August 27 2014

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The House That Kurkdjian Built


As the fashion set relocates to Paris for the last leg of Spring shows, there are certain popular destinations that will likely fill whatever downtime the schedule allows. A trip to Les Puces, some vintage shopping in the Marais, a stop at Ladurée, perhaps. For the beauty-minded, there is one must-see attraction that should not be missed. That would be the newly erected Maison Francis Kurkdjian. Kurkdjian, an indie star in the world of perfumery, has just opened an eponymous boutique at 5 rue d’Alger around the corner from Colette to house his own line of fragrances, which is set to bow stateside in October at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. The man behind such modern classics as Narciso Rodriguez for Her (and Him), Lanvin’s Rumeur, Acqua di Parma’s Iris Nobile and Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, the 40-year-old nose embarked on his solo project under the pretext that “luxury is not just name brands, it’s the right thing at the right time.” We caught up with the olfactory phenom to discuss this concept of new luxury, the intricate relationship between perfume and haute couture, and that rumored mobile trunk of “magic potions” he totes around with him wherever he goes.

So aside from being “the right thing at the right time,” what, for you, defines luxury?

Luxury is not a price on a product. Luxury isn’t expensive. It’s taking one’s time when necessary. Now, I think it is much more linked to personal pleasure than material things in the absolute. It’s about paying attention to oneself in a way that is less materialistic, about sharing rather than egotism.

How did that notion play a role in your decision to launch your own house?

Since I became a perfumer, I have discovered everything else that goes into the creation of a fragrance—the bottle, the packaging, the name. It’s a creative universe that has always interested me. Through the years, I worked for luxury brands but I also “lent” my nose to artists such as Sophie Calle, Christian Rizzo, or institutions like the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres for special projects. I created olfactive installations for the Château de Versailles and for the French Minister of Culture’s Christmas tree. All these experiences brought new facets to what I do, and little by little creating my own house became the obvious thing. I needed a shop window—and now I have one.

What was your central idea when you began designing the new space?

I had a certain idea of a poetic Paris in mind, the Paris I love to come home to after traveling. The rest was a matter of work, of reflection, time, and a desire to polish all the details.

I’ve heard that you work like an eighteenth-century artisan, with a custom trunk filled with different essences. Is this an accurate portrayal of your creative process?

I don’t compose like an eighteenth-century artisan because I love the time I live in much too much! On the other hand, when I began composing custom perfumes in 2001, I remembered that perfumers used to make house calls. So I created a nomadic perfume organ that I could take on appointments. This miniature organ fits into a small trunk. It contains everything that is necessary to the process—touches (smelling paper), a precise scale, sample bottles, stoppers, pumps, labels…and of course a selection of raw materials.

And how does the business of custom perfumery typically work?

First, a phone conversation allows me to establish the client’s tastes. This is followed by an appointment. I show up with my trunk and a selection of ingredients that correspond to the fragrance spectrum specific to that client’s request. After this initial appointment, I create a first trial fragrance, which the client wears as long as necessary to determine whether this is the perfume they want to live with. Then, I make adjustments exactly as is done in haute couture, until the perfume is perfectly in phase with the initial request. The whole process takes at least six months.

Do you have any particular notes that you can say you want to “live with”?

I don’t—it’s like asking an actor which words are his favorite. Or like working with colors. They are all pretty, it’s just a question of how you put them together. It all depends on what you want to say.

So then you don’t think there is one “perfect” fragrance?

The perfect fragrance is the one that works for you. There are compositions I admire, though—each one for different reasons. Chanel No. 5 extract for its timelessness, Must de Cartier, and Eau d’Orange Verte by Hermès, just to name a few.

You’ve worked with so many famous fashion luminaries. Does clothing play a pivotal role when you compose a perfume and are there certain brands that inspire you more than others?

It plays a role when I compose for a living designer, because you have to enter his world. For me Azzedine Alaïa is the last of the greats; among the younger ones I like Kris Van Assche and Rick Owens.

If not from fashion, where do you get your inspiration?

It’s very eclectic: Often I create from a word or a name that appeals to me, like ” black light.” It could also be from my recent trip to Lebanon. I am a city person, and although I don’t like the noise of the city I like to be surrounded by movement and a mix of people, like I was when I lived in New York, or like I am in my neighborhood in Paris. I tend to opt for little gardens in the middle of the city, like the Palais Royal or the esplanade outside the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, which is surrounded by interesting architecture and sits on the quay of the Seine. I love diversity.


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