Kilian Hennessy: Perfumery on a Pedestal
An Exclusive Beauty News Interview

“Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.”- Charles Baudelaire


Kilian Hennessy, Founder of By Kilian

Kilian Hennessy, the soft spoken and charming ‘scentsation” behind the By Kilian fragrance brand, could easily have walked out of 19th century France, realized that PDAs and cell phones are extremely useful, and decided to stay awhile in the 21st century to shake things up.


One can imagine him using a fine quill pen and a notebook to jot down the formulas for his fragrances. Hennessy is a dichotomy; as comfortable in the realm of ancient Greek history, 19th century symbolist poetry as he is admiring the very latest hand bag collection at Louis Vuitton.


Fleurs de Mal is a volume of poetry written by Charles Baudelaire

When he speaks of the works of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine– his black eyes shine; he is engaged and intense. Don’t be put off by references to Faust, ‘Fleurs de Mal’ and Zenon (No, not the warrior princess, Zenon the Belgian physician). They are part of Hennessy’s world, these poets and philosophers who challenged the mediocrity and restrictions of their eras; their courage and art are intrinsic to Hennesy’s fragrance philosophy.

Hennessy is one of the new ‘fragrance innovators’ who are challenging the large corporations for market share. These corporations may spend millions on a single launch, saturate the market with media and promotions; strategies Hennessy knows well. He is a former marketing executive for L’Oreal.

From its launch in the U.S. (six months ago), his inaugural fragrance collection L’ouevre noire (difficult for those who don’t speak French to pronounce and to translate) has been controversial, (his website includes the exact formulations for each of his fragrances; unheard of in an industry of secrecy) and has captured the attention of a swarm of editors’, retailers and bloggers’. Hennessy is somewhat of a media darling; yet his provocative and singular approach to fragrance has its share of admirers and detractors.

To his credit, he has the finances, resources, and savvy to use only the finest ingredients, to control his perfumes’ extremely limited distribution and to to have a plan and to take his time. By Kilian fragrances are packaged lavishly and elegantly, sparing no expense, in their black laquer wooden boxes. Each silver engraved plate bearing the fragrances’ names are covered by protective plastic tape, and the interiors are lined in black satin.

Hennessy’s mission is to elevate contemporary perfumery. Hennessy may shock, he may dazzle, but ultimately the proof will be in the juice. Each scent must stand on its own, and engage the wearer— from its top notes to its drydown.


L’ouevre noire at Bergdorf Goodman, New York

BN: Kilian, you seemed to explode onto the fragrance scene last year with L’oeuvre noire (the Black Masterpiece), and the industry was all abuzz about your ‘overnight’ success. Was it really overnight; what is your background?
KH: I have always worked in the fragrance industry. I started my career at Dior, and then I worked with the Puig Group on Paco Rabanne, then the Gucci Group on Alexander McQueen and finally L’Oreal on Giorgio Armani.

BN: Unless my translation is incorrect (L’Ouevre = masterwork or masterpiece) naming your first collection a ‘masterpiece’ might be misunderstood by some as arrogance. What was your motivation behind the collection’s name?
KH: I did not name my first collection the black masterpiece but “L’Å“uvre noire”, which is VERY different. Calling a first collection a masterpiece would have been very arrogant I agree and that is really not my personality!!!


French author Marguerite Yourcenar

L’oeuvre noire, for me, is homage to a great French author: Marguerite Yourcenar who wrote a book called “L’Oeuvre au noir” and talks about a man – Zenon – who is a philosopher, a doctor and an alchemist during the time of church inquisition. He symbolises the man who searches the truth and is ready to confront established ideas in search for this truth. We are not far from the mission I assigned to this collection: place perfumery back in its pedestal by going back to the truth about perfume!


Beyond Love prohibited! by Kilian

BN: The six fragrances in the collection correlate to three themes; the Ingenues, the Artificial Paradises, and the Parisian Orgies. First, let’s review each category and then the fragrances in context of your overall concept.
KH: I’ll try! These themes are poem titles by great French poets, called the « poètes maudits » or « cursed poets ». The Ingénues is a poem by Verlaine. The two scents in this group are Love don’t be shy and Beyond Love prohibited.


Taste of Heaven absinthe verte

The Parisian Orgies is a poem by Rimbaud (Liaisons Dangerouses and Cruel Intentions) and the Artificial Paradises is the way Baudelaire called l’ Absinthe, (Taste of Heaven absinthe verte was inspired by this). Again, the reason I chose these poets is because these poets – who belonged to a movement called the Parnasse Movement – felt that they had a mission: put poetry back on its pedestal, back at the top of the mountain Parnasse (in Greece!). Again…very close to my mission with perfumery!!!!!


tempt me!

BN: Each fragrance has a subtitle…for example Cruel Intentions is also subtitled ‘tempt me’. Is the collection auto biographical?
KH: Maybe….How can it not be?


Feminitie Du Bois by Shiseido

MC: You have worked with some of the greatest perfumers of our time. Thus, if there is one woman’s scent you wished YOU had created what is it and why?
KH: With no doubt: Feminite Du Bois. For me, it is a masterpiece…this one is!

MC: What is your opinion about the state of fragrance industry?
KH: In a very bad condition…That is the reason why I left these large fragrance companies. But hopefully, individuals such as Serge Lutens, Frederic Malle or Tom Ford will show that there is another perfumery possible, a perfumery that one day is the only perfumery.

MC: As a follow-up, how do you feel (as an independent perfumer) about the large Fragrance companies frenzy to flood the market and confuse the consumer by churning out so many new yet mostly forgettable fragrances?
KH: The good part is that they have created a need in the public…a need for more unique, more creative, more expensive, more exclusive fragrances.


By Kilian Candle Collection debuts in April 2008

MC: Do you have immediate plans for new fragrance collections or brand extensions?
KH: Of course! I am launching the candles collection in March… Yes. Both are true. The 7th scent is set to launch in August/September 2008. And a very special product in November!!!!! Then one new scent each year hereon out. Once all 10 scents in the collection are complete, I am starting a new collection under the By Kilian brand.


By Kilian’s signature lock and tasselled key

MC: There is a lock and key for each of your fragrances, suggesting being able to keep something secret, precious or forbidden. What do you keep under lock and key?
KH: Secret!

MC: Can you tell us one secret?
KH: In Paris, I drive alone for hours…after midnight.

By Kilian fragrances are available at Bergdorf Goodman and online