Imagine creating a fragrance that defined an era; creating a scent worn by a generation. Master perfumer Francis Kurkdjian is one such human.
We all know scents are transportive. We’ve all passed someone on the street whose liberal spritz of such scents takes us back in time. As we wander through that wondrous waft, places and people rise to mind – ex-lovers, old friends, or even an entire zeitgeist – a heady olfactory time warp, back to the ‘80s, or the ‘90s, or ‘00s, replete with accompanying musical score, the fashion, the feeling. You can probably reel off a few right now that you’d recognize in an instant. What are they? I’m thinking CK One, Dior Fahrenheit, Armani Acqua di Gio, Ralph Lauren Polo Sport, Thierry Mugler Angel, and without a doubt, Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male – that singular scent in the iconic blue bottle modeled on a muscular torso – one of my ex-lovers used to wear it religiously. To cut a long story short, Le Male was created by French Lebanese perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. He’s created so many successful fragrances for huge fashion houses, and he’s launched his own line too. But we’re not here to talk about those; we’re here to talk about Burberry Bespoke Fragrances.
Francis was sitting in his office in Paris one Wednesday afternoon when he received a phone call from then- creative director, Christopher Bailey. His existing relationship with the British fashion house didn’t hurt – My Burberry was previously created by him. Christopher asked Francis if he’d be interested in creating a set of seven scents. These would be inspired by quintessentially British things. Francis lay back in his chair and thought of England – blue Cornish cliffs, a Kensington garden, the Yorkshire hills, and the northern heaths.
That was five years ago, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing about the collection already. The brand hasn’t actively communicated on the collection, and it’s only been available in a handful of places. You see, the fragrance is always customized – you must choose the color of the leather ribbon that wraps around the lid, and each bottle is monogrammed with its intended wearer’s initials. You must also choose the strength of the perfume – most are offered in varying percentages. While you might instinctively opt for the strongest (‘I could always just use less, after all.’) the fragrance profile does actually change when mixed in different percentages – richer and sweeter when higher perhaps, and fresher or sharper when lower. Thankfully, it will not be long before more doors will sell the collection and a flight to London/taxi to Harrods won’t be necessary to score your bottled ‘Essence d’Angleterre.’
INTERVIEW WITH FRANCIS KURDJIAN
Q: Francis, tell me, how did you go about distilling Britishness into seven scents?
A: We started with very British notes – like Iris is one of those. There is a very famous garden in London called the Bloomsbury Square Garden, for example, renowned for its irises. Roses also are a very British thing. But sometimes we try to invite the Britishness by using something unexpected. Take lavender – there is no lavender in the collection. Instead we decided to play with a clary sage, which is not too British, but the aromatic herb you’ll notice does evoke something evocative of it.
Q: The descriptions are matched with specific landscapes too?
A: Each scent is been inspired by a landscape, a mix of notes, that is of course more complex and dynamic than one ingredient or raw material. The tricky part and the most exceptional part of the project was to concoct scents that changed at different concentrations. For example, Amber Eve, which is one of the best sellers of this portfolio, has three different concentrations.
Q: Why? Couldn’t one just use less?
A: No, actually it becomes a very different experience. Think of it like red dye. If you put 20 drops of red dye in a thimbleful of water, it becomes red. If you put just one drop, it would be pink. There is something similar happening in scents.
Q: Can you tell me what the process is like? Is there a mood board? Or just groupings of ingredients like a shopping list?
A: It depends on each project, but yes, I might be given a mood board, or I come and I propose notes. Usually, it’s a back and forth of inspiration. For instance, I came up with the idea of clary sage because we didn’t want to work on lavender note, I said we should have something aromatic and purple, and the options weren’t popular. I presented a chamomile accord that wasn’t selected either, but the sage was selected – it was more appropriate.
Q: Do you ever love an accord, but the board rejects it and you feel frustrated?
A: It happens sometimes.
Q: Can you fight for it?
A: Sometimes I fight – it depends on how really convinced I can be.
Q: I guess when you’re doing your own fragrance...
A: That’s a different story. There is still a board of people, but it is much more limited. Plus, I am the head of the board [winks].
Q: As a nose, do you find the colors and smells are closely linked? Or perhaps you’re more able to separate the two, due to a more developed olfactory sense?
A: I think that colors to me are a bit restrictive. You mention green, and everyone will jump to ‘green’ notes like green apple, green pear, green tea, grasses, and I feel it’s a bit too narrow-minded for me. It’s thinking backward.
Q: Would you say the memories you attach to certain scents at different periods in your life have a cycle?
A: So, the pace for fragrance is 15 to 20 years. A good fragrance will get about 15 years of success before it gets outdated.
Q: : Like with wine, you have different vintages that are better than others – different years, because the weather affects the crop differently. Is that the same in fragrance?
A: No, not at all. The formula is always taken care of, so there is a consistency. Perhaps the raw materials that come from natural sources will change, because nature changes. But the back office, in ‘the kitchen’, these are smoothed out. It’s a real job, but thankfully it is not mine.
Q: You’ve been doing this for a while now. Has it become easier? Do you just bang out seven scents these days, like, “Here they are, they’re amazing, thank you, bye!”?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s easy because it’s still work, and work is never easy, but it’s also not difficult – I’m not in tears; I’m not desperate; I don’t get depressed; I’m not pulling my hair out. I’m used to managing my feelings when I have to create something.
Q: Are there any challenges you’ve had to overcome?
A: I’ve had to learn to work with things I don’t necessarily like myself. For instance, there is a fragrance in the collection called High Tide. Those notes aren’t notes I like. Subjectively, actually, they’re horrible for me. But you could think about it as being a chef – you have to cook all sorts of things, whether you like them or not.
Q: When you pass someone in the street and you smell some iconic scent you created, how does that make you feel? Is it thrilling?
A: I’m happy. It makes me feel, maybe not that I’m alive, but that I am useful for something. It’s rewarding.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I think that I’ve been able to keep doing the same job for 25 years without tiring of it – that, I’m very happy about. New generations may have two or three different jobs in their life. I will die having done the same job for all my life. I’m proud of that.
Q: Is it surprising that when something you created so many years ago has such longevity, given the trend-focused nature of fashion?
A: The business of a lot of fashion is very different to the business of perfume. In fashion, they must change things a bit every two or three months to convince you to buy something new. In perfume, the goal is to encourage the person to wear the same fragrance over and over again, and even forever. because this is how business works for most of the brands. To get the real success – the fragrance that sells generation after generation, that you barely have to promote – is the dream of every brand, but it’s rare.
Q: Finally, what is your favorite flavor of sorbet?
A: Peach, I do it myself; I have a sorbet maker at home.
END OF STORY