The Seducer by Michaela Cordes | 3rd June, 2016 | Personalities
His creations exude sensual eroticism and their packaging alone is a work of art. Initiating desire by combining precious essences – that is what Kilian Hennessy, successor of the famous French cognac dynasty, seems to have inherited from an early age. We met the magician of scents, whose label “byKilian” is selling half a million flacons worldwide per year, in his beloved Paris, where he was born – and his idea to stir up the fragrance industry.
Just unwrapping one of his products turns into a feast for the senses: a black silk tassel dangles from a silver key that unlocks the black lacquered wooden box. In it, the carved glass bottle of perfume is waiting for its new owner on a bed of black satin. “Creations that don’t have a soul don’t interest me,” says Kilian Hennessy in his irresistible and very charming French-accented English, explaining the reasons for the elaborate, luxurious packaging of his fragrances. With an unusual mix of elegance, traditional craftsmanship and a keen eye for the smallest details, the founder of byKilian perfumes has created such a highly desirable company that several luxury groups tried to outbid each other to go into business with the successful Frenchman.
They are called “Voulez-Vous Coucher avec Moi,” “Liaisons Dangereuses,” “Cruel Intentions” or “Good Girl Gone Bad” and emanate desire and warmth, sensuality and mystery, luxury and elegance. Worldwide, byKilian sells a total of 500,000 bottles of his exclusive scents per year. Add to that clutches, scented candles and soaps, as well as earrings and chains on which you can daub your favorite scent to preserve it longer than on the skin. Ten years ago the creator of this elegant world of fragrances decided to found a small but sophisticated empire of his own. At the time Kilian Hennessy was 34 years old, but already looking back on a long career in the luxury perfume industry. He had also written his dissertation at the Sorbonne about the semantics of scents. Living off his famous last name was never an option. Instead, he always knew he wanted to create his own business, states the dynamic Frenchman, who was born into the famous cognac dynasty and whose business merged with champagne label Moët & Chandon and then Louis Vuitton to form the LVMH luxury group.
“It has always been very important to me to know that my success was exclusively due to me, and not to my last name.” Kilian Hennessy
GG: When you founded byKilian in 2006, you had already worked in the perfume industry for 14 years and had successfully developed exclusive fragrances for companies like Alexander McQueen Paco Rabanne and Giorgio Armani. What inspired you to start your own company? Kilian Hennessy: At the time, I was actually very disillusioned with the industry and was losing faith in it. Creating a luxury perfume that costs two dollars to make, only to sell it for $100 in stores – that just didn’t feel right anymore. You are basically producing a luxury product for the price of a T-shirt made in China. I had started to seriously look for a new job in the fashion industry. But then, one night, I visited the Baccarat Museum here in Paris. There was a small exhibition themed around a century of Baccarat perfume bottles. I was completely smitten by the displays and marveled at the thick silk, the hand-cut bottles. All of a sudden I became aware of what perfumes had represented back then, at the end of the 19th and in the first half of the 20th centuries. How high-end and handcrafted the production of these scents had been. How sensually they had been packaged. I stayed for a few hours in this tiny museum and left with a vision for my own company. The next morning I canceled all my fashion job interviews and resigned from my post at L’Oréal.
What exactly was it that so inspired you? The thought of putting perfumes back on the market that are genuine luxury products, and of taking this wonderful vision to the customers. One thing was immediately clear to me: when I start my own company, everything will have to be authentic, and will have to represent me and my values right down to the last detail. In this respect, building my business has never felt like hard work. Having said that, my idea was not new, of course. There already were several perfumers who had stopped working on commercial fragrances and had successfully founded their own companies. Like Serge Lutens in 1995, ten years before me. Or Jo Malone.
Did you seek advice from family members at the time? After all, you come from a family that can look back on a lot of experience and that knows what it means to build a luxury brand. I spoke a lot to my grandfather, Kilian, with whom I shared my name and who was the last boss of the cognac company.
What was his advice? To never compromise on quality!
“I don’t know who my clients are. It would only interfere with my vision and distract me.” Kilian Hennessy
People automatically associate your family name with a cultured background and traditional values that have been passed down through the generations, and now live on in your company byKilian. Or is that just a fantasy? To me, creation without purpose, without a soul, is just decoration, and I’m not interested in that. Yes, I would like to create objects that last a lifetime. And for this, they have to have a soul. That’s why every time I start working on a collection, it is always built on a strong artistic foundation. That is its architectural structure, so to speak.
Are there any similarities between the worlds of cognac and perfume? Well, both are alcohols, but one is not for drinking (smiles). I feel the creative process is similar because in the cognac business you mix different blends until you achieve a perfect, harmonious balance. It’s the same in the perfume business. Both fields also require marketing. You have to travel around the world and make personal appearances to generate awareness of the brand and your product.
What was the trick that made byKilian such a big success in the end? Back then, my competitors – and some of them still do this today – used very simple glass bottles with printed adhesive labels. Very plain, not at all high-end. A stock bottle with a sticker and a plastic screw cap, but the whole thing costs $450. I think that clients must be asking themselves what they are spending so much money on. For my first collection “L’Œuvre Noire,” I went back to what I had seen and experienced that night at the Baccarat Museum. I created a genuine luxury perfume collection – with silk tassels, keys and lacquered wooden boxes. We had the glass bottles elaborately engraved by hand, gave them a metal label with the name of the perfume, which itself was engraved by hand. In addition to this we also filled the engraving with enamel, injected into it with a syringe by hand. One letter at a time. So much attention to detail! When the first prototype of the bottle and its packaging were ready I went to suppliers and presented my product to them. You have to remember that no one knew me at the time. And the number of units I required in the beginning was tiny. It was a small order requiring a lot of very expensive work, all done by hand. I think the challenge was mostly to convince these suppliers to work on a very small brand, basically without making any money. Looking back I hope the suppliers who believed in me back then are happy now.
Do you still remember your breakthrough? The moment when you knew you had made it? There were, of course, several steps along the way, but the day that sticks in my mind was when we had our launch at Bergdorf Goodman. As luck would have it, Elisabeth, who I am married to today, was the buyer there, so you could say she “launched” me. That was in October 2007. In the space of only two hours we sold all but two of the 72 perfumes we had brought along among the 50 guests. Two months later we were already ranking number 7! Being that successful at Bergdorf Goodman meant that we became well known throughout the United States and so were able to sell all over the country. Two years later we started making a profit. What I am particularly happy about is how much the clients love the perfumes. I recently met with the owner of Zadig & Voltaire, who is in the process of developing a perfume with Shiseido BPI. They said they had talked about me: “byKilian is luxury, luxury and more luxury. They only use the very best ingredients.”
On top of that your perfumes also have a very erotic effect. Yes, because I prefer sensual fragrances. I have tried to create clean, fresh perfumes a few times, but they never sell as well as the other scents. I was trained by the great Jacques Cavallier who over the last few years invented innumerable perfumes for Issey Miyake, Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney and Jean Paul Gaultier, among others. I was very lucky that such a great man – the world’s most talented perfumer – was my mentor for ten years. From him, I learnt the most important lesson: that you have to keep surprising your clients with creative fragrances.
“I was losing faith in the perfume industry – until that night at the museum…” Kilian Hennessy
And how exactly do you do that? How do you create an unforgettable scent? Well if only it was so easy! I believe that a great perfume is like a striking woman: not necessarily the most beautiful, but the one you remember!
Can you describe your typical client? I have no idea, and in truth I am not really that interested in having one. I believe that this information would interfere with my vision and distract me. I see my perfumes like the chapters of a book. That’s why some collections end, because the book has reached its conclusion. As soon as I finish a book and have included all the chapters, I go to the perfumer and try to express the emotions that the names I have chosen convey to me.
So instead of giving your perfumer the ingredients you describe your feelings and they then translate these into a fragrance? Not really. Don’t forget, I trained for ten years in the art of composition, so when my collection is written, I know exactly which essential oils I want to work with, which notes will express the emotions carried by the collection.
Where do you find inspiration for your scents? Anywhere, really. Themes like love, seduction, temptation, addiction, the forbidden and Nature inevitably form part of the world of perfumes. When you put on a scent it can have all sorts of different reasons. It could be the desire to have some kind of weapon of seduction, or it could be an armor that protects you. People choose a perfume either as a weapon of seduction or as a shield of protection.
Your vision for a luxurious perfume label has been successful. At the beginning of the year, not one, but several luxury groups made attempts to join your company. At the end of February, Estee Lauder Companies Inc. announced that they had aquired byKilian. You must be very proud that the vision you had that night at the Baccarat Museum has been such a success. I am not the type of person to be proud of my achievements. That’s not part of my personality. I prefer looking to the future, rather than back. What interests me now is to build a brand that, with the help of the Lauder family, will last for the next century.
Heirs to great names are not often in the headlines as founders of new successful companies. Where did you get the strength from? It was very important to me to know that my success was exclusively due to me and not due to my last name. That’s why I never worked at LVMH. I even stayed at Gucci when LVMH tried to convince me not to work for the competition. “I owe you nothing” was my reply at the time.
Your grandfather seems to have been very important to you. Was he around to witness your success? Yes, for the first two years. He was always very interested and as we shared the same first and last names, he used to love asking me: “So, how many bottles have we sold today?”