My lunch with perfumer Kilian Hennessy
When Kilian Hennessy debuted his eponymous eco-luxe fragrance brand By Kilian 12 years ago, he had no idea he was on the forefront of a global trend that would move through the fragrance industry like a tsunami seeing niche perfumery become a multi-billion dollar business within less than a decade. He was one of the first to reimagine prestige fragrance as works of art by researching such brands as Baccarat, Lalique and 1930s artists. (At the time, mass market celebrity scents by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Antonio Banderas, Don Johnson, Celine Dion and Shakira flooded the market.) By collaborating with the finest perfumers in the world, he meticulously crafted unique scents incorporating high quality ingredients with incredible skill. These are scents that smell expensive and immediately transport you to a world of elegance and sexy intrigue. Just ask Rihanna. She confided to a journalist that Kilian’s Love Don’t Be Shy is her signature scent – an addictive floral with notes of orange blossom absolute, honeysuckle, marshmallow sugar accord and neroli. When word leaked out on social media, the scent sold out in minutes at Sephora and a waiting list of 2,500 sprung up overnight.
“I had nothing to do with it frankly,” he laughs. “I mean I’ve met Rihanna a couple times and she is wearing Love Don’t Be Shy. So that is the truth. She does wear it. But the story is three years old. It all started because someone said that Rihanna is the celebrity that smells the best. So a journalist set out to investigate what was her perfume? She learned it was ours. And a couple days ago there was a story in the Huffington Post. The editor said she knows how Rihanna smells and she smells like Love Don’t Be Shy.” As you can imagine the waiting list is now much, much longer.
Dressed in his trademark Tom Ford tuxedo jacket, white dress shirt and Dior jeans, Kilian meets me in a downtown hotel restaurant for lunch. He quietly slips into a corner booth, happy to talk about his remarkable career, his beloved perfumes and inspirations. For someone so famous, he is friendly, unguarded and engaging. After scanning the menu, he decides on a small steak with steamed vegetables. That task complete, he puts his focus on the interview.
It’s ironic that Kilian decided against joining the family company despite the constant urging by his father and his grandfather. (He is the eighth generation of the storied French cognac-making family) He’s actually taken some of the cognac marketing expertise perfected by his grandfather and translated it into fragrance: a beautiful bottle, a great quality juice, luxurious packaging, a compelling story. He’s actually honoured the Hennessy name by maintaining fine quality and beauty – just in a new product category.
“I knew early on that I didn’t want to work for my father and grandfather,” he says. “I wanted to create something completely on my own. At one point, I thought I might pursue a career in fashion. But that all changed when I wrote my thesis paper in college.” The life-changing thesis explored the semantics of scent: how we speak about and describe perfume – something that is invisible to the eye.
“The difficulty about the fragrance industry is that there is no common vocabulary to describe fragrance among individuals. For example, if we are in the garden and someone is cutting the grass and I ask you to describe the smell, you are going to say ‘it smells like cut grass’ You are telling me what you think is the origin of the smell. But you are not telling me what it smells like … the true smell of cut grass is (E)-2-hexanol. That is what you should be telling me. But only about 400 perfumers around the world know that name for the scent of cut grass. So that vocabulary exists but it isn’t available to common individuals. That is why I knew if I was going to work in this industry, I was going to have to acquire this vocabulary. Because if you want to be able to talk with perfumers, you need to be able to talk their language.”
So in order to better understand the topic, he enrolled in a scent school for aspiring noses. From the very first class he was hooked. Here was a topic that spoke to his heart and fueled a passion to create. Born into one of Europe’s most prestigious families, he spent his childhood playing in the family’s wine cellars in Cognac and exploring his grandparent’s castle. Some of his earliest scents tapped scent memories from his childhood: sugar from the alcohol in the cognac and woods in the barrels where the cognac was aged. The world-renowned cognac-making company would become an essential pillar in the LVMH luxury conglomerate along with such brands as Dior, Givenchy, Sephora, Louis Vuitton, and Kenzo.
What’s unique about Kilian Hennessy is his work ethic. While writing his thesis, he interviewed a number of perfumers including up-and-coming perfumer Jacques Cavallier who would go on to create blockbuster fragrances for Issey Miyake, Jean Paul Gaultier, Lancome, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Diesel. He’s currently in-house perfumer at Louis Vuitton. “Jacques taught me everything about fragrance composition. We immediately got along very well. When I interviewed him, I convinced him to take me on as a mentor. I learned all the technical skills for perfumery from Jacques. He gave me knowledge of 3,000 raw materials and how to work with them including how to write and compose a fragrance composition.” This was rigorous training that involved extensive research and practice in how to work with ingredients. “I learned the importance of balance in a fragrance formula. Even .1 g difference can make a scent smell totally different.” He also learned how certain ingredients complemented others. Rose notes will bring a fragrance to life like no other. It literally makes it bloom even if you don’t actually smell the rose in it.”
Once he felt confident with his technical abilities, he enlisted the help of master perfumer Thierry Wasser who was living in New York at the time and working for perfume manufacturer Firmenich. “Thierry agreed to work with me two nights a week on understanding fragrance families and the most iconic scents in each. Thierry would pick a fragrance family such as rose family and then quiz Hennessy on how each rose composition varied by decade. This gave him an unparalleled knowledge of the history of perfumery. From Fracas to Coty to Chanel to Dior, he knew each scent and it’s character and composition. This knowledge led to job offers from Paco Rabanne, Alexander McQueen and Dior. “They made me fragrance director each time because no one knew more about the culture of scent than me.”
“You can never be 100% satisfied with your creation when you work for a designer brand. That is because you have to satisfy so many different people before the end process: regional offices around the world, executives, marketing, sales, etc. It becomes more of a challenge to get every department to sign off on it in order to make the retailer deadlines. I wanted to create scents that I was completely proud of.”
Kilian’s creative process is fascinating and always begins with a story board – normally in his office in Paris. “I always start with a story and I begin with a mood board. I learned that from Alexander McQueen when I was working for him for three years. He always started every collection with a mood board. I used to keep ideas and inspirations in a small notebook but now my notebook is my phone. Inspiration really can be anything. The first collection Love Noir was very much inspired by French poetry, French literature, books that I loved like Liaison Dangereuse. Or it can be a theme that I think is interesting like In The Garden of Good and Evil – it’s a collection built on forbidden fruits. From an olfactive standpoint, it is interesting concept – build fragrances around the scents of forbidden fruit.”
He says securing the name takes the longest amount of time. “That takes the longest because you have to go through intellectual property – so back and forth with the lawyers. Yes you can have that name. No you cannot. So it’s a little tricky to get a name that is available in all countries. Then in my head I usually have ingredients attached to the theme. I choose the perfumer who I think is the best person to express the emotion expressed by the name. Different perfumers have different specialties. Every perfumer has what I call a style. So I choose the perfumer based on the idea I have in mind. The time it takes to create a scent really varies. The way I love to work is to work very intensely for four months. And then I let the perfumer rest. I try to get out of it because at one point I don’t even smell it anymore. And this is when you make mistakes. I try to get it out of my head for a while and then approach it again later. It’s rare to be able to work this way because in the end you’ve committed to the retailer to provide a product, you’ve taken a page in their catalogue to promote it, you’ve reserved some space in the windows. But I only work with one perfumer per project. I don’t put perfumers in competition with each other like some other brands do. I commit with one perfumer. So when perfumer starts working with me, he knows we’ll be launching his creation. Sometimes it is eight months to a year to complete one scent. I’ll also work with notes that interest me and experiment with them. I may not have a project for them yet, but I work with them nonetheless. I like to work in silence. When I’m with a perfumer working in a perfume house, we talk a lot. We put it on skin. We smell it. We come back in 10 minutes to see the evolution.”
So does Hennessy have a favourite flower he loves to work with? “All the women in my family used to wear tuberose. My mother, my grandmother, my mother’s sister, my cousin, So for me, the scent of tuberose is comforting but I love everything about it – even the flowers. I always have a bouquet of tuberose flowers at home. I don’t think there is one fragrance on the market that comes close to the natural scent of the tuberose flower. There is something about it that is enchanting.”
Also close to his heart is his latest creation called “Rolling In Love”, a addictive monochromatic floral musk with notes of ambrette seeds, almond milk, white freesia, orris and a white musk base. “When you fall in love with someone, you can’t stop thinking about them. It is like you have them under your skin. So I wanted to capture this emotion by creating a skin musk. It’s 50% white musk with a smooth addictive nature.”
“Good manners are incredibly important to me. I learned that from my grandparents. And yes, they lived in a castle, but they were never ostentatious. They remained humble. My grandfather only had one watch throughout his life. It was a Cartier given to him by his wife. But he only had one. I remember a story he told me about the importance of being gracious. He and my grandmother were invited to stay at Buckingham Palace many times. One trip they had to leave the palace at 6 am to catch an early morning flight. As they were quietly making their way down the stairs to leave, they looked and there was the Queen Mother at the bottom of the stairs wearing a housecoat and her hair in rollers. She had gotten up early to see them off personally – even though she had been up late the night before entertaining guests. She was always gracious. I try to follow that advice in all that I do.”
So how does a world-renowned perfumer relax after a hard day of creating, travelling and planning? He watches his all-time favourite movie on his iPad: An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Debra Kerr. I never travel without it. And I cry at the end every time.”
Kilian fragrances are available in Canada at Holt Renfrew and Sephora.