Uncommon scents: Francis Kurkdjian on bespoke fragrances
The renowned Parisian perfumer tells us why encouraging customers to step beyond their comfort zone can create the best results
When it comes to bespoke creations, there are no rules. When something is custom-made, it's all about adapting to the personal preferences of the customer. There is a line I draw to respect people's privacy, but naturally, when people start talking about perfume, they start to talk about themselves. So automatically, if I'm good enough to put people at their ease, they very quickly begin to tell me about themselves; it's an insight into someone's intimacy.
The fact that people come to me to request a custom scent shows the importance a perfume can have in someone's life. The first question I ask is why they want a bespoke fragrance. This starts a dialogue: "Because I got tired of my current scent", "Because I'm in love with someone new", "Because I'm turning 40", Because all my friends have the same scent and I want to be unique". There can be many reasons, and this conversation begins an engagement between the customer and myself.
The next question I ask is why they are not happy with the existing scents, of which there are so many in the world, and what they think they like and don't like. Because there is a big difference between rose oil and rose flowers. And even if you think about rose flowers, the variety is so big that you have as many roses as you have colours. This is where it gets interesting.
One customer told me she hated roses. I asked why and she said, "I don't know, I just hate them." Later in the conversation she was listing perfumes she didn't like and mentioned a particular one that I know is full of roses. Again, I asked why. "Because my mother wears it," she said. So now I see the liaison, and I understand that she doesn't like her mother! Often little things like that happen, where something mentioned much earlier in the conversation loops back in a different form to reveal a reason behind all the likes and dislikes. So, I have to listen very closely and carefully to my clients. There is a lot of psychology involved.
Other questions I often ask are: What type of man or woman would you like to become with this scent? What is the message you want to convey? I listen as a genuine friend, and I usually have a glimpse of something – a word, idea or concept that will inform the scent – very quickly, within about ten minutes.
I believe part of my job is to encourage my clients to explore an unknown territory and help them discover something they may not have by themselves. Developing a bespoke scent is like going behind the scenes of the creation because I share every step of the journey with them. Therefore, I believe there is a value if I can bring an element of surprise and excitement to the experience. I want my customers to consider things they might not usually dare to try. For example, if they like vanilla and sweet scents, I'll suggest freshness. Or if they like only light, fresh, clean scents, I'll encourage them to consider a more sensual, deeper, woody fragrance. Because maybe they don't know a scent in this category exists that could suit them, but by spending time with my customers – talking with them and getting to know them – I can help them discover something new that they feel completely comfortable with.
I give my clients four to five different perfume samples to evaluate, and I'll always include a "challenger", which is totally off-road. If someone tells me they only like vanilla, then of course the majority of the fragrance will be vanilla; but I will add an extra couple of ingredients to take it in a different direction. I ask them to take their time and wear the samples, because it's very important they really experience the scent, live with it and receive comments from their loved ones. The final decision is often based on feedback from the customer's partner, children or best friend; this is good input to have. The luxury of bespoke is also the luxury of time – time for myself to create it and time for the customer to experience it.
Francis Kurkdjian has been a perfumer for over 20 years. He has created fragrances for many well-known brands including Burberry, Acqua di Parma, Dior, Guerlain and Jean-Paul Gaultier. He co-founded Maison Francis Kurkdjian in 2009 to create fragrances that embody the philosophy of "freedom, sensuality and delicate perfectionism"; franciskurkdjian.com