Today’s guest post is from Persolaise, the author of the Le Snob – Perfume guide, published by Hardie Grant. He is also the editor of the Persolaise blog, as well as a regular contributor to Basenotes. He has won four UK Jasmine Awards, most recently for Closer To Heaven, a guide to incense perfumes which appeared in The Scented Letter.
I can’t believe that almost three years have passed since I last interviewed Francis Kurkdjian. For a while, his face was a regular fixture on my blog, headlining posts which invariably featured strong opinions and controversial views, many of which prompted readers to share their own feelings in the Comments section. But, for one reason or another, after a flurry of meetings, our paths refused to cross for months on end.
During that time, his eponymous brand has grown in stature and popularity: he now has his own boutiques in Taiwan and Malaysia. He’s continued to make perfumes for high-street names (Jean-Paul Gaultier, Nina Ricci, Yves Rocher). And he’s become an in-house creator, of sorts, for Burberry, Carven and Elie Saab. At the start of February, he popped into London’s Liberty store for an ‘Evening With A Perfumer’ event organised by The Perfume Society. But before facing his fans, he kindly agreed to have an exclusive chat with me, over a cup of coffee and a biscuit.
What do you really think of ‘meet and greet’ gatherings like the one being held tonight? Why do you do them?
I'm doing it because it's Jo [Fairley, co-founder of The Perfume Society]. I know her and I feel comfortable with her. And I'm doing it in London, because there is no other place in the world to do it. France is a disaster. In many ways. The French Jasmine Awards have been stopped. There have never been any major exhibitions on perfume in France. The FiFis are just a nightmare to go to, but I guess any FiFis in the world are a nightmare to go to, particularly the one in Paris, because it's all about who votes for whom and all that. And there's very little space left in newspapers and magazines to talk about perfume. You don't have as many blogs in France as you do in England.
So is it fair to say you actually enjoy these sorts of events?
I asked for this one. Jo came to Paris at Christmas time and I said, 'Would you mind doing it with me?' I follow the Perfume Society. And I come to London quite a lot for Burberry.
So you actively don't want to be the perfumer stuck in his lab?
I'm not the perfumer in my lab. I think that's so cliche. What inspiration can you get from glass bottles and paper?
Is an event like tonight’s about finding inspiration?
No, it's not. It's more about sharing views. It's always challenging, because perfumery is rather complex to understand. It's not visual at all. It's super difficult to make people understand. So it's always challenging to explain to a not-so-knowledgeable audience how you create. In my company, we don't have briefs. One day, my business partner says to me, 'It's time for you to think about 2017 and 2018 and 2019.' So I start thinking about it, but it's not rationalised by a brief, it's not formalised at all. It's just me, all of a sudden, deciding what the next perfume will be, what its name will be. And then, when you have to pass on your message, your creation, to the sales people, the training people, it's super hard, because I never think about that. So the challenge for me tonight — which I'm used to, in a way, because I teach perfumery — is to make things simple and precise. And true! To me, the ethical thing is very, very important. Being true to yourself and being true to the craft: those are the two first bullet points of my life. You could lie so easily. Perfume is such an easy subject to lie about. And people lie so much, about the synthetics, the molecules, the naturals, everything!
Do you think that, in recent years, people really have become more knowledgeable about perfume, or has the Internet merely enabled people to enjoy an illusion that they’re experts?
That's the complexity of the Internet. How far can you be free to say the things that you think? As I said once before, a comment doesn't make an opinion. Or an opinion doesn't make a critic. It's just an opinion.
When planning future projects, do you try to predict trends, or do you look to the past for inspiration?
I look at the past a lot, because the past is history and history tends to repeat itself. Not in the exact same way, but the values remain the same. So I think it's very important to know history by heart and to do research and to learn more. I would never have been able to make the leather collection if I didn't know how to create scented gloves and if I hadn't done all the research around that. I would never have been able to work on the bubbles if I didn't know that the fountain of Versailles during Louis XIV had been scented.
Which part of history are we repeating now?
I think the craft is old enough — about 120 years now — to go back to perfumers in their shops, which was basically what perfumery used to be 300 years ago. We went through fashion. And now we’re circling back, very slowly, to independent perfumers. Or if not independent, to real dedicated places for perfume, like Le Labo, Frederic Malle, Kilian and all that. And then, time will tell between the real and the non-real.
Does this change have an effect on the styles of the actual perfumes being released?
I would love for it to have an effect, but from what I smell… [grimaces]. Once in a while, I go down to the circus and I smell things. And I'm not that impressed. But people can also say bad things about my work. I don't care. It's just my vision of things. I'm not there to impress people, anyway. My mission is to serve the craft as much as I can.
Are you trying to please yourself?
Please myself. Please my audience. Create popular — in the right sense of the word — products, distinctive enough to stand out, commercial enough to sustain my company's independence.
From where do you get your buzz for the future? Movies? Modern art?
How far into the future do you want me to look? You know, right now I'm working on the second semester of 2017, so basically, fall 2016 is done, next spring is done. I have the pitch.
So you don't, for instance, look to the fashion world for inspiration?
You think fashion is something to look at? To be honest, there is nothing to look at. You know, my perfume house is not a playground for that sort of thing. My house is not a playground to be connected to reality. To me, reality is more when I do the olfactive installations, when perfume is really worked as an art form. Fragrance is not an art form.
I wasn’t planning to open that can of worms with you today...
You can! My pitch for it is super prepared. When I teach perfumery, I try to explain to my students that the way perfume is sold in bottles at shops like Liberty is not art. First, the price of art is not based on the price of the materials. So when you see all the brands saying, 'I have the most expensive rose, I have the most expensive iris,' which, for them, justifies the price of the bottle... it's questionable. Second, Kant said, 'Art is not the representation of a nice thing, but a nice representation of a thing.' Meaning that the source of inspiration can be as diverse as you want, if you're an artist. Tell me the name of a popular, famous fragrance which took its inspiration from old women or blood or war or depravity or homosexuality.
We could think of a few, couldn't we?
That's your homework.
You don't think we could?
Would I be able to create a fragrance whose advertising is just, let's say, Guernica? Should I be able to take a picture of Guernica as an ad, create the smell of blood and suffering…?
But that's different, isn't it? Now you're talking about the advertising.
No, I'm talking about the inspiration for the smell.
But you could be inspired by whatever you want to be inspired by, couldn't you?
Okay, I could take A La Rose and call it Death.
Well, you could, couldn't you?
I'll give you an example. I created a perfume for Rick Owens. Basically, the pitch could have been 'dead lilies surrounded by dead animals'.
Sounds good, actually.
It's very evocative. You can smell it from the description. That's his personal perfume. He's very happy with it. Then he tried to diffuse it at the shows in Paris and London. The staff nearly went on strike. And that was Rick Owens staff! They're not like the staff at Chanel. No matter what people pretend, perfume in a bottle at Liberty is just a magnifying glass on beauty. And that's why we call it a beauty product. You don't put make-up on to look ugly, even though you might end up looking ugly. At some point, some perfume stinks, but it's a question of a point of view and aesthetics. The true inspiration that you can find in Baudelaire, Verlaine, Picasso and contemporary artists: you can't apply that in perfume. I don't see a way of creating a perfume with an inspiration coming from death or the death penalty or blood or cutting off heads or Daesh. That sort of thing you can do at an art installation. And I do it. I did an installation with a Syrian artist a year and a half ago; the smell of blood was part of it. And in an installation, people understand the meaning and the purpose of it.
What's your third argument?
Longevity. Perfume has to be on time. It's not about yesterday; you can't be too nostalgic. You can still make nostalgic perfumes. I'm thinking about Roja Dove, making perfumes that smell like old ladies, like his mother. But if you are too much avant garde, it's not like a piece of art that you could store in the basement of your house for years. So in perfumery, you have to be in the right time. Fourth, secrecy with formulas. Major issue. If perfumery is an art, then you should be able to patent it the same way you can patent any other art form. But you can't. And no-one really wants to.
Do your students get annoyed with you when you tell them that perfumery isn’t an art?
No, because the times have changed a lot. They see that perfume, smell, scent, can be used in different ways. In my time, [perfumer] Guy Robert would never have done an art installation. That was unthinkable. At least now you have other windows to look at. And one of my goals is to look at the other windows.
So if I’ve understood correctly, you're saying that perfumery can be art, or a perfumer can be an artist, but not all perfumes are works of art.
No, a perfume in a bottle is not a work of art.
But some of the work that you do as a perfumer is art.
But that's not in bottles.
Okay, but in a similar way, we can say that cinema is an art form, but not all films are works of art.
Yes and no. The only difference with cinema is that it has the same format. It's like being a photographer. You have a commercial part of your work — and you sell your talents to Dior to make an ad, or you make a very commercial movie to make money — and then you can do something that no-one is going to look at, just because you want to do it. What I love about today is that you have a multiplicity of storytelling.
I don't think a lot of people would disagree with that.
Pretending that you're an artist when what you've made smells like the fragrance right next to it... all that bullshit! The business is full of bullshit.
And you find that frustrating?
No, not frustrating. I don't care.
It doesn't sound like you don't care.
It's annoying. That pretension! That attitude! You don't have to pretend to look good and to look great.
Part 2 of the interview will appear on the Persolaise blog tomorrow. Update ~ see "Seventeen Families" - An Exclusive Interview With Francis Kurkdjian [part 2].
Note: top image is a still from the video Maison Francis Kurkdjian – Installation olfactive PréamBulles – Château de Versailles 2007 et 2008.