When I attended the Bal Magique du Maroc for the Woman’s Board of The Alliance Française de Chicago back in 2012, I had no idea that three years later I’d be chatting with award-winning perfumer Francis Kurkdjian at his Fragrance Maison in the Marais arrondissement in Paris. Not only was he in attendance at the ball, but he created an orange-filled tile fountain that permeated the dance floor with an exotic scent created especially for the fête. Such installations are part of what makes Kurkdjian such an olfactive genius. In fact, he was honored with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 2008.
Perhaps even more familiar to the average consumer, however, would be Kurkdjian’s scented imprint on the mainstream fragrance world: Starting at the tender age of 25, the perfumer was responsible for formulating such iconic scents as Le Male for Jean-Paul Gaultier, My Burberry and Narciso Rodriguez For Her, among others.
In 2001, he also made a name for himself by becoming the first perfumer to open a bespoke custom fragrance workshop. Eight years later, he founded his eponymous House of Perfume, where this interview took place. I sat next to the Versace-clad Frenchman, among all of his ambrosial creations, thankful that I opted to spritz on a little perfume before I left the door that morning.
Photo courtesy of N. Baetens.
Just two years out of college you developed Le Male, one of the world’s most popular fragrances, with 40-plus to follow. Is it safe to say that you’re a natural perfumer? “No, it’s not natural. I always try to push my boundaries of the craft, but there is no secret. At the end of the day, you have to pretend it’s easy because no one wants to feel pain, to see pain. I’m not saying it’s painful to make a fragrance, but it’s all about work.”
What is your creation process like, and what steps do you take for each individual project? “Creating perfume is like writing a book. It’s storytelling. Whether I work for another brand, my brand, or on an installation, what is important is what you have to say and if there is a different way in which you want to say it. So, then when you have the story, making the fragrance is easy.”
“In a way, the inspiration for the story is the most difficult part, as it’s the most intangible part of the process. Otherwise it’s just technique, and technique is work. At some point, everyone can have a good technique, and that’s the difference between the artisan and the artist. You have to be above the technique. You have to master it in such a way that you forget the technique. The technique and the work of the perfumery is the base, and if you don’t have that in mind or if you don’t know how to handle [the technique] then you’ll go nowhere.”
Photo courtesy of N. Baetens.
Where do you seek your inspiration? What inspires you? “I would say the world we live in inspires me because we live in the 21st century, which is very important. I don’t like to be nostalgic. I don’t like to be historical about things from the past—even though you have to learn history to be able to understand today, as well as the future, because history is a cyclical process.”
“The idea of building the olfactif wardrobe became perfect in my mind because I felt the way women were wearing fragrance was not adapted to the modern woman. In my mind, modernity for a woman is about the diversity of each woman and being who they really want to be. I couldn’t see myself just thinking about a woman wearing one type of perfume forever. After all, you change your haircolor, makeup and wardrobe, so why not your perfume? In the past, people would have a different fragrance for different activities throughout the day. This is why you need to know the history, because you must think how it can be managed and twisted to our contemporary lives.”
It’s been said that we naturally gravitate toward essential oils that our body or psyche needs at the moment. Would you say that’s the same idea when it comes to choosing a perfume made with essential oils? “No, I think it goes beyond that because a good perfume is when you forget the ingredients. When you hear music, you don’t go to the notes. I play the piano, so I learned all about music for years. But when I listen to music, it’s not about the notes anymore—it’s about the melody. Perfume works exactly the same way.”
“Even though [perfume] can be somewhat straightforward, like my À la rose for example. Of course, you would expect it to have roses, but it’s put together in such in a way that you don’t smell the rose you were expecting. The ingredients have to disappear behind the emotion. This is when you reach the level of an artistic feeling. You forget the music, you forget the notes.”
Photo courtesy of N. Baetens.
When was the moment that you decided you wanted to branch off on your own? “It took me 10 years to go forward. The first step was when I opened my bespoke fragrances atelier in 2001. The Maison opened in 2009, so it took several years. You have to find the right partner, and have the right people around you. (Editor’s note: Kurkdjian’s business partner is Marc Chaya, a former partner at Ernst & Young.) It’s a question of timing, in my mind. And you can’t rush—it’s never a good idea to rush. I like speed a lot, but sometimes you have to wait a little bit. It’s worth it.”
I know that you are involved in a lot of collaborations. How did you get involved in the installation on the Champs-Élysées in connection with your À la rose fragrance? “I created the perfume À la rose in 2014/2015 for the U.S. and Europe, and a year before in Japan, where it was awarded Best Fragrance at the 2015 Japan Fragrance Foundation awards. I was inspired by a painting called Marie-Antoinette dit à la Rose (Marie-Antoinette with the Rose), which you can see on display at the Champs-Elysées entrance of the Vigée Le Brun exhibition.”
“The portrait is of Antoinette holding a rose in her hand—the same type of rose that I use today in my perfumes. The story behind the painting is fascinating: The original was a scandal because Antoinette was not painted as a queen, but as a bourjois, nonchalant woman. This was done because she wanted to gain popularity with the people of France at the time, but they wound up being shocked instead.”
“So, they had to redo a second portrait in the same pose dressed in her proper attire, etc. I thought the subject behind the painting was very modern, and it showed me that if a subject was modern, the idea of playing around with the name rose—which seems a little bit old fashioned—was relevant at the time. Once the museum heard that my fragrance was inspired by that painting, they asked me to create an installation for the opening of the exhibit.”
Speaking of Marie-Antoinette, can you briefly explain what went into re-creating her original perfume? Who was the initial perfumer?“The name of the original perfumer at the time was Jean-Louis Fargeon. He was from a family of perfumers; his father was the producer for Louis XV. We found the original formulas in the archives from the castle at the National Library of France. With that, we were capable of recreating, recompounding one of the original formulas.”
I was curious to know a little bit more about the room deodorizing papers that you created. “It’s an old idea from the 19th century that was very popular. Before paper it was ribbon. It was called Ribbon des Bruges from Belgium—fabric was less expensive than paper at the time. My papers are more modern due to the packaging and the scent, which incorporates some of the fragrances in the House.”
What are you currently working on? “We are preparing a huge collaboration with Baccarat for early next year. Something rather huge is coming up at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in early February. We are also scent-designing a couple of hotels around the world—Cannes, the Caribbean…”
How long does scent development take? “I could write down a formula and create a fragrance in 20-minutes. Time doesn’t mean anything to me anymore because I’ve been formulating for 20 years. When I first started, it may have taken me eight months. People love timing things—numbers are important to people because it’s tangible. But creation is totally invisible.”
Photo courtesy of N. Baetens.
WTB Signature Questions:
What do you always have in your carry-on when you travel? “I always have a cashmere blanket, laptop, passport, maybe my two cellphones and a charger, keys to come home, and one of my scented leather cards, which scents my personally designed leather bag. We’re launching fragrance-enhanced leather accessories. It’s a technique that was used 800 years ago to scent the leather, but I modernized it by making a wallet, coin purses and things like that. The scent lasts two-to-three years.”
What is one of your favorite travel destinations, and what is on your bucket list? “Anywhere can be super-exciting. It just depends on what you do and who you are with. A journey can be boring if you are bored yourself. It’s more a question of your energy. I’ve seen many wonderful things, I’m very blessed, but what is on my list? As far as the United States isconcerned, I would love to see Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, I think it would be more like a journey in time. To go forward 100 years to see what we do with all the mess we are living with now, to see what all this is going to come to. To see how perfume would be. That would be amazing.”
I recently became a contributor for TripExpert, a really cool resource for getting unbiased reviews from experts. I’ll be contributing pieces on Paris (and France in general), as well as other wonderful destinations around the globe. Here’s an excerpt from my piece on hotel openings to watch in 2019.
Checking into a newly-opened hotel is a lot like moving into a new home. The paint is fresh, the sheets are crisp, the bed still has a bounce, you can see your face in the pristine tiled bathroom, and the space has a true fresh aroma. But unlike one’s residence, there’s an attentive staff to take your luggage, prepare top-notch cuisine, and book those practically unattainable theater tickets. It is for these reasons — and more — that staying in a hotel is always a memorable experience. While you may have your favorites, here are some up-and-comers opening their doors in 2019. Get ready to pack your bags. Read the entire story on TripExpert.
How It All Began
The travel bug bit me at a very young age — not because I was a child jet-setter, rather, my dad would occasionally hang a large white sheet against the wall so he could project his slides (yes, slides) from his days living abroad in the sixties. But it wasn’t just his photographs that drew me in, it was his stories. I didn’t even fully understand what pâté was, yet I could taste it,thanks to his vivid description. From the the sound of the olive trees rustling in the wind to the road trips across Europe in his ‘62 Renault to the copious occasions where he was able to share a meal with a local-turned-friend, I officially had wanderlust. Forget Disney World. I want to see the Acropolis, dip bread into a pot of Swiss fondue, and gaze up at the Eiffel Tower like Madeline.
The Big Move
Flash forward several years later, a little over a year until my 40th birthday. A life change prompted me to offload unnecessary material possessions and spend some time in Paris. Why the City of Light? The answer is quite simple: I’m enamoured by it. The memories I’ve made over the past several years traveling there have become a part of my soul — and thanks to my career as a freelance journalist, this adventure was feasible.
In terms of living quarters, I settled into a small — actually tiny — studio in the Le Marais. For the cost, a larger pad could have been an option had I decided to venture out into other arrondissements, but being in an area that was comfortable to me was far more important than space. By making a life change, my priorities changed as well. As long as I could stroll around the corner to Place des Vosges to work, take a lunch break on the Seine with a three Euro baguette sandwich, and head to the open air market for my groceries, life was good.
As Good As It Gets
Even though I don’t speak the language (yet), I was surprised with how comfortable I felt. Actually, not just comfortable, downright giddy. It was the awakening that I was finally exactly where I should be after struggling to identify with that for many years. It wasn’t too long after being overseas that I met a fantastic French gentleman who is now my boyfriend. It’s been an exciting journey so far and our cultural differences have helped us form a strong bond — and make us laugh on occasion, too.
Forget About Those Stereotypes
What was supposed to be a brief hiatus in Paris turned into yet another complete lifestyle change. Of course, when I first told friends and family about this newfound relationship, I was plagued stereotypical questions like “Is he married?” “Is he a lot older than you?” Response: NO. I’m the only American in his social circle, but I’ve been welcomed with open arms. I want to touch more upon how we as Americans perceive the French and vice versa in future posts, but I can tell you that I’ve had several wine-infused conversations with them about this and not to worry — they don’t think we’re awful because of our president.
While this may sound like a perfect fairytale, there are also some harsh realities to living abroad. For example, being away from family, the visa process (a post in itself), identifying true friendships, and mastering the language so you convert from tourist to local. Not to mention, maintaining a US-based job from abroad if you aren’t on a work visa — though I CAN say being here finally gave me the clarity I needed to continue my business venture. Of course, there’s always the fact that you have to accept that you’ll likely always be the loudest person in the room. At a French fete or dinner party, I sometimes feel like a hybrid of Zelda Fitzgerald and the Unsinkable Molly Brown — but I’m okay with that.
Look for future posts about my life in France. Is there something particular you’d like to know? Email me at Rebecca@welltraveledbeauty.com.
If you’ve ever been to a fancy hotel or destination spa, then you’ve probably experienced some sort of treatment incorporating traditions and ingredients from a faraway land. Whether it was a Thai massage, Chinese acupressure, or an Indian Shirodhara ritual, it probably wasn’t too hard to feel temporarily transported to another destination—even if just for an hour. While I’ll never stop my endless quest for finding the most authentic and results-driven global services that delight the senses as well as the mind, I was almost about to call off the dogs after my recent experience at an authentic Turkish hammam (a.k.a. hamam) in Istanbul.
Dating back to 1556, the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam (located between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque) is one of Istanbul’s most stunning representations of the time-honored Turkish bath culture. The historical structure was designed and built by Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect, upon the requisition of Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century (1556-1557 AD). Its location is particularly significant, as it was erected where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) used to stand, which also happens to be where the Temple of Zeus once stood.
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam was built in the classical period Ottoman bath style, yet it was an innovation in Turkish bath architecture because it was designed to have the sections for men and women constructed on the same axis as mirror images of each other. My journey began on a beautiful fall evening in Istanbul—which was much needed considering I had just completed a two train, plane and cab journey from Lake Como, Italy, starting at the ripe hour of 4:30 a.m.
There are a variety of individual services and packages to choose from, but having never experienced a hammam, I went for one of the more robust options, which only set me back about $100 for 90-minutes of bliss. Despite being there in off-season, note that you still have to make advanced reservations—though I only made mine the day before and was granted my preferred time slot.
From the moment I walked into the hammam, I knew I was in for something special. My first impressions were: It was as clean as a whistle, the architecture was even more drop-dead gorgeous in person than on the photos I saw online, it smelled like an exotic Garden of Eden, and the traditional Turkish music that was playing softly in the background was the perfect catalyst for transporting visitors into another time and place—including yours truly.
I was escorted to a small changing area where I was given disposable panties and a very small towel (the traditional bath wrap called a pestamal) to cover myself with—let’s just say that it didn’t quite cover everything. I was then taken to the main room of the bath house where all the magic happens. My therapist instructed me to drop my towel, which was a new experience for an American who has worked in spas where proper draping was non-negotiable. I quickly scanned the room and noticed that women of all shapes and sizes were sporting their birthday suits without any inhibitions, so I let that terrycloth hit the floor and got ready to hammam like a pro.
The therapist left me on a heated marble step near a gold faucet/marble basin, where I was instructed to ladle warm water over my hair and body with the use of a beautiful, gold-plated ottoman bath bowl. Next, we moved to the nucleus of the room—a heated, octagonal slab of marble—where I laid on my back while my therapist gave me a traditional body scrub and relaxing bubble wash scented with essential oil of Melissa, which smells very similar to lemongrass. After I turned over and the process was repeated, I moved to yet another “station” where my hair was washed and conditioned with Judas tree essential oil-infused products.
The next step left my skin as smooth as silk for days—even after showering a few times. My therapist slipped a traditional olive oil bar of soap (again, scented with Melissa E.O.) into a dampened bath glove and vigorously rubbed every extremity of my body in an effort to give my skin a thorough exfoliation. Next, I was rinsed and wrapped in a large towel and escorted to the main relaxation area, where I was served water, Turkish Delight and a local beverage called Ottoman sharbat, a cold beverage made from fruits, spices and flower petals.
After a few moments of of becoming entranced by the hypnotic music in my relaxed state, I was escorted up three flights of stairs to a private room for a Judas tree essential oil aromatherapy massage. The top floor rooms aren’t covered, so I was able to take in the glow of the dreamy blue light that filled the beautiful domed ceiling of the hammam itself.
My hammam tips and takeaways:
- Get over being body conscious. Trust me when I say nobody is looking at you, and an experience like this is more about wellness than vanity. Refreshing, right?
- Take the time to really soak in your surroundings. Chills ran down my spine when I thought of how many people enjoyed this amazing ritual in the exact same spot over the past 400-plus years.
- Go for one of the larger packages of services. You can receive a full hammam experience in less than it costs for one service at a traditional spa or resort; it’s completely worth it!
- You’re going to love how you feel and smell when you leave, so take note of how silky smooth your hair and skin feels afterwards. As mentioned earlier, I still felt the results even after taking several showers. What won’t last, however, is the delectable aroma of essential oils that envelops your hair and skin from top-to-bottom.
- Each guest receives their own “hammam kit,” which includes everything you need for your entire journey, so it’s extremely sanitary. You even get to take home body lotion, olive oil soap, your bath mitt and sandals. A perfect souvenir until you can make it back to paradise.