Health & Grooming

Of one’s own accord

Two independent noses behind some of the world’s bestselling scents are unleashing their full creativity by launching their own niche fragrances. Karen Wheeler reports.

December 03 2009
Karen Wheeler

What would a swimming pool smell like if it was black? I am discussing this and other obscure olfactory matters, such as the scent of ink, with perfumer Mark Buxton in a café in Paris.

Although few will have heard of him, within the industry, and among scent obsessives, Buxton is best known for the many iconoclastic fragrances he has created for Comme des Garçons, including its original – many would say finest – scent based on a distinctive, sultry accord of Moroccan souk; and Comme des Garçons 2, with its unconventional ink note. (Ink, in case you are wondering, can smell similar to blood, horse sweat or beaver, according to Buxton.)

As you might have gathered, Buxton is no run-of-the-mill perfumer. While others cite the gardens of Italian palazzos or fields of Provençal lavender as their inspiration, Buxton’s starting points are more likely to be a hot, sweaty boîte de nuit or a night spent drinking absinthe. The perfumes he creates are louche, urban and edgy, and much loved by the olfactory elite.

Until very recently, the Derby-born perfumer worked, like the majority of his profession, as the almost anonymous nose behind many well known fragrance brands. In the past 25 years he has created perfumes for Givenchy, Burberry, Versace and Paco Rabanne. But his most recent venture is the launch of an eponymous collection of seven fragrances (more of which later), provoking great excitement in the perfume blogosphere.

And he’s not the only “hired nose” to step out from the corporate perfumery lab into the personal limelight. Francis Kurkdjian, a creative perfumer with several bestselling mass-market fragrances under his belt, has gone one step further. After decades of creating fragrances “to order” for big brands such as Elizabeth Arden, Jean Paul Gaultier and Lancôme, he has just opened his own fragrance house, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, and a boutique in Paris. Although small (just 25sq m), the old-style gallery shop, which opened its doors in early September, occupies a plum position close to Colette boutique and the Place Vendôme.

Now, I know what you are thinking: the world needs two more niche fragrance ranges like it needs a hole in the ozone layer. But the difference is that both Buxton and Kurkdjian already have a buzz around them. And a track record. Having spent many years in the employment of large fragrance creation houses (Buxton for German company Symrise; Kurkdjian for Quest and currently the Japanese-owned Takasago), both perfumers have worked to strict marketing briefs and budgets. Unlike many artisan perfumers, who have only ever known small-scale and elite operations, they are experienced in creating successful fragrances for the luxury market.

Kurkdjian, for example, is the nose behind Gaultier’s legendary bestseller Le Male – widely regarded as the Chanel No5 of male fragrance – while his career at Quest encompassed not just fine perfumery but more prosaic products. “I learnt how to create soap powder and washing up liquid,” he says – something that is reflected in his new collection, which has a Laundry Washing Liquid (£28) and Fabric Softener (£28). Indeed, in addition to scents (from £85 for 70ml) and colognes (£125 for 200ml), the range includes such unexpected items as scented leather bracelets (£125) and Les Bulles d’Agathe (£15) – scented bubbles created for his six-year-old niece and inspired by the “sensory installation” of perfumed bubbles that he devised to accompany the spectacle of Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes de Versailles in 2007 and 2008.

“I wanted to add a new angle to each product, not just do the obvious things, such as a scented candle,” says Kurkdjian. The idea of creating a laundry liquid, fabric softener and a cologne all with the same fragrance (Aqua Universalis, a beautifully clean-smelling blend of bergamot, lemon and white flowers), is so obvious that it’s amazing no one has done it before. The fact that Kurkdjian did reflects his experience of both the high (bespoke commissions and artistic collaborations) and low (cleaning products) end of the market. “I wanted the range to avoid elitism,” says the perfumer, who was inspired by “the charm” of a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s where the protagonist only has $10 to spend but still manages to find something in the store to buy.

“I like the idea that even if you don’t have a lot of money to spend you can still get a piece of the cake,” he says. “In perfumery, the ratio between price and value is not always honest. People overprice things. I am even trying to avoid the word luxury as it has become a very devalued word.” The most expensive products are the colognes: while Pour le Matin is fresh and crisp, based on green notes and “all about cotton and linen”, Pour le Soir is “more cashmere and wool and sexy”.

Kurkdjian has ambitious plans for his fragrance house, eventually hoping to segue from scent into lifestyle products – linen and flatware for example – in the same way that Hermès evolved from saddles into luxury leather goods. According to Christopher Yu, co-founder of United Perfumes, a niche fragrance distributor and UK agent for the range, “Francis is an artist and hugely creative, but he also has a very commercial mind. He knows about building a brand.”

“It’s the big dream of every perfumer,” says Mark Buxton of creating his own range. During his association with Comme des Garçons – a brand known for incorporating unusual notes such as asphalt, tar, lettuce juice, nail polish and “dust on a light bulb” – Buxton has enjoyed an enviable degree of freedom by usual industry standards. When briefed for the first time, the client’s identity was kept secret: Buxton was merely told that it was someone “hyper-creative” who wanted something “innovative that hasn’t been smelled before” – which sounds like a dream outline for a perfumer. “Christian Astuguevieille, Comme’s creative director of perfume, did not nail it by price, age or gender,” says Buxton. “It was the most challenging, and at the same time inspiring, brief I’ve ever received.” Founding designer Rei Kawakubo subsequently declared that it “works like a medicine, behaves like a drug”, as it apparently gives you energy and makes you happy.

Buxton’s own range (all £110 for 100ml) bears a similar bohemian handwriting, expressed in his love of woody notes, vetiver and incense, and inspired by decadent scenes from his own life. He keeps a scrapbook of evocative experiences, smells or scenes, and most of these olfactory snapshots take place after dark. “Yeah, well, I’m mostly around at night,” he says. Black Angel, for example, was inspired by a stranger in a New York club. “She was wearing a black dress and had long blonde hair – full of energy and surrounded by men,” he recounts, still sounding besotted. “I never even spoke to her but I imagined what she would smell like and created a fragrance for a girl I never saw again.” The result is a scent with a similar souk accord to the first Comme fragrance.

Other fragrances seem to have similarly louche beginnings, including Around Midnight, set in a Parisian jazz club, and Hot Leather, the result of an evening in the Moulin Rouge. “The girls came out dressed in latex, and the smell was a mix of cigarettes, sweat and food,” he recounts. Wood and Absinthe, meanwhile, was “based on my insanity, my drunkenness, my state of mind after an absinthe bender”. You are left in no doubt that this is a hard-living, party kind of guy – the Van Gogh of modern perfumery. (Though, bizarrely, his website, which invites you to find a fragrance by choosing a colour and with some psychological blurb thrown in, could belong to another perfumer altogether.) According to David Walker-Smith, Selfridges’ director of beauty and menswear, Buxton is a hidden gem. “His scents are very individual, very unconventional and, because of his collaborations with Comme, very cool. And they all have great stories behind them.”

Despite launching their own ranges – Buxton with Russian backers, Kurkdjian in conjunction with business partner Marc Chaya – both perfumers are still “noses for hire”. The irony is that while perfumers usually launch their own ranges in order to be more creative, as Mark Buxton points out, “the bigger brands are also moving in that direction, realising that he who dares wins”. Could this mean that we’ll soon be seeing more perfumes with interesting, conceptual starting points? Such as, “What would a swimming pool smell like if it was black?”

See also

Fragrances