Keeping Up with Francis Kurkdjian

Renowned French perfumer and master contrarian Francis Kurkdjian on his latest fragrance (Aqua Vitae), his advice to young noses (avoid cocaine), his favorite odor (sweat), the scents he wears (none), his next commission (Rick Owens), and the crisis in the fragrance business…

So what’s new, Francis?
We’re launching a new fragrance called Aqua Vitae. The idea for the perfume came about two years ago. We wanted to complete the story that started four years ago with Aqua Universalis. It is about a fragrance as a breath of life and the intimacy it created between two persons. In English, it is known as “the space between us.” I imagined a fragrance that is at once enveloping, warm, almost oriental, but in a light and airy way. That was the technical challenge of this fragrance. Aqua Universalis was about freshness and cleanliness, Aqua Vitae is more about sensuality. For the launch of Aqua Vitae, I invited journalists to see a rendition of the Rites of Spring. My first shock in life was seeing Pina Bausch’s Rites of Spring ballet. She made me love modern dance. Forget about classical dance, which I used to think was perfect.

Is it for both men and women?
Yes, Aqua Vitae is unisex. I don’t do men’s fragrances the way I do women’s. Women’s elegance and men’s elegance are different. It’s not about allure or sex. I don’t do men’s fragrances the way I do women’s. An elegant man doesn’t behave like an elegant woman.

What’s the difference?
The codes of elegance are completely different.

What’s an elegant man for you?
For me, elegance is about carriage, and also a state of mind. It’s not about being well-dressed. Some people are well-dressed but extremely vulgar. Elegance has nothing to do with something material.

Are there celebrities you find particularly elegant today?
Well, elegance is pretty rare these days. I have elegant people around me who are not famous at all. And I don’t like celebrities; I’m not interested in them. I don’t read about them in magazines.

You don’t like gossip?
Not really. I listen to them with a very distant ear. Plus, you need time, and an available brain. Of course I know what’s going on around me. But knowing when Jacobs will leave Vuitton is not something I’m interested in.

And yet you are a big fashion fan.
I like couture, the item of clothing. I like style. For me, fashion is the perverted side of what I call couture. I like the craftsmanship of it. I’d rather spend a lot of time in an atelier watching people work than with people who gravitate around the designer, saying things like “I love you, darling.”

Did you see the current exhibition of male nudes at the Musée d’Orsay?
I liked the fact it was thematic, not chronological. I discovered artists I didn’t know. I should go back, because I attended the opening. I’m actually surprised the theme wasn’t tackled before. I like the way masculine nudes became indecent. History repeats itself. We just recreate things. It’s like in the fragrance business. It is very strange. I don’t think we invent things.

If you had to create a perfume for the exhibit, how would it smell?
The nice smell of sweat. 

Sweat is your favorite?
When it is good, yes. There is nothing more beautiful than that.

Have you seen the Alaïa exhibition at the Musée Galliera?
Not yet, but I like Alaïa a lot, because that’s a generation that is disappearing. There are no longer designers with that kind of consistency. He has this anti-conformist thing. He is not included in the official show calendar, and yet he has never been as fashionable as he is today. It’s as if people were catching up with him, while he has actually never changed. He’s got the same friends. He’s constant in his style. His longevity is remarkable. People forget that a career is also about longevity. Today, you become fashion’s new darling in a second, but you can lose that title just as quickly.

But isn’t fashion, by essence, about having the limelight for a moment, and then disappearing?
Style is interesting. Even for my house. Although the beauty business is different, I’ve always refused to be fashionable, because it’s ephemeral. It’s dangerous for a brand to be fashionable.

In an interview, you said that Jean Paul Gaultier’s Classique had become outmoded.
All fragrances age.

Do you try to make your fragrances classic?
I always try to have a classic basis, in construction as well as in my choice of ingredients. When you’re a créateur, you un-fashion what you do. There is a frustration and dissatisfaction that makes you want to try again. Time in fashion and time in the fragrance business are totally different. Those two jobs cannot even be compared. Fashion makes its money on un-fashioning itself season after season. The richness of a fragrance, both literally and figuratively, lies in its staying power. I make my living on the bet that people will want to wear the same fragrance. And I try to make people addicted to my fragrances. Time will eventually make them old-fashioned, but it will happen over a period of many years.

Well, the fragrance business itself has changed, in that there are fewer new creations and more re-editions of existing fragrances?
There is a crisis in the fragrance business. There are numerous players, and it is all a bit chaotic. The notion of exclusive fragrances, niche, designer fragrances, star fragrances, fashion fragrances, available in blue, green, yellow…

Does this harm the business?
No. I’m generally an optimistic man. It all adds up to a lot, for sure, and people can get lost. Yet people have never talked so much about perfumery. It has become very affordable. A passionate person will always find his way. If you’re not passionate, you might look at it from a distance. What I tell my students is that not knowing is a mistake. With the Internet, you can have access to so many things! You can get a fragrance from the other side of the world or you can get information. I started perfumery 20 years ago. I’ve been interested in it for 30 years. Finding books that were new and different was very difficult back then. People didn’t talk about the name of the noses. Today, all this information is available to everyone.

What is all this chaos due to?
Because these last 20 years the industry has organized itself as an industry. At the beginning, it was of a craft industry, with family-owned businesses that did very well-manufactured products for a rather faithful clientele. Then the industry became more global. People like Bernard Arnault have industrialized luxury and turned it into a cash cow for the stock exchange. Now people launch fragrances the way they launch pizza or yogurt.

By the way, you once said you were frustrated because you weren’t always involved in the whole marketing process, and were limited to working on the juice.
A nose is indeed quickly limited to the olfactory part. Some perfumers are fine with that, but I am interested in the whole process.

Do you often give your point of view?
When I’m asked to. Otherwise, I don’t. But I’m curious to know what’s going on. When they share with me ideas for a bottle or an ad campaign. it gives the whole mood. A perfume is not only about an odor, the same way a painting is not only about colors on a canvas. Maybe the Mona Lisa fascinates people because it is named the Mona Lisa. It’s not Portrait of a Lady. Shalimar is not only about an odor, it’s a name. There’s a history behind this name. There is also a particular bottle behind the name. But then that’s my opinion. Some other noses might think they don’t need that. I personally cannot create without a visual inspiration, or if I don’t have the name first. My inspiration is really driven by the name.

Is there a fragrance you think is the most accomplished, that has a perfect symbiosis with name and bottler?
I think if I’m still doing this job, it’s because I’m not satisfied yet. Otherwise I would stop and say, “It’s over. Life is beautiful.”

So you’re never happy with your fragrances?
Yes, I am, until the launch. And then after I think it’s done, it’s over. I want something else.

Do you think you’ll stop being a nose at some point?
Oh yes. I refuse to become an old perfumer who doesn’t understand his era. I don’t want to spit at my era and say that everything was better before. It’s a bit what Saint Laurent did, because he thought he was no longer in sync with his era. One needs good health to be able to create.

What else could you do? Do you have another passion that could replace it?
Doing nothing could be great. I’m not thinking about retiring right now, but if I had to, I’m sure I’d find something to do.

By the way, [Chanel nose] Jacques Polge is about to retire. What do you think about his departure?
Well, he deserves his retirement. I know I couldn’t stay for 35 years in the same house, even if it was Chanel. I like being able to collaborate with several houses. I like the idea of being a free butterfly,

Are you a sort of Karl Lagerfeld of the perfume business?
No, but it’s a business model. I think he has acquired a freedom that looks ideal. It’s interesting to think that someone can create for several people at the same time. That’s what I was doing when I was working for Gaultier, Armani, and Lancôme. But people didn’t talk so much about noses then. But this independence is luxury to me. Luxury is not about material things. Lining up 25 handbags or 20 watches is no luxury. All this should change soon, because people know that happiness is not about possession. The inequalities in the world are very striking, and the modern media show it.

How do you respond to it? Have you thought about doing less expensive fragrances?
Some things cannot be produced on the cheap, unless you go to Bangladesh and pay people next to nothing. People are talking about it right now, and it makes people uncomfortable. Not seeing it is being totally unaware of the world we live in. That’s why I blame fashion. When you think about H&M…I’m not saying I don’t go there, but now I have a problem with it. One cannot have a double-speak. One has to have honesty. It’s difficult to say that we do everything in France, because there are things that can no longer be done in France. A shopping bag cannot be done in France. You have to go to Italy for this, at the very least. Then if you want to pay less, you go to Hungary or Bulgaria. And if you want to pay even less, you go to China. How long will the Italians maintain quality, price, and competitiveness? And doing things cheaper means the quality will be, too. And I refuse to do like some fashion houses and write Made in France when the item was actually made in Romania or Bangladesh.

Where do you buy your clothes?
I’m wearing a Lacoste shirt that I bought recently. It suits me. I have to say I used to be a huge consumer when I was younger, 20 years ago. I loved Gucci by Tom Ford. I lived in New York then.

Have you kept the clothes?
Yes, I have a few suits, and also pieces from Slimane’s first era at Saint Laurent. I loved it. I went back to Saint Laurent recently, but I didn’t get it. The brand seems to be happy with it. Personally, I’m more into basics. I like white shirts. I used to wear Dior shirts, but now I’ve taken on weight, and I have very long arms. Dressing up is not easy for me, so I order bespoke shirts.

Where do you have them made?
At Charvet, because they are the best. They care about the customers and they give great advice. Luxury is about an experience. I could find slightly less expensive shirts, it’s true, but the experience and the attention given to the shirt is amazing.

I have to say the saleswoman at your store is extraordinary.
I want all the people who work here have to reflect me and to treat everyone with respect, no mater if they spend 1000 euros, or leave with a sample.

You once declared that your business partner and you were like Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
Except we’ve never slept together. It was a way to explain the osmosis between us. He’s like a brother to me. We have similar origins. He doesn’t have the temperament of Pierre Bergé. Marc works with me, and he handles a lot of things.

How did you meet him?
At a birthday party. We were both bored as hell.

Was he in the fragrance business before?
Not at all. He was a partner at Ernst and Young. He was a great strategist in global communication. He worked for several years in Qatar for Al Jazeera. We have different sensibilities, but we are linked by several things. He loved dance, like me. We have an idea of beauty that is not necessarily similar. He challenges me on an aesthetic level, and I challenge him in the strategic decisions that he makes. I handed him the reins of my house, but a modern designer today also needs to be involved in the management of a house. One has to be aware of certain things, the way I expect a finance guy to understand the requirements of creation. It’s a win-win situation. It’s not one against the other.

You used to wear Chanel No. 5, didn’t you?
Yes. Now I no longer wear anything.

Are you amused by vintage fragrances like Stéphanie of Monaco’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s?
It used to amuse me, now less. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve lot my sense of humor. Stéphanie of Monaco’s fragrance was done by Bourjois, which is owned by Chanel. It was a masterpiece in comparison with what we have today. Even Elizabeth Taylor’s fragrances, Passion and White Diamonds, are still among the top-sellers in America.

So they are great fragrances?
They are extraordinary. What makes a great perfume? I always tell my students it’s like ice-skating: extraordinary technique combined with emotion. A perfume should have a signature, a bit like Narciso Rodriguez’s For Her. If a fragrance doesn’t send a strong scent, then it’s just a good idea. You cannot spend 80 euros on a fragrance and not smell it. It’s a bit like an architectural building. A great building that crumbles in ten days is not the work of a great architect. The most expensive fragrances don’t necessarily mean a thing.

I thought it was Jean Patou’s Joy?
Joy was. It was launched during the crisis of 1929, as a homage to Jean Patou’s clients, who didn’t go to Europe during these years. So he had the idea to thumb his nose at the crisis. And the formula is indeed outrageously costly.

What about Giorgio Beverly Hills?
It is extraordinary. It is a fragrance study with my students. It is a real accord. There is a before and an after Giorgio. You could remove some of its ingredients, but it would still smell like Giorgio. That’s because of its construction. It’s a bit like in painting. You have still lifes, nudes, landscapes, portraits, and abstractions. That’s also how you can define perfumery. There are different categories of fragrances, and for each them, there is one scent that changed the game.

Which recent perfumes have changed the business?
It takes time to assess this. People have to get used to the scent. There is an industrial time in the fragrance business. It is not like the fashion industry. A designer can create an outfit, and three months later, there will be an H&M version. If I want to copy a Chanel fragrance, it will take me at least six months. Besides, we have stability and toxicity tests. People have to adapt to the scent. But I think I could cite Narciso Rodriguez For Her, which is tens years old this year. Coco Mademoiselle, Alien by Thierry Mugler, (although it is too woody and dry for my liking), Lancôme’s La Vie est Belle is not my taste either, but we can’t not mention it.

What about Angel?
Angel has marked the end of the 20th Century. We are still in the comet of Angel. La Vie est Belle is in the comet of Angel.

What about Chanel’s Egoïste?
It is strongly inspired by Bois des Iles. It is a difficult accord, and natural sandalwood is expensive. It is one of the greatest fragrances Jacques Polge has done, and he has done many others. Egoïste is also one of the most marketed fragrances. I remember seeing the campaigns at the Roissy airport. For masculine scents, I would single out Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Mâle [which he created] and Acqua di Gio.

I recently read that you loved Rick Owens and that you worked for him.
For me, Rick Owens is the new Azzedine Alaïa. There is no one else like him. He has consistency, a vision, a rigor, and he makes no compromise. He has an extraordinary aesthetic sense. I work closely with him. Rick wanted a custom-made scent. So someone introduced me to him four years ago. He didn’t have the same notoriety then. He was not what he is today. So I met him, and I went to his headquarters, and we worked on the scent together. It’s just the two of us. There is no one else during our meetings. We communicated by phone or email. Now we’ve just finished the two fragrances. The launch is planned for next year, if everything goes well. He really is uncompromising. I don’t know anyone else like him.

Did he challenge you?
First he told me “I want it to be as popular as Angel.” I’m like an actor. I work for people. I try to interpret their visions. If I always did the same perfume, I’d be bored. So I looked at his inspirations, his models. I ask myself, Why do they walk this way? Why do they look like amazons? You know, there is a specific Rick Owens look. It’s very sharp. When I go there, I’m sure people think I’m the deliveryman. I don’t have the Rick Owens look, although I love what he does. I don’t have the guts to wear his clothes. Plus, Rick is super-elegant. He is the only designer who invites me to all his shows. Meeting Rick Owens is something I will never forget. I am more than proud he trusted me to create his fragrance. You know, I wasn’t the best at my perfumery school. But then eventually something will be triggered in your mind, and then suddenly you’ll get things. The important thing is motivation, and the love of the job. By dint of working, you can make it. But you need thus unremitting effort and this love of great work. You should also want to service your art.

Several designers have this image of heavy partiers with a taste for alcohol and drugs. But noses do not seem to have that kind of image.
It has happened. But you cannot make a career as a nose if you behave like that. In fashion, it’s different. A designer has a team. So he can have ideas, drawings, set a mood, and then people will work for him. When Saint Laurent was sick, people knew that Loulou de la Falaise was doing a lot of things. As a nose, I have my own technique. I can tell my team to make some lily-of-the valley, but then it will not be done my way. The thing with fragrance is that it is linked with taste. So to be a nose, you need to be super-healthy. When I was younger I could party all night, but I am no longer 20 years old, and I have other responsibilities.

What advice would you give to save your nose?
To avoid cocaine. (Smiles.) I don’t want to judge anyone, but it is almost suicidal for a nose to take drugs. I personally quit smoking. It doesn’t make me more creative. [Not smoking is] also good for my students, whom I often ask to copy perfumes as an exercise.

Do they generally make it?
It takes time.

Do you have gifted students?
I have had some.

You started very young.
Yes, but I am not a common example, and I’m not trying to make younger versions of me. I don’t think you can replicate careers. And you know, starting young has not always done me a service. I’ve suffered from being reduced to only one perfume.

I have a feeling you’re recognized for many other creations.
People often come back to Le Mâle. And one is not always remembered the way they want to be. I worked like a dog, and I had great timing.

How do you teach?
I don’t try to turn them into little Kurkdjians. I teach a way to create, instead of a taste. I try them to teach them timeless information. When a student submits an amber, I don’t ask myself if I like it or not. My liking it depends on my personal history, my passion for some old perfumes, which were of my generation. For a 20-year-old kid, these things almost belong to a museum. Shalimar was created 100 years ago. It smells like an old lady. It’s like a painting. The Mona Lisa is an old painting. We cannot say it is a modern painting. We can find modernity to the Mona Lisa if it is timeless. Then there is a sort of truth to the masterpiece, but it still is old. Greek columns and the Parthenon are rather old. One cannot say they look like something by Zaha Hadid. That’s why it’s important to teach a technique to my students, a way to tackle perfumery like an artistic activity. Because evaporation will always be the same, be it 1920 or 2030. But the taste is different. A 20-year-old sees the world in a way I cannot. I have to accept it. Then you can try to live with your times, but there is still a gap. Unless you’re like Karl, who surrounds himself with young people. And I think when he goes to Colette, it’s because he wants to understand how things go. That’s why I say Lagerfeld is a sort of model for me. There is no one like him in perfumery. I’ve seen too many noses being sidelined around 50 or 60. They sidelined themselves.

Read about what was on Francis Kurkdjian’s mind two years ago.