All the right notes
Kilian Hennessy's journey as a perfumer started in the most unlikely of places - the basement of his family's dusty cellars in the Cognac region of France. It was here that the heir to the Hennessy fortune decided to take a different path into the world of scents.
'I knew I would never join the family business,' says Hennessy. 'But when I was in business school, I wrote a thesis on semantics of scents, and I knew instantly it would be my craft, my way of freedom. It was close enough to cognac, but far enough from the family universe. The first day I started smelling, it clicked.'
After graduating from university, Hennessy made it his mission to discover the world of perfumery. Through a friend, he was introduced to renowned nose Jacques Cavallier, who had created scents for the likes of Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier. He took the young and eager Hennessy under his wing and taught him all he needed to know.
'He expanded my palette from maybe 500 essential oils to 2,000,' says Hennessy. 'It was interesting because I could also use my experience with cognacs, since taste and smell are closely connected. That being said, the combinations you can create with smells are endless, while there are only four basic tastes.'
Over the next few years, Hennessy continued his education with other noses, absorbing as much as he could about perfume culture and its complicated chemistry. His research led him to work with prestigious houses such as Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen and multinationals such as L'Oreal. While each of them taught him different aspects of the business, it did not fulfil the emotional connection he was looking for.
'I was not happy with the final product. Perfume was no longer a luxury product, it was all about making the highest profit margin,' he says. 'I didn't go into the industry to make a perfume that smelt bad just to make money.'
Fate intervened one night after he had dinner at the Baccarat restaurant in Paris. Before leaving, he stopped by the adjoining museum to discover an exhibition of Baccarat perfume bottles from the past century. It was this that inspired him to launch his own line.
'What I witnessed was the perfume industry less than a century ago, which embodied real luxury and creativity,' he says. 'It was beautiful. I realised I wanted to go back to that idea, with beautiful scents that came in bottles and packaging that were works of arts. I also wanted it to be contemporary - not like a Marie Antoinette perfume, but much sexier.'
After toiling in the laboratory for a few years, he launched a collection of six unisex scents in 2007 under the name, Kilian. The idea was to reveal an additional scent every following year, to complete a full set of 10 by 2011.
The range, called L'Oeuvre Noire, is designed to tell a love story from beginning to end. Love, Don't Be Shy for example, is an aid for seduction with its notes of neroli, jasmine and vanilla. Meanwhile, Back to Black contains undertones of honey, patchouli and tobacco to rouse the senses.
His latest and final scent in the series, Sweet Redemption, contains liberating notes of orange blossom and vanilla absolute, balanced with the roughness of sour orange leaf. Love and Tears, Surrender was created when he was going through a divorce, and expresses his emotions in a potent formula containing 15 per cent of Jasmine Absolute - almost unheard of in the perfume industry.
'I wanted to create a wardrobe of scents that could suit every mood, but was still very modern,' says Hennessy. 'In today's world, you should be able to switch your scent, to use it as an accessory. We don't wear the same bag or jewellery every day, so why would you do it with perfume?'
As such, each scent is packaged like a limited-edition accessory in a chic black-lacquered bottle and matching box with antique key. The idea is to refill the bottle once it's finished and use it over again.
The black boxes were so popular with customers that Hennessy launched a collection of matching clutches last year. 'It was not in the plan. My partner was out in Paris one night and forgot her clutch so she took my perfume box and used it,' he says. 'Everyone loved it, so we launched a line made from black Plexiglass and embellished it with materials from crystals to stingray. They remind me of clutches from Shanghai in the 1920s.'
Now that his first series of perfume is completed, Hennessy is working on the next line based on the idea of snakes and mythological temptation. It will be released later this year with limited distribution.
'For me, what matters is that my customer doesn't want to smell like 500 million other men or women. No one wants to arrive at a party wearing the same dress as another woman,' he says. 'It takes a great deal of confidence for a woman to say they are wearing a Kilian perfume, because the chances are that not many people will know the name.
'I like the idea that a woman comes to me for a beautiful luxury product she can keep forever. Everything is meant to be timeless and used forever.'
Kilian is available exclusively at Harvey Nichols, Pacific Place