dimanche 13 septembre 2009

Maison Francis Kurkdjian: Fragrance as Gesamkunstwerk

Last Thursday at Guerlain’s cocktail party for the opening of their new boutique in the Marais (more about which later), the buzz wasn’t as much about the well-received Idylle, Issey Miyake’s A Scent or Cartier’s new exclusives line, but about the opening of the Maison Francis Kurkdjian, who’d had an press day on Wednesday. In fact, that was the first question that sprang to the lips of perfume insiders: “So, what did you think of it?” Then a pause. Then: “Ah, that’s exactly what I told myself!”

If Francis K. has caused such a stir, it is because for the first time, a contemporary perfumer opens a house under his own name right under the nose of his former clients, in the heart of prestige perfumery’s main district (by contrast, when Jean-Claude Ellena launched his house, he called it The Different Company; Mark Buxton’s line has no stand-alone shop and remains confidential). And Francis K. is nothing, if not a canny promoter of his own image, which in the best of cases always annoys the profession a bit – and particularly perfume industry professionals, who only recently broke the silence about the names of their authors.

And so, what did I think?

The shop itself is a lovely little cream box in the tiny rue d’Alger, just off the rue de Rivoli. One wall is decorated by an animated cut-out cityscape of Paris seen from the roofs; the spare, modern packaging echoes the grey tin of Paris roofs, with touches of the gold gilt on the dome of the Invalides and the Pont Alexandre III.

The concept is that of fragrance as a whole-day, whole-family experience, with two eaux de parfum composed in his’n’hers versions, A Peace of Me (aka APOM) and Lumière Noire, a Cologne du Matin and a Cologne du Soir, as well as the unisex Aqua Universalis. The perfumes all come with corresponding home fragrances, candles and burning papers (the “papier d’Arménie”, is a paper impregnated with scent: you can burn it or slip it in a drawer), which reprise the dominant note of the eau de parfum. Leather string bracelets shut with a magnetic silver clasp and impregnated with the fragrances are also on offer. Mr. K. didn’t forget the children, with soaps to blow bubbles scented with pear, mint or grass.

But the real conceptual coup d’éclat is, as Octavian Coifan has developed in an eloquent post, the launch of a liquid detergent scented with Aqua Universalis. For the first time in history, a prestige perfumer puts his name to a functional product, in a sly, canny play on the incestuous relationship between clean laundry smells and “clean” (i.e. laundry) smelling fine fragrances. The result is the ultimate stealth fragrance, one you can wear even in perfume-ban locations: “Why no, I'm not wearing cologne, it’s just my clothes!”

This is perfumery as gesamtkunstwerk: from morning to night and from towels to sweaters to bed sheets, every man, woman and child in the household can waft complementary sillages. The name of the brand, “Maison”, is thus doubly relevant.

What’s at work here is more a breakthrough in concept than in perfume composition. When I visited the shop, Kurkdjian was there with two chic ladies and what he talked about was mostly the stories (each fragrance is associated with a moment in the day), the packaging and the design. About the actual compositions, not that much (of course, he knew who he was talking to).

In fact, on smelling the Maison Francis Kurkdjian fragrances, most people I talked to were essentially struck by the fact that they are re-workings of ideas he’s already developed elsewhere, around his two fetish materials, rose and orange blossom. The former has been featured in Guerlain Rose Barbare, in the two first Juliette Has a Gun, Indult Manakara and MDCI Rose de Siwa. The latter dominates Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Mâle and Fleur du Mâle, Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile and Narciso Rodriguez For Her. Admittedly, these are just part of the 40 plus fragrances FK has authored; rose and orange blossom have been part of perfumers’ armamentaria for centuries. And you can’t blame an artist for being consistent.

The general impression is not that Francis Kurkdjian has finally let loose, gone crazy, expressed his wildest perfumer’s dreams, but that he took his best ideas and went home with them, to tweak them until they expressed exactly what he wanted to say in the first place, or now that he knows better, whatever. But the fragrances – with exception of the ethereally crisp Aqua Universalis – have a more saturated effect: bursting with rich materials and romantic flourishes.

I’ll be getting back to the fragrances themselves in proper reviews (they need more individual skin time). Sometime in November, American readers will be able to form their own opinion: Maison Francis Kurkdjian will be available in several Neiman-Marcus stores across the country. Meanwhile, 1000fragrances has posted reviews of all the scents: just click here, here and here.

23 commentaires:

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for the news, and your take on it. We had a discussion awhile back--I think it was on Perfume Posse but it could very well have been here--about the role of the editor/creative director and how not every perfumer can perform both roles at once. It sounds like Kurkdjian has some business savvy or at least is listening to someone who does. I like your description of the fragrances as honed and saturated ideas he has already worked on rather than wild explorations. Do you know anything about the team involved in the venture?

  2. Alyssa: Actually, I don't know who FK is working with or who's backing him. I spoke to a young woman who worked on the development with him, but I think more on the promotion/marketing side, and it was a general presentation for the press day.
    About the matter of art direction, that may have come up about Mark Buxton (so probably on the Posse). The issue is open with FK. He may have felt it was wiser to explore more familiar grounds for a launch. Whether he can go beyond his own boundaries is another matter, but that's supposing he thinks it relevant and commercially advisable.
    The fragrances are quite lovely and fairly reasonably priced, and FK has stated that he wants the brand to become a mainstream house rather than a tiny niche outfit.
    I'll try to find out more!

  3. I had noted with raised interest the reports of the opening of Maison FK...clearly, *something* was going on here, but as an interested spectator, I was only catching that there was a vibe. Thanks for your account (via the Guerlain event) and impressions.

    I am ruminating very much on the idea of "function" right now--an old dialogue, of course, about the intersections between art, and function, and experience. Quite recently I tried Byredo Blanche, and came away that it smelled GOOD...and I wouldn't mind smelling like it...but I wouldn't feel I was wearing perfume. Meanwhile, the announcement comes out that Byredo will be scenting the functional products--toiletries--at a boutique hotel. Hmm and hmm.

    From a marketing sense, we are more likely to give up an extra bottle of perfume rather than sacrifice clean clothes, right?

    And yet, from another perspective, that is too harsh and cynical. Why should one's basic experience be well scented, not merely scented? We, in an ideal plane, would be experiencing art in the oft-overlooked mundane, yes?

    Lofty thoughts. Ironically, I must go attend to my laundry pile...which is not striking me as a particularly transcendent experience at the moment. ;)

  4. ScentScelf: I was thinking about detergent myself. I don't usually smell the brand I use much unless there's tons of stuff drying in the house or unless I've just changed brands, but I was at my parent's recently and as I went into my bedroom, I was suddenly acutely aware of the smell of the clothing I'd unpacked, because of the change of context. It was actually pretty good -- orange blossom and musk, mostly. A little Narciso, in fact.

    Functional perfumery is getting better and better. And fine perfumery has already crossed the divide several times by making fragrances that smell like detergents. FK's the first one to cross it the other way, and to claim the authorship of a functional fragrance composition. That said, I like Aqua Universalis better as detergent than as a personal fragrance. I haven't tried it properly yet but it doesn't feel enough like perfume to me. Mind you, I don't think my tastes are very representative. I haven't smelled the Byredo but O's review certainly put me off it!

  5. How lucky you are to be so close to such beauty...I see a drive to Los Angeles is in my future!

  6. Datura, I wonder if ScentBar/Luckyscent will carry this? Anyway, it'll be at NM for sure.

  7. Oooh, I hope we can go here when I come visit in the spring, D. Also, I am in love with that diorama!

    I have stopped using more than one hair/body/laundry product in my day because it interfered with my perfume. (A recently sacrificed favorite hair goo comes to mind -- they changed the smell and I cannot STAND it anymore.) So while I appreciate the idea of a high-quality laundry scent, I don't really want my clothes to smell any more than they have to, because I want my perfume to be what I smell and I have a low tolerance for scent-dissonance.

  8. Amy, that's why if you use FK detergent, you should use FK fragrances blended to match! (at least, I guess that's the idea).
    I hardly use any hair product but I have a sniff at shampoos and rinses because most of them are fruity vileness. So it's nothing but Furterer and Phyto, really.
    And hey, you're coming to Paris? I believe the word is "squeeee!"

  9. Thanks for the interesting news and discussion. I love the concept of functional perfumery. But I didn't picture myself giving a detergent a try until I read Octavian's review of Aqua Universalis. Now, I am at least curious.

    But, I am most intrigued by Lumière Noire, despite the comments on 1000 Fragrances about the fact that it is in good part a rose-patchouli fragrance. As we have discussed recently, it is the proliferation of mediocre patch-based fragrances (whether rose or fruit-oriented) that annoys. Lumière Noire sounds anything but mediocre. I hope our local NM carries the FKs soon! I will look forward to your reviews.

  10. Melissa, I tested Lumière noire pour Femme (there's a "pour homme") Saturday and didn't get that "god, not another rose-patch" feeling: it's much more ample than that. I actually like all the fragrances.

  11. I admire most of FK's scents, so look forward to sampling what he has produced without any external contraints. Any idea if he is going to be stocked in the UK ?
    The idea of the detergent is great, but didn't Tocca get there first ?

  12. Silvia, the PR person didn't mention the UK, unfortunately. As for Tocca, it's not a brand available in Paris as far as I know, so I can't say anything about it, but the fact a perfumer put his actual name to a detergent seems quite novel.

  13. Fascinating! Nothing has more interested me this year than the opening of Kurkdjian's Maison--and I'm thrilled to learn that the scents will be offered in the States. Would it be too much to hope that they (and he!) be available for Sniffapalooza. My journey to NYC for that would be complete, if so.

  14. Catherine, a presence at Sniffa would make sense, but I have no idea... I'm testing as I type this, hoping to get reviews out soon.

  15. Hmm, interesting concept, but not one that appeals to me particularly. I like to make radically different scent changes every day, sometimes multiple times a day, so I can't see this whole laundry detergent/fragrance thing working for me. Plus I emphatically do not want to smell like any cleaning product, no matter how pleasant.

  16. Tara, I don't suppose we're the targeted public for this -- few people do change their scents every day, let alone several times a day!
    But this detergent isn't the only interesting thing in the house, by far. The scents are very good as well!

  17. Just spoke to Franco of Luckyscent yesterday, he is bringing the line in, so it looks like I will be able to sniff. His take on it was "nothing groundbreaking, but very nicely done." I'd wager that will be my opinion too.

  18. Tara, yup, heard the news too! No, they're not groundbreaking but then I doubt that's what FK was aiming at. I think it's more about consistency in the concept at this point.

  19. Hi Denyse - OK, not a comment on FK, but a question about the graphic of Paris - what is this? Love it!

  20. Karin, yes, actually, it *is* about FK: this is the diorama decorating a wall of his shop. Lovely, isn't it?

  21. Karin: maybe he'll make postcards of it? I heard him say the display will be changed regularly.

  22. Hi there, just in case you're interested, we made a series of films with Francis where he talks about his inspiration behind the brand and the perfurmes he's created. Plus, he's a really nice guy!


    Hope you like them!