Inside L’Appartement With Kilian Hennessy
It’s early morning at the By Kilian Appartement. Kilian’s team are putting the final touches to their new home in the 8th Arrondissement - a sought-after spot in the heart of Paris. Led upwards by an ornate antique staircase to a suite of spaces where the perfumer and his team create all aspects of the luxury fragrance brand, it is the perfect fusion of quintessential Parisian architecture, given a cool, contemporary edge.
Entering into the main room with its sweeping French windows opening out onto a bustling Parisian cityscape, gleaming cabinets of decanters, flacons, clutch cases and fragrance jewellery adorn the scented salon, precisely placed to reveal the key fragrances in the Kilian repertoire, individual, evocative, provocative and each with a story to tell. Upstairs in his office - the creative hub, unfurls a different perspective of the perfumer and his process. Books upon books, works of art and installations, awards proudly displayed, moodboards, scent bottles and blotters, not to mention a selection of intriguing curios and ornaments, all serving as a snapshot of Kilian’s vision, an olfactic journey into his world.
Effortlessly relaxed and wickedly charismatic, Kilian is the consummate creative. With an iconic heritage, exploring and experimenting is, by his own admission, in his blood. “I think first and foremost I have been raised in the family with the importance of quality. That the Hennessy Cognac we were giving to customers had to stay absolutely unchanged throughout the years. And at home, the quality of the product was a constant subject. The absolute need to travel was also something we talked about a lot when I was growing up, to go and discover cultures and traditions. There was always this culture of being adventurous. So, when I started my brand, I immediately travelled to far off places that were really passionate about perfume.”
He adds: “One of my earliest childhood memories is going in the Hennessy family cellars in Cognac. When you go there it has a very strong woodsy, alcoholic, vanilla smell that is a combination of the oak barrels but with the sugar of the alcohol. And very often I have the feeling that this smell is almost in all my scents.”
Drawing in on his love of olfactic experiences, his route into fragrance took an organic turn: “With my fifth year in college I did a ‘nose course’, a perfumer's course. There are three thousand notes available in order to learn perfume. And those notes are not available for those outside perfumery, so very quickly I understood that I needed to do the training, in order to understand what I would be writing about. At first really it was to understand my subject, to be able to have a common vocabulary, a common language, when I was going to talk with perfumers. But the first day, the first hour, the first minute I started smelling raw materials, I was hooked. I knew immediately back then that perfume was going to become my world,” he reveals.
Honing his craft in many iconic perfume houses, including Dior, Gucci and Alexander McQueen, Kilian explains: "The designer I probably learnt the most from was the late Alexander McQueen. The way he composed the collection, with moodboards, fabrics and words, I still compose my collections today exactly the same way.” And it is that interplay of fashion and fragrance which is at the essence of the Kilian approach. “Both products have one tremendous objective which is to make you feel stronger. You can feel more beautiful, you can feel sexier, you can feel more elegant and depending on the clothes you wear, all those qualities you could feel exactly the same way, wearing scent. When you are wearing a perfume you have to feel seductive, you have feel sensual, you have to feel like the better version of yourself.
"When you think about it, when you put perfume on in the morning, usually, you're not in seduction mode. But, if you close your eyes and you really think about it, you feel like you're enveloping yourself in a second skin. The perfume almost becomes a shield against the outside world. And this is why I designed the shield motif carved on the side of the bottle. Because to me, it was really important that the perfume was going to be as much about protection as much as seduction.”
Carving a niche in artisan, luxury, experiential fragrance, Kilian is firm on the pillars of his brand: “What I try to achieve always is to build collections that don’t resemble anything that exists on the market. That’s the starting point, as soon a concept, a story, a scent starts to get too close to something I know, I just put it on the side, it doesn’t interest me anymore. I really want to surprise my customers.”
Interrogating the ways in which scents were composed in the past, Kilian looks to the perfumes of the '40s and '50s in the composition of formulas - “There was just a really small top, a heart and a tremendous dry down base. This is why, very often, our mothers and grandmothers say: perfumes today don’t stay.” He adds; “ When I built my brand I wanted to go back to the old way of writing perfume, and in order to achieve that I worked a lot with woods, resins, vanillas, animalic notes, notes that really allowed the perfume to stay long on your skin.”
Taking a holistic approach to his brand, luxury is applied to every aspect of the scent experience, including the packaging. “Since the beginning, what was truly important was that my products would feel like real luxury. When you think about the world of perfume, this is an industry where every product is disposable. When you finish with your bottle, you just throw it. And I didn’t like that, for me there is a contradiction with building a real luxury product that customers that would just throw in the trash. That’s why since day one, I decided to make every bottle refillable and every box reusable. The case for me is really what allows me to bring to life the story I want to tell.”
That each scent reveals a story, a hidden intention is at the heart of the Kilian experience. “Every collection is like an olfactive book where every scent is a chapter of the book. Each time I'm starting a new collection, it's as if I'm starting to write a new book. So I start with moodboards, and I start working with images and words and collage. And once the board is too full, then I start ripping out everything that I feel is not essential to what I want to say. So it's a puzzle that builds itself.”
Take for example his newest fragrance, Black Phantom, “The story behind this, was really to create a perfume for a modern pirate,” he explains. “The beginning of the story was to work on the memento mori which is code of the pirates. The idea is enjoy life as much as you can, because ultimately you will die. The idea of enjoying life to the fullest is what I wanted to express. And from an olfactive turn-point, I was thinking of what could be the scent of a modern pirate. There was an accord that I was working on - Shin Shin, Irish coffee where the whisky has been replaced by rum. So it was a really interesting sweet, woodsy, perfume with a beautiful rum opening. A liqueur for a pirate.”
If his ingenuity in the search for those elusive and unique notes for his formulations are a benchmark of the perfumer’s insatiable imagination and inimitable flair, then his next fragrant adventure would prove that little bit more theatrical yet simultaneously, remarkably practical in its form. Scented jewellery.
“A few years ago I started to create this, because when you think about it, when you wear perfume you don’t really smell your own scent. You get to enjoy your shoes, your jewellery, your pocket square, your jackets, every accessory you buy, you actually get to enjoy, except perfume. What's amazing with the jewellery, you wear it on the ring or on the bracelet and each time you take your phone out you get a whiff of your perfume, on a necklace, you play with it, you get bursts of your perfume, the earrings the same way, each time you move your head, you smell your perfume. And this is what all our customers say they love the most about it, is that they get to enjoy their own scent.”
As characters in a storybook, Kilian’s scents each have their own personalities, their own behaviours; “I don’t think there's one way to wear a Kilian scent because it really depends the structure of the scent itself," he explains. "If you're wearing Bamboo Harmony which is a white tea on a citrus accord, it's a light, fresh scent. You can apply it all day long; it's never going to be too much. But if you wear Back To Black Aphrodisiac, this is a perfume that has no top, no heart, so if you put it on in the morning it's actually going to reach its peak probably by midnight, so you really don’t need to apply another time.”
Spinning his fragrant yarns and captivating with his boundless olfactic adventures, as the fading afternoon light creeps up on us in the salon, exploring the exotic, often esoteric but always unique work of Kilian, gives the impression we’ve only just scratched the surface of scented stories yet to be told...