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From Cognac to Kilian

Lynda Moyo meets perfumery entrepreneur, Kilian Hennessy

Written by . Published on October 11th 2010.


From Cognac to Kilian

For Kilian Hennessy, business has always been very much a family affair. As heir to a long line of Hennessy cognac makers, Kilian had it made. But it wasn’t this type of wet stuff that tickled his fancy. It was far, far fancier than that.

“I don’t want to do disposable products. That’s not for me. Every one of my perfume bottles is refillable and I don’t do things like shower gels. You will see the brand growing, so long as I can make timeless products.”

Sitting in the Harvey Nichols Manchester Second Floor Restaurant, Kilian looks more poet than perfumer. Slick, dark, smooth and exquisitely packaged – you can immediately see where he gets his inspiration from when it comes to designing perfumes. He’s his own muse.

His personal story adds even more mystique to the suave exterior, or maybe it’s the way he tells it. Through a flowing French accent he speaks of childhood memories coated in the pungent smells emanating from the family cellar in Cognac. The sugar in the alcohol and the wood of Cognac barrels inspired his By Kilian perfume empire. Pursuing his fragrant dream, Kilian attended university, studying perfumery before joining the corporate world and working for some of the most famous noses in the business, such as L’Oreal, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Paco Rabanne, and Alexander McQueen. Then came the realisation....

“I was losing faith” he says. “I wasn’t proud of what I was doing and it was too far away from my own vision. I was doing four collections every year and it’s impossible to make a strong statement when you have to work to that volume.”Deciding to go it alone, Kilian looked to the past to plan his future.

“When I left L’Oreal, I was having lunch at the Baccarat restaurant in Paris and at the back there is a museum section. I went to visit the museum and they were doing an exhibition about one century of perfume. I ended up staying for four hours in this tiny museum.

“It was such a shock to see how beautiful perfume was 100 years ago in contrast to the mass use, disposable products we’re making today. By the end I was convinced that I could recreate what I was seeing in front of me, but in a way where it would feel and smell perfect.”

And that he did. His collection doesn’t only smell great, it is presented with the most minute attention to detail.

“That was the whole ambition; to give perfume in a very luxurious way, more like the way it was given at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was a time when perfume was perceived as an art,” he says.

The wooden box, the satin bedding, keys, tassels and the engravings; he knew exactly what he wanted it to look like and how to present his vision in a very sleek and modern way.

Speaking about his beloved bottles, he says: “It’s engraved on the side. The engraving is painted with matt black paint. The front and back of the glass is painted with shiny black and on top of that is a transparent varnish. It’s all very detailed and the bottle takes two months to make.

“I wanted it to have timeless shape. Everything is rectangular so you feel like it’s very sharp but when you look from above you realise the edges are actually rounded. It’s all a play on feelings and materials. It’s very tactile.”

The fragrance itself is no secret as details of the ingredients can be found on his website, however there is a method to this madness, says Kilian:

“Perfumers today have machines that you put two drops of any perfume in and it will give you the entire formula. So the secret is 98 per cent unsafe anyway. The second thing is that this industry has been lying so much to the customers. Inventing flowers and inventing woods.

“I think this industry needs to go back to basics; go back to what is the truth about perfume and that is the art of blending.

“I might refer to something in my ingredients list such as ‘honey suckle accord’. When it’s an accord it’s a combination of things and that’s what I keep as a secret.”Kilian also has his own method for interpreting ideas and it’s actually the name of the scent that is key to the finished product, he says.

“The way I conceive the collection is by writing down all the names at the beginning and it’s almost like a book, with chapters. In my L’Oeuvre Noire collection, there are three main chapters – love, temptation and paradise. Then in each chapter is a perfume. The name is the script and without which I wouldn’t know what to say to the perfumer. I need to tell him the name and the world of emotion it carries and then we can express the word through fragrance.”

From Macbeth to Rimbaud to Snoop Dogg and more, Kilian’s inspiration for the L’Oeuvre Noire collection sounds more like a VIP dinner party wish list, but he insists they all have one thing in common.

“Poetry by the poètes maudits, the accursed poets, continues to resonate. Dorian Gray continues to look down at us from his frame, a familiar spirit. And the sound of ‘Hennessy & Buddha’ by Snoop Dogg seems to attain Nirvana.

“My soul is transported by fragrance like those of other men are transported by music.”

Kilian is determined for his sweet smelling soul to be his legacy and is already carving out a fragrant family tree, with his two children, aged six and eight, next in line to the throne. He also has plans to expand his product range and already has scented candles in stock. Shower gel sets however, are where he draws the line.

“I don’t want to do disposable products. That’s not for me. Every one of my perfume bottles is refillable and I don’t do things like shower gels. You will see the brand growing, so long as I can make timeless products.”

It’s a brave move in an industry dominated by mass producing, celebrity trends and add-on sales. Kilian, however, is a man with an eye for style and no compromise on taste. His genderless fragrances are top sellers from London to New York and Dubai to Moscow and his latest venture is Manchester.

He says: “My four bestsellers are the same everywhere in the world which goes to show that a scent can transcend through countries. Actually one of my personal favourites is the worst seller, so you just can’t predict it. If I had the miracle recipe I’d be an extremely rich man. All I can do is take risks.”

By Kilian can be purchased in the Harvey Nichols Manchester beauty hall priced at £140 for a 50ml refillable bottle.

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