Francis Kurkdjian on collaborating with Jean Paul Gaultier, Hedi Slimane and Narciso Rodriguez
At Francis Kurkdjian‘s central Paris offices, located between the city’s 1st and 2nd arrondissements, the trophies of past successes are grouped behind an armchair bordering a picture window. A set of overgrown perfume bottles, more commonly seen in boutique and department store displays, commemorates some of Kurkdjian’s best-selling work for a range of luxury houses in supersize. To date, the Armenian perfumer has masterminded scents for more than forty brands and designers. “I always relate it to acting”, says Kurkdjian, who established his own brand in 2009. “You act in your own play, in your own house. You decide on the décor, the story, the visual – everything. When you are invited to work for somebody else, you fit in, within a casting.”
The award-winning nose – trophies include a Prix François Coty (2001) – counts contemporary artists (Syrian creative Hratch Arbach, Sophie Calle) and independent artisans such as fan-maker Sylvain Le Guen and glassblower Dominique Marcadé as collaborators on immersive olfactory installations and one-off creations. Kurkdjian has been commissioned by beauty industry behemoths, from Acqua di Parma and Lancôme to Guerlain, while partnering with cultural institutions: in the autumn of 2016, Kurkdjian presented his recreation of Marie Antoinette’s fragrance, for which he translated and followed rare 17th century formulations, in aide of the Château de Versailles.
Chief among his numerous projects ranks Kurkdjian’s work for fashion houses and designers, as the master perfumer has created fragrances for Giorgio Armani, Elie Saab, Versace, Nina Ricci and Yves Saint Laurent. “It’s bespoke [fragrances] for a brand. You have to understand the brand, you have to read about the brand”, says Kurkdjian. “When you work for a brand, you have to know the brand better than anyone else in the house”. In 2006, Kurkdjian matched the romantic designs of Lanvin’s erstwhile creative director Alber Elbaz with Rumeur, a bouquet of floral notes focused on white-petaled species including jasmin, rose and lily-of-the-valley. “When I started 25 years ago with Jean Paul Gaultier, I became specialised in working with haute couturiers”, says Kurkdjian. “I believe this is my speciality because I love couture. I love the craft behind it”.
Growing up in Paris, Kurkdjian practiced classical ballet and relished anecdotes shared by his mother’s close friend, a long-time modeliste at the house of Dior. “From Monsieur Dior’s sketch, she was making the toile. I have been nurtured by all these stories”, says Kurkdjian. “I wanted to become a perfumer because my love was creating dresses but my skills in drawing are very limited”.
In 1990, Kurkdjian joined a three-year perfumery program at ISIPCA, a specialised Versailles-based college established by Jean-Jacques Guerlain in 1970. Shortly after graduating, at the age of 26, he formulated Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, his first blockbuster fragrance housed in a Breton-striped flacon in the shape of a male torso. Since its 1995 debut, Le Male has inspired a fragrance family with reinterpretations such as Le Beau Male and Fleur de Male; all are created by Kurkdjian. The scent’s formulation, which pits the fresh aromas of mint and bergamot against rich cinnamon, cumin and vanilla notes, has been genre-defining, while the fragrance’s runaway success endeared the young perfumer to global luxury brands. “You have to set up in your mind: it’s my technique, at the service for somebody else”, says Kurkdjian.
Kurkdjian describes Hedi Slimane as “super minimalist, super precise”. During Slimane’s seven-year tenure as creative director of Dior Homme, from 2000 to 2007, Kurkdjian found the counterpoint to the designer’s razor-slim tailor in the sharp notes of spiced sage for Eau Noir (2004), rosemary (Cologne Blanche) and lastly patchouli with vetiver for the best-selling Dior Homme Cologne. “He is very olfactif when he speaks”, remembers Kurkdjian today. “He speaks about ingredients, which is super interesting”. In addition to long discussions, fragrances can be shaped by myriad influences. When working on the debut fragrance by Narciso Rodriguez, Kurkdjian homed in on the Cuban American designer’s penchant for musk. “Musk is what he loves”, says Kurkdjian. “He was given a tiny vial of musk from Caroline [Bessette-Kennedy]; they would work together at Calvin Klein. When we were working on the project, he was wearing it. That was the benchmark, how it started”.
Kurkdjian launched his own brand the same year he was named a Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, in 2009 with business partner Marc Chaya. Today, the brand operates standalone boutiques in Dubai, Taiwan and, in the USA in Miami’s Design District. Kurkdjian’s two Paris boutiques are odes to the marvels of perfumery: in addition to his much-revered fragrances such as Cologne Pour le Soir and Baccarat Rouge 540, his collaboration with the storied French producer of crystalware, stock includes scented leather cardholders and Les Bulles d’Agathe, Kurkdjian’s luxurious take on children’s bubble toys, scented with the aroma of cut grass, roses and cold mind. Elsewhere, laundry detergents and fabric softeners promise to infuse clothing with the fresh citrus notes of the brand’s Aqua Universalis.
At his Maison Francis Kurkdjian (since 2017 part of the LVMH group), the perfumer thinks of creations as the considered elements of a fragrance wardrobe. “My mother was a Saint Laurent addict”, he says. “What I loved at Saint Laurent was that you could have whatever you [needed] you could go to Saint Laurent and find it. When I set up the maison, to me it was the same thing: we started with fresh and over-Oriental scents and my idea is to fill little by little the gaps in between. The same way you have a wardrobe, you have a fragrance wardrobe”.