Hennessy heir creates a perfumery intended to bring the golden age of scent into the 21st century.
By Michelle F. Solomon
“A great perfume is a great story, long before being a beautiful olfactory harmony,” says Kilian Hennessy, creator of By Kilian.
If the name is familiar, it is because Kilian is from a long line of Cognac makers, but he stops an interviewer in her tracks when she assumes that creating perfumes and creating Cognac is similar.
“Don’t forget that I come from a literature background, so for me, words are the beginning of everything. In a way, I work much like a movie director who would write his own scripts. First comes the script, then the perfume.”
While at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied language and communication, Hennessy wrote his thesis on the semantics of smell. And therein lies the narrative of his perfumes. He doesn’t, however, totally dash the idea of the influence of his lineage having a bearing on his creations.
“It is true that, in some way, my fragrances carry my childhood memories of the sugar and the alcohol and the wood of the cognac barrels,” he says, adding this addendum. “But that would be very limiting to explain my creation process.”
Hennessy’s desire to create his own brand came from a desire to place perfumery back on its pedestal by referring to the way it was originally made, but adding a contemporary twist.
“I wanted to go back to perfumery at its greatest time, when scents had a strong base and were full of personality and character,” he told Vanity Fair in 2013.
He says it is important to choose the best perfumer to “express the emotion carried by the name into the perfume — similar to how a director would choose his actors and actresses to best perform the roles the script demands.”
Since the launch of L’Oeuvre Noire in 2007, Kilian has introduced four additional collections: Arabian Nights, Asian Tales, In the Garden of Good and Evil, and Addictive State of Mind. He consistently declares his fragrances to be unisex.
He answers questions about scents being personal and memories that inspire his creations with fond recollections. He divulges that the collections are of autobiographical nature, and that “they are created with the utmost sincerity.”
He remembers his grandfather, the founder of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), dousing himself in Christian Dior Eau Sauvage. “He used to wet his hair with it. The smell of Eau Sauvage mixed with his pipe — that was the scent of my childhood.” For reference, his grandfather — for whom Kilian was named — bought Dior in 1982, when he was the president of Moët Hennessy.
Some of his scents contain the fragrance of tuberose. “All the women in my family used to wear tuberose-based scents.” His future wife — Elisabeth Noel Jones, By Kilian’s CEO — is a “tuberose addict,” he divulges. “I created for her a bespoke tuberose scent with hints of jasmine and daffodil.”
Before he branched out on his own, the younger Kilian initially worked alongside some of the great perfumers at Christian Dior, then with Paco Rabanne, Alexander McQueen, and most recently, Giorgio Armani. Discouraged with the mass production of perfume, he envisioned a perfume that was more concerned with ingredients than product packaging.
His “eco-luxe” philosophy — that each bottle can be refilled and kept for a lifetime, creating less waste for the planet — catapulted the brand to the top of the fragrance market and into a niche of its very own.
To Hennessy, By Kilian is a luxury perfume house that, as he describes it, “offers different ways to scent your world.” One of those “different ways” is his creation of scented jewelry. This past fall, he returned to his roots with the Lights & Reflections collection — art deco in inspiration, but with a modern, edgy R&B twist. “Luxury is the combination of being excessive and essential, and this collection embodies both those qualities,” says Kilian. The jewelry also takes his philosophy of perfume one step further. “In a world that is driven by image, perfume is essentially invisible. With scented jewelry, I give a face to perfume, while allowing the wearer to regain her relationship with the perfume and enjoy her scene in a new way. The pieces symbolize the luxury of yesterday with a feel of today.”
The wearable perfume idea shows itself, too, in By Kilian’s clutches. Credit Jones, his professional and personal partner, with the perfume clutches. One night, she decided to carry the perfume box as a clutch, and voila, the perfume clutches were born.
Released this year, too, By Kilian is venturing into home décor accessories. The collection, Kilian Home, combines fine fragrance with interior décor in elegant designs that, according to Hennessy, give physical form to four fragrances. It’s a clever alchemy of shapes and noble materials, including lacquered wood and mother-of-pearl. French Boudoir is a majestic tuberose bouquet, while Loukoum is an olfactory confectionery of vanilla and glazed sugar, scented with orange blossom. Song of Song is built on deep notes of oud and incense and is meant as a sensual meditation. Tipping the hat to Hennessy’s love of literature and books, Noir Ottoman is an “olfactory autobiography that is an unexpected encounter of the authentic smell of lacquered wood and the paper of ancient books, musky and rosewood-infused.”
The scents are presented in decorative objects for the home: a metal and ceramic incense ball, pendant inlaid with mother-of-pearl and adorned with a scented tassel, a paper weight which incorporates a scented ceramic stone, or wax candles in lacquered wood candleholders inlaid with mother of pearl.
“My work is not to offer perfumes people want, but to create products people have not even imagined could exist. I absolutely love, too, when people really get what emotion I am trying to express with wearing perfumes.”
Hennessy offers his personal tip on choosing the right scent. “It’s the last accessory I select, according to the way I am dressed and the mood I am in.”