French born into the notorious Hennessy cognac-making family, he chose to carve out a craft different from what his last name stands for…
With over twenty years of experience as a perfumer, Hennessy has worked for some of the world’s top perfume departments of fashion houses before launching his own brand Kilian Paris 13 years ago. When asked what’s his advice for someone who wants to go into the perfume-making business, he finds the quote: “’The goal is to find a job where you would actually pay to do it, and you will never work a day in your life’” as the answer. “That is me, I could have paid to become a perfumer-and I would have totally been fine with it,” he says. And so, we dive into why this is and the fascinating story of one of luxury perfume’s top creators, Kilian Hennessy.
His calling finding him
“You don’t find a calling, it finds you. Callings just find their way of getting to you,” muses Hennessy. He discovered the world of perfumes first through an internship that he was doing at Kenzo perfume at the end of his 4th year in college. While he enjoyed it, perfume-making initially wasn’t a job prospect for him.
But, in his 5th year of college, his director went to see Hennessy and asked him to write a thesis. “Everybody was like uugh because in France, college starts Oct 1 and the last day is March 31st. Everyone went for easy subjects, but because I had just done an internship at Kenzo perfume, it was easy to dedicate my thesis on perfume advertising. I met my grandfather’s friend who worked for Dior perfume. The thing about the French degree is that it’s very compartmentalized and you have to start your thesis with a question left unanswered by a previous thesis. And every question written on the world of perfume came down to: “how can you take a scent where there is no common vocabulary amongst people and talk about it?”
In the world of perfume, there is a vocabulary but it is much more complex because perfumers have 3,000 notes that exist in nature. 99% of them are not available to regular people, they are only available to professional perfumers. “When I ask a normal person, what does this scent smell like, they are going to say, ‘oh, it smells like sugar or strawberry.’ They aren’t going to know the notes of oud, sandalwood, etc. They are giving the cause of the smell- strawberry or cut grass- they aren’t describing the smell. So, I told my grandfather’s friend at Dior that this is what I wanted to do and he said I had to learn the craft. He put me in contact with a perfume house where I could identify notes. And that was the calling. This was when I fell in love.”
It was around this time, at the age of 23 that Hennessy knew he wasn’t going to be making cognac, and it was at the age of 34 that he decided building his own brand was another calling. For 11 years Hennessy worked for perfume houses Paco Rabanne, Alexander McQueen, and Giorgio Armani, creating their perfumes. Those days and still today, perfume divisions of fashion houses belonged to huge companies. “You’re never calling all the shots alone,” he points out. “In the end, the product is the result, and it’s the call of a few people deciding that a scent is the best combination, the best harmony. Personally, I have never put a perfume on the market that I was never entirely proud of. If you create creations that you’re not entirely proud of, it takes a toll on you because you fight so much for what you believe, what the product should smell like and be like.”
It was around this time that Hennessy was on the verge of leaving the perfume world and enter the fashion world. A headhunter called him, sharing their belief that he would get along with Tom Ford, who was then Creative Director at Saint Laurent; or with Hedi Slimane, who was then the menswear Creative Director of Dior. “I have no idea if I would have liked it, but I was on the verge of doing it,” he remembers of the time. “Having not studied fashion design, it still amazes me today that the headhunter proposed to me to work in the world of fashion. When you look at my resume at that time I had ten years of working with the greatest perfumers.
Perfume making is more similar to cooking than making cognac
“Cognac is an alcohol that you put into a glass bottle, then in a box that you sell off a shelf,” he candidly states. “The same is for Vitamin Water, so in terms of the creation, yes and no, perfume making is like making cognac. From a technical aspect a maître deche, blends different blends together, which is like us blending different notes or accords together. The process is the same. But, in our world we have so many more notes to blend together than the cognac industry. At the same time, not so many to create.”
“When you think about a perfume, the melody, the accord, the creativity at the core of what makes a perfume unique is 3-7 ingredients. Everything is built on those 3-7 ingredients and how to make it long lasting. I feel that perfume making is closer to cooking because there are many ingredients available. One is solid and one is liquid and I understand how one is inclined to think that perfume-making is closer to making cognac. But, the process is close to a chef.
Creating a new scent
When Hennessy creates a new scent, the only think he’s trying to achieve is the emotion carried by the name of the scent. He doesn’t make a scent exclusively for one market unless he’s purposely creating exclusively for a market.
If you think about creating a perfume like you crate music he says, “the name is my script, the perfumer is my actor/actress, and I’m working hand-in-hand with him or her to express a formula, the emotion that I’m trying to convey. That’s the beginning, to find the melody of 3-7 ingredients to express the emotion that I’m trying to convey. Then, I build the perfume. As Mozart said, “I’m looking for little notes that love each other,” that’s how we go for the world of perfume. In the world of perfume, we look for a melody, then we have to find notes that are going to be loved and accepted by the original accord.”
“Sometimes a creation is horrible, and that’s shock. It can be a good shock or a bad shock because creativity is often something that has never been done. Take for example when you fall in love with a woman, personality is not only beauty. You don’t fall in love with the most beautiful girl, you fall in love with the girl that you’re going to remember. You fall in love and usually you remember someone for their default, not their perfection. When you create a perfume, you want the harmony in the scent, but I’m always looking for the imperfection that’s going to stand out and make my scent be remembered.”
Two new scents: Angels’ Share and Roses On Ice
Launching this month, Hennessy worked with two perfumers that he never worked with before because he wanted to be challenged. “When you’ve worked with perfumers for 20 years, they know exactly what you like and what you don’t like. What I wanted was to be presented with ingredients that I may not like, so I felt the need to be pushed on my boundaries. I wanted to present something different on the market and something different for me.” Taking about 18 months to create, Hennessy has created two enticing fragrances with notes that draw you in with intrigue.
“Roses On Ice was created in collaboration Franck Voelkl, a perfumer I wanted to work with for quite a while. This scent was easier because I could smell the melody in my nose quite easily. My wife drinks Hendricks on the Rocks and when I started to dig into this drink, I found two things- 1) Hendricks is not the name of the owner, it’s the name of the gardener. The gardener was the one who had the idea to distill the juniper berries with cucumber and roses, which is very unusual. When I read that I was like, hmmm- juniper, cucumber and roses. I was already smelling the scent in my head. Creating the fragrance went even faster when I met Frank. He introduced me to a new technology, STT (smell the taste) that takes flavors and adapts them to the world of scents.
“Angels’ Share took me much longer because of the evaporation of cognac from the oak barrel. Every year when you look at an oak barrel, the level goes down because some of it evaporates and we call this: the share for the angels. I wanted to create a scent that would be my olfactory memory of the Hennessy cognac cellars. But, if you go to the cellars, you’re going to say, ‘ugh, it smells so bad.’” This is the challenge in making a scent in the liquors category because you don’t want someone to be walking around smelling like liquor, and Hennessy had to master this in collaborating with French perfumer, Benoist Lapouza. “The liquor is really a direction for me, but my goal is not to smell like it, just to be inquired by it. Angels’ Share is a more complex scent.”
His secret to success
Thirteen years in, Hennessy has been able to build his own perfume brand that’s able to stand up to any large luxury house. His key to success: remaining authentic to who he is. “I think the key is keep creating products that you truly love, that you’re truly proud up and that you keep having fun with. If one day I don’t have fun anymore, I know it will be time to leave.”
Another aspect of his success is his scented jewelry pieces and scented lipsticks. While scented jewelry is not a new creation, Hennessy took the concept of Pomanders from the 16th and 17th centuries and adapted it to his scented jewelry line. “Pomanders were chains and at the bottom was an egg, filled with potpourri. When men would cross the street or smell something unpleasant, they would bring the pomander to their nose. The idea of having a piece of jewelry that was scented inside has always existed. If you read biographies of Marie Antoinette, she had hair clips that were scented. We were much more creative two centuries ago.
For me, it was putting back something very old.” And for his scented lipsticks, Hennessy knew that since MAC is the number one lipstick company in the world, and they changed their lipsticks by adding synthetic vanilla, he knew that adopting this concept would also work for his brand. “I really went ten steps ahead by creating a more voluptuous and luxurious vanilla, orange blossom, and marshmallow scent.”
Hennessy also ensures that his brand is eco conscious, which is part of its success. He was the first perfumer to introduce refillable bottles. “Now Dior and Saint Laurent are copying us with this philosophy, which I’m happy about,” he says.
It’s notable how Hennessy has used his skills in perfume making, and his gifts and talents to create a successful luxury brand. But, giving back is something that is on his heart and mind. “We work with perfume houses and when we work with certain perfume house, we give back to the community. Like if we use a certain quality of vetiver, and if that vetiver allows certain communities to build schools, houses, to have water, whatever. We try to use specific ingredients that help communities.”
“But as a company we’ve been discussing this now actually, that because we’re getting bigger, it’s the time to embrace a cause. Estee Lauder has the cancer cause, MAC has the AIDS cause and we could piggy back on one of these causes, which is the easy way of doing it. Or, we can find a cause that is unique and meaningful to us, and I have to put my mind into it. For the past 10 years, my wife and I were part of an organization called New Yorkers for Children, and my wife was on the board of it. We were raising money to help kids in foster care, go to college in NYC. It’s not an easy decision to make because once you commit, you commit and it’s not for just one year, it’s a commitment for the brand for 10, 20 years. It’s not a decision that I take lightly.”