definitely helped me with navigating what I should do and the logistics of it. On a personal level he has really inspired a lot of the entrepreneurial part of it and pushed me to do the research. Seeing that I have nothing to lose, it is important to follow my dream, and that is something that he has really motivated me to do. He maintains a personal level with everybody and that is something he is good at, it is also something that I also connect with and like. It is part of why we work together.

RS: If you were to get married which of these would you wear?

Carlos Huber: I think that I would wear the Boutonniere. We have been together for two years, and it is not a conversation that we have had though.

RS: How did you feel when your fragrance got picked up by such an important retailer as Barney’s?

Carlos Huber: I was so happy; they were incredible and very interested in pursuing me. I was flattered, honored, excited, and happy, it was a dream come true. We try to have everything be right, the right quality, right packing, right retailer, communicating the story the right way, and writing it a thousand times before the proper message is transmitted. It’s really exciting, Barney’s has been incredible.

RS: What role do you think bloggers and internet media has on your success?

Carlos Huber: It is a huge part of it because you can’t always rely on the selling floor for the full communication of the line and product. Right now, I think that we are seeing a lot more storytelling happening. We are so saturated with stuff that it is impossible to make a decision that you feel good on. Right now, I can afford to experiment a little bit and buy some different ones. 60% of the market is controlled by the big fragrance houses; there are 3 fragrance houses that control a lot of it. The big corporations create many perfumes that are all different, some very good, but we get lost in them. I think that something like this speaks to a consumer that is tired of being told what to do from a beauty editor at a big magazine. In the end it is going to be devoted to the advertising and the big companies, because those are the ones that are paying. When people are shopping they don’t have a lot of time to hear the full story, even if there is a short version of it- that’s still not enough for people to get the full experience. That’s where bloggers come in to play. I think what is unique about bloggers is that the internet offers an arena of discussion, exposure, and comments of sharing their experience. People can connect with it more. I am a reader, and I came into this because I love perfume and I indulge in all of the different parts of it. The blog experience is so important because it is another person, not just a person in the magazine or a celebrity. Real people are telling their honest view on things. Some are better than others, and I don’t believe that there are specific criteria of who to follow, but I think that it is super important today. It is not only about the sales people, the magazine editors, but the bloggers more than ever.

RS: When I posted the review, I added your @name.  When you tweeted back was that you or do you have someone tweeting for you?

Carlos Huber: No, I tweet everything. Sometimes there are certain tweets that I like to schedule ahead of time to work on other stuff. If I know that there is something significant going on that day I will schedule it in advance. Every response is always me.

RS: This may be a little controversial; regarding the three big companies that make all the chemicals, why would they be interested in working with a smaller customer company like yours as opposed to a big megabrand.

Carlos Huber: Well, I think that they still like the megabrands and support them, but from what I feel and see they have really opened the doors for me. I didn’t come from a huge fragrance background; they could have said that they couldn’t do it. I worked really hard on a presentation, had a business plan and a strategy, and they opened the doors from there. When I talked to them they told me that they looked to smaller brands like me because we are setting the tone for everything else. I don’t mean this to sound bad, but I think that all of us here are telling the Coty, Avon, and even Chanels where the perfume industry is going. I think that Givaudan and IFF really know that this is the creative work and the storytelling that they should be working on. At least this is an industry where there is a bit of sharing of the power. Givaudan has been great for me; even though they are the world’s biggest company, to me they are incredible. They can work with my minimums and they do it because they believe and they love the industry. I think that is it a really beautiful thing that the people that come into this industry really have a passion for what they are doing. People are not here for the money but for the love of it.

RS: What is the first fragrance that you ever bought?

Carlos Huber: The first fragrance that I remember having is one that my father bought me. It was cologne that he bought from the drug store in Mexico City called ‘Otra Colonia de Sanborns.’ The drug store was called Sanborns. It was a two dollar splash cologne that is still sold to this day. As a child my father told me that if I wanted to wear cologne that was what I was going to wear. It is a beautiful formula and I still wear it to this day. Nate wears it every day, he loves it. It is very fresh cologne.

RS: What is the last perfume that you bought?

Carlos Huber: I bought Chanel Sycamore, which I love. It is one of my favorite perfumes. Le Nomade by D’Orsay is one that I buy as well. It is a very masculine, lavender and black current, light perfume. The first one that I ever bought for myself was Gucci Envy.

RS: In addition to fragrance and colognes, what other fragrance products are you working on?

Carlos Huber: We have two projects that are very interesting. One is a travel size purser that is very unique because you can refill it yourself with a mini pump. It is a big atomizer of 5ml, they are going to be really great. We are also working on a candle that is going to be in collaboration with a very traditional, and well respected manufacturer that has hundreds of years in its history. I can’t tell you who it is just yet, but it is going to be an Arquiste scent for their line. It is a huge honor to work with a royal manufacturer of France.

RS: Is it going be a perfume that you already have done?

Carlos Huber: No, it is brand new for them. It is something that has a very Franco-Mexican connection.

RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?

Carlos Huber: To the perfume fans, I would like to say follow and pursue your dreams as I have done. I think that there is room for everybody; in every way, in every market, there is always something that you can give that is unique. There is nothing wrong with failing, there are always going to be bumps in the road. It is about people, storytelling, history, and communicating a story. It starts with me going to the library, researching, adding information to a booklet, blogging, and posting about it. It is a process, and maybe someone will be interested in restoring the convent. You never know what could happen. It is really all about our common history and about bringing cultural appreciation back to perfume.  So definitely, thank you. A brand like this is nothing without the people that wear it. It is really about the people wearing it and passing on the word.

Interview conducted at Elements Showcase (January 2012).  Photo Credit: Kevin Tachman.


Francis Kurkdjian Interview

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?