The duo puts the dramatic in the aromatics
Eight years ago, French theater director Cyril Teste and perfumer Francis Kurkdjian met in a Parisian café. “I was a little reluctant to go to that meeting,” confesses Kurkdjian, the super-nose behind a series of hit fragrances for Jean Paul Gaultier, Burberry and Dior (where he was named creative director of fragrance in October 2021 ) as well as its eponymous fragrance line. “Cyril was looking to flavor a play he was working on,” recalls Kurkdjian. “I said I only had 30 minutes – I stayed almost two hours.”
“What I remember the most is that we talked about the forest,” adds Teste, whose reinterpretations of Shakespeare Hamlet and Chekhov The Seagull have been described as “film performance” – a fusion of theater and cinema. “I told Francis that it was really important for me to rediscover a smell of the forest because it reminds me of my childhood. And I was very surprised by his questions because they were very precise: “Where is this forest? Is it south or north? Is it morning or afternoon? Is it raining or not? »
From this first conversation, Teste saw a “bright future of collaboration together”. He says of their instant rapport and shared philosophy: “We have a similar approach to work; for both of us, it is important to have a history and a reality. Their first partnership was Feast, a stage version of the 1998 film by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, produced by Teste’s MXM (Monkey Ex Machina) theater collective. “The scene takes place in the middle of a forest, and little by little you go deeper and deeper into the story,” says Teste, who commissioned Kurkdjian to create different notes for several scenes – from an interior to the corner. fire to what Teste calls “the great story of the croissant”.
Kurkdjian smiled: “I remember the smell from the breakfast scene. But rather than recreating the aromas of coffee and croissants, Kurkdjian drew inspiration from a plot element: the smell of the main character’s deceased sister. “And the end result was emotionally very powerful in the game,” concludes Teste.
This type of olfactory experimentation, particularly its power to evoke memory, is something Kurkdjian has long been interested in. “When you’re working outside of the bottle, when it’s not creating a commercial fragrance, you can create a piece of olfactory art.” says the 53-year-old Parisian perfumer, whose first artistic collaboration, with Sophie Calle in 2003, was The Smell of Money: a scent based on “the memory of a well-worn dollar bill”, which was presented at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. Since 2006, he has also produced numerous “olfactory installations”: from scented fountains in Versailles to puffs of scented bubbles at the Grand Palais. “When you create a fragrance to wear, it has to appeal in a very specific way; it must smell good,” says Kurkdjian. “But in the context of a performance, a scent can make you cry or make you feel angry – the range of feelings it can elicit is much wider.”
But whether creating an installation or a perfume, Kurkdjian’s process remains the same. “I always tell a story through perfume,” he says. “I either get told or I tell myself a story, which is then translated into something you can feel. But the process never starts with a smell. The very first thing I start with is the desire to create something new.
The starting point for his latest Maison Francis Kurkdjian outing was a morning walk in New York. His experience of the city’s palpable, uninterrupted energy is best put into words, he says, with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “There’s something in the air of New York that makes sleep useless. The resulting fragrance, called 724, is a “musky, floral, urban fragrance”, “a totally abstract olfactory theme composed of shades of white whose textures overlap in an energetic and fluid rhythm”. Intense yet airy, the Eau de Parfum is inspired by New York laundries and is immediately revealed in the fresh top notes accented with bergamot, while the central floral scents – jasmine absolute and white flowers – are deepened. by sandalwood and white musk in the base.
“My whole vocabulary is based on smell: it’s intangible, it’s invisible,” says Kurkdjian, whose vision for 724 also started with the packaging, in a specially designed color he calls “urban blue. ” – a mix of blue jeans and cement gray. . But here too, the partnership with Teste came into play. “Having worked with Cyril on three or four projects, I thought he could take on the mission of being my eyes. Cyril bridges the gap I have between what the perfume smells like and what it should look like. He can translate feelings into images.
Teste served as artistic adviser on a 40-second film for 724, in which the perfume bottle is part of an urban skyline – a shimmering skyscraper that sees the city rapidly transition from sunrise to sunset. The swoosh of subway cars and taxis are set to pulsating piano music capturing the driving energy Kurkdjian wanted to distill.
Teste has already collaborated in this way. His talent for visualization was also called upon by Hermès menswear artistic director Véronique Nichanian: their presentations covered an online-only backstage style performance for SS21; a multi-screen set for SS22; and a deft stomping around the historic Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris for SS23 – a spectacle that began with a sheet of canvas billowing out of the building, only to disappear.
“There’s an incredible lightness to Cyril’s work,” suggests Kurkdjian, “even when looking at a dark story like Feast.” For the adaptation of Teste in 2019 by John Cassavetes Opening night, Kurkdjian again provided an olfactory element – this time in the form of a perfume for the title character, middle-aged stage actress Myrtle Gordon, played by Isabelle Adjani. “And she still wears that scent,” Kurkdjian adds. “I even made a body cream for her.”
Many collaborations between Kurkdjian and Teste stem from ongoing conversations. “There’s a constant back and forth between us,” says Teste. “What has brought us together is our passion for the arts, in the broad sense, and we share suggestions for going to see such an exhibition or such a show.” Recently, they went together to a piano recital, by Katia and Marielle Labèque. “I wanted to put Cyril in touch with the sisters, who are friends of mine,” Kurkdjian explains. “I like to marry people together and then see what happens with the creative match.”
More immediately, Kurkdjian and Teste hope to materialize another project they started thinking about four years ago, which will take them into another artistic realm. “It will be an exhibition,” says Kurkdjian. Teste agrees: “A multi-sensory installation with a 360-degree artistic approach,” he adds. “I would like that to happen. »