Kilian Hennessy is dressed in a tailored suit vest, holding court at his immaculately-designed boutique that’s steps from Place Vendôme in Paris’s 1st arrondissement. The boutique, complete with a well-stocked perfume bar, screams art-deco masculinity, from its black paint to its plush red velvet chairs.
Kilian’s name may be recognizable for two reasons: his last name, of course, confers his family heritage as an heir to the Hennessy dynasty, a multi-generational French business family responsible for your favorite cognac. The Hennessy brand has been part of the luxury conglomerate LVMH since the ’80s, which mean that when Kilian was deciding what to do with his life, he didn’t feel obligated to join the family business. Instead, while studying at the Sorbonne’s journalism school, CELSA, he chose to follow his passion: scent. For his thesis, he wrote about the semantics of odors.
“The question is always, how can we talk about a scent, when there is no common vocabulary amongst people,” Hennessy told ELLE.com. “If I said that your jacket is black, the word black is a one word to define the color of your jacket, and everyone in the world knows it. For the sense of smell, we have a vocabulary, but it’s not available to individuals.”
Fast forward to 2022, and Hennessy’s eponymous fragrance house is celebrating its 15th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Kilian Paris is releasing several anniversary editions of its iconic scents, such as Angels’ Share and Good Girl Gone Bad, with bottle designs inspired by the Eiffel Tower that pay homage to the brand’s French heritage. In true Kilian style, there was also a legendary party at the Plaza Athenée themed “Don’t be shy!” after the fragrance Love, Don’t Be Shy, where guests like Brooklyn Beckham, Nicola Peltz, Coca Rocha, Ashley Park and Sir John danced the night away while sipping cocktails inspired by Kilian Paris perfumes.
Below, Kilian talks to ELLE about scent, COVID and what makes a good fragrance—and a good party.
How do you go about starting to make a perfume? What’s the first step in your research process?
Honestly, it can vary. I have two scents of a collection inspired by Klimt artwork. What interests me in this work, to adapt it in perfume, is the creative process of Klimt — painting only with gold leaf, black and white, that’s it. I was like, “Could I make a perfume using, what for me, smells like gold, black and white?” So I started put together, what for me smelled gold and so on.
I also have a collection called Addictive State of Mind. So it’s collection built on addictions, a perfume inspired by cannabis. There’s a perfume called Smoke for the Soul.
There’s another perfume inspired by one of my addictions, which is Turkish coffee. And I love it because in the region they serve you the Turkish coffee, with a cardamom seed in the coffee, and I’ve always found this combo, cardamom and coffee, stunning, and I created a scent out of it called Intoxicated. There’s a perfume inspired by the addiction to Cigar Montecristo, and it’s called ‘Light My Fire.’ So you see, it can be anything.
COVID really affected people’s sense of smell and taste. Were you really worried about getting it?
Yes, because I got COVID and I lost my sense of smell.
You did? What was that like?
Horrible. Because I had finished a perfume, but when we produced it in a larger quantity, the wood became much more present than what I wanted. I asked the perfumer to do three different protytpes of reducing that wood. I received the samples and one day later, I got COVID. So I was smelling and like, “I cannot choose which one is the right one.” I had a girlfriend at the time and had to send the samples to her in Los Angeles. I said, “Do you remember the scent that I was wearing and trying during the summer? Try them all and then tell me which I would like.”
Did she get it?
How long did it take to get your sense of smell back?
In about a week, it started to slowly come back. But I remember maybe a month or two months down the road, I was working on a new scent with a perfumer and I was telling him, “But the material, it’s very weak, right?” And he’s like, “No.” And I said, “What do you mean, no?” He said, “I understand. Your sense of smell is slowly going to get there.” But it took some time. I would say took three, four months to go back to the accuracy I had.
Aside from scents, you’re known for throwing amazing parties. What makes a good party, what makes a good scent, and what do they have in common?
Well, good party is, great people, great music, great venue. But a good scent is different. A good scent needs to have different qualities. One, for me by far the most important, is that a great scent, is a scent that doesn’t resemble any scent created before it. So number one, the creativity, making sure that what you bring to the customer is new. Then is projection and longevity; today customers require that. For them, that’s what quality is. And I don’t necessarily agree with that because you can create a gorgeous scent, with the most beautiful ingredients available and has zero projection. But again, if you wear a $200 perfume and nobody tells you, you smell good, it’s a problem. So I would say those are the two main most important thing. So I think at the end, everything has its own recipe. Great parties have their own recipe, and great perfume has its own.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.