is not your usual Parisian perfumer. Not many had a world-wide hit aged just 25, when he created huge bestseller Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier, going on to design fragrances for Aqua di Parma and Armani. And, more strangely, after that not many are prepared to make light of an industry that takes itself rather seriously. He has released his fragrances as bubble blowers and, alongside his cultish haute perfume designs, even has his own detergent.
“I made that first when I was working in the US, when I suddenly had to choose one I wasn’t used to, so I ended up sampling them all and having these huge boxes around the house, because in the US everything has to be big,” he explains. “But I couldn’t find one I liked, so I made one and people seemed to want it. It smells good. But the reality is that the price of a perfume has nothing to do with the emotions it can create. The idea of ‘the world’s most expensive fragrance’ is not just tacky, it makes no sense. The best fragrance is the one that pleases you.”
Indeed, the chances of finding one just right for you are all the greater, Kurkdjian (now 43 years of age) explains, because the diversity in the market has grown exponentially, “even if people tend to say that all fragrances today smell the same, which is what they said 50 years ago when the palette to work from really was small”, he notes. Kurkdjian has, for example, recreated the fragrances favoured by Marie Antoinette and created another to mimic the smell of money. “Doing bespoke fragrances you’d expect some extreme suggestions, but actually that doesn’t happen. Nobody wants to smell like shit or death,” says the man whose finely calibrated instrument can weather a common cold but gives him a deep fear of getting caught in the middle of a brawl. “Of course, once in a while you want to do something fun, but the results are really just a chic way of being masochistic.”
Not so his more experimental work. Yes, there is his latest launch: Aqua Vitae, a “citrusy, woody, musky” eau de toilette inspired by (no false pretension here) a motorbike ride in Formentera. But, having satisfied himself that his nose is sufficiently refined and his understanding of scent molecules acute enough that he could recreate any odour and bottle it, Kurkdjian’s real excitement lies in the olfactory installations he has designed in recent years: world firsts that make him a pioneer in what might be considered a fledgling art form. He has created an olfactory experience for Versailles — making the very waters of the fountains fragrant — later for the French pavilion at the World Expo and, most recently, for the Grand Palais. Next up is a ‘recorded’ fragrance to be ‘played’ alongside a video projection and dance performance for a Swiss gallery later this year.
“These projects really are so much fun to do and bring a degree of danger to what I do, because you really can’t be sure that they are going to work. It’s about experiencing the sense of smell in a different way and perhaps teaches something about that sense to people who can’t afford a €200 bottle of perfume,” he says.
They also give him something to talk about that isn’t Le Male, which, for all that it was a genuine benchmark in men’s fragrances, for Kurkdjian is rather like Paul McCartney having to discuss the merits of ‘Love Me Do’ over and over. “Most perfumers only get one big hit in their careers, if they’re lucky. Le Male was so long ago and talking about it feels like talking about the end of your life,” he jokes. “Do I still like it? I don’t know. I don’t care. You have to knock down what gets put on a pedestal or you never move on.”