Francis Kurkdjian creates genderless fragrances
When the issue of ‘gender fluid’ – people who do not define themselves according to their original sex – began to emerge a few years ago, the perfumer wondered what determined gender in perfumery. He came up with the best answer of all: using the same list of ingredients, he created two different formulas, without attributing them to a particular gender. These two eaux de parfum with the same name – Gentle Fluidity – were launched in January 2019. Interview. Isabelle Cerboneschi, Paris
Francis Kurkdjian is part of the first wave of independent perfumers who decided to create their own perfume houses on the fringes of the big groups. We first met in 2001, when he set up his bespoke perfumery workshop. He already had a number of successful fragrances behind him, including Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Mâle, a revolutionary fragrance for men that straddled the boundary between genres.
In 2009, he co-founded Francis Kurkdjian with Marc Chaya. Twenty years later, in January 2019, he is launching two new eaux de parfum with the same name: Gentle Fluidity. Two fragrances inspired by a social phenomenon.
When people started talking about gender fluid, those people who don’t recognise themselves in their original gender, or who prefer to swing from one to the other, Francis Kurkdjian wondered what this could mean in the field of perfumery. An eau de Cologne was the first step, but it wasn’t enough,” he says. Being a gender fluid means feeling that, with the same DNA, you have two different identities. To translate this concept into perfumery, I said to myself that I was going to create a perfume that was like silk. Silk has no sex. If I make a tie out of it, by convention it will be masculine and if I make a dress out of it, by convention it will be feminine. I thought it would be interesting to make two perfumes with the same list of raw materials, which would allow me to express two different identities.
There is a gold and a silver version of Gentle Fluidity, but neither mentions a gender: the first is an oriental-musky and the second a woody aromatic. “Among the major ingredients is juniper berry, which expresses freshness in men’s fragrances, but you can also put a trace of it in floral fragrances, because it gives them a ‘naturalness’,” explains the perfumer. There’s coriander essence, which is also ambivalent: depending on the dosage, it’s on the borderline between a spicy flower and sage. I chose nutmeg, which doesn’t really have a genre. A note is not feminine or masculine: there’s jasmine in Christian Dior‘s Eau Sauvage, which is the archetypal masculine fragrance. It’s all a question of concentration and balance between the notes. In the two Gentle Fluidity fragrances, there’s a musky accord, a woody-amber accord and a vanilla accord. I worked on the two fragrances in parallel and refined the formula as much as possible to express what I wanted.
With these two gender-neutral fragrances, Francis Kurkdjian is encouraging retailers to rethink their shelf presentation. “We are fortunate to have our own boutiques and corners at Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. But the consequences of the evolution of gender in society are going to be complex for retailers. If we decide tomorrow that objects are no longer governed by the feminine or masculine gender, where will we put things?
The L’Artisan Parfumeur brand has already asked itself this question: all its packaging and shops have been redesigned and made gender-free. Customers choose the fragrance that appeals to them intuitively, without wondering for whom it was designed. In the United States, the younger generations are demanding that there be no separation of genders,” says Francis Kurkdjian. The pressure is going to get stronger and stronger. It’s going to be a huge undertaking. In my collection I have Apom Homme and Apom Femme. What am I going to do with them? One of these days I’m going to have to come up with an answer.
Of course, Francis Kurkdjian’s question goes beyond perfumery. In 1994, Calvin Klein launched CK One eau de toilette, the first fragrance to claim to be unisex. The designer also had a dream of unisex fashion, equally suited to men and women. At the time, it was all about saving on production costs: it’s much cheaper to make everything from a single pattern. Except that Calvin Klein was almost thirty years ahead of its time. In the 1990s, we were still girls and boys, even if we shared codes, clothes and perfumes,” says Francis Kurkdjian. Today, the complexity stems from the desire to erase gender. I read in the New York Times about parents who are bringing up their children in a non-gender way: they don’t want to reveal their biological sex so as to leave them the choice of self-determination later on. Today everything is gendered, but maybe in fifty years’ time we’ll be human beings who are either male or female and can have children with whomever they want, in whichever way they choose.”
The two new eaux de parfum from the House of Francis Kurkdjian should have been called Gender Fluidity, but when the perfumer asked the director Cyril Teste (with whom he worked on the play Festen) for his opinion, there was a happy misunderstanding. “I was talking to him about the concept of Gender Fluidity, but with our respective bad English accents, he understood Gentle Fluidity. So it was he who unwittingly came up with the name of the perfume. It’s much better this way: in ten years’ time, the concept of Gender Fluidity will be outdated, but I hope my fragrances will survive.
Designers are inspired by what they see and feel. They don’t necessarily change things, but they observe them. They take the pulse of society and give an aesthetic response to this life that is moving forward. Francis Kurkdjian explains: “A designer is connected to his time both from the inside – otherwise he can’t understand it – and from the outside, which gives him a vision. This is the first time that a social issue has challenged me to such an extent that I wanted to tackle it head-on. And I’m quite proud of my story.
Gentle Fluidity fragrances are on sale at Francis Kurkdjian boutiques in Paris, 5 rue d’Alger, 7 rue des Blanc-Manteaux, at his corner at Printemps and Galerie Lafayette and from February 2019 at authorised distributors including Globus in Geneva.