Francis Kurkdjian Is Creating His Own Olfactory Universe

Most people know Pitti as the ultimate men’s trade show held twice a year in Florence, where special guests Raf Simons, Adam Kimmel, Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens have staged elaborate one-off runway shows and presentations. But there is more to Pitti than Pitti Uomo. Only in its ninth edition, Pitti Fragranze has become the world’s leading fragrance fair—as if Florence weren’t already a feast for the senses.

At the most recent Pitti Fragranze, French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian was invited to present his aromatic vision to the assembled buyers, press and the like. As you may recall, the enfant prodige created the best-selling men’s cologne Le Mâle for Jean Paul Gaultier when he was only 25, before going on to create another cult classic for Hedi Slimane with Christian Dior Eau Noire, as well as a revamp of Lanvin’s Rumeur in 2006. He also composed L’Odeur de l’Argent for the French artist Sophie Calle and recreated Marie Antoinette’s perfume for the Palace of Versailles.

Just two years ago, Kurkdjian launched his own perfume line, opening a flacon-sized shop on rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. By turns opulent and eccentric, Maison Francis Kurkdjian runs the gamut from bespoke $12,000 creations (tailor-made to fit your unique physiology, hence the one-of-a-kind price) to blow bubbles and laundry detergent. You see, he’s creating his olfactory universe, a motley mix of the notes he encounters every day, from jasmine and lavender to hot dogs and Grindr, as he explains…

Hello Francis. Tell me what you’re working on here in Florence.
We’re doing an art installation. Fragrance is my home, but there are other ways to play with fragrances than just putting them in a bottle. I think it’s time for perfume to step into the art scene. It’s not only about scent, because there is meaning behind the work. Do you know the story about of this place?

I do not.
We’re standing in a former orphanage, the oldest in Italy. They use to receive children who were abandoned by their mothers because they were too poor. Or, because of aristocratic reasons, they couldn’t keep an undesired child, a bastard. In terms of architecture, it’s pure Renaissance, from the 15th century. So what we are doing here is a tribute to the children. The name of the installation is The Light of the Innocents. Basically, here in the courtyard, we are recreating the symbol of the institution. That ceramic tile with a child in the center is the symbol of the institution and we have assembled about 500 candles on the floor of the courtyard that we will light tonight. I wanted to do an art installation of fragrances.

Will the air be perfumed?
Yes, the candles are scented. It’s a special fragrance for this event only.

As a perfumer who travels a lot, are you conscious of different smells in different cities? Does Florence have its own unique scent? I think it’s very trendy right now to come out with city scents.
People like the idea of each city having a smell, but I think it’s just stupid, to be honest. It’s a marketing thing. What is the smell of Paris compared to London? I don’t see it. In New York, okay, you have the hot dogs…

…and the sewer.
In Shanghai, it stinks of cabbage. But I think it’s not about the smell. It’s more about the feeling. Smell is part of the feeling. But it’s also visual. Here in Florence you have the river and some street markets.

So you’re a visual person, too.
I’m a human. I use my nose to work because it gives me the information I need in terms of smell. But I can see, I can hear.

Your fragrance label, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, is relatively new. How’s that going?
Very well. The idea behind the brand is to have, as a perfumer, carte blanche to create not only each scent of the house, but also each product. I am the mind and the spirit of every single product. And I think, or I know that I’m the only one in the world right now to have that legitimacy. I’ve been working 17 years for most of the biggest brands in the world—Versace, Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Escada, Lancome, Elizabeth Arden. I know them all. And I am working closely with some fashion designers, such as Gaultier, Narciso Rodriguez, and Elie Saab. So I know…

…you know what you’re doing, obviously.
I know what I do, and I still work for the big boys. This is how I call them. I do commercial perfumes for them. I see myself like Karl Lagerfeld. He works for Chanel, he works for Fendi, he worked for Chloe, and does this and that. In fact I always say that perfume chose me. I didn’t choose perfume. Actually I wanted to become a ballet dancer. But I couldn’t get in to the Paris Center of Ballet because I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be.

When did perfume come into your life?
Perfume came after failing at many other things, not just ballet. My grandfather was a tailor and I wanted to take over his atelier. I loved what he was doing. I went to a school in Paris, but I have very bad skills at drawing and I couldn’t get in. And to me that was the only school. Then I found that perfumery was kind of fun and interesting. There is a perfumery school in Paris, in Versailles. So I decided to apply. I got accepted and this is how it started. When I was 25 and just out of school, my first commercial perfume was Le Mâle for Jean Paul Gaultier. It’s still a huge commercial success, 15 years later.

How did you start working for Gaultier at such a young age?
It’s a lot of circumstances. I have an immigrant family. They escaped the genocide in Armenia and decided to come to France, and to Paris especially. So this is also why Paris is very dear to me, because from Turkey, from the Bosphorus river, I remember thinking that I would go to Paris. My father was not able to go to school for what he wanted. When he had children he wanted the best for us, as every parent would. And therefore he was a bit, I would say, anxious that I was going to be a perfumer and embrace an artistic career. So he said, “You know what? Do what you want. But do something for me. I want you to study marketing a little bit because if this doesn’t turn out the way you want, you will have a back-up.”

That seems like good advice.
So I took night classes in marketing for a year. I met the CEO of Jean Paul Gaultier perfume. She was the head of marketing, the president of the company, and the licensee. She had the license of the Jean Paul Gaultier fragrance portfolio. She was interested in my work as a marketing student and said I should go see her one day, so we made an appointment. She talked to me about Jean Paul Gaultier. I knew him barely because to me Gaultier was not part of my interest. He was not an haute couturier at the time. He was doing ready-to-wear, very funky, very creative. But to me my references were when I was a kid and a teenager, things like Chanel and Lanvin. Balmain was at his peak in couture. I’m almost like a dinosaur, you know? Gaultier was using metals and chiffon, and to me that was not haute couture. Anyway, she talked to me about Gaultier. She gave some tips and emotions about what she wanted as a perfume. She said to think about lavender and how it would be in a body shop where men are going for grooming items, and then think about the sexiness and sensuality of a man’s skin sunbathing. I remember it exactly. It was July 20th, my brother’s birthday. She said, “Okay, come back in two weeks to show me your ideas, because this is a project for the next fragrance by Jean Paul Gaultier.” This is why I say fashion chose me.

You did Le Mâle in just three weeks?
And it’s still a top-selling perfume. In the gay community it’s very famous and even in the straight community. It’s exactly what I was asked to create. The note is lavender, but it’s totally deconstructed and reshaped. It’s not even lavender anymore.

Just like what Gaultier does with his fashion.
I like to work closely with a fashion designer because when perfume is used as a fashion accessory you have to be the best perfumer that you can be to translate into scent what the fashion is about. I’ve been blessed with the designers I’ve worked for because they all have their own style, something to say. It’s not like an anonymous dress that everyone will forget the next season.

Do you find inspiration in other forms of art?
The way I create is always related to the arts and literature, but not usually a visible art form because perfume is very invisible. When you explain perfume it is very, very hard because no one exactly knows how jasmine smells. And if you know how jasmine smells, you think about mixing it with roses and patchouli. All of a sudden it gets very complicated because it’s not like colors. We’re use to color. I mean, the eyes. Vision is preeminent in our world, it’s our primary sense.

If you made a scent called Francis, what would it consist of?
Oh, that would be boring. 

There is no need to have a Francis scent. I don’t think I’m interesting enough to do that. Kurkdjian would be more interesting than Francis because my last name has a smell. In Persian, kurk means fur. On my father’s side, before they emigrated, they were fur dealers.

What do you think of this whole anti-fragrance thing, like recreating the smell of trash or a very conceptual…
I don’t know. I guess people are bored with their daily lives. Smelling trash doesn’t appeal to me. And I don’t see any women wearing it unless they work in fashion, where people have weird ideas.

It’s true, fashion people have weird ideas.
They don’t work in the real world, and I’m not sad to say it. When you are only doing what you do, making six or seven collections a year, you are just concentrating on your own belly button, not the real world. 

[Laughs] So you wouldn’t make a scent based on bacon or toe jam?
I do scents to be wearable. I want to be worn if I want to continue to work as a perfumer. And creating only one scent for someone who wants to smell like garbage is not going to make me rich. I prefer to create the No. 5 that will appeal to glamorous women than creating for someone who wants to wear melon.

What is glamourous to you?
Glamour is something very personal. When I work with fashion designers they all tell me that their woman is glamorous, sexy and beautiful. But if you think about Rick Owens, who I adore and who I’m working with right now, and Elie Saab, they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. I remember when I was a very young perfumer, a master perfumer told me that sexiness is different for everyone, that a man can have a hard-on because his girlfriend has on a beautiful dress or he has a hard-on because she’s wearing La Perla and she looks like a whore.

Do you think about giving a guy a hard-on when you make a scent?
Of course. That’s what it’s all about. Or I think about the women being excited. It’s all about that. You want to feel desirable. You want to seduce. And they can do what they want. They can wear the men’s perfume, the women’s perfume, they can interchange. I have no boundaries about that.

Is there a difference between gay and straight perfumes?
Is there a difference between gay men and heterosexual men? I guess the difference is it’s easier for gays to have sex because now we have Grindr. It’s very easy and quick. It’s easy between men.

Probably because men are more interested in sex.
Yeah, it’s not about being gay or straight. It’s about being a man.

What kinds of scents do men find sexually attractive?
It’s not about the scent. It’s a visual experience, unless you put two people in a dark room and they can’t see who they’re sleeping with. It’s also a cultural thing, depending on how you’ve been raised. What you experience as a child becomes your personal library. The scents you’ve been exposed to when you were young stay with you for the rest of your life.

Visit Francis Kurkdjian and Pitti Fragranze

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