Inside the new Maison Francis Kurkdjian Aqua Celestia scent with CEO Marc Chaya
Meeting Marc Chaya, it is obvious that the co-founder and CEO of Maison Francis Kurkdjian (MFK) is passionate about perfumery. While he may be the business mind behind the brand — Chaya's partner Francis Kurkdjian is the eponymous nose and therefore the 'creator' — he is clearly not just a numbers man. Speaking to him, we learn of Chaya's vision to put the perfumer forward as the real creative force behind a fragrance and educating the public on the difference between marketing and pure creation. He tells us more about the house's newest scent, Aqua Celestia, and how it fits in the MFK universe.
Tell us about the new scent
Aqua Celestia is the name of the scent. The name acts a frame for each new creation. It is the creative boundary that Francis needs to give the scent perspective. He always starts every creation with a name — he can't work without it. With Francis, he envisages something and then uses his talent to transform that into a creation. But it always starts with a feeling, a name and with an emotion.
The Aqua family is part of our fragrance wardrobe that is separated into different categories. The Aqua family is the essential pieces — fragrances that you can wear any time of the year, as a man, as a woman — regardless if you're going out, if you're going to work or if you're going to the gym. Aqua Universalis was the first one of the three. It was the idea of freshness in the space between you and the air — so it is very bright, very floral and citrusy. The second scent that was launched, was Aqua Vitae, which means 'water of life'. It's more of a skin scent, there's a freshness based on different aspect between the idea of something fresh and warm. It has a citrus orange, but it's also very light and sparkling. The top notes of this new scent are fresh mint from England and cool lime from Mexico with blackcurrant from Burgundy at the heart. This one reveals itself a bit more after a few minutes. The drydown is a musky note that Francis specially created for this composition. It's very sparkling and it's almost like a perfume that I would wear on its own. The final result is Aqua Celestia, an Eau de Toilette.
Describe when or how one would wear this scent. How does it fit into a perfume wardrobe?
This is what we would call an essential pieces — like a white shirt. You could wear it today with a suit or a bow tie. Or you can roll up the sleeves tomorrow and wear it with shorts. So it's very versatile. These are what we call the basics in the wardrobe of MFK scents. Next to that, you have the easy-to-wear scent, with creations such as Amaryis and À la Rose. And then you have the more dressed-up fragrances like Baccarat Rouge 540, Grand Soir and Lumière Noire.
Is it difficult for the house to come up with new scent ideas?
When Francis works with his own brand, he's free to do whatever he wants and that's the beauty of MFK. You have two categories of players in the fragrance industry: marketing and creative players. And we have been in that second category for the past ten years. Creativity is infinite. With marketing, when you say you have the same story 250 times, you can hit a wall. As a talent and a creator, one has the infinite ability to interpret things and to be free to create them. So for us, the challenge would be to narrow it down and decide what scents we really want to build. But Francis is very prolific, very creative, and very nice to work with because he has so many ideas.
How do you decide the category of scents that you want to create?
It's the inspiration that comes first and then the creative process — we don't have a perceived marketing strategy. We have a creative person and then our marketing is at the service of Francis. So he's the one coming to us with ideas and what he has in mind, and I'm the first person that he consults — as his business partner, the brand's CEO and as his sounding board. Then we see together when we want to launch it — asking if we are ready, where it fits in our fragrance wardobe and what season is suitable. So many things come to play when you decide to launch a new scent.
How do you see your involvement in building a brand like MFK?
With MFK, Francis is the creative mind and I am the business mind. In order for your idea to come true, it has to be there at the right time. You have to have a long-term vision. If you're only executing freely and artistically, you won't go anywhere. So I bring this vision and the articulation between the different ideas and how to bring them to life, and how to make the company prosperous. We are trying to build a luxury house. Everything that is made here is respected by time. We are dealing in luxury, quality, genuinity, craftsmanship and respect for our customers. Everything from creative imagery to marketing is done at the service of creation. Creation is fostered everywhere in the company and welcomed and encouraged at all levels. Everything is made in house — we don't use agencies, whether it is for photo shoots or marketing — we have had our own photographer since our inception, and she helps us create the link between the different fragrance identities. Our creative product development is 100 per cent made in house. And the art director is Francis, with my support. We're very complementary — he works on the artistic side, I work from the business side, and we meet in the middle because I'm a very sensitive person when it comes to creation and he's a very sensible man when it comes to business.
I'm A very sensitive person when it comes to creation and he's a very sensible man when it comes to business.
Would you call MFK a niche brand? Why or why not?
Since day one, I have said I don't like the niche word. Niche doesn't mean anything anymore. It's like a bucket where you throw anything. Tomorrow if you want to start your own brand, you can put your name, and you can start your own brand. There is a need for newness, but not everything will stick and not everything will work. We are anything but a niche brand. But if we are considered niche because we have limited distribution, high experience, high quality and a beautiful product, then so be it. We are not meant to satisfy everyone and MFK can't be a mass market product because by essence, what we do cannot be multiplied into infinity. We are a luxury brand. We were pioneers in the field of perfumery because although many companies had an in-house perfumer, no one would talk about him or her. That's something I envisioned 10 years ago when I first met Francis. I thought, "How come I don't even know your name? I wear your perfumes, but I don't know your name."
How has the market changed since you entered it in 1999?
When you look at the industry, we're the only one that carries and fosters the vision of the perfumer independently. You have Chanel with the Exclusifs that has put forward the names of the perfumers — Jacques and Olivier Polge and Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès. But before that, this was not widely practiced. Now perfumers are more recognised and more established. Up to five years ago, people would sit in front and say "Hey I'm Marc Chaya and I'm the perfumer." No I'm not the perfumer. I am the CEO, I can be the art director, I could be with someone with a packaging vision, or an artistic vision for the product, but I'm not the one that executes the creation of the scent.
And now, I think there is a big recognition that perfumers are the real men behind a scent, and a lot of the lies that the marketing industry has disseminated in the fragrance industry over the years are disappearing. When I started the company, I was fighting against huge misunderstandings. People would say to me, "I only use 100 per cent natural scent — that doesn't exist. Only seven flowers allow you to extract their scents and aldehydes has been around for 120 years now and we can't live without them — otherwise we would have allergies and creativity would be so narrow. People who had been working for the industry for over 20 years had no clue how the industry works. So I take pride in that... that the industry has evolved. Bigger companies have finally put forward the perfumer and perfumers are back in the driver's seat and I think it is very important.
What are your favourite MFK scents?
I have deeply embraced the idea of the fragrance wardrobe and the vision that it's a bit old-fashioned to be wearing the same scent every day because you don't wear the same clothes and shoes every day. I like to wear the scent that works with my emotions. Like in the morning, you pick certain attire based on the weather or on what you are doing so I use a lot of Aqua Vitae, Amryis Homme and I love Baccarat Rouge 540. When I go to a black tie event, I would use OUD Cashmere Mood. Today I'm wearing Amyris Homme and I would go for more citrusy, sparkling scents rather than overwhelming scents in this weather.
What is your dream creation for MFK?
I created the company together with Francis in 2008, but I'm not the one who has the dream creation, it is Francis who does, and I'm the one who helps him make them a reality. He has always been about the idea of taking the perfume out of the bottle and layering the perfume into things that go into our day to day life — like laundry, detergent or fabric softener. Two years ago, we patented a way to perfume leather and we have scented leather accessories. Even exotic leather can be scented. We work with craftsmen in Paris called L'Atelier Renard. These are beautiful products that are only available in our store. You can expect Francis to come up with different ideas. We also created scented bubbles for children as a way for them to play and discover different scents.
What is it like meeting with fans of the brand?
This is how we learn and grow. It validates whether what we're doing is working or not and if our message is coming across clearly. Customers have challenged us and pushed us to launch new products. If you're a woman and you have your preferred perfume, you want to have the cream that goes with it. So the customers push us to innovate and come up with new products. I spend half of my time in the stores, and this is where I enjoy being the most.
Do you ever discontinue scents?
We keep everything. I think it's a collection. Not everything can be very popular and not everything is a bestseller. Of course we have scents that are our bestsellers, and very popular like Baccarat Rouge 540, À la Rose and Aqua Universalis. We also have scents that do really well, like APOM and Lumière Noire... so it's a wardrobe. As I said earlier, you don't wear your black dress every day, so you won't wear Lumière Noire every day, or perhaps some woman would. Our philosophy is to never discontinue a product and if a product has a narrower audience, you would still always find them on our website and in our stores in Paris.
So this year, for example, when we launched Petite Matin and Grand Soir, they were both part of the family of Pour le Matin and Pour le Soir. And because Absolue Pour le Soir and Absolue Poir le Matin had a smaller audience, we did not discontinue them, but we kept them only on our website and in our Paris stores. We also have a very strong bespoke and private label collection, and were one of the first houses to start this. It would take up to six months for the creation of these bespoke scents as Francis works alone with a Japanese lab in Paris.
Available from February at Escentials