Francis Kurkdjian Talks Good Scents And Carven

Francis on creating a perfume: “It’s my way of writing a story. You need something to say..."
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September 23, 2013
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On Friday I went to a seminar at Selfridges in which press and customers gathered in a room to listen to perfumer Francis Kurkdjian talk about the fragrance he developed for the French fashion house Carven. I had no idea what to expect, but the session turned out to be a fascinating glimpse into a sensory world which I hadn't given much thought to before.

Francis is a dapper Frenchman who spoke with great eloquence in charmingly accented English about his emotional relationship with fragrance. He explained that anyone can call themselves a perfumer, just like you can claim to be a painter, writer or chef just by doing it - you will always find someone who will like your stuff - but to make a living from it you must be consistent.

The very dapper Francis

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Kurkdjian and me

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First he set the scene with a little history of the House of Carven: Mrs Carven (who is 102!) is a tiny, dynamic lady who spent her life between Paris and Guadeloupe. She launched her couture house in 1945, right after the war when fabrics were scarce and there were few female designers in Paris. "A small woman was not welcome!" Mrs C wasn't part of the traditional fashion establishment - she flew her own plane, travelled extensively and was sporty (green and white are the colours of the house – fresh, outdoorsy and clean).

Other fun facts: she invented the balcony bra! And dressed Edith Piaf! Francis explained how Paul Poiret was the first designer to have a perfume, then Chanel, then all the rest - Lanvin, Jean Patou etc. - realised that couture was more profitable when you moved away from dresses and concentrated on accessories and perfume.

Ma Griffe was Mrs C’s first perfume in 1946. It translates roughly as ‘my scratch/signature’. Perfumes at this time were heavy, dark and mossy, a bit dirty. Ma Griffe was the first to use synthetic green notes. Even though it smelled old fashioned and soapy to us when Francis passed it round on little cards for us to sniff, he assured us that at the time it was a blockbuster and totally different.

This led to a lesson on the difference between synthetic and natural notes in perfume. In the mid 19th century perfumers asked chemists to create new molecules/notes to add to their library of notes from which they created perfumes. Initially they were based on smells already found in nature, then they started creating more unusual synthetic molecules that can't be found in nature (in the same way that fluoro colours are 'unnatural').

Ma Griffe uses these synthetic notes, and so do Dior’s Au Sauvage, Tresor by Lancôme (‘soapiness’ from laundry detergent!), Thierry Mugler’s Angel (a very sweet molecule that you can’t find in nature.) YSL’s Rive Gauche in the ‘70s is also from the same scent family as Ma Griffe. By the way, many floral notes are now synthetic – it’s easier to make artificial versions of sweet pea, lily of the valley, freesia, wisteria and hyacinth than to extract them from nature, and they smell more ‘real’ than the originals.

Apparently, the best way to smell perfume is to take small, short sniffs so your brain doesn’t get tired. Take a quick sniff, let you brain have time to process and analyse, then go back for more. This is what you should do if you're in a department store and your senses are being assaulted from all sides - short sniffs, not deep breaths!

The house of Carven had been in decline for thirty years, when in 2009 the new owner hired the young designer Guillaume Henry, who had worked at Givenchy with Ricardo Ticsi. He re-energised the brand, translating Mrs Carven's feisty attitude into clothes that women want to wear today. The fashion world (including me, and Alexa Chung!) can't get enough of his chic, casual style. Francis was given the chance to do the same with the fragrance.

He tried to explain the abstract concept of creating a smell: “it’s my way of writing a story. You need something to say, you have to think about the feeling you want to get into the bottle." After a twenty year career, the process is still the same – you have to think as if the fragrance exists, imagine walking past the Carven girl - what perfume would she be wearing? What emotion would you get? “When I can answer that question, my inspiration is complete.”

When he has the smell in his head, he sends his list of ingredients to the lab - they work up a sample and send it back. It took nearly 200 goes and six months to get Carven right! He confessed that Fragile - a perfume he created for Jean Paul Gaultier was a nightmare to develop and the fragrance holds that memory for him – a wrong energy. But even though it wasn’t a success, it was an important perfume to have in the marketplace. “It wasn’t a happy time in my life, but it happens!”

For Carven he wanted something ‘fresh’- a word Guillaume always uses to describe the brand, but what does it actually mean? It had to be two fragrances in one – fresh and crisp, with the dry down being very ‘French’. A crisp, bright top note which evaporates after twenty minutes to leave a heart of sweet peas, jasmine and a touch of ylang ylang for depth. Girly and feminine. The base notes – the 'French' part – last until the next day.

Someone in the audience asked Francis the best way to wear fragrance and he confessed that he doesn't! But he went on to explain that the warmth of skin lets fragrance breathe – it’s like clothing on a hanger, you need a body to bring it to life. The skin is very thin at the neck, wrists and knees, meaning it's warm so perfume smells good there. You can also spray the ends of your hair!

Another man asked what how he should choose a perfume for his wife, to which Francis said it's impossible to know what another person will like, but you can at least get something you will enjoy, and try to find something in the design of the bottle or the name of the scent that says something meaningful about your relationship.

So what did I make of Carven Le Parfum (from £38 at selfridges.com)? It's very pretty and feminine, just as Francis intended so if that's your thing I would definitely suggest giving it a spritz (and remember to take short sniffs!), but it's a tiny bit too sweet at its heart for my tastes which tend towards more unisex scents.

How do you go about choosing a perfume? Are you incredibly fussy or quite open-minded? Do you change what you wear according to the seasons, the time of day or the situation?