Kilian Hennessy Talks Love, Tears, Surrender—And So Much More
Kilian Hennessy’s name precedes him. As the grandson of the famed cognac-producer Kilian Hennessy, he has the rare privilege of being part of the legacy that put the H in LVMH, the world’s foremost luxury conglomerate. The younger Hennessy has steered clear of the family business, though, and instead chosen perfume as his métier. “I found fragrance by luck,” the handsome Frenchman says of his chosen profession, which to date has yielded two fragrance collections (L’Oeuvre Noir and Arabian Nights) and a worldwide fan base that extends from New York to the UAE (he’s huge in Dubai). Putting in time at Firmenich and holding marketing jobs at Dior, PUIG, Gucci Group, and the L’Oréal-owned Armani Fragrances gave Hennessy the olfactory chops to go out on his own, which he did in 2007, when he began working on a collection of ten fragrances that tells a story in three parts: four fragrances correlate to “love and its prohibitions,” three to “the artificial paradises,” and three to “the temptations” category. Love, Tears, Surrender, his ninth offering and the conclusion of his love theme, bows this month. This time around, Kilian played with jasmine, pairing the floral essence with a combination of ylang-ylang and what he calls “beachy notes.” Here, Hennessy discusses the differences between fragrance and cognac, what real luxury is, and why he just may have a future in screenwriting.
How does a cognac heir come into fragrance?
I did a program in college at La Sorbonne that specialized in semantics and literature and I wrote my thesis on the semantics of perfume—I don’t know why. Because I really wanted to understand what I would be writing about, I enrolled at Cinquième Scents to take a nose course. This school educates people who don’t want to be perfumers but want to work in the perfume industry, so it teaches olfactive families, essential oils, synthetic molecules, etc. I did ten crash courses over the course of the year and when I started smelling, it just clicked. I knew instantly that that would be my craft.
Was it a big deal to leave the family business?
Well, Hennessy was no longer a family business—it was LVMH. My grandfather is 103 now, but when he took over Hennessy after WWII he had to open markets to sell product—so everything I’m doing now, he did 60 years ago. We have the same name so whenever I see him he says, “How am I doing?” asking about my business. His favorite fragrance is A Taste of Heaven.
Well, that’s not really adorable, or anything. So there is some common ground, yes?
Fragrance is close enough to cognac so it was familiar, but it’s far enough away so that they had no power over me! The nose and the palate are similar—but the nose is much more complex. The issue about perfume and smell is that there is no vocabulary. With music and colors, the words used to describe them are the same—something is “blue.” We don’t have that in perfume. We can only refer to a code in your memory. And because everyone’s memory is different, there is no one vocabulary. But there is a connection between cognac and perfume insofar as the masters of a cellar work with coups or “a cut:” We have the VS, which means it must be composed with cuts that are three to five years old; then there’s VSOP that must be comprised with cuts that are five to eight years old; and the XO—”extra old”—which uses cuts that have been aged ten to 15 years. In order to offer XO to customers, you must mix different combinations. So the master of a cellar works like a perfumer, constantly blending and looking to create harmony.
Gotcha. Why did you decide to go solo?
The number one issue is that you’re never really happy with the products. Because you’re working with so many people and everyone has an opinion. At a certain point you want to create something that is actually luxurious, not just called luxury. The number two is that in the big groups, the reality is the end result has to be commercially viable. For me, it was about making a perfume that I would be proud of.
And now you have both: a personal project that you are obviously proud of and that is in fact wildly popular. How did you come up with the unique concept behind your fragrance narrative?
From day one, I knew that I wanted to create collections, like a fashion designer. In that sense, it allowed me to have a beginning and an end. When I launched L’Oeuvre Noir, I presented it as a Deca Aroma, ten scents—ten scents that were already conceptualized. The concept was very much within me. I wanted a name that would be complicated—with a title and a subtitle to create a better story. And they’re things everyone has experienced—the beginning of a love affair, the passion, the end of love. Then you have temptation. It’s very much a collection about life.
What about your other collection, Arabian Nights?
Before launching in any country, I go there to research stores and find which stores I want to be in. I have never seen a culture that loves perfume as much as the UAE. You smell it everywhere; they love very warm, very strong scents. When I came back from that trip, I wanted to do a collection that was my vision of that part of the world. There will be a new one in March that will either be an amber or an incense. I’m working on both simultaneously.
And your latest flacon focuses on jasmine. How did you arrive at the composition for Love, Tears, Surrender and where does it leave us in the L’Ouevre Noir story?
I work very closely with [perfumer] Calice Becker. She’s done seven of the nine. The way we work, I give her the name, then we decide which olfactive family will express the name the best. Then we smell every important fragrance that has been developed in that family that existed in the past in order to invent our own route. That’s the one thing I’m most proud of. None of my fragrances smell like anything that exists. The idea with this one is “lost paradise,” a place where you would feel at peace. The final chapter [of L'Oeuvre Noir] with be next year—it will be in the temptation theme and it will close the collection. I’m already writing about the next collection, too. It’s like a script.
Sounds sexy. Speaking of which, how would you advise women on picking one of your fragrances?
I love the smell of all of the Love perfumes on a woman. They’re all based on flowers—so maybe I just love smelling flowers on women.