Perfumer Kilian Hennessy Blames Bath & Body Works for the Demise of Modern Fragrances and Thinks Tobacco and Eau Sauvage Is the Chicest Scent Ever

"There's one element, and only one, that you can significantly play with, and that's the juice."

Photographs by Melodie Jeng.

The winter opening of the Kilian boutique in New York City's meatpacking district (a block south of the High Line and north of the Jane Hotel) had fragrance fans clamoring to test founder Kilian Hennessy's luxury scents in the elegantly spare storefront. "When a customer comes in, we invite them to sit down," Hennessy says. "They can take their time. They're here to discover the brand, discover the world, and see what they would be naturally inclined to wear."

With the spring weather promising a new influx of foot traffic—and before he gets called away to oversee new stores opening soon in Qatar, Seoul, and Dubai—we stopped by the space to speak with Hennessy about his new creations for April, his earliest scent memories, and the biggest mistake men make with cologne today.


Photographs by Melodie Jeng.

What kind of look were you going for when you envisioned the space?

You know, it's funny—I'm not trying to go for an aesthetic. This is what my living room looks like! I'm just giving my furniture to the store. [Laughs] Plus, it's not about selling here, it's about discovering. It's about coming into my world and taking the time that you need to experience everything we have to offer.

Your two latest scents are Imperial Tea and Sacred Wood. How did you develop them?

The way I usually work, I go see the perfumer and say, "Okay, this is the name of the perfume. This is the emotion that it translates. How can we make that into a scent?" But for these two, it didn't happen like that. I go to my perfumer's laboratory every week to work with her, and one day she made me smell this. [Sprays] It's really like a cup of tea. I said, "This is so gorgeous, don't touch anything."

For Sacred Wood, she was working on the reconstitution of sandalwood, which is forbidden today. The Indian government declared it a sacred tree. When I started in the industry 20 years ago, we could still use it, and the olfactory memory I have of smelling Indian sandalwood for the first time is here in this cologne.


Photographs by Melodie Jeng.

Speaking of olfactory memories, what's your first?

Dior's Eau Sauvage. My grandfather bought Dior in 1982, when he was the president of Moet Hennessy, and he always wore Eau Sauvage. He used to smoke a pipe, and there was this blend of Eau Sauvage with tobacco that I always found to be the most elegant combination ever. And he had this big flacon of Eau Sauvage that he would just put in his hands and wet his hair with it.

That's a lot of cologne.

He didn't have a lot of hair left. [Laughs] It's a fresh, aromatic, chic fragrance. Eau Sauvage is the first use of a molecule called hedione, which is a component of jasmine. Legend says that when the perfumer smelled it for first time, he could taste it.


Photographs by Melodie Jeng.

What's the biggest mistake guys are making with their cologne right now?

Not choosing the right brands. When I started in this industry, every perfume smelled roughly good. There was a minimal level of quality and a real composition. Today, especially when you take subways and buses, you can be bothered—really bothered—by people's colognes. Sometimes you're on a plane, and you're like, "My God, I'm going to sit with this for eight hours?!" It happened to me, and I asked a steward to change my seat.

Why the decrease in quality?

There's one element, and only one, that you can significantly play with, and that's the juice. If you say to the perfumer, "I'm not giving you $150 per ounce of perfume to work on—I'm just giving you $50 or $70," that's why you see the quality go down. It's hard to use natural essential oils anymore—it's all synthetic.

Where do you see fragrance trends heading?

Everyone is releasing the same scent right now. The nineties were all about purity. Remember Issey Miyake Escape? It was all Japanese, all purity and post-AIDS—perfume is very sociological. Today, it's all sweet and it comes from—and this is what's crazy—from Bath & Body Works.

Did you create any special scents for the opening of this boutique?

Yes, you've got to try Apple Brandy. I'm wearing it now, and it's our No. 1 seller.

How'd you develop this one?

I mean, I know the smell of brandy . . .

Of course.

But it took me three years to create this scent. The challenge was in the top notes—the brandy is a woodsy, oaky dry down, but you need something bright on top to lead that.

Hence the apple.

The Big Apple.


Photographs by Melodie Jeng.


Photographs by Melodie Jeng.

Kilian, 804 Washington St., New York City; 212-600-1298

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