Master Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian on Creating His New Elie Saab Fragrances

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Picture the scene: I’m in Cannes, during the film festival, as a guest of Elie Saab. I’m in the city to review two of the brand’s new fragrances, ‘N°8 SANTAL’ and ‘N°9 TUBÉREUSE’. I enter the ‘Elie Saab Suite’, which has a breathtaking view of the Boulevard Croisette and is filled with dazzling, captivating, and stunningly feminine gowns ready for celebrities to wear on the festival’s red carpet. Inside the suite, an intoxicating smell takes over – the creation of one of my fragrance heroes, Francis Kurkdjian, who is indisputably the world’s most celebrated “nose” and a constant collaborator on Elie Saab parfums. I’m here to interview him for fifteen minutes, but our interview goes on for over an hour, despite the fact that he has an urgent flight to catch. Over the course of our conversation, I learn that the world’s most revered master perfumer actually hates perfume, one of many anomalies that make Kurkdjian as dimensional and fascinating as the fragrances he creates.

Francis, you became famous at the very young age of 26 for creating the world’s best-selling men’s fragrance, Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘Le Male’. What has your career trajectory been since then, because that’s obviously an enormous amount of pressure and recognition for someone at the tender age of 26. What did that mean to you back then?
Absolutely nothing!

Did you not realize it was happening?
Firstly, I did not realize it was happening, and secondly because it’s more about what’s happening now than what was happening back then. And what happened in between, when I ended up working for Elie Saab at some point.

Is there an enormous pressure to constantly create? Currently, the topic du jour with ready-to-wear designers is that the cycle of fashion is far too fast and that there is relentless demand to churn out new collections. Is it a similar case for noses such as yourself?
If the pitch is good, the perfume is good. It’s how I work. If I have a good story to celebrate, I can make a good perfume. So it’s not about the pressure of the rhythm; it’s about the pressure of people that have expectations, and that is what is hard to suppress.

How do pitches come in? Are they collaborative or do you simply receive something from the designer you’re working with?
It’s like receiving a script, and you have two ways of working off a script. Either you try to infuse something you believe into the script, or you have to stick to the script. Obviously, I like when I have flexibility, otherwise why would I do something that is so rigorous and so restrained? If you have no room for yourself to infuse your own personality, then everyone could do it.

I love the challenge of working for someone and yet bringing something to the table. When I worked with Elie Saab the first time, I believed that my relationship with Lebanon was very important. The more I understood, the more I worked. In the case of Elie Saab, we try to translate his world into our world; something very visual into something not so visual, because perfume is something not so visual. Once you get the bottle in your cabinet, in your room, the whole visual part is gone and what is left is just a scent. So our work is to translate all the visual world of Elie Saab and to convey it in a product where the scent itself is a key point and you need a big ribbon, a big bow around it, to make it glamorous.

Since perfume is not visible, what is it then? Is it a memory? A feeling?
It is a feeling. When you smell something, you have a feeling of something.

Does nostalgia play a big part when you’re creating, or are you always looking for something new, something fresh, and the next big thing?
A feeling doesn’t have to be nostalgia, especially when you create something new — essentially you want to create a new feeling. You try to convey the feeling of the designer you work for. There are two fundamentals within Elie Saab’s world. We always say that it is rigorous; you have the line, the architecture of the dress, the precision, and the excellence of the work. And on the other side, the Elie Saab world is known for being fabulous.

The brand is balanced with these two ideas, which might even seem to be a bit contradictory sometimes. Once you have these fundamentals in your head, each scent has to fit in with that idea. The scents can be different from each other — you can use gardenia, like in ‘La Collection des Essences’ or like the first two new perfumes we launched this summer — but, somehow, you have to infuse the concept, and if it’s not the concept, at the very least the DNA.

Photo: Courtesy of Elie Saab

So it’s never really about looking back?
Of course not. If you look back, you do old stuff. If you’re too nostalgic, then it’s not connected to now. I love every single influence from the house of Elie Saab, but it’s not “me”. It’s not a part of me; it’s just a little segment of my life that I try to connect and plug in. You have to twist your brand and your sensibility into someone else’s world.

I’ve heard that you performed ballet when you were younger. How did ballet then turn into perfumery?
[Laughs] There was a famous movie in France about a perfumer called Le Sauvage, and the main character, Yves Montand, was a perfumer who was living in the remote island of Caracas, Venezuela. He escaped New York because he had a contract with a big corporation and he was tired. The whole movie is so interesting because, when you look at it now, it’s like what is happening today [in the fashion industry].

Basically, he was a French perfumer living in New York, very successful at the head of big companies, and he was about to burn out. So he left his company and went to establish himself on a remote island out of nowhere, and then he meets Catherine Deneuve at the peak of her fame and beauty. I love the idea of being a perfumer on an island with Catherine Deneuve. I thought it was a great project of life. When you’re 15 years old, everything’s good.

I hate perfume.

So you were 15 when you knew what you wanted to do?
Fourteen, actually. When you decide to do ballet, you have to decide between the ages of 9 and 11, and then it’s gone, so you have to be sure. You learn very soon when you do ballet what you’re doing in life because ballet is so demanding; it’s so painful. Even if you don’t feel pain — because you don’t feel the pain as being pain, you feel pain as being good. You have a weird relationship with your body. My physician is always complaining because I don’t feel pain.

Do you still practice ballet?
No, I can’t. My knees are hurting.

And on to your perfume destiny. Francis, in the last few years, we have heard a lot about couture perfumes. Everyone is doing couture perfumes now, from Dior to the independent niche brands. What do you think is the next step? What is the next evolution?
I don’t personally believe that couture fragrance is an evolution. To me, it’s just a way to sell two bottles. At the very beginning of Jo Malone, the idea was to sell pomegranate plus basil and vinegar. As marketing, it does work, because you are selling two bottles instead of one. I am totally against it because my job is to give customers the best perfume possible. It’s like if you think you’re going to a restaurant and you decide to order the fish and the meat, and you ask for an extra empty plate and start mixing your own thing and eating it.

I did this exercise with Jean-Claude Ellena [celebrated perfumer] years ago, where he kept tricking me with different scents. He would present three completely different perfumes, and then he would mix them together and they would smell like licorice or Coca Cola, and I was so fascinated by how he could do that. You noses really are a different breed of people.
No, no – it’s completely easy to be a nose. These are rules. It’s like how there is a rule to create pink… you mix white and red.

But mixing white and red to get pink is more of a scientific fact, don’t you agree? Doesn’t a “nose” have a more trained set of skills?
No, no, no… it’s a scientific fact now because we have the technology to explain it. For example, 400 years ago, they had no technology to find out that you had to mix white and red. It was just a practical thing. So I can create a Coca Cola scent; it’s very easy. It’s cardamom, lemon, and cinnamon. It’s a fact. You think that we noses are geniuses, but we are not geniuses because these are basic things. To create a mango accord, you need pepper and apricot, but it’s not like I invented it; it’s just something that you know because you know it. You don’t know it out of the blue, but you know it because someone taught you that. You know it because it’s part of a routine, it’s part of the basics and the fundamentals of being a perfumer.

Photo: Courtesy of Elie Saab

So you don’t think you have to be born a nose?
Not at all.

Really? It’s like saying someone has an opera voice, but they still have to be trained by someone. But not everyone can be born with an opera voice. Am I right?
Not everyone can be the soprano because it’s a physical thing, but if you don’t have the voice of a soprano, then maybe you could be an alto, or maybe if you’re a man you can be a tenor.

But the nose is a physical thing, don’t you think?
[Laughs] No, it’s the brain.

[Incredulous] So you don’t think you were born with it?
[Laughs] No.

Really? So I could study and become you?
No, you can study and become knowledgeable in perfume. You can study and know the normatives; you can study and know how to make a good curricula, because curricula is already done. So there is a recipe to create a curricula. Just like there is a recipe to create a strawberry scent. You need sugar and a truffle accord. There is even a recipe for leather.

My mentor in the business told me that you have to do things that you don’t like, because that’s the best way to do it differently.

Well thank goodness for your ability to use the curricula and not constantly create Middle Eastern oud clichés!
You can thank Elie Saab! He never wants anything too derivative. As part of the new collection, the two new additions we made are sandalwood and tuberose. The idea is always to go back to what Elie Saab stands for — the backbone, the strength, the softness, the rawness — and to pick the right raw materials to help us give an idea. From the tuberose, which is a very straight, upright, thin flower (and rather unfriendly). She’s not very friendly, tuberose — she’s grouchy, medicinal, gray, metallic.

I’m a fan actually; I love tuberose. The funny thing is that I typically don’t like rose, but what you’ve done with this rose is incredible. I find roses to be very old fashioned, like a cliché of an English grandmother. I love flowers in real life but don’t like them in fragrances, but you did something completely new with the rose.
My mentor in the business told me that you have to do things that you don’t like, because that’s the best way to do it differently.

What do you like, if you don’t like roses?
I hate flowers. But you have to do flowers because flowers are 70 percent of the market. And secondly, you do better with what you don’t like.

What are you a believer of — should you have one signature scent for a few years, or do you mix it up every day?

You don’t wear anything? You don’t wear perfume?
I hate perfume.

A perfumer who hates perfume? What an anomaly.
[Laughs] Most of the fashion designers don’t wear their own stuff. Look at Elie Saab. I like the idea that you have the freedom and I love the time that we live in, where we have an excess of freedom. I am lucky enough to go and spend my time in countries where people are free, so you have to enjoy that freedom, you have to live it, you have to eat it up. It’s not about having one or two perfumes; it’s about having as many as you want, to indulge yourself. It’s not about the business. It’s not about buying more bottles. It’s just about giving you the capacity or the freedom of choice.

Elie Saab ‘La Collection des Essences’ fragrances are available at Elie Saab boutiques, Bloomingdales-Dubai, Tryano, and Harvey Nichols – Dubai.

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