One of the modern masters of niche perfumery, Kilian Hennessy talks about the filmic quality of fragrance, addiction, seduction and the shared alchemy of alcohol and perfume.
It’s impossible to think about perfumery without thinking about art. Perfume is exactly this, an art form. It is wearable art; art that moves with you, that expresses you, that defines you. Kilian Hennessy knows this well. He knows this so innately, he built an entire brand around this very idea. By Kilian, a luxury boutique fragrance house, is his art, of the olfactory kind. Each flacon of By Kilian not only tells a story, but it conjures the same feelings one would get when taking in a painting, or sculpture, for example.
When undertaking his thesis, ‘Semantics of odors, in the search for a common language between gods and mortals’, Hennessy became fascinated by fragrance and the world of perfumery. He went on to work under some of the most prolific noses in perfume history, honing his skill at such luxury houses as Christian Dior, Paco Rabanne, Alexander McQueen and Giorgio Armani. But after a decade of working for others, Hennessy branched out on his own at a time he felt the perfume world needed him most. As it rapidly veered into the vapid, mass-marketed space of mass-production, Hennessy sought to steer it back to the luxury it deserved. The luxury it was built upon. By Kilian was born not only from necessity, but from a burning desire to restore perfume to how it was truly intended; luxurious, niche, eloquent – an art form.
Here, a word with one of the modern masters of niche perfumery, Kilian Hennessy, who talks about the filmic quality of fragrance, addiction, seduction and the shared alchemy of alcohol and perfume.
Can you tell me a little bit about the brand? So, how it began, why it came about and what it stands to represent.
I’ve been working in the perfume industry for the last 23 years. I worked for different groups. I worked for LVMH for a couple years. I worked for the Coach family for three years. I worked for the Gucci group for three years. And I worked for the L’Oreal group for three years. And at the end … you know, the issue for me was that perfume had become so far from what it was when I started in this industry, I had a vision of what perfume was, you know?
And your vision is always shaped by the last decade or last two decades., because that’s what you learn. You learn the history of your industry. The history of your craft. And the last two decades in perfume were just mind blowing. I mean, if you think about everything that will happen between ’75 and ’95. Those are the times of Opium Paris, Angel, Gaultier, Miyake, Poison. I mean, it’s mind blowing.
’75 to ’95, who wouldn’t want to work then? You had amazing stories, names that were meaningful and decadent, and provocative, and perfumes and scents that were a statement. Dior would launch a new scent every five years. Chanel, one every ten. Every new scent was a statement. When a perfumer would miss the mark, would lose a new fragrance for Dior, for example, he would cry for a week. It was…
It was. It really was. And when I learned my craft, I learnt learning all that, and then I got into the ’95 – ‘05 decade which, frankly, was only copies of the same perfume. It’s mass-marketed, mass-tested scents. Now every perfume is called ‘For Woman’, ‘For Man’, ‘Gold’, ‘Black’, ‘Blue’, ‘White’. So, after a decade of doing that for big groups, I was actually ready to leave the perfume industry.
Really? For good?
It’s crazy, because I remember sitting in front of a head hunter, the biggest head hunter for the luxury industry in trends, and she looks at my resume. Nose training for five years with Jacques Cavallier. Ten years of being a creative director in creating scents for designers. I mean, my resume is a pure perfume creation resume. And she looks at me. We talk, we talk, and at the end, she says, “You know, I see you working really well with Hedi Slimane at Dior, or with Tom Ford at Saint Laurent. That was a few years ago, and I said, “Why not? Make the rendezvous happen.” And a couple nights later, I’m having dinner at the Baccarat restaurant, and after the dinner, I stopped by the Little Museum which is in front of the same building. And at the time, they were exhibiting one century of perfume Baccarat bottles. And suddenly, I realised what used to be the perfume industry a century ago, I was just blown away by the level of luxury. The attention to detail. Really, I had perfume conceived as a nod in front of my eyes. And the next day, I gave my resignation to L’Oreal, cancelled the interviews which now I’m like, I’m so stupid. I should have gone just for the fun of doing an interview with them. And started my brand with the ambition to translate what I had witnessed that night in the museum, but done in a way that would feel, that would smell contemporary because you want to smell your own time. You want a perfume that signs your identity for today and not, well, you don’t want to smell like your grandmother or grandfather.
Yes, as nostalgic as it may be, you still want it to be in the now.
Exactly. But that was in the ambition.
And was that moment in the museum a turning point? Was that almost the light bulb moment, so to speak?
Yes, It was.
It’s interesting, you were talking about background, and the visual. And I know you find the actual, physical bottle – the flacon – very important. And then, does that also link back to what you call it perfume as art. Can you kind of explain what you mean by this?
As I said, it was translating what I witnessed that night in the museum in a different way, but for me, what I witnessed that night was pure art, because of the level of creativity, the attention to detail. It was just mind blowing, to see those old gold-leafed bottles boxed into wood with satin beddings of all colours and tassels. It was witnessing that moment, and what I have witnessed in the last decade of creativity was the gap was so big. So big.
How did you feel about that?
Honestly, I felt ashamed of what I was doing in those last ten years for perfume designers, and ashamed of what the industry had become frankly. But you know, when you work for designers, you’re not entirely happy about the product you create.
No, of course.
A perfume is like a movie. There’s so many parts and pieces. The name and the bottle and the box and the scent and the advertising, the image, the movie, the model, the colours. There’s so many details.
Each perfume has its own narrative, its own story. There’s so many components.
When you work for fashion designers, you know, you have to put yourself in their shoes. You’re still putting a lot of yourself, but at one point, he’s the one deciding and you have to show options. And sometimes the options that have been put together, you’re not sure. I needed to create a perfume that would be me.
Definitely. Can I ask you about this way perfume had become, and I still believe is now in terms of this homogenous, mass-marketed kind of industry. But there is now a bit of a push with niche perfumery, do you think this is true? Do you think there’s been a revival, of sorts, of boutique perfumery and how important do you think this is in the narrative of fragrance today?
Well, yes, there is a push of the niche perfume industry, but the push is really at the tip of the iceberg.
It is pushing in department stores, because in a department store, we can set up our own house. We can set up our counter which is our aesthetic. We can convey our emotion, our story. We have our own style. We train them to speak the proper way. We educate them about perfume, so they can speak in the proper way about the creativity, the quality of the raw materials to the customer. But, in Australia like in America, department stores are still a big part of the business. But department stores are a very tiny percentage of the business. The mass of the business is through the rest of the world. And in that kind of self-service distribution, the niche, I’m having a really hard time. There’s an awareness problem.
Why do you think this is?
You have to be able to be known by customers. Deep, deep in France. Deep, deep in Spain, in Germany. When probably you have maybe some awareness for the Parisian customer. You know? It’s hard to go in land.
Yes, of course. It was By Kilian’s 10th anniversary last year. How have you seen the brand evolve over the last decade?
Well, I think you have to constantly evolve because people who don’t evolve, they stay where they are when the world is moving so fast. So, you know what? You don’t evolve for a couple years, and suddenly you’re left behind.
Have you been mindful of that?
Since the beginning, I knew that. I created my brand composed of collections of olfactive stories. Olfactive books if you want, where every scent is a chapter of the book because I knew that, at one point, a bottle that stays the same for 10 years, 15 years, you’re going at your bottle and say ehh…it doesn’t look contemporary today. And you look at the font and the sticker and you’re like ehh. And to top it off, I would be so bored with one scent here, I would be like give me something to do. I’m going to get crazy here. So, no I needed to build collection. I have so many, so much I want to say. But I think maybe one of the evolutions I have done is to also push the boundaries of what can be centred and not centred.
For example, for the 10-year anniversary we did a capsule collection of scented lingerie. We use a New York-based lingerie brand where we micro encapsulated perfume in the lace of the lingerie. So that was fun.
That’s amazing! And very trailblazing, because I feel lingerie always has this connotation of scent, that you should smell nice when you’re in lingerie, so I like that kind of connection. They feed into each other.
And now we just released a collection that I designed with a jewellery designer named Elie Top. And together we designed a collection of scented jewellery where you have pieces of jewellery that open and inside you can place a ceramic that can be scented with any perfume of your choice. And the piece of the metal is perforated so the perfume comes out through the perforation.
Wow, how beautiful. Can I ask you about the actual creative process. How do you frist conceptualise a fragrance? And then how do you actually make it? Are you very involved in the creative process? And in terms of the production?
Oh, yes. the creation process is entirely me. 100%. The way I work is about emotions I want to convey. And up until today, because now we have 20, 30 scents, we just have to think differently about the way we are. The navigation at counter for customer needs to be a little bit more customer-friendly because we realise that customers, now that we have all those stories are getting a little lost, we’re shifting the way to present our scents which in return shift my creative process a little. But up until now, I was really creating olvactive stories. The latest story I launched was called ‘From Dusk ’til Dawn’ which was a homage to Gustav Klimt. And I launched a collection with two scents. One is called ‘Woman in Gold’ which is a reference to the painting called ‘The Portrait of Adele Blanc Bauer.’
I have smelt that one. It’s beautiful.
And the second scent, more masculine, is called ‘Gold Knight’. Knight with a K, as a reference to the knight in a golden armour with a sword which was painted by Klimt in the Beethoven Freeze at the Bell Museum. So, my inspiration can come from artists like that, but I need, at one point, to be able to translate what I like into a perfume emotion. And that’s always the tricky part, you know?
The perfume cannot express everything you want it to. But what was interesting in the work of Klimt is that his painting from the Byzantine period, the gold period, is that it’s almost monochromatic gold with touches of darkness such as the black. And of course black helps to make the gold shine even more. And it’s interesting to work in the same manner with scents, and take all the raw materials that, for me, were shining gold in a way, like bergamot or honey or anise or yellow roses. You know, everything that shines gold…
Visually, thing that had this kind of gilded reflection.
But then letting those touches of darkness like black pepper, black patchouli, black vanilla. Touches like that. And create two complete opposite scents between ‘Woman in Gold’ and ‘Gold Knight’ even though they have the same structure in both of them. So, the creative process can really change from one collection to another.
How has it differed to previous collections?
The collection before was ‘Addictive State of Mind’ which was a collection built on addiction, but I need to have addictions that have a smell, a scent.
So, gambling… I don’t know what it smells like. But the cigar, an addiction to a very beautiful cigar Monte Cristo, that has smell. Addiction to Turkish coffee, which is one of my addictions, that I know what it smells like. Addiction to cannabis, from time to time.
It’s interesting that you actually see the perfume visually. You see the breakdown of the perfume aesthetically, and the actual visual reference of the note itself. The honey in terms of it’s colour and its refraction with light, for example. I find that really interesting.
Yes, and my inspiration can come from really anything. I need to translate it into the world of perfume.
You obviously come from one of the most illustrious and esteemed Cognac manufacturers in the world, and I read that you used to trawl the family cellars when you were young. Can I ask, is there a link between Cognac and fragrance?
In the creative process, like the actual Cognac making?
In the creative process itself, there is a connection because when you create Cognac, you actually blend what is called Asson Blague, and you can blend 20% of this Asson Blague, 10% of this one, 40% of this one. So, you kind of create a formula in a way, but in a much more simple way than perfume. But still, it’s the same creative process in many ways. And obviously, the Cognac, you smell it and you learn how to understand the notes and decipher the notes. So, again, it’s much more narrow because you work with spices, foods, woods, those kind of notes. But still, it’s close enough to the world of perfume.
Well, I guess it’s still a kind of alchemy.
Exactly. Cognac and perfume is a blend of different notes..
How do you think fragrance plays a part in the body language of today? In 2018, do you think it changes body language at all? In a time when we’re so disconnected but also connected, how do you see fragrance affecting the way we interact physically?
Well, I always believe that perfume was as much about seduction as it was about protection.
I like that.
Seduction, we all understand that, and we believe … you go on a date, you put perfume on, you hope that the scent will magically capture someone’s attention. But when you think about when you put perfume in the morning, you’re not into seduction mode unless there’s someone at work you have an eye on.
Someone in the office!
Outside of that, you’re not into seduction mode, but when you close your eyes and you think about the moment when you leave the house, and you put your perfume on. For me, it really acts as a shield, as a bubble. I feel protected in my scent. I feel bubbled. And in that sense, I think that when you have found the right perfume for you you feel stronger thanks to your scent. Then your body language changes because someone who feels strong, feels different. I think it’s very close to clothes, actually. When you feel good in your clothes, your posture changes.
Yes, you walk a little taller.
And then when you don’t feel right in your clothes, you..
Yes, it changes. So, I think that is really important for people to find their own scent because it is about feeling sexier and stronger.
I really like that. On that, you once said there was an absence in common vocabulary amongst people to talk about a scent. Given today’s world, do you feel there’s an absence in common vocabulary amongst people full stop?
I think you’re right. You know what’s funny? Is that nobody calls on the phone anymore.
No, not really.
I mean, we all text. You think, why is he calling me? But I like writing actually. I love to write. I mean, that’s my university background. But there’s a different connection today through the writing.
And do you have a signature scent or do you rotate fragrances, and what are they?
I really have a wardrobe of scents. Depending on the mood I am in, depending on the way I’m dressed, depending on summer, winter. I have a whole wardrobe. Amber Oud, Gold Knight, Straight to Heaven. Those are my warm, woodsy scents. And when I want to feel fresh, I wear Bamboo Harmony. When I’m in a tuxedo for a black tie event I want a specific scent. If I’m just wearing a big sweater on Sunday morning, I want another scent.