Find yourself daydreaming in the office about a career change? How does being at the helm of one of the world’s most luxurious perfume brands sound? Each week, we speak to people who have the jobs of our dreams to find out how they got there and what you can do to be more like them. Today, we meet the perfumer extraordinaire with one of the best noses in the industry. Get ready for some serious career goals…
What do you do when you’re born into a family that just so happens to own the biggest cognac brand in the world and have a stake in LVMH, the luxury conglomerate that controls some of the most prestigious fashion houses and spirits companies in the world? You go against the grain and do your own thing, naturally. Kilian Hennessy, as you may have guessed, is a descendent of the original founder of Snoop Dogg’s favourite tipple, Hennessy, but despite being offered internships with the brand throughout his youth, he knew that he had to forge his own path in life.
Kilian ended up following his nose, after falling in love with the perfume industry while in university. Rigorous training with some of the world’s most esteemed perfumers then gave him the knowledge he needed to make his mark in the industry and he soon found himself working for the likes of Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen. Now at the helm of his own brand, Kilian has become one of the most respected names in the industry. He’s elevating the world of contemporary fragrances with his keen eye for detail and a knowledge of scents that is almost unparalleled.
Here, we catch up with him to find just how he managed to train his nose to become one of the finest on the planet and what it takes to become a true master of scent.
The first whiff of a passion
“[I became interested in perfumery] a little bit by luck. I did a communication, marketing and semantics course at college and during our last year we had to write a thesis. Everybody chose a subject and I had just done an internship at Kenzo perfume, so I was ‘like let me take perfume, it sounds fun’. In order to understand what I would be writing about I actually went to what is called nose school. When I started smelling raw materials and essential oils I was immediately hooked. Immediately.”
The rigorous training
“One of the young perfumers that I interviewed for the thesis was Jacques Cavallier, who was a perfumer at Firmenich. He did huge perfumes like Aqua Dior for men, all of the Issey Miyake perfumes, Jean Paul Gaultier and, today, he is the in house perfumer at Louis Vuitton. Jacques and I got along really well and he became my mentor. The nose school I did probably gave me [knowledge of] roughly 700 raw materials, but with Jacques I went from 700 to 3,000. He really gave me all my technical background. After college, I went to live in New York and I met another perfumer at Firmenich named Thierry Wasser. Today, Thierry is the in house perfumer of Guerlain. With Thierry I used to work twice a week at night on understanding all of the families of perfume that were already launched. For example, we would do the tuberose family and we would say the origin of the tuberose is Fracas and then after Fracas comes Poison by Dior, so what did Poison bring to the Fracas structure? We did that for every family, one by one. That’s why when I was hired by Paco Rabanne, or when I went to go and work with Alexander McQueen, they made me the fragrance director every time, because no one in any group had a bigger, better culture of perfume than me.”
“I really wanted to feel like my career was my own and I needed to be proud of what I have achieved”Kilian Hennessy
The family business
“I always said that I didn’t want to work for the family, so it was not a surprise [when I decided to pursue perfume]. I refused to do every internship at Hennessy, I didn’t want to work for my father. I didn’t want to feel that I owe my career to my last name, or to my connections. I really wanted to feel like my career was my own and I needed to be proud of what I have achieved. I was raised by my grandfather and a little bit by my father. For them, the key to success [boiled down to] two things: to never, ever compromise on quality and to understand the culture of different markets and have an open mind and heart when it comes to culture.”
“You’re never entirely happy with the perfume you’re putting on the market [when working for a big brand]. Even though you’re putting a lot of yourself into the creation of a new perfume for Armani or for McQueen, you’re still in the process of translating the DNA of the designer into a scent. A perfume is like a movie, it’s not only about the director and the actors, you know? You could have two completely different movies if you cast Meg Ryan or Gwyneth Paltrow – even if they play the same script they’re going to put different emotion into it. It’s kind of the same thing with perfume. The director would be me, but then, like in a movie, you have the light and the cutting and the production. It’s so many pieces of a puzzle and, frankly, I was never able to put a perfume on the market that I was 100 per cent proud of every decision that was made. [With my own brand] I always ask people around me what do they think about my scents, because I’m interested to know, but I always say to people that creation is not a democracy. You can’t do that, otherwise you end up with a super-tested product.”
The By Kilian story
“When you look at the niche artisanal perfume industry 15 years ago, it was really not a big thing yet. What made me want to jump on my own was an evening at the Baccarat restaurant, where they were exhibiting a century of perfume Baccarat bottles. When I realised the level of luxury, the beauty and attention to detail that had gone into them, I felt that it was such a shame that we have lost such a craftsmanship when it comes to perfume. My ambition was to really create a collection of scents that would have this feeling of luxury and attention to detail, but translated into the 21st century. So I designed a bottle that was unique and then the bottle was in a coffret, with a satin bedding and keys and tassels, but the suppliers felt that it was a lot of work for nothing. My big challenge was to really convince the suppliers to jump on board and to do it and that took a year and a half. I remember launching my collection at Printemps in Paris and Bergdorf in New York with six scents and I had 12 units by scent. I had 72 units total to launch – that’s it. In Paris, we were out of stock in one week. In New York, they were out of stock after two hours. I had a counter and staff that was costing me a huge amount of money a month to sell nothing. It took two months for the suppliers to replenish the stock.”
The creative process
“The creation of a scent is a very intimate process. We always smell the scent on skin, never on paper, and then we try to come up with the most beautiful, unusual and yet most comfortable creation possible. I believe that you need to be able to spray yourself and feel great about the scent you wear, feel stronger and sexier. The formula is always a very delicate balance. With cooking, if you add a little bit of extra pepper or a little bit more thyme on a dish, it’s not going to change the dish. With perfume, 0.1g [of a raw material] can change a scent completely. Once you have a trial that you actually do like, you take it and you ask your partner to wear it. It’s hard to smell your own perfume, so you ask others to wear it and then you see the trail. You need a few days to evaluate the perfume in the air, how it smells if you spray your scarf and wear the scarf again the next day, how the notes dry down on the scarf. It’s a good 12 month process.”
“I’m always amazed to see perfume houses being built out of the blue by people who have never worked in perfume. My number one piece of advice is to get the culture, because you don’t want to be putting out perfumes that are copies of perfumes that already exist, or putting out a perfume with an old structure without even realising that it’s actually the way we used to compose 15 years ago, but it’s actually outdated today. You want to be in complete control of the creation process and in order to do that you need to be able to speak to the perfumer about the raw material and the only way to do it is to acquire the raw material culture of 4,000 notes. So it’s a long, long, long process. It’s a passion that you can’t start pursuing and then after five years say, “oops, wrong career,” because that’s a lot of years lost.”
SOURCE: GQ Magazine UK