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Fashion and Beauty

Talking scents with a master perfumer

ALL THAT SHNAZZ - Alexei F. Villaraza - The Philippine Star

One of the most interesting things about living in New York City is the variety of people you come across. In the more than two years that I’ve parked myself here, I have met Nicola Formichetti, Lady Gaga’s best friend and former stylist, Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore who turns out is also a neat freak, and Dotan Negrin who has been traveling with his dog for two years around North America playing the piano. But perhaps the most riveting person I have met is a perfumer who can turn memories into the most exquisite fragrances.

Born an artist, Francis Kurkdjian became a perfumer “by luck.”

“I went to the Paris Opera School of Dance but that didn’t work out so I went to fashion school to become a couturier,” he says. “Eventually when I was 15, I decided to enroll at the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique in Versailles and it worked! If that didn’t happen, I really wouldn’t know what I would have done next.”

When he was 25, he created his first perfume, Le Male, for Jean Paul Gaultier. He was also behind other popular scents like Green Tea for Elizabeth Arden, Armani Mania for Giorgio Armani, Eau Noire for Dior, Miracle Homme and Miracle Homme l’Aquatonic for Lancome, Le Parfum for Elie Saab and Iris Nobile for Acqua Di Parma.

The Art of scent

Although his first fragrance with Jean Paul Gaultier was and still is a global success, Francis felt he could have played a bigger part in the conceptualization of the perfume. In a recent interview, he said that he found out while working on Le Male that he would have only half an hour to talk to Gaultier about the perfume. “I was sad about not being part of a team,” he said. “You’re The Nose, you’re not The Brain. You’re not allowed to think. You can’t give your opinion on the tacky bottle or the cheesy ad campaign. I wanted to touch it, be part of it. I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied. Otherwise I would have gone insane.”

This led Francis to establish his own atelier for bespoke scents in 2001. Through this, he collaborated with French artist Sophie Calle and created the scent of a US dollar bill as part of a retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris. He also made a strawberry, orange flower and banana scent for award-winning French pastry chef Christophe Michalak and recreated Queen Marie-Antoinette’s floral scented perfume. For an art installation at the Festival Versailles Off, he transformed the basin of the Palace’s famous orangerie into a giant fluorescent orange that gave off orange blossom-scented bubbles.

 â€œEach fragrance is a challenge because they all have to have their own signature. I cannot repeat something that I have done already. Finding a new idea each time is very challenging.  I do not ever think about raw material but rather the feeling. It is all about finding a new way of doing things and a new way of thinking of perfume.”

The House of an artist

In 2009, Francis opened his fragrance house, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, a stone’s throw away from the Tuileries Garden and Place Vendome. “My house is a tribute to Paris, her magic and her spirit of freedom. It marries tradition and cutting-edge technologies. It is dedicated to great joys as simple pleasures and its mission is to perfume life 24/7.” Compared to other fragrance brands that usually base their scents on a seasonal note trend, Francis focuses more on what he feels he should create. “I try to feel an emotion and once I gather all of it, I go back to the lab and I write the recipe of the perfume. I try to get the same result when I smell the final product, to match my feelings. My feelings and the scent have to give me the same emotion. When they match, I feel that I have found the right perfume.”

His creative process can also stem from inspiration. “It can come from a place, someone I meet, a piece of art or a book I’ve read,” he explains. “I do things the way I believe they should be done without consumer’s market research or existing trends in mind. I follow my gut, wishes, and inspiration.” For instance, Apom was inspired by one of his trips to Lebanon, Amyris was roused by the sight of a romantic couple in Paris, Lumiere Noire was created after meeting French film icon Catherine Deneuve and Acqua Universalis, his best-selling product, was influenced by the feeling of freshness.

“It’s like the first time you get into clean sheets, or put on a fresh white shirt, it’s all about that crispness and that feeling of being fresh.”

Currently, there are 17 fragrances in the Maison Francis Kurkdjian collection, which all come with olfactory descriptions of the scent in their packaging.

 â€œThe length of time it takes to formulate a scent depends on how clear my idea is. If you know what you want to express and you see a story in your mind, it can be easy. If your story is missing parts, you have to work harder on finding an idea,” said Francis. Sometimes when he creates a perfume, he can do very few trials because he has a very clear idea and can rely on his technique. “In terms of days or hours, it could go from a couple of hundred hours to sometimes 300 or 400 hundred.”

Recently, he told Vanity Fair that it took him almost a year to produce the anniversary fragrance he made to commemorate his 10th year of being a perfumer. For this, Francis said he wanted to pay tribute to the French art of perfumery. He achieved this by combining all the olfactory families into one spectacular fragrance, made of a sumptuous blend of Egyptian jasmine, creamy Damascus rose, and fruity South African marigold, punctuated with Yemeni “frankincense tears” and “the vibration of Malaysian gurjum balsam.”

Aside from making perfume, he has followed the footsteps of 17th-century perfumers who used to sell entire ranges of products from soap to gloves, by coming up with other items such as children’s blow bubbles, candles, burnable incense papers, aromatized leather bracelets and laundry detergent — all infused with his exquisite fragrances. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a floor cleaner that smells better than artificial pine?”

Parisian scent-iments

For the yuletide season, Francis has released a set of holiday candles scented with a blend of iris and gingerbread. Each candle in the three-piece limited-edition set has its own ground glass jar decorated with the Kurkdjian silhouettes of popular French landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries Ferris Wheel. He says the scent of Paris comes from its cafes, bistros, open markets, bakeries, and cheese and flower shops. “Scent and smells are everywhere! Paris is symbolic of the French art of living.”

Francis believes that Paris is the only city in the world that makes people dream. “Some may not like France or the French but they always want to visit Paris once in their life. It’s like a fantasy.” This dream comes to life with the holiday candles, that even when not lit could perhaps conjure images of the Marché aux Fleurs in the 4th arrondissement or of freshly baked goods from Du Pain et des Idées wafting in the air. “The scent of Paris is at the heart of my inspiration. It’s a mix of culture and cosmopolitan, where beauty comes from past and present surroundings.”

* * *

Maison Francis Kurkdjian is available exclusively at Adora Department Store at Greenbelt 5, Makati. Visit www.adora.ph for more information.

Follow Francis Kurkdjian on Twitter @FKurkdjian, Adora @AdoraMNL and the author @alexeivee.

ACQUA DI PARMA

FRANCIS

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER

LE MALE

MAISON FRANCIS KURKDJIAN

PARIS

PERFUME

SCENT

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