“The fusion between Moët-Hennessy and Louis Vuitton was in 1987; I was 15 years old,” Hennessy recalls when we meet at Upper House during his stopover in Hong Kong. “At that point it wasn’t completely a family group any more. And to be honest, I never wanted to work for the group. Number one, I hated the idea of working for my father. And more importantly I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror and feel that what I’d done with my life was entirely due to what I’ve done and not due to help I received.”
After enduring resentful looks during a brief internship with Dior’s perfumes division – whose president at the time, Maurice Roger, had been hired by Hennessy’s grandfather – the young Hennessy was determined to work for every luxury group except LVMH. After graduating from university, he did stints at Puig (working on Paco Rabanne), Gucci (“that created a big chaos because at that time Gucci and LVMH were in this humongous lawsuit”), Alexander McQueen (as marketing director) and L’Oréal (as marketing director for Giorgio Armani perfumes).
“I really made my whole career outside of the group,” he says. Indeed, Hennessy was involved in creating some of the most commercially successful fragrances of the time, often in direct competition with LVMH. But after negotiating all the elements that go into launching a mass product – from the designer’s vision to the packaging and print advertising – he found himself at a crossroads.
“I was losing faith in myself, losing faith in the industry in general,” Hennessy says. “In 10 years of creating scents for fashion designers, I had never put out a product that was completely the product I would have wanted to do.”
At the urging of a headhunter, he spoke to several top designers about going back into fashion. But it was a dinner at the Baccarat restaurant at Paris that would decide his next move. “At the end of the dinner I stopped by the museum – it’s a tiny museum – and they were exhibiting one century of Baccarat perfume bottles,” he says. “Life is funny.”
“I looked at those gorgeous bottles and coffrets. I stayed two hours in that tiny museum and by the end my faith in perfume was back. I thought, this is exactly what I want to do. What if I would actually go out on my own and create a collection that would look, feel and smell exactly the way I think it should? And put perfume back on its pedestal in the same way it was back in the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries?”
Soon Hennessy was putting his hours of study at “nose school” to use creating his first collection of 10 scents, L’Oeuvre Noire. He also dreamed up a bottle and coffret worthy of display in the Baccarat museum. “It’s very much reminiscent of what I witnessed that night: a beautiful wood coffret with several coats of lacquering and satin bedding inside; the coffret opens and closes with a key; the bottle is carved on the side with a shield motif; the names are not on a sticker but on a real metal plaque and filled manually by syringe with a black enamel.”
Having created such a precious work of art, Hennessy “suddenly realised there was a contradiction between creating a luxury product that would be a disposable product”. Again, he looked to the past and recalled how his grandmother had a personalised perfume bottle that she would take to the shop to be refilled once the fragrance ran out.
“So I made the decision to make every bottle refillable. So the bottle you buy is the bottle you keep all your life,” Hennessy says. “And I made all the satin bedding removable, so you can reuse the case as a jewellery coffret if you want. I was creating what I call an eco-luxury product. Because in a way the best product for the environment is the product that creates no waste.”
Once Hennessy convinced suppliers to take a chance on his completely bespoke coffret, Kilian the brand was born.
In the 11 years since, Hennessy and his perfumer Calice Becker have created dozens of fragrances in categories such as The Fresh, The Smokes, The Cellars and The Narcotics.
“The way I think of creation is in terms of olfactive books, where every scent is a chapter of the book,” he explains. “At one point the book is over. So every collection has a certain amount of scents. L’Oeuvre Noire, my first collection, was from day one a collection of 10 scents. And four of the 10 are still alive and among our top sellers.”
Hennessy’s newest collection, From Dusk Till Dawn, is an homage to Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. “What I love the most is his Byzantine period, playing with gold leaf and the contrast between light and darkness,” he says. “We have two scents in this collection: Woman in Gold, which is inspired by the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, and Gold Knight, which is a reference to the knight in golden armour in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze.”
Hennessy and Becker created the scents by focusing only on ingredients that expressed to them darkness or shimmering gold. “The ingredients that express shiny gold for me were bergamot, honey, yellow roses, anise,” he says. “For darkness, it was black ingredients like black pepper, black vanilla, patchouli, leather. In a way it’s as if I shrunk the amount of raw ingredients available to express the same contrast as Klimt tried to express through his paintings.”
Besides traditional perfumes, Kilian has also expanded into a variety of products designed to “give women beautiful attributes of seduction and protection”. These include a collaboration with Fleur du Mal on scented lingerie and Hennessy’s new shower-gel and body-lotion line. Another popular collection has been Kilian jewellery, created with Lanvin jewellery designer Elie Top and featuring ceramic inserts that release scent as the wearer moves.
“I think our job is really to surprise the customer. Frankly, there are so many scents that I’ve created,” Hennessy says, laughing softly, “that you have to push the boundaries very far today to really come up with true creation.”