I was embarrassingly excited to attend an event with Kilian Hennessy to celebrate his brand By Kilian coming to my favourite perfume boutique, Les Senteurs on 2 Seymour Place in London.
The event was held downstairs in the “Scent Salon” and was mostly attended by international glamazons who may well be By Kilian’s typical customers. Kilian himself seemed very relaxed and was interviewed by “Fragrance Activist” James Craven.
But first Kilian’s fiancée and business partner, Elisabeth Jones, gave a short introduction. The following is reconstructed from my scrawled handwritten notes.
Elisabeth Jones: Kilian is someone who truly understands luxury. I like to say that it’s in his blood. His grandfather founded LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the luxury goods conglomerate), but By Kilian is an independent company. Kilian studied the semantics of scent at the Sorbonne and did his apprenticeship at Christian Dior before working at Armani, McQueen and Paco Rabanne among others. He started his own perfume house six years ago and By Kilian now has 200 doors (points of sale) worldwide.James Craven: It is said that some of your best ideas come to you on planes. Is that true?
Kilian Hennessy: Travelling by plane is a good time for me to come up with ideas. It’s 9 hours or so with no beeps from the phone or email. I can think of the story I want to tell. I can’t start work on a scent if I don’t know what emotion I’m trying to convey. A director can’t start making a film without a script. The story and the emotion is everything. The story is captured in the name and the perfume comes afterwards.
James: Do you think that is why inferior perfumes fail?
Kilian: In commercial businesses they develop perfumes without thinking of the brand and then put them into a bank. Their only aim is to achieve acceptance with test markets. Whenever a brand wants to release a perfume they come up with a marketing concept and then pick up a perfume from the bank to fit it. There are 900 new launches a year. Imagine 900 new TVs, 900 new phones. It is no wonder that many don’t survive longer than a year.
James: It is a highly creative calling. Many perfumers say that they grew up experimenting with painting, architecture…
Kilian: …drugs. (Laughter from the audience)
James: Has perfume been your only love?
Kilian: For some bizarre reason I decided to do my thesis at the Sorbonne on the semantics of scent. In order to do this I needed to understand scent so I did a Nose course. The moment I began smelling the raw materials, the oils, I was hooked. It was close enough to cognac making to be comfortable, but far enough to keep my family away!
James: Your thesis was on the semantics of scent. Do you battle with expressing smell in language?
Kilian: We don’t have a common vocabulary for smell the way we do for colour and music. We usually reference the cause of the smell, or what we think is causing it, for example “it smells of strawberries”. This is a tool for describing scent but there are 3,000 ingredients and many more combinations.
James: Do you actually meet the perfumers you work with? Some don’t.
Kilian: We do meet. I work with three perfumers, the most important of which is Calice Becker who did J’Adore for Dior. She was the first one to believe in the project and loved it straight away. I gave her all the stories behind the names of the perfumes I had been thinking about and she presented me with a tray of 100 materials. We started putting accords together.
I am in New York for 10 days per month and 2 and a half days of that I spend with Calice. But different ideas take different amounts of time to develop. Even though you are blending many ingredients together, altering just one by a tiny amount can make all the difference. As long as it doesn’t click, I’m in pain.
The nose is just a tool to identify if the fragrance smells good. The idea for it first comes from your mind, linked to your scent memory. The key accord has to be new, modern, something that has never been done before. It’s easy to come up with something new but the difficulty is to find something that also smells great.
Perfume is about much more than seduction. For me it should feel like a shield. Something that makes you feel stronger to confront the outside world. It’s vital to feel enveloped and protected.
James: Do you propose that people should build a perfume wardrobe?
Kilian: I don’t believe in rules. If a woman finds a perfume that she identifies completely with, that’s fine. But here, in this world, we want different perfumes depending on the season, our mood, clothes. For me it depends on my mood and the clothes I’m wearing. One client told me that she chooses her perfume while naked after the shower and then dresses accordingly!
James: How do you clear your nose when testing perfume? Here we use coffee beans.
Kilian: You just have to distract your nose. Some perfumers will smell their shirt, some like to smoke so will have a cigarette. I just move on to something else.
James: Tell us about your “eco-luxury” philosophy.
Kilian: After giving my resignation at L’Oreal I stopped off at a tiny museum with an exhibition of 100 years of Baccarat bottles. When you see the attention to detail then, compared to today…well, we should be really ashamed. Back in the day perfume was a real luxury product. When leaving the museum I had a clear idea about putting perfumery back on its pedestal.
When you finish a bottle of perfume and it is a luxury, you don’t throw it away. You keep the bottle all your life. Your grandmother kept her bottle of perfume. It was normal 100 years ago. The same goes for the box. With our boxes you can remove the satin padding and use it as a jewellery box. Everything must be beautiful or re-usable. With our last collection, In the Garden of Good and Evil, you could use the box as a clutch.
James: Is that your favourite period of perfumery? Baccarat, Coty?
Kilian: It was a time when the president of a house had a strong olfactory sense and would be the one to develop the perfume, not the marketing director. The president would employ one perfumer and it was such an honour you’d cry if you didn’t get it. A perfume would only be released once every few years. Now Chanel, Dior and Guerlain release several perfumes every year. In the 80s you’d get perfumes like Poison, with big olfactory signatures.
James: Now we have the spotlight more on the perfumer which is a good thing. Are your perfumes gender non-specific?
Kilian: Of course, I come from a classic culture which says jasmine for women, fougères for men. However, I choose the accord that expresses the name of the perfume. A perfume has its own rhythm, borders become blurred. For example Straight to Heaven has rum, nutmeg, cedarwood, patchouli, a touch of vanilla and musk. It is a more typically masculine fragrance but it is one of our most popular fragrances among women.
James: Do your perfumes have a particular signature?
Kilian: I don’t like it when a perfume smells the same the whole time. A perfume is almost alive. I like my perfumes to have a lot of layers, like different doors within the perfume. You can notice a different facet each time you wear it.
I develop perfumes with a very strong drydown. A perfume is physical; the citrus evaporates in 2 or 3 minutes, so if there is no drydown it will not last. Most companies are scared to do a traditional drydown with tonka bean, patchouli etc. They have replaced it with “baby notes” such as nitro musks, that don’t smell of anything.
James: Do you source your perfume ingredients?
Kilian: Teams source the ingredients. The debate of synthetics versus naturals does not make sense to me. Perfumes like Le Chypre and No.5 used synthetic notes to bring modernity and they allow us to come closer to nature. Absolute of rose doesn’t actually smell much like roses in nature. However, there is no great perfume without a high percentage of natural oils. They give elegance and chic-ness to a perfume. Synthetics allow perfumes to modernise otherwise we’d go back to 300 ingredients. Imagine if new colours were developed – the painter would not say “I’m sticking to the old natural colours”.
James: If you have children, will you recommend they work in the perfume business?
Kilian: It is a very satisfying and rare place where you can combine art and business. We need to sell to survive, but we also have the joy of creating art.
James: Do you have favourites from your collections?
Kilian: I have preferences for myself. Asian Tales is about moments of meditation or spirituality. A pause between sexy collections. I adore Bamboo Harmony which has notes of bamboo, white tea and a touch of fig. It is the feeling of a sip of white tea in a garden of bamboo. Oakmoss in the drydown makes it long-lasting. I wear it on weekends when I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
James: How do you see the future?
Kilian: I’m going to stay with perfume but invent new categories of perfume and new products to allow you to wear perfume in a new way. It’s quite complicated so that’s why we are opening our own stores. We are opening a store in New York in September and plan to open 10 retail stores in the next 10 years and those products will be sold exclusively in those stores.
James: Would anyone else like to ask Kilian a question?
Audience member: What is the shelf-life of your perfumes?
Kilian: It depends where you keep them. Heat and light are the enemies of perfume so if you keep a bottle on a window sill in the bathroom – not great. Outside of this it will last in the box for a year.
Audience member: Where else can we buy your perfumes?
Kilian: We sold our fragrances exclusively in Harvey Nichols in London for the last five years. So this (Les Senteurs) is our only other retail point. We have just 200 doors worldwide whereas a similar brand like Creed has 3,000. Chanel has 15,000. We pay attention to every store and like them to feel part of our club. The relationship is very important to us.
Audience member: Will you discontinue any of your fragrances in the future?
Kilian: Refills will always be available. Even if we stop doing the full size you will always be able to get the refill. I think it’s horrible when you identify and fall in love with a perfume and then it is discontinued.
Audience member: Have you insured your nose?
Kilian: No, but it is my worst nightmare to wake up and not have my sense of smell.
So Kilian proved to be as interesting and charming as he is suave in those seductive black and white photographs. His fiancée is equally striking and is the CEO of By Kilian. She was formerly the fragrance buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodmans, at which time their relationship blossomed over long trans-Atlantic phone calls about the development of the brand.
Released this month, Musk Oud is the fifth and final scent in the Arabian Nights Collection. The perfumer is Alberto Morillas, who created YSL’s M7. It is described as an animalic oud scent with rose, geranium, spices, davana and rum.
Playing with the Devil
To be released in October 2013, this is the next installment in The Garden of Good and Evil Collection. It was created with Calice Becker and continues the “forbidden fruit” theme. It features an overdose of fruit in the opening, a heart of woods, rose and jasmine and an oriental base of tonka bean, benzoin and vanilla.
What do you think of the brand? Do you have a favourite among the collections?
Editor’s Note: Thank you so much for your thorough reporting, Tara! It is a treat and certainly the second best thing to have you take us on a virtual event with you. After this I am all over my Kilians again…