Sunday, 24 June 2012

Strange Lickable Perfumes: Interview With By Kilian Founder Kilian Hennessy In The Independent

You know you are getting old when someone describes Jo Malone's Lime, Basil & Mandarin Cologne as a "classic" fragrance - turns out it has been around for 21 years, so that's fair comment really.  And what, you may ask, does Jo Malone have to to do with a post on Kilian Hennessy, the personable, oversized lapel-ed founder of the By Kilian range of perfumes?  Well, in a brief lull in my search for wallpaper - I am suffering at the moment from a bad case of obsessive compulsive online swatch scrolling - I whiled away a few moments with the magazine from last Saturday's Independent newspaper (16.6), which my neighbour had thoughtfully brought round because it had "a thing on perfume" in it. 

Indeed it did: a feature on classic and new beauty products, some top perfume picks for Father's Day, and best of all, an interview with Kilian Hennessy by Susannah Frankel.

Now By Kilian is not a range with which I particularly get on.  Several of the original releases seemed to share an intense, fuggy accord of some kind which triggered an instant headache. I had the same experience with Mona di Orio’s early launches, yet came to revise my view of the brand once she introduced the relatively pared down Nombres d’Or Collection. And by the same token, there are now By Kilian scents which I can enjoy like any other, which don’t seem to have this fug problem, Sweet Redemption and Love & Tears being my current favourites.

So now that I have come to appreciate the By Kilian line, in part at least, I read this interview with interest - the full article is well worth checking out here.

Highlights for me include Kilian Hennessy's views on the IFRA guidelines, on the state of mainstream perfumery, and on his favourite perfume eras and individual scents from the past.  One of these was Dior Poison, which made my ears prick up, because I see Liaisons Dangereuses as a kind of Poison-Lite for the Noughties. Not that it is all that “lite” of course to my nose…

The reference to "lickable" in the title of this post relates to an incident involving - rather aptly - the By Kilian fragrance, Straight to Heaven.   I couldn't help but be reminded of Pierre Guillaume's Coze-licking stunt at the Les Senteurs event in February... : - )

The most thought-provoking part of the interview for me concerns the issue of price points: Hennessy clearly feels that £145 is not excessive for perfumes of this quality and draws a parallel with the success of Apple: “ one point Steve Jobs said it is not that Apple has become mass market, it’s that the market has now reached Apple’s level.”

Apple iPhone quarterly worldwide unit sales (millions) - click on the image to enlarge 
There seem to me to be two distinct points here: the rise of niche fragrance brands - which may not be as meteoric as that of iPhone sales, but which is a clear trend - and the question of whether expensive perfumes offer value for money.  Personally, I think there are fragrances which lean more to the fur coat and no knickers end of the spectrum, while others warrant their premium price. I don’t, however, feel qualified to judge which are which, though I have a hunch that there is probably a luxuriantly healthy margin in the likes of Clive Christian’s perfumes. 

And then at the opposite end of the scale are scents which I call “yellow limes” – ie which don’t look too promising because the packaging is ugly or cheap, and yet which turn out to be surprisingly good. You see, I am visually drawn to nicely nobbly, dark green limes in the supermarket, but I have read - and found in practice - that it is the more yellow-y looking ones that are the juiciest.  (It doesn't work the other way round, mind, in case anyone is wondering, ie green lemons don't appear to be any more juicy as far as I can tell, and look less like an epitome of a lemon if they are not uniformly yellow.  For where fruit and veg are concerned, I do try to buy epitomes wherever possible - you won't catch me settling for any of that mutant organic produce, unless it is overtly humorous.) 

But enough of the gratuitous fruit musings, and back to the matter in hand.  I feel this interview begs a number of questions (see my answers below and do let me know your thoughts on any of these points in the comments!):

Do you think the £145 price tag for a 50ml By Kilian fragrance is justified? 

If I really, really loved one of them, then maybe, but objectively speaking I am on the fence on this one, maybe even half slipping off...  :- ) Though there again, that packaging would have been super expensive to make, is drop dead gorgeous, and could easily double up as a sumptuous coffin for a deceased pet of the requisite size - a hamster or a budgie, say.

Do you own any scents from the line yourself? 

Not in terms of full bottles, but I am grateful for the samples I have managed to squirrel away in swaps or thanks to the generosity of sales assistants and fellow fumeheads.   (I know Birgit of Olfactorias Travels owns a refill bottle of Amber Oud - her March Bottle of The Month - travel sprays of Rose Oud and Back to Black, plus Sweet Redemption in the magnificent black box version. Ogle her collection here!)

If not, do you have a top By Kilian lemming?

No, but a 10ml decant of my two favourites would be nice.  Below is a photo of my friend Qwendy in a state of Love & Tears-induced euphoria at Scent Bar in LA, when we tried the scent for the first time.

Does anyone else experience this fug problem with certain scents in the line?  If so, which ones?

My top offendors were Liaisons Dangereuses, Love and Beyond Love - at least I think so - I have tended to avoid smelling them since.

Has anyone (known to you or otherwise) ever attempted to lick you while you were wearing a By Kilian fragrance?  If so, which?

Are you kidding?  I am patiently waiting for the day when someone attempts to lick me wearing ANY fragrance.  Or while not wearing any fragrance.  I am ludicrously happy just to receive a compliment about my SOTD, as that is such a rare occurrence.  As for how I would feel if it was someone I didn't know doing the honours...well, it would depend on the stranger, but probably not...

Now, notwithstanding the high price tag of the bottles themselves, I must say that in my experience By Kilian is pretty good about posting samples in response to ad hoc requests.  Plus there has been that fantastic Facebook campaign, whereby if you liked their page you could register to be sent a full sample set of the L’Oeuvre Noire Collection – an offer which passed me by completely at the time, but which does sound like a very generous and effective way of spreading the word about their range.

And d'you know, I am going to check out that thing about green lemons not being juicier, and report back.

One last question: What is your stance on "epitome produce" - or stylish perfume packaging - and do looks really matter?

To take the perfume question, on a scale of 1-10, where one is a plain tester box and 10 a Swarowski-studded Baccarat bottle - okay, that's rather a silly example, but something pretty darn snazzy, say - I probably hover between a 3 and a 6.  By Kilian would be a shade over the 6 on my scale, but don't press me to a number - decimal points may be involved!

UPDATE: I found this tip on choosing lemons from

"They should be fully yellow in color as those that have green tinges will be more acidic due to the fact that they have not fully ripened." 

Photo of Kilian Hennessy from, photo of Poison from Ebay UK, photo of mutant lemon from Flickr CC via Meggle, graph of iPhone sales from Wikimedia Commons via Myschizobuddy, other photo my own.


Anonymous said...

Subtle Psychosis Still Stalks Scented Subject's Sanity

So, do you think OCOSS will make it into the upcoming DSM-5? (Apparently it is no longer to be the DSM-V as "this is America dammit, speak English!").

Penalty of not being on Facebook: no By Kilian samples.
Reward: money saved.

-- Lindaloo

Vanessa said...

Hi Lindaloo,

How educational are Bonkers readers?! You sent me rushing to Wiki the acronym in question, where I learnt that DSM (which up to this point had merely been a Dutch chemical company to me) does in fact also stand for the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders"...which you might think was the DSMMD, but not so, with the soon-to-be "5" referring to its fifth edition.

Undina said...

I have an utmost respect for that brand and I really want to love at least one of the perfumes to justify the purchase of a bottle at that price. So far the closest I came to liking any of the perfumes is thinking that Love & Tears is kind of nice... I will test them again at some point.
I was thinking about perfumes and bottles and I do not have an answer yet. There are some bottles that I want to own because of bottles (and it's great if a perfume is good as well) and I do not care about other bottles as long as I can get enough juice in the plainest bottle to use. I'm still analyzing my reactions. Once I'm done I'll write about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi V,
Thank you for this post, I laughed out loud twice on the tube.
I go for epitome fruit as well as great bottles. And using the Kilian box as a hamster coffin seems to be a very effective usage and an incredibly stylish way to go. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I admire the brand as well, for its quality and because KH goes out on a limb creatively with some of his compositions, much like Pierre Guillaume indeed. I wanted to like more of the scents than I do though the tally is steadily increasing at least.

The bottle perception/expectation issue is a complex one, and possibly too big to lob into a post in passing the way I did. I am not sure I would be consistent in my own responses. Some days I think the PG packaging is too plain, most days I think the same of the Le Labo packaging!, while Ormonde Jayne and Penhaligon's have a bit more going on with their bottles and boxes. So that is probably my comfort zone of attractive packaging, suggesting a quality scent inside.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Happy to know another epitome fruit lover. :- ) I pinched the line from my mother really, when she was ill once many years ago and sent me out to buy a lemon. I don't know why I even thought to inquire what type of lemon (there aren't supposed to be any sub-categories, I don't think?), but she came straight back and said: "Bring me a perfectly formed lemon, the epitome of a lemon." And the term has stuck in my mind ever since!

So I guess the boys need to get themselves a small furry pet if they don't already have one, to ensure that in due course you do get full value out of your handsome Sweet Redemption casket. You could say that the reusability aspect is another *redeeming* feature of the high price tag!

Anonymous said...

Haha, sweet hamster redemption indeed! ;)

Eva S said...

I just bought the By Killian Discovery Set, but I don't own any FB, and I haven't a chance to try them out yet. Since they're more decant-size than samples I think it will be a long time before I have any need for a FB!
If I love one of them though, I could justify buing a FB (already own a bottle of Puredistance and planning to buy a bottle of Amouage and they're not exactly cheep either!)
I guess I'm also an epitome fruit-buyer, although I'm worse when it comes to books- I carefully chose one that's in perfect condition without any crinkles or wrinkles, doesn't matter if it's a cheap paperback :-)

odonata9 said...

I don't think their pricing is outrageous - there are several other brands like Amouage, Le Labo, etc that around about $3/ml. And BK also has the travel refills so you can pay a little less, which most companies don't offer. And I love what he's done with the facebook page - I was able to get the generous samples provided. He even sent out more when the Asian Tales were released. I think it's so hard to say if any luxury item, including perfume is "worth it." Part of what you are paying for is the marketing, exclusivity, packaging, etc. so it's hard to tell if you are getting a good value in terms of quality ingredients and so on. And so it only matters if you like their nice packaging (and the juice as well!). I like their packaging, but am not in love with any of the scents. I like Straight to Heaven and considered a travel refill, but my husband is not a fan (he doesn't like any fragrance at all, but particularly made comments about this one) so not worth it for me!

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Plush rodent redemption indeed... : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Eva S,

Thanks for dropping by - I wish you happy discoveries of your Discovery Set!

If you already own a Puredistance bottle, I can see why you wouldn't balk at either the Amouage or By Kilian prices. : - ) I have my eye on Amouage Honour Woman, but have not yet bitten the bullet. Maybe one day I will succumb...

Oh, as for your epitome-buying habits, I completely agree with you on the book buying front. I have sent mail order books back to the publisher if the sleeve was slightly bent or the spine a bit bashed. Books must be absolutely pristine, that is so true! And I will pick up and inspect at least six copies in store before making a purchase. Which I do with lemons too, indeed. And oh dear goodness, you should see me with packet ham - I have been known to jiggle the packaging looking for bits of fat tucked away just out of view...

Vanessa said...

Hi odonata9,

I know what you mean - pricing is all relative, and there are quite a few popular brands in that next price bracket - well, popular in our perfumista circles, certainly. Even though I didn't take advantage of the Facebook sample offer, I have always found the stores carrying BK ready to mail out samples if you ring up and ask - in stark contrast to Le Labo, I might add.

I agree that travel refills are a great idea, and more houses should offer them. Then another example of fancy packaging and pricing that I totally bought into is Ajne. My 15ml bottle of Calypso worked out dearer than Puredistance ml for ml. I always assumed it was the "all natural" ingredients that bumped up the price of that range - partly, anyway - but one can only guess as to whether a given scent offers all round value for money.

As you say, at the end of the day the equation either stacks up for you personally or it doesn't - for all sorts of reasons, not all of them tangible.

Sorry to hear your husband was not transported "Straight to Heaven" by that particular scent. Sounds like we can cross it off the lickable list in your household!

Suzanne said...

Although I haven't clicked with any of the By Kilian perfumes that I've sampled, I have no qualms with the pricing of his perfumes -- and I wish I loved one, because I think the bottles and those boxes they come in are just gorgeous. (Plus I fully approve of any exceptionally well-dressed man wanting to sell perfume and to be so personable about it ... that's what I've read [that's he quite nice to chat with] from people who've met him at the perfume counters!) :-)

I guess I should back up and say that I do find By Kilian Love and Tears quite pretty, a very sheer and radiant jasmine, but it's not quite my thing. That one strikes me as very you, Vanessa ... what did you think of it?

Suzanne said...

Oops! Never mind my stupid question regarding Love and Tears, as now I just re-read your post and see that you do like it.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

It seems there are quite a few of us who would like to click more than we do with the By Kilian range, though I am indeed a fan of Love & Tears. It was a bit of a grower, as I am a late developer where big white florals are concerned!

And how interesting that you should mention KH being so accessible and willing to chat. As I was picking a photo of him to illustrate this post, I noticed how many casual shots there were of him at perfume counters, as you say, or with someone who looked like a fan or a blogger.

That told me right there that he puts himself about a bit, in a good way! I choose this photo partly for the magnificent lapels, and also precisely because it *wasn't* obviously personal and unique to someone else's blog.

Tara said...

Thanks so much, Vanessa, for including the link to that great article. I loved it. Fascinated by the neck licking woman! I would also like to thank you for using one of my favourite expressions "fur coat and no knickers", I wonder if they have that one in the States?

Like many others I admire the line (and the man!) but am yet to shell out for a BK fragrance. I love Rose Oud and like Amber Oud and Sweet Redemption a lot but the price level does bother me. I do spend over £100 on a bottle of perfume but find it hard to spend that much on 50ml. Nice packaging definitely helps though!

Vanessa said...

Hi tara,

It was a most interesting article, wasn't it? I don't normally take The Independent - or any paper on a regular basis - but my neighbour always keeps an eye out for anything to do with perfume, which is nice!

And I am also partial to the phrase "fur coat and no knickers", of which there are examples in all walks of life!

The packaging is a real highlight with the BK line, for sure. I remember trying Rose Oud with you in Harvey Nicks that time. Thinking about it, I may even have braved Beyond Love again on that occasion, but it was still beyond me. : - )

Natalie said...

I really don't feel qualified to comment on any substantive matters related to the Killian fragrances, as none have worked for me. However, I will frivolously say that I'm sure Killian himself would work out just fine, if anyone wanted to pop him into a box (I'm not picky about what kind of box) and ship him over. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

How funny that so many of us are coming out of the closet - or the sumptuous lacquered black box, even - to say they don't get on with the By Kilian scents themselves. I'd say you are qualified to comment on the box itself though, as that is pretty substantive!

Love the idea of a mail order Kilian Hennessy. : - ) For spirit lovers, they could perhaps pop in a drop of their favourite tipple!

Victoria said...

Thanks for posting the article! I missed it, and I actually was just browsing the Independent.

I'm on the fence about by Kilian fragrances. On the one hand, I enjoy many perfumes, but on another, the price is so high. Of course, the fragrances smell very expensive to me, but still, I can't really convince myself to spend more than $200 on a 50ml bottle. Just too high!

Vanessa said...

Hi Victoria,

Looks like we are both on the fence then with this line - and you sound as though you are half slipping off it too! : - )

Rose said...

thanks so much for the link, I rather like them but I can see they are fence scents!

Vanessa said...

Hi Rose,

"Fence scents" is a very good way to describe them. : - )