Kilian Hennessy: In Search of Transcendent Scents
Intro by Pablo Starr
Here at FWO, you might say we’re something of fragrance — um — enthusiasts. (A better word might be “obsessives.”) If you ask me what my favorite fragrances are, I might mention 10 Corso Como, L’Eau Guerriere by Parfumerie Generale, Arso by Profumum, or Kyara Koutan by Ensar Oud.
But at the top of any list would also be fragrances from By Kilian, like Pure Oud, Incense Oud, White Crystal, or Smoke for the Soul.
If they seem expensive, it’s because they’re worth it. In poorer days, I skipped a month’s worth of entertainment and bought myself the By Kilian gold atomizer. Why? Happiness.
I knew looking at it would continue to provide a sense of joy, and — further — would capture a fleeting moth of life in a single time and place: rather like the madeleine in Proust‘s À la recherche du temps perdu; or a cipher from Bruno Schulz‘s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.
Scent functions as a sort of “mental amber”: preserving epochs of memory in a resin of mist.
Scent functions as a sort of “mental amber”: preserving epochs of memory in a resin of mist.
It also functioned — as so many luxury items do — as a secret “pact” of sorts. A promise of better times ahead. 5 years later, it’s still on my bedside table.
5 years later, the diffuser is still on my bedside table.
So you can imagine my enthusiasm when our Editor-in-Chief Chris Collie told me he wanted to line up an interview with the man himself, Kilian Hennessy.
A key factor in understanding a man like Kilian Hennessy is grasping that, like Ensar Oud, the capturing of scent is more than a profit-making venture. It’s nothing less than a search for the sublime.
For Kilian, scent is nothing less than a search for the sublime.
Interview by Chris Collie
Q: Welcome to another edition of Fashion Week Online’s Influencer Series. And who better to be in the Influencer Series than the man himself, Mr. Kilian Hennessy of the Kilian world. And I’m not going to say just “brand” … because that would be underestimating it. And we’ll get into why I said “world” right now. Mr. Kilian, we thank you humbly for being here.
Q: Thank you for being in town for a little bit, so we could grab you up …
Q: Two days. So I want to start off by asking: We talked a little about this off camera. I was reading about your thesis. Interesting topic, I don’t want to get it wrong, “Semantics of Odors: In Search of Languages Common to Gods and Mortals?”
Q: Close? Okay. Now, what age were you when you wrote that thesis?
Q: 22? So what inspired the thesis? What inspired you to get into the actual fragrance and perfume industry and kind of get away from the cognac empire?
I always knew that I never wanted to work in the cognac business, in the family business, you know. I always wanted to be able to wake up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror and realize that what I built, I built myself only, and not with the family name behind it. So that I knew from Day 1.
I always wanted to look at myself in the mirror and realize that what I built, I built myself.
The question was, which subject was going to be my subject? And to be honest, I chose perfume a bit by chance. I was reading a lot of theses that had been written prior to me, and one of the subjects that kept coming back when talking about perfumes was the absence of common vocabulary amongst people to talk about a scent.
And that led me to my thesis; it’s the subject you mentioned. And from there I was able to understand what I would be writing about. I did another school in parallel with my fifth year in college. So that was a busy year. And at the end of my fifth year I did an internship with one of the biggest perfume houses. And I met my mentor there, Jacques Cavallier, who is today the head perfumer at Louis Vuitton.
Jacques Cavallier was my mentor, who today is the head perfumer at Louis Vuitton.
And from then I was hired by Dior and I worked for Dior for two years, in New York actually. Then I moved back to Paris and I started working for Paco Rabanne and I worked for him for four years until I resigned to go join the Gucci group and work with Alexander McQueen.
Q: Oh, rest in peace.
Yeah. Fantastic. Fantastic time, genius. And not easy but, you know, when you touch creativity, it’s never easy. And I worked for him for three years until I resigned again to go work for Giorgio Armani.
When you touch creativity, it’s never easy.
And then I resigned again to start my own brand because, to be very honest, I was losing faith at the end. The perfume industry had become too far from what I had envisioned when I started. And I was ready actually to go move into fashion.
To be very honest, I was losing faith at the end.
Q: You know, and it’s interesting you brought up those perfume houses because that was my next question. Like after you worked with all of those houses, what did you take from working with each different fragrance house to kind of incorporate it into your own style? Or what did you see that was missing, that you could feel as a niche as far as your brand itself?
I learned different things in different houses. At Paco Rabanne I learned — it was a very small house and I learned that the only way to compete with the big players is by being overly creative. So creation was a big part of what we used to do at Paco Rabanne. With Lee, with Alexander McQueen I learned how to come up with a collection, building it from boards and having boards in your studio, and having a collage or fabrics and words and images, and creating a world on board and that was going to be your interpretation throughout the creation process of the collection. And up till today this is still how I work on a new collection.
At Paco Rabanne I learned the only way to compete with the big players is by being overly creative.
So if you go into my studio, it’s all boards and every board is a different scheme, a different collection with potential names and fabrics and colors and accords possible, and so I have worlds there. And in a way, it helps me to see, “What do I want right now?” What do I feel the customer would want? At one point, a perfume has to smell its own time, like fashion. If you put on clothes of the ’70s, you’re going to look like these guys. It’s still a pant, it’s still a shirt, but the cut means everything.
And in perfume it’s exactly the same thing. The way you cut or you write a formula can either transport you to the ’70s or the ’80s or make you very “today.” And at Armani actually it was within the L’Oréal structure — it’s a big structure, and I basically learned how to build a business …
… which was very important because it allowed me to have a profitable company in a year or two.
Q: That’s … wow.
Q: What was the thought process behind the scented jewelry? Because when I first learned of the scented jewelry it blew my mind and I thought, I can’t believe someone hadn’t thought of it sooner.
It’s incredible …
Q: It was like – because I’m very hard on fragrances where my skin doesn’t take to them well, and they easily wash off, or just fade away after about maybe an hour or so. So I was thinking, scented jewelry is perfect because you could wear it all day and still have the scent, and I don’t have to worry about my skin, washing it off, or weather conditions. So what made you really see that as something that was needed in the industry? What made you even think about that? Because that was an ingenious idea.
Well, many things actually. Okay, let’s take it one by one. So one thing that customers are asking me all the time is body lotions and body cremes to do the layering. So you layer your creme and then you put perfume on, so you can have like an added diffusion of the perfume. And of course at one point I will end up doing body lotions and shower gels and body cremes. But what I’m trying to do with the brand is really to elevate perfume, to put perfume back on its pedestal, to recreate a fascination for perfume by bringing real luxury back in — taking luxury and really putting it into perfume.
I’m trying to elevate perfume, to put perfume back on its pedestal.
And [elevate] perfume as a real luxury accessory, and not as a disposable accessory. That’s why all our bottles that we use are refillable. That’s why all our boxes are reusable. When you buy something from me you keep the bottle or the box for your life. You don’t throw anything away. That was very important to me.
All our bottles are refillable. You keep the bottle or the box for life. You don’t throw anything away.
So I was thinking about how could I do the layering through objects that you can keep all your life. And one of the items that mothers give to their daughters, and that you never throw away, is jewelry. So what took me two years was to think how could I incorporate the scent into a piece of jewelry. So that was what took me some time.
The other thing at the back of my mind was that we live in such an image-driven world. You know, we’re all on Instagram, we’re all on iPhones, I mean you take the subway, you go to the bar: everybody is on the phone. I feel like nobody talks to each other anymore.
Q: At all.
That’s another problem.
Q: So this is rare itself.
It’s true. But you know, we all are very image-driven, and we can swipe through one image per second. So we’re like bombarded by images. And to build a brand in a world that is so bombarded by images, we realized that the brands that are being build together is a massive advertising media, which is obviously not my business model because I’m a niche luxury brand, or through celebrity endorsement. Now the issue by perfume is that, by essence, perfume is invisible. And we have a huge list of celebrities who are wearing our perfumes, but nobody knows it.
We have a huge list of celebrities who are wearing our perfumes, but nobody knows it.
So sometimes I make a joke with my wife and we swipe People magazine and you know they tell you what accessory, what jewelry, what bag or pair of shoes the celebrity is wearing, but it never says, “By the way, she’s also wearing a perfume.” Because it’s not visible. So creating scented jewelry was a way of making perfume visible, giving a face to an essence that — by essence — is invisible.
Now, the thing that we have learned from our customers for the past year — because we’ve been doing now jewelry for one year is — honestly, it’s something I didn’t think about, but it’s actually the most exciting — when you put a perfume on yourself, it’s a pleasure for the others, but it’s rarely a pleasure for yourself, because we don’t smell our own perfume.
Others tell you, “You smell good.” And you’re like, “Really?” because you don’t know. You don’t smell your own perfume at one point. But when the women are wearing scented jewelry, they get to enjoy their perfume all day long. When you wear it in a bracelet or you’re wearing it in a ring, each time they pick up their phone, they smell their perfume. In the earrings each time they move their head, they get whiffs of their perfume.
When women wear scented jewelry, they get to enjoy their perfume all day long.
So the number one comment that we’re having from our customers is that what’s amazing is that they get to enjoy smelling their own perfume on themselves. They get to have the pleasure of smelling their own perfume.
Q: To me that’s ingenious. With Kilian home and its moniker being – now, correct me if I’m wrong, the moniker is “Perfume as Art?”
Perfume As An Art.
Q: As an art, right. There are certain citruses you won’t use. I’m really interested in getting to know how you hone in, or where you say: “Okay, this is the scent that represents me.” Are there any scents that you would stay away from? Like they’re just off the list, no matter what the smell?
So there are many possible responses. One is that my customer is actually not interested in me giving them citrusy perfumes. I don’t personally really enjoy wearing citrusy perfumes. Sometimes in summer, during the day, I like to have something fresh, but that’s it. I tried one or two times to do a perfume that would be a bit more citrusy. My customer — that’s not what they’re expecting from me. They go to my brand for rich, dark, sexy scent. No, if they want citrusy, there are many brands that offer that world.
My customer comes to me for a rich, dark, sexy scent.
Q: Very true.
They don’t come to me for that. Now the other thing, to be honest, is that there is a world of accords, a type of harmonies if you want, that I’m staying very far away from, because they sign for me the epitome of “mass” in perfumery. So all these very overly sugary perfumes that you can smell sometimes, I try to stay away — or I don’t even try, I do — stay very far from them. Because those are synthetic molecules that they have pushed in overdose. And honestly, you can put whatever you want underneath, it just covers everything. So it allows a lot of perfume houses to have a very strong, very powerful perfume at a very cheap price. And this is not who we are. Our brand is about quality, richness, elegance, sensuality — not about offering impact for low price.
We stay away from synthetic molecules that have been pushed in overdose.
Q: Now let’s get into the Kilian world, like I was saying earlier. The clutches that the perfume is coming out with, and that’s the Good & Evil?
Q: Can you just take me through – I know you have different fragrances, you have Addiction, Good & Evil …
So we have five collections. The first one that we launched it called L’Oeuvre Noire, which means “The Black Artwork.”
Q: Was that in 2007?
Correct. October 2007. And this collection was very much inspired by literature, poetry but done in a modern way; because if you talk like you’re in the 19th century, you look like a “past” brand. And nobody wants to wear a grandmother or grandfather’s perfume. But I wanted really to combine words in a modern way and to express a modern emotion by doing that. And since then, I’ve launched two sister collections of L’Oeuvre Noire, Arabian Nights and Asian Tales, which were perfumes that were meant more for a specific culture and mind.
Nobody wants to wear a grandmother or grandfather’s perfume.
Then I launched the collection you mentioned which is called In The Garden of Good & Evil, and this collections is, if you want, a modern metaphor of the myth of the Original Sin. When I started working, my scheme was temptation. I was thinking: What are today’s forms of temptation … what does temptation mean in today’s world?
I was thinking: What does temptation mean in today’s world?
That was a scheme I was attracted to. I went back to all forms of temptation and I ended up going to the original temptation, the Biblical temptation. And what was interesting about this scheme is that number one, everybody has the same image that comes to mind. We all think about Adam and Eve obviously, but we think about the snake who tempted Eve. We think about the forbidden fruit, the apple, the object of the temptation. We think about the sin of flesh because it’s supposed to be “I’m so happy that they disobeyed.” Imagine, what would be your life without it?
And what was interesting about the scene is that the object of the temptation being a forbidden fruit. I decided to build the entire collection on forbidden fruit perfumes.
I decided to build the entire collection on forbidden fruit perfumes.
And that was interesting. And then of course the snake was too good not to play with. So I collect, personally, vintage cigarette boxes from the 1920’s-1930’s, which I think are absolutely gorgeous items that a man or a woman could carry. I don’t smoke, but I love the object. And I got inspired by those cigarette cases, and I put a designer snake on top of the cigarette box and it gave birth to the clutch.
Q: Oh, I mean the clutches are amazing. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, they are also are able to fit iPhones?
Phones, lipstick, mascara, everything is meant. So all the necessary items of women that they go out at night with, could find their place in it.
Q: Also, it’s a dual role, right? They can carry their perfume and then they can use it …
Q: You’re amazing me right now.
And we launched last year our latest collection called Addictive State of Mind, which is a collection built on addictions. So that was interesting because the thinking, the creative process was to think about addiction that I could translate into the world of perfume. Addiction to games for example — I don’t know how to do that in a perfume. But addiction to coffee: now you’re talking. I can do a coffee accord. Addiction to cigar Montecristo, again, I could recreate a cigar Montecristo accord. And then I also created an accord that smells a little bit like cannabis. A touch.
Addictive State of Mind is a collection built on addictions.
Q: Oh, you won’t have any of that, right?
You’re talking about the cannabis or the perfume?
Q: No, no, no, no. Don’t get me in trouble. No, no, no. Just the …
No, we have it. It’s called Smoke for the Soul.
We have a cannabis-inspired scent called Smoke for the Soul.
Q: Really? Now, just to touch on the different fragrances, when do you know it’s time to release another one? Do you sit there and say “Okay, well, that’s a new season, new fragrance”? Or you have to be inspired, like: “You know what? I’m ready to do another one.”
No, you have to be inspired. But inspiration is not something I’m lacking in: like I have so many perfumes that I could launch tomorrow, but I’m not going to overflow the market with so many perfumes. So I’m launching actually less and less, to give more time to every scent to find its public, its fans. But if I could do it my way, I could launch five a season.
Yeah. Creation is not something — inspiration is not something I’m lacking in.
Q: I loved the hanging tassels I saw yesterday. They actually have a sack where there are silicon bits …
… filled with oil.
Q: And they last 2 years.
Q: re you still interested in doing bespoke?
Q: So how would someone get in contact — or do you select who you would want to do bespoke with?
I only take two a season. It’s a lot of work. I do it for special customers. Actually I have repeat customers who come every year because they want a new bespoke every year. But I — it’s a lot of work. So I want to do it well. I need to do it well. I need to spend time with the customer. So I prefer to only do a very limited number.
Q: Now, how did that about all come about, that process? Was it something already in the back of your mind and you were just looking for the right person to do it with? Or did someone approach you and say “You know what? Can you make a fragrance for me?” And that kind of birthed the whole bespoke thing.
Exactly. There was a customer who came for the first time asking me if I would do bespoke for her. I said yes, we did it, and then I proposed it to others, and then it became available.
Q: Wow. That’s interesting. Okay. Okay so and this is in my research now. You’re physically presenting a new fragrance collection that you’re passionate about. So with the Kilian Home — what would you say for the people who are going to be watching. How is it going to differentiate in the marketplace from what they already have in their homes? Because I know you won’t be talking about something that’s not going to be available until 2016, so I’ll leave that out.
Q: What made you choose home? Was it the fact that someone came to you and said “Can I use this scent in my home?” Or did you just think, “You know what, the market is ready to actually have my scents for their entire home?”
No. I mean home products, candles, scented sticks — this is something that is vastly used by many people. What I’ve always found in the market — not to name any brands — is that scented objects were always lacking design. They’re as simple as possible. And at one point, especially when they’ve been used a few times, the objects actually doesn’t even look good anymore. So my entire thinking process was, “How can I give my customers an object that will scent their home in a beautiful way?”
It also actually would be a gorgeous object in your living room, in your bedroom or in your walk-in closet.
How can I give my customers an object that will scent their home in a beautiful way?
So the whole design standpoint was how can I bring materials that would feel warm and luxurious in anybody’s décor? That’s why the collection is entirely build on black lacquered wood and real mussel pearl, inlaid in the wood, and then varnished and polished. And personally, I think they look like really beautiful objects.
The collection is entirely build on black lacquered wood and real mussel pearl.
Q: Exactly. They are decorative pieces as well as …
Q: Okay. And let me ask you one last question. And this is one that I love to ask because I think it’s a reflective question. So what would the Kilian now — a successful brand — tell the Kilian that was writing the thesis paper about how to get to this point? What would you say you’ve had to navigate through? What would be your advice to the Kilian who was writing his thesis paper?
Honestly, it’s so much work to build a brand. If I knew back then what I know now, I think I would have never done it.
If I knew back then what I know now, I think I would have never done it.
It’s tremendous. The dedication …. It’s a 24/7, every-single-day attention. Because you are still building a brand competing with everyone else around you. And when I go to the perfume stores, I’m still fighting for spaces against Chanel, against Dior, against Tom Ford. Still the same fight. And the world today, your market, if you want, is not your home country anymore. It’s the world. And in order to build a brand you need to travel and to expand your fan base in the world.
I’m still fighting for spaces against Chanel, against Dior, against Tom Ford.
Q: And do interviews like this.
Yes. So you have to be, somehow, in your studio creating the products of tomorrow. You still have to be traveling to all the countries to promote the product that you already launched. In the middle I still have two kids that I have to raise and a new wife.
In the middle I still have two kids that I have to raise and a new wife.
Q: Very lovely lady. We met her and a very lovely lady.
So it’s just a lot to take in. It’s really a lot to take it. Is it something that is rewarding? Absolutely. I feel like it has been the biggest reward ever, and I feel very proud of what I have accomplished. But it’s a dedication, when you have to know that you’re in that –- and it’s going to consume your entire life. Like sometimes they ask me, “What are your hobbies?” And I’m like, “I don’t have any hobbies anymore.” No more hobbies. My life is the company and my family. And that takes 200% of my time.
My life is the company and my family.
Q: Okay. Now I lied to you. That wasn’t the last question. I have one more and it’s a speed ramp, but it’s just one to have fun with. I’m going to give you an “either / or” and you just tell me which one you prefer.
Q: Ice cream or coffee?
Q: Flying or driving?
Q: Summer or winter?
Q: Summer? France or Italy?
Q: Okay. And the last one is, New York or…
Q: Thank you. There we go. That’s all I wanted. Well, this is Chris Collie with Kilian Hennessy. I hope you enjoyed the interview. This is our Influencer Series. We want to thank him so much. We’re in Kilian’s Boutique which you can come to in New York. It’s on 804 Washington Street in the Meatpacking District. We’ll see you again, thank you so much.
Thank you so much.
Q: Thank you.
To see the new home collection, visit By Kilian. These scents are exquisite.
(Transcription by Fiona Luvell for FWO.)