I first met Kilian Hennessy two years ago when he visited Toronto to talk to the media about L'Oeuvre Noir, his new fragrance collection consisting of six intoxicating scents (there are now nine in the series). I remember the way he described one as the most luxurious marshmallow and another like sexy rum. I inhaled the fragrances and agreed, absorbing every drop of what he said and how each word was conveyed with such passion. I even remember feeling woozy. Admittedly, I was probably as stirred by his presence – intense, like a dark prince – as his olfactory potions.
Back then, he was married. This is relevant not because I was hoping he'd sweep me off my feet and take me back to Paris, but because, when I had the opportunity to catch up with him again recently (alas, only as a series of e-mails this time), I discovered that he has since been divorced.
The 38-year-old scion of a luxury-brands dynasty (his grandfather and namesake, who died earlier this fall, was a fifth-generation cognac heir and oversaw the merger of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH) seemed comfortable discussing how this major life change informed his latest creation, fittingly called Love and Tears, Surrender. For the uninitiated, all of Hennessy's fragrances bear perplexingly wordy names, complete with subtitles; Prelude to Love, Invitation and Cruel Intentions, Tempt Me are other examples. Hennessey's academic background, incidentally, is in communications and language studies. Perhaps the English names are a case of lost in translation – after all, doesn't everything sound better in French?
But back to divorce as inspiration. I was curious to know during our latest conversation whether the sadness implied by the name Love and Tears can be sensed in the fragrance. "Actually, I wanted the scent to express the opposite of sadness," Hennessy replies. "Rather, I wanted to suggest a place of peace, a lost paradise, a place where you could be at peace to make the right decision.
"I surrendered to the idea that my marriage was over," he continues. "But also and more importantly, [I surrendered] to a new love that was growing within me."
So it appears that he has moved on. Accordingly, Hennessy insists that the fragrance, which radiates a sensuous bouquet of jasmine, ylang ylang and musk, plays up the joy of love rather than the emptiness of loss. But this got me thinking about whether fragrances ever express sadness. Eau de despair, anyone?
As Hennessey points out, connecting scents with negative emotions would kind of defeat their purpose. "Sincerely, who would want that! I think fragrances should always be uplifting," he says. When he began L'Oeuvre Noir, there is no way he could have foreseen his divorce. But there's no doubt that it has added a whole other dimension to the series. So when he suggests that "a great perfume is a great story long before being a beautiful olfactive harmony," the creative process becomes less elusive, at least for those of us less immersed in the world of scent.
As for the names, Hennessy offers an explanation worthy of an auteur. "I see my work as being very close to [that] of a movie director who writes his own scripts. No good script, no good movie. Same thing for me: no good name, no good fragrance. How can I direct a perfume in an interesting direction without guidelines to take her there?"
Hmm. So if a fragrance is akin to a movie, it would follow that the notes are the actors, each fulfilling distinctive roles while playing off each other as an ensemble cast. To take the analogy one step further, Love and Tears works so well as a fragrance precisely because it isn't perfectly cheery, just as the best romance films introduce some element of tension.
Heady stuff to consider, especially given that I am also of the mindset that a fragrance should not be over-intellectualized but experienced on a sensory level. This left me with one last question for Hennessy: Has a fragrance ever brought him to tears? His answer: "Not yet … "