Rambling Reporter, Fashion Edition: A Conversation with Perfumer Kilian Hennessy

Elisabeth Noel Jones Kilian Hennessy - P 2013
Jemal Countess / Getty Images Entertainment

The first in a new column of front-line tales from THR's senior style writer -- first up, French perfumer Kilian Hennessy explains the art of making anti-mass perfume.

Welcome to Rambling Reporter: Fashion Edition, where I'll be sharing tales from the retail and fashion front as I report on the intersection of style and Hollywood for THR. Last week, having a bite of lunch at SNaKs restaurant at Saks in Beverly Hills with their chic PR woman Kari Miller, I noticed the store's GM John Cruz having lunch with a group of beautiful looking French people. "That's Kilian!" Kari whispered to me over Spanish salad. I nearly fell off my couchette. Kilian Hennessy has in six years stormed the scent world with a series of scents with themes: The Black Work, Asian Tales, Arabian Nights -- and now, In the Garden of Good and Evil. Each has its own groups of complex, heady smells that combine ingredients, including orange blossom, Turkish rose, patchouli, oakmoss, amber and lavender (that one's called A Taste of Heaven: Absinthe Vert, and happens to be my personal favorite).

Hennessy is, in addition to being considered one of the great "noses" of the world, also the grandson of the founder of the LVMH group, and grew up in Cognac, France, where the famed Moet Hennessy family made its famous cognac. The scents of it being distilled inspired him and fueled his vast imagination. The new collection In the City of Sin, which just debuted at Saks, includes perfumes with tempting names like Good Girl Gone Bad (jasmine, narcisse, vetiver, tuberose and much more) and this Good Girl Gone Bad (just when it comes to perfume, of course) got to sit down briefly with the master to find out what makes him tick -- and smell. He has made perfumes for Dior, McQueen and Armani, and he turns out to be as elegant as his scents. He embodies them and wears them on his own skin.

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We ended up chatting with Hennessy, and learned about the art of making anti-mass perfume.

The Hollywood Reporter: I think A Taste of Heaven: Absinthe Verte is my personal favorite scent. I carry it with me every day because -- you never know.

Kilian Hennessy: Oh, that one I built for myself! It has chicness combined with sexiness. I had a girlfriend years ago who always wore Calvin Klein's Obsession -- in its dry down, it was patchouli and vanilla with dark wood and amber. That's what Absinthe reminds me of. But it's one of my worst sellers! It's so complex. My perfume is very layered -- it's anti-mass perfume. I went exactly the opposite of regular thinking. My dry down has a lot of character, and my top notes are all opening. Mass perfumes start deep and end lightly. 

THR: How did you start building a new collection of scents?

KH: For me, it starts with a script. I'm more like a movie director with a script. I chose actors and actresses in my head. And -- everything starts with the names of the scents! Good Girl Gone Bad was fun to create. She's a good girl in the morning, a bad girl at night. It opens with a bouquet of flowers (white flowers from China) then moves into seduction mode with apricot and violet and a leathery dry down. 

THR: I want that one! Do women buy perfumes based on just the names? If a name is cool enough, I could do that!

KH: In the end, women buy it based on the scent -- not the name -- but I do know people who buy Love Don't Be Shy when they start new relationships! I'm about to get remarried myself, to the CEO of our U.S. subsidiary.

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THR: Why name the new group of scents In the Garden of Good and Evil?

KH: It's a metaphor for Adam and Eve, the theme of temptation, which I always go back to. I wanted to have biblical templates. This has been expressed in all art forms -- the snake, forbidden fruit, grape leaves, all that. The new bottle has engraving on the side: "Garden of Good and Evil."

THR: Your black bottles are so amazing. I collect them, and I know other people do too. And I understand you wear your own scents.

KH: Yes, a lot of men are buying it. I have never said if it's for a man or a woman. Men in the Middle East always wear womens' scents. It's so hot there and these scents are very fresh and they last a long time. Fat Joe, the rapper, loves my scents -- and he's as masculine as it gets!

THR: How long does it take to create each scent?

KH: From three months to eighteen months. You have to live with them. And it can't be a remix of what anyone else is doing. You test it by wearing it for a while, living with it. I like to think of what I do as making art, but I always prefers my scents to be worn and lived in. They are full creations on my part. A lot goes into them, and they are collected by real scent enthusiasts all over the world.