An Evening With Kilian Hennessy At Les Senteurs, London, 17th June 2013

By Tara

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.

les senteurs[1]

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.

Kilian 1

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.

kilian and elisabeth[1]

Elisabeth Jones and Kilian Hennessy

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.

Kilian and James Craven

Kilian and James Craven

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: From the 1900s to the 1930s was a great time. We had Shalimar, Le Chypre, Chanel No.5. But more recently, the 70s and 80s were an amazing period.

James: Why?

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.

kilian bamboo harmony

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.

New Releases

Musk Oud

kilian musk oud

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

kilian 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.

Be sure to check out Olfactoria’s opinions on the By Kilian fragrances under Perfume Reviews. For me the highlights are Rose Oud, Amber Oud, Back to Black and Love.

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… 🙂

Photos of London event by Tara

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37 Responses to An Evening With Kilian Hennessy At Les Senteurs, London, 17th June 2013

  1. How fabulous, Tara! Thank you so much for the write-up! Very interesting and informative. It’s nice to have the issue of discontinuation brought up too. I wish more houses would think of just offering certain fragrances as a refill instead of doing away with them all together.

  2. Jordan River says:

    Great reportage Tara. No snakes at this launch? Or just on the evening clutches? Great commitment to non-discontinuation. Is he sure about the shelf life of his fragrances, or did that get lost in transatlantic translation? Curious to see how the new categories are named in due course.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Jordan!

      I’m pretty sure the perfumes are perfectly fine after a year. I have samples that are over a year old and still smell great.

      It will be interesting to see what new categories he comes up with but I’m equally intrigued about the “complicated” new ways he’s come up with to wear perfume. The mind boggles.

      Sadly he didn’t have a python draped around his shoulders this time 🙂

  3. Ines says:

    Great post! Thank you for sharing with us. 🙂
    Btw, did he really say his perfumes will keep for a year in a box? That is not a long time.

    • Tara says:

      Hi Ines!
      I think that if I did get that right about a year, then it’s only in terms of pristine condition with all the natural oils in top notes in tact. We know from experience that perfume lasts a lot longer than that.

  4. Nana says:

    Thank you so much Tara. It is wonderful to experience luxury through your reportage…
    I have not tried any of the scents by Kilian and will hunt for samples asap. I am also very curious about the one year shelf life. Seems so short…

    • Tara says:

      Thanks Nana!
      If you can get to a By Kilian counter they are very generous with samples. The perfumes are top quality (obviously!) and very wearable compared to a lot of niche brands, in my opinion. Please don’t worry about the shelf life!

  5. Vanessa says:

    Wonderful account of what must have been a fabulous and memorable encounter – from an aesthetic point of view as much as anything!

    Too many fascinating insights to mention – loved the reference to drugs, hehe, and how he distracts his nose in any way, and am intrigued to try Asian Tales now – another brand that fell off my sniffing agenda last week when I had the chance.

    I would also take the shelf life comment with a pinch of salt, having just inherited a bunch of vintage scents in great nick, some of them 40 years’ old and more. No one with a scent wardrobe could justify a luxe fragrance in that price bracket if it went off so soon! 🙂

    Thanks so much for this detailed report – as ever, you take superb notes, and it makes us feel we have almost been there!

    • Tara says:

      Thanks V! It’s rather a long report but I think you do feel more like you were there if it’s as complete as possible.

      The Asian Tales perfumes are much more your thing but wonder if you’d think they were worth the price-point. Do check them out though. I’ll see if I have samples for you at home.

      I have a bottle of vintage Vol de Nuit and though the top notes are gone, it’s still wonderful and perfectly wearable.

  6. Sassa says:

    I love the remark about the Glamazons! I recently went to a By Kilian event at our local Saks. Kilian was surrounded by tall, aging social x-rays (meow!) with strobing lights and pounding music and some kind of colored champagne served by men in black cutaways. To me, it felt like a cheesy attempt to mimic some ‘Sex and the City’ PR party. But that may have been the fault of the local Saks rather than the brand.
    Also, I may have been a *teensy* bit intimidated 😉
    But despite all of that, I have more By Kilian full bottles than any other brand besides Chanel.
    I just purchased a refill bottle of ‘Bamboo Harmony’ after getting a couple of compliments on it during a recent trip. So me and Mssr. Hennessy are in sync with that one!

    • Tara says:

      Too funny Sassa! It is starting to look like a trend. I think I may have been intimidated too if I wasn’t just there to write it up for OT. A lot of champagne was knocked back by leggy, tanned women with lots of tousled hair. It couldn’t be more different from the perfume crowd I’m used to at our monthly Perfume Lover London meetings (not that we’re totally lacking in glamour!).

      Enjoy your Bamboo Harmony. It’s certainly a compliment to the brand that you have so many full bottles.

  7. Great interview. I was lucky enough to meet him at our local Sak’s store and I found him to be very charming and relaxed. I do have a love hate relationship with some of their fragrances. I love the Arabian Nights collection, but have yet to try to newest Musk Oud, but have been a bit disappointed with the Garden of Good and Evil collection. But no one can beat the By Kilian’s for product packaging!

    • Tara says:

      Nice to hear you got a similar impression of the man himself. The Arabian Nights collection is great but I think the Garden of Good and Evil has been less well received by us “serious” perfume lovers, perhaps because there’s so many fruity fragrances out there already. You’re right though, no one can beat Kilian when it comes to tassels, keys and satin!

  8. Sandra says:

    Oh Tara, thank you for the write up! Kilian is my favorite brand in terms of full bottles I own and the amount that I wear his perfumes. My faves are the Arabian Nights and I look forward to exploring the Garden of Good and Evil Collection. His packaging is so divine that I can say that I must have one of those white clutches. Musk Oud was also lovely.

    • Tara says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Sandra!

      I’ve been wearing his perfumes pretty much non-stop for a couple of weeks now and it’s a nice reminder of how great they are. I can totally see why you love them so much.

      Divine is a great description of the packaging!

  9. Lisa says:

    I loved reading your account Tara – very insightful & exciting to hear Killian’s thoughts first hand!

  10. arline says:

    I really really hope, that one day I can find a by Killian, that I love, because I love his philosophy. and approach. I have not been lucky so far, but I have not tried them all.

    I will have to love the perfume, and not want to ever be without it, as his prices are so high, at this point in my life.

    I loved the interview!!!!1

    He is very handsome isnt he!!!

    • Tara says:

      arline, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find one to suit your tastes as there are so many and they cover many genres. I totally agree though, at that price point it is quite an investment so you’d want to be head over heels in love with it.

      Glad you enjoyed the interview. He’s not bad to look at!

  11. Thanks for sharing this, Tara. I enjoyed reading.

  12. Suzanne says:

    Tara, exceptional reporting from you, as always. The first thing I’m struck by as I read this interview is how much I really, really like Kilian Hennessey: his humor, intelligence, vision, friendly and charming way of greeting the public (I’ve read much about his store appearances at other blogs), and the fact that he does love the idea of luxury packaging and has made that an important element of his brand. When he first came on the scene, bloggers used to complain that his packing was too precious and drove up the costs of his perfumes too much – and some of them made it sound like this was a shameful thing. I feel just the opposite! I love that there is every notion of luxury in the world – from the more affordable luxury to the high-end kinds of things that give us reason to dream those “If I struck it rich!” kinds of dreams.

    All of that said, I haven’t really fallen for the By Killian perfumes I’ve tried, except for Amber Oud. But this interview, along with other things I’ve read about him, makes me want to keep sampling his things and finding the one that really speaks to me (so much that I purchase it in the exquisite bottle and box!).

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Suzanne!

      Yes, he does come across really well. His packaging may be precious but he doesn’t seem to be. I’m glad we have luxury in the world too and surely perfume is one of the more accessible forms of it. I think the fact that the bottles can be kept and refilled makes all the difference. Last time I checked you could buy the refills much cheaper without the fancy packaging at all,if you wanted, online at Harvey Nichols.

      I also like the fact that he has vision. Working on new categories and means of wearing perfume shows he’s trying to innovate.

      I wonder if Musk Oud will be the one to push you over the edge!

  13. Lady Jane Grey says:

    Thank you, Tara – and of course I’m terribly envious…

  14. Undina says:

    What a great report, Tara! Thank you.

    I admire Mr. Hennessy since I met him a couple of years ago at our local Saks. It was an event mostly for perfumistas (the brand had just 120 doors back then) but Kilian was so great that I held on to all the samples I planned to give away as not working for me in order to re-test them.

    I still haven’t found a FBW perfume in his first collection (though I’m using decants for a couple). First two perfumes from Asian Tales were nice, especially Bamboo Harmony, but I just cannot justify for myself (yet?) paying that price for such light everyday scent. I liked a couple of the Arabian Nights collection and might buy a bottle at some point. As for the most recent collection, I’m waiting fot Mr. Hennesy to come to the local Saks again (I was told it would happen in Fall) to buy one of the clutches… I mean, perfumes 😉 Now I’m very curious about the next one in the collection.

    • Tara says:

      Thanks, Undina!

      It must have been great to see him with a group of perfumistas. I think it makes a difference that he is happy to visit the stores and meet people.

      I haven’t been able to justify the price per ml either just yet, though I have decants of Rose Oud and Love which keep me going for now. I keep going back to the samples too.

      When he visits your local Saks in the Fall you can get him to sign your clutch, er, perfume!

  15. Natalie says:

    Your report has really increased my admiration for the brand, Tara. I liked how they did business, but hadn’t found a perfume that works for me in the collection, so had mostly ignored the new releases. Now I will give them more of a chance, because he just seems so thoughtful about his products. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  16. Figuier says:

    Thanks for a fantastic interview Tara! For all the glitz, By Kilian do make fantastic perfumes, and I have been slowly saving for my very own bottle of Rose Oud. It’s going to take me a while, so great to hear it won’t be discontinued any time soon! On another positive note, they seem to employ & train great salespeople who really know their stuff, I had a great conversation with their rep in Dublin’s Brown Thomas the other week – he introduced me to the Asian Tales collection, giving me all the detail on the concept, the packaging design, the notes etc., and generously gave me a sample of the Rose Oud while I’m waiting for my FB.

    • Tara says:

      Hi Figuier

      Yes, I think they really do put effort into traning the people that are selling the perfumes. I have also found the By Kilian staff in Harvey Nichols to be much better than a lot of those on perfume counters and the fact that they are generous with samples is fantastic.

      I love Rose Oud. I hope it’s not too long before you get your full bottle.

  17. Dear Tara (& B)
    I couldn’t make this event, so immeasurable thanks for this excellent piece of reportage… the next best thing to being there.
    How exciting that the de-lovelly Les Senteurs now has this brand, it brings it this side of Hyde Park and therefore that bit closer to the Dandy.
    Much respect also to Mr Killian for that splendid shirt.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  18. Pingback: Yasmin interpreted by Perfumer Daphné Bugey الياسمين | The Fragrant Man

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