Interview with Maison Francis Kurkdjian CEO and co-founder Marc Chaya
Maison Francis Kurkdjian is a Paris-based luxury fragrance house that was founded in the midst of the economics crisis in 2009, in an industry that left little room for new perfumers. However, its sophisticated collection and creative brilliance has seen the brand quickly emerge as a leading name in niche luxury perfumes. In this interview with Tharawat, Maison Francis Kurkdjian CEO and co-founder Marc Chaya shares his company’s unique entrepreneurial journey in luxury fragrance.
Where did the idea to start this enterprise come from?
I met my business partner Francis Kurkdjian some 10 years ago at a casual dinner following a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show. When I asked him what his occupation was, he replied, “I am a perfumer”. At that time, I had no idea what a perfumer was.
But upon further discussion, I learned that Francis was a tremendously prolific creator of perfumes who created Jean Paul Gaultier’s iconic Le Male (one of the world’s best-selling perfumes), in addition to over 40 world-class fragrances for iconic fashion houses such as Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Armani, and more.
When I heard this, I was stunned and asked, “How is it that I don’t know your name? You have created all these perfumes that everyone wears, yet no one knows your name”. To me, this was the equivalent of going to see a Picasso exhibit without realizing that the painter is Picasso and only learning the name of the sponsor.
With time, Francis and I became close friends and we realized that we shared the same vision for lifestyle and luxury. Even though I was still a global partner at Ernst & Young at the time, we began to use our complementary business and creative skills to start working together on a number of business ventures.
Eventually in 2009, we both realized that the time was ripe for us to launch a perfume brand together, and thus we co-founded Maison Francis Kurkdjian, a luxury independent fragrance house that carries the name of one of the most celebrated perfumers of our time.
Tell us about Maison Francis Kurkdjian today.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian is an independent luxury fragrance house with a very selective distribution network playing in the ultra-premium segment of the market. Our positioning is at the top of the market both in terms of creativity, know-how, product quality, network distribution, and customer experience.
Our fragrances and accessories collection has developed as an olfactory wardrobe that embodies our contemporary vision of perfumery. In addition, we offer a wide range of scented accessories and lifestyle products such as scented soap bubbles, scented detergents, and even a scented leather collection.
We currently have 6 boutiques globally and more than 400 ultra luxury point-of-sales. We will continue to grow while respecting our vision and identity.
What is Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s process of developing a new perfume?
Creating a perfume starts with the inspiration. For Francis, this usually comes from a name because it helps him to define the blueprint for his creation. He then sees the scent in his mind and start using the palette of essential oils to make his vision come to life.
Perfume creation is not just a technical process consisting of mixing essential oils in a lab and putting them on the market if they smell good – it is a creative artistic process. This can be likened to how not everyone one that masters the techniques of painting and mixing colors becomes a Picasso. In the case of perfumery chemistry, technique is just the base level – you need genius to go beyond technique into creation.
Once we develop a fragrance, we move onto the next steps, which is production, distribution, and communication. This entire process from development to sales takes around 18 months and it is a real team effort that is done entirely in-house.
What is unique about Maison Francis Kurkdjian and what sets it apart from other luxury fragrance brands?
Having an in-house creator and perfumer is a significant difference because it allows us to market our products with a genuine artistic and creative vision. This is very rare in our industry, which usually has perfumers working in the dark around a predetermined marketing message. Our arrangement gives room for unbridled creative expression to Francis Kurkdjian.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s perfumes collection can also be distinguished from others because each scent is designed to fit a certain “mood” and to match your aura and sensuality for specific occasions. We believe wearing the same scent all your life is a rather old-fashioned way of doing things. Modern men and women are multi-faceted – we are not the same at work, with friends and family, or when we travel. If I were to open a sophisticated person’s wardrobe, I am sure to find casual wear, formal attire, as well as evening standards and perhaps even couture. Our collection of fragrance has been created in the same spirit.
For instance, our Aqua collection can be likened to an essential piece in one’s wardrobe, a bit like a white shirt that you can wear at any occasion. Then there is the “easy-to-wear” segment with very elegant scents such as Amyris, Pluriel, and A la Rose. Our evening standards include more dressed-up scents like APOM (which stands for A Part Of Me), Lumière Noire or our OUD collection. Finally, we have our bespoke offering which mirrors the haute couture in fashion.
So you can be an Aqua Universalis person on a lovely sunshine day, an Amyris person on a date, and an OUD person at a black tie event – all through our lineup of fragrances.
How do you define a great luxury perfume and what advice do you have for those looking to find a luxury fragrance that is right for them?
Our vision of luxury is about being genuine and authentic. Today, luxury is not about price but about dreams – the emotion of the experience comes first. From fine fragrances to home scents and body care, we have envisioned an entire scented line where there is harmony within all the product forms.
A luxury brand exists only if the products are luxurious, which means that each of our products are carefully crafted. We push the limit so that each product and each detail approaches perfection. That’s the only way to create a true luxury product.
What have you learned from your experience of founding and running an enterprise such as Maison Francis Kurkdjian?
Starting Maison Francis Kurkdjian and growing it internationally has been a very challenging and rewarding experience. My consulting background and my years at Ernst & Young have been key in making this happen because it required such a wide range of skills – strategy, business planning, marketing, product development, business development, sales, finance, and legal.
The greatest thing that I have learned throughout this process is that ideas are only 10% of the equation. Having great ideas is simply not enough. It is your ability to bring them to life that makes the difference. You need to create the ecosystem that allows your ideas to prosper and deliver on their promises.
I also learned that success is never a one-man show, but something that requires teamwork. At Maison Francis Kurkdjian, we have been able to attract top-tier talent – men and women who have contributed to building the company and whose skills echo and complement each other.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs or business leaders looking to start or grow their enterprises?
I read somewhere that, “True entrepreneurs jump from the cliff and build their wings on the way down”. I think this quote has some truth in it – you need courage if you are to change your career and take the risk of starting a new venture. But you need to make sure you are comfortable enough and have the necessary skills to build those wings once you’ve made the jump.
As I said earlier, entrepreneurship has nothing to do with luck of simply having good ideas. You need to thoroughly measure and plan your project and make sure you develop the skills and funding that are needed to execute on it.
Very often, things don’t happen in accordance with the scenario that your were hoping for and your ability to learn from your mistakes, to adapt, and to make the best of unforeseen circumstances is key to your success.