From Marie Antoinette's fragrance to the scent of money, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian has created some unconventional scents throughout his career. The most challenging one, Kurkdjian admits, is what he created for Rick Owens. "Dead lilies surrounding dead animals was what I [imagined] in my mind," Kurkdjian says about the perfume he created for the edgy fashion label.
The difficulty, Kurkdjian says, was the aesthetic differences between him and Owens. Being able to imagine the scent, however, helped him bridge the core values.
"When I first stepped into Rick's world, he struck me as someone dramatic and controversial. Yet, as I went beyond the differences in our aesthetics, I found his core values very similar to mine," he says. "Rick is the new Alaïa who elevates fashion to the level of art and he has the modernity of the era."
Like the approach he took to developing Rick Owens' fragrance, Kurkdjian has the rare ability to imagine olfactory elements and their various combinations.
"I start [working on a perfume] by imagining the feeling that it would make people feel as if the perfume already exists," Kurkdjian says. "I then try to tie the feeling with raw ingredients."
Using a retrograde process, Kurkdjian was able to bring to life scents of dreams. At the tender age of 26, he created his first perfume - Le Male for legendary French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier - which quickly became one of the world's best-selling perfumes. He went on to create fragrances for a long line of couturiers and prestigious luxury brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Giorgio Armani, Elie Saab, Dior and Burberry.
Knighted with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture in 2008, Kurkdjian has won numerous industry awards for his exceptional works, including Prix François Coty - the Oscars equivalent in the perfume world.
"Perfume is about beauty and magnifying beauty," Kurkdjian says.
"It combines everything I love - the directions, inspirations and execution. Writers tell stories with words, painters use colours and I [use] perfume."
Kurkdjian adopted an artistic approach to perfume. Apart from his commercial projects, Kurkdjian worked with artist Sophie Calle in 2003 to create "The Smell of Money", shown at the Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art in Paris. Other artistic olfactive installations were exhibited at arts institutions such as Scented Bubbles being shown at The Lille Europe Pavilion at Shanghai Expo in 2010.
His many accolades aside, Kurkdjian, however, grew up wanting to be a ballet dancer rather than a perfumer. He took his aspiration very seriously and even applied for Paris Opera School of Dance. Fortunately for perfume enthusiasts, Kurkdjian did not get in and two years later decided to become a perfumer.
The dedication and diligence he learned from the performing art were carried over to his new passion.
"When I am on stage for ballet, I have to focus on myself and not the outside world," he says. "[Otherwise], you will lose sight of what you have to do."
It was his passion for haute couture that motivated Kurkdjian to embrace perfume. "Perfume is the ultimate 'It' accessory for haute couture gowns," he says.
His first major perfume for Jean Paul Gaultier was a big hit. While celebrity and fame came to Kurkdjian at a ridiculously young age, he still harbours great ambitions. "With Le Male, I grew from nowhere to the top. So how do I maintain that momentum?" he says.
The revolution of mass-produced fashion in the 1980s also brought changes to perfumes. Kurkdjian soon noticed the growing influences of marketing infiltrating the fragrance industry.
"I began to understand that the freedom of perfumers is shrinking and marketing concerns are becoming more important," he says. "There were bespoke shoes, clothes and accessories but not perfume." In 2001, Kurkdjian set up his own bespoke perfume business in Paris.
A precious custom-made perfume starts at €25,000 (HK$214,330). Kurkdjian's unique service soon became a sought-after secret among the world's who's who. His celebrity clientele includes actress Catherine Deneuve, Kylie Minogue, Elton John and many more who prefer to remain anonymous. Personalisation could take weeks or months to complete and Kurkdjian takes all the time he needs.
"It's not guess work," he says. "I have to understand what a client truly likes. I start with a clean sheet and slowly build on top of it. I make sure that my clients know every single step in the process. So I prefer to take the time than rushing it because perfection takes time." Kurkdjian takes no more than 10 bespoke orders a year.
Private clients aside, Kurkdjian's popular fragrances are also available in more accessible off-the-rack versions - some inspired by bespoke orders such as Lumière, inspired by Catherine Deneuve. His perfumes are available at his own store in Paris as well as prestigious stores across the globe, including Hong Kong's Joyce, Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Harrods in London.
Kurkdjian has expanded his portfolio to design fragrances for five-star hotels, haute couture fashion shows and luxury properties.
His recent project was to design a fragrance for the new Monte Carlo Yachts 105 unveiled in Venice in July, and is touring yachting festivals from Cannes to Monaco and Genoa this month.
"This is a boat that you would love to travel with," Kurkdjian says. The ingredients are sourced from across the world - think Italian citrus, French jasmine, Asian patchouli and Brazilian coffee.
"The idea is to find out what luxury means sailing on the yacht," Kurkdjian explains. "The perfume tells the story about your journey on the ocean. It's an interesting exercise to merge perfume, yacht, sea and journey all into one concept."
The fragrance is exclusive to the lucky owners of the luxury MCY 105 yacht, which cost €9.5 million to €11 million.
Although Kurkdjian creates coveted fragrances for his clients, he rarely wears his own designs.
"I don't wear perfume that much," he says. "Sometimes it gets too much. Like painters don't carry their brushes every day, I don't carry perfume with me every day."
INSPIRATION AND PLANS: I’m always waiting for more challenges. Challenges nurture you because you grow after tackling the struggles. To me, failing is not a problem, yet failing twice on the same subject is a problem because that means you didn’t learn from the first time.
WORDS OF ADVICE: You have to believe. Dreams are meant to become real because it leaves space for new dreams to come. You have to make your dreams happen so you can dream even bigger dreams.