Episode 182: Kilian Hennessy, Founder of Kilian Paris

Lots to unpack in our talk with Kilian Hennessy, starting with how he turned his back—mostly—on his famous family’s Cognac business to create his own legacy of luxurious liquids with his elegant and eclectic perfumes. He talks about the scents from his childhood and how he blends those powerful memories into his “overdose” fragrances.

Listen in on this very personal journey from heir apparent to rock star entrepreneur.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to, Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, it's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® podcast. This week's episode features Kilian Hennessy. He's the founder of Kilian Paris. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Indie Lee, the Founder and CEO of Indie Lee & Co. Thanks for listening.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to the show. I'm excited to be here with Kilian Hennessy. He's the founder of Kilian Paris. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Kilian HennessyThank you, so happy to be here as well.
Jodi KatzI'm so excited to learn about you and share your wisdom with our fans. And I have to start with my favorite question, and I asked this to you on our intake call last week, let's go back in time to your ten-year-old self, Kilian, And if someone, an adult, asked you what do you want to be when you grow up, what are you going to answer with?
Kilian HennessyWhen I was 10 years old?
Jodi KatzYes.
Kilian HennessyI believe I said, I had no clue. And I believe I said at 20-years-old, I had no clue. I really met my destiny at the age of 22, when I had to write a thesis for my fifth year in college, and I chose the semantics of scents. And, in order to understand what I would be writing about, I didn't know, school in parallel with my fifth year in college. And the first day, I started smelling raw materials, essential oils. I fell in love. It was really a love at first sight. I knew immediately that perfume was going to become my world.
Jodi KatzSo Kilian, I read a lot of articles and interviews with you, that I could find online. And of course, a lot of the writers ask about your family, and why you're not in the family business, do you think at 10 years old, you were thinking to yourself, I definitely don't want to be in the family business? Like does a little kid know that?
Kilian HennessyNo, I don't think so. But at that age, I was growing up in Cognac. So, Cognac is a city in Shahat, where Hennessy makes it's cognac, because in order to be called cognac, then you need to be produced in Cognac region. So, I was growing up in my grandfather's castle from 0-10. People would usually say, wow, I'm like, no, because there was no other kids. So it was a very lonely childhood. But then, my parents got a divorce, my mother took us to Paris and... best decision ever.
Jodi KatzDo you remember going to Paris and then socializing more with kids and feeling like, wow, this is the way it's supposed to be?
Kilian HennessyYeah, absolutely.
Jodi KatzHow, how old were you then?
Kilian Hennessy10
Jodi KatzOh, wow. I hit that timeframe right on the money.
Kilian HennessyYap.
Jodi KatzI have a 10-year-old daughter, who is really happy to be home and not hanging out with her friends now, during COVID she's at school or at home. And she's...I think the opposite of you, she's so happy that she doesn't have to leave the house
Kilian HennessyBecause it will have to do it every single year.
Jodi KatzThat's right.
Kilian HennessyYou always want what you don't have, as the will in life. You want what you don't have.
Jodi KatzRight. So, as the families are in a rush to get their kids back to school and she's perfectly content. I'm so happy to be in her own comfortable little cocoon. But, I'm happy for you that, you were able to see what was on the other side of the grass, right? The grass is always greener, but you actually got to play in that grass.
Kilian HennessyYeah, absolutely.
Jodi KatzSo, I think it's super interesting that when people make a career out of fragrance, because it's such an abstract world, right. If you talk to people outside of beauty, they don't really understand the job or, how the creativity and the business collide. Do you consider yourself more creative or more business, or are you sort of like a half and half?
Kilian HennessyI would say, half and half. And, in order to build a brand and a business, you need to have books. Because, if you cannot understand the logic of retail, and how to train your staff to properly talk about your stories, then the message is never conveyed properly to the customer. And ultimately, like any opera, any song, any movie, it's the customer who decides. The only thing we can do, is create a product that is as new, as exciting as possible, and that we are proud to defend. But that after all, it's in the hand of God or in the hand of the customer. Sometimes people will tell me, which one is your favorite perfume? And I'm like, it's not like I have a favorite perfume, maybe there's a few that I'm not so proud of because I had to finish them too quickly, or I let them happen in nature too quickly. But in general, I'm proud of 95% of everything I have done.

Now like, if you have a child that goes to Harvard and a child who ends up selling in a music store, somehow, you are a little bit more proud of the son that goes to Harvard. Same thing with perfume, the perfume that gave me my own domain, my awareness and the fume that, all the customers and the critics have said, this is a fantastic creation. And therefore, are also my most successful perfume. Those are the ones I'm the most proud of. It's hard to be proud of a perfume that has not found it's public, its customer base. You love it, but at one point, there's a feeling of disappointment.
Jodi KatzSo, as you're talking about the relationship between your emotions and how they're tied to different scents? It makes me think of songwriters, composers, right Like, we can pick a famous one, my guess is, there's always a reason to create new music because there's always some feeling to express. And I guess over time, some performers want to stop singing the same old song, at every show, because they just feel like they've evolved. Is that one of the reasons why, as a creator of fragrance, you want to keep creating, because you're putting yourself, and like where you are in the world in that moment into the creation?
Kilian HennessyIf I'm thinking about an amazing song producer, like Mark Ronson, and for example, the album he wrote for Amy Winehouse, Back-to-Black. I don't think he would....it's impossible, the lyrics and the music and this RNB feel, he would have never done this music, this sound, for somebody else than anyone else. So in this case, you write for someone, right? Often, I compare my job to the job of a movie director, who would be writing the scripts of his own movies. And depending on the script you have written, and therefore on the emotion you're trying to convey, you don't choose the same actors and actresses, to express that emotion. It's a bit like that for me, when I choose which perfumer, I want to work with to express that particular emotion. Some perfumers have a very short formula, way of writing, usually 15, 25 ingredients maximum, those are very short formula, which means that a lot of ingredients in those formula are in overdose.

And it creates an emotion that is a bit more whoa, yeah, whoa is the right word. Some perfumers, don't write a formula with less than a hundred ingredients. So, every ingredient has very, very tiny amounts. So every formula is built almost like a lace, very detailed, and that creates a different emotion. And on top of it, some perfumers will mostly use certain types of ingredients, when others will use completely different ones. So, when you put all that together, it allows us to choose perfumer, depending on a specific styler. If I take a comparison, would you take...I don't even know what to tell... Meryl Streep, even in her young age to play an action packed movie, maybe not, it's not her territory. Same thing with some perfumers, some perfumers are better in my point of view, in a certain territory of than others. So, depending on the emotion I'm trying to convey, I choose my actors, and my perfumers like actors and actresses.
Jodi KatzAll right. So that leads me to wonder, when you embarked on this journey, why artisanal? Why was it so important that this is an artist not a brand, that doesn't follow, the marketing norms, and the pricing norms, why walk away from these formulas that can make quite a bit of money?
Kilian HennessyI'm going to give you two answers. One is purely financial. If you want to play against those big blockbusters, because it's exactly a blockbuster industry, you need to have the means to play with the blockbusters. Which means that you need to be able to launch a perfume, in at minimum 25,000 doors in the world. And, you need to be put on the money at minimum 25 million to 30 million in advertising and promotion. You can imagine that when you start, you're really far from that. When the suppliers were asking me, how many quantities of my bottle? I was thinking... I was like 10,000. And in my mind, I was like, Oh, it's going to take me three years.

So no, we don't compete. But that's the reason why, this category exists. It is because we're going in a, such a much smaller distribution. We can go with, creativity that doesn't need to appeal to everyone. We just need to appeal very strongly to a very small amount of people. We don't need anymore. So, that allows a much higher level of creativity. And in terms of retail price, we want to be able to use beautiful ingredients and use them in overdose. And that has a price. So, what I can tell you is, I put more in my perfume itself, where we call the juice, than any brand puts in its total product combined, and by far. Simply because, quality has a price. It's exactly like in fashion.
Jodi KatzYou used the word too, using ingredients in overdose. What does that mean to you, to express the fragrance with these overdose of scents?
Kilian HennessyWell, depending on the strenghts of an ingredient, an overdose can be 0.5% of the formula, or it can be 50% of the formula, right? Some ingredients are so strong, that if you put 0.5%, you'll smell it. It's going to overshadow the entire creativity creation, the entire perfume. It's a bit like, if I'm putting jalapeno on a dish, you don't need to put a lot. If I'm putting like 50% of the dishes, jalapeno is uneatable, right? Same thing with perfume, there's certain ingredients, you cannot go too high, because it will overshadow the entire perfume creation.

But, in one of my previous lives, working for one of those big brands, I was looking at to talking with the perfumer and I asked him to increase the orange blossom. The natural orange blossom. And he said, Oh, you're crazy. We already have so much. I'm like, how much do we have? So the 0.2%. And I'm like, Oh my it's time for me to leave. Because now, I'm using probably 10 times more or 40 times more of orange blossom in a formula. But at that level of retail price, you can't afford it. I don't give myself any limit. So, if at one point one of my scents are very expensive, so be it. It's just like expensive.
Jodi KatzRight? So, the way you speak about fragrance makes me think about pre-COVID time period, visiting your stores. I imagine that your appearances were really valuable in driving interest in sales. Am I right?
Kilian HennessyYap. All the Live Instagram, that I've been doing for the past year. I've been online doing live Instagram, live stories, PAs online where podcasts... almost like once, every two weeks, or maybe even once a week.
Jodi KatzSo, if you go back in time to think about when your personal appearances started in real life, at the stores, because we can't do this right now. So I'm so curious, to go back in time. What were you learning about the customer, when you were able to actually like talk to her or him face-to-face? What kind of insights did that give you? Because, I think we all crave to go back there, but I'm curious to know what you learned along the way.
Kilian HennessyYou don't really learn anything to be honest, because those PA's are usually crazy. There's 200 people, it's an hour and a half. Everybody queues, with their product that they want me to sign. They want to have a photo, and it's like, next one, next one. And it's just that. So I'm not getting a lot of insight.
Jodi KatzWait, Kilian, I didn't know that this is like an Elvis Moment. I didn't realize that there was like this.
Kilian HennessyYeah. I have to tell you, I feel like I would be making more money, just selling the photos of me than selling the perfume.
Jodi KatzSo, I imagined that it was much more team, where you got to actually shake the hands of your customer, and talk to her and hear her life story. I didn't realize that this was people lining up from...like a true fan perspective. But I imagine it wasn't like that in the very, very beginning. Right? They didn't know you yet.
Kilian HennessyNo, but I have to be honest, I have been very lucky. My first PA was at Waldorf Goodman. That was my first store in the world. And they asked me to launch, on a Saturday morning for a group of perfume fanatics called the Sniffapalooza. You cannot invent the name. And so, I did my presentation, then I went to the counter and I had 72 products. We sold out in one hour, sold out.
Jodi KatzWhat a great story. That's so awesome. So the Sniffapaloozas where your people,
Kilian HennessyThose were Fragrance fanatics. Now, I don't know what happens. I'm not sure that...I cannot say, I don't know anymore. Some of them, come still in the PAs, but I don't know if they still exists as a group. That I don't know.
Jodi KatzWell, that's interesting that, you were at retail, years ago, the Sniffapaloozas are what generated, that kind of excitement and interest, because it's not really that different than the super targeting that we do on social media. Right. Obviously it's not in real life, it's digital, but the hypertargeting to find the fanatics of fragrance. We do that digitally now.
Kilian HennessyYeah, absolutely.
Jodi KatzDo you miss seeing people and signing the bottles?
Kilian HennessyI miss the travel for sure. I spent 15 seconds with everyone or 30 seconds, it's hard to...I don't connect. But that's definitely miss the travel, discovering countries and looking at locations, and the more business side of it. Because for me, from a creative standpoint, it hasn't changed. Hasn't changed at all. I don't need to be in the perfumers' building to create perfume. The perfume creation is in your head, the idea that you're trying to achieve. And then, we exchange by SMS, by phone, by email, by any way you want with the perfumer. We exchange ideas, what about this? What about that? Then we do lab samples that I receive, wherever I am in the world. I wear them, I try them and make my comments. So for me, my job hasn't changed from a creative standpoint. It's really the more business side that has changed.
Jodi KatzRight. It's interesting that because the personal appearances are so busy anyway, like you said, you said, you spend eight seconds with a person, that you're not connecting with them, but how interesting that, they're really connecting with you. They wouldn't be there, waiting in line, right? So, isn't that kind of crazy, amazing, right? That while you don't even have a moment to shake their hands, hear their life story, hear about their dog or their daughter, they're there because they're connecting with you, and that's kind of like an Elvis thing,
Kilian HennessyBut at the same time, what's funny is I feel like I connect better to Instagram, so digital. Because people have time to write me the stories, about what they want. Like a few days ago, this woman said, Oh, it's my fiance's birthday tomorrow, and he's a big fun of you, and nothing would make him happier, if you could wish him a happy birthday. So, those kinds of things. So, I have to follow him, wish him happy birthday, unfollow him afterwards. But, I hear people's stories, people tell me their stories in Instagram. So, direct message. So, I actually feel like I'm connecting more digitally than in-person, which is so weird.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool that people ask. And are you available to do that? Are you going to be able to make time to wish him a happy birthday?
Kilian HennessyI already did it.
Jodi KatzSo, I wonder if the people who waited in line, years ago knew that they would have such access to you. We didn't know what social media would become. When you started your business, but how beautiful that, especially during this time when people really need connection, that you're actually responding?
Kilian HennessyYeah.
Jodi KatzThat's amazing.
Kilian HennessyBut I must say, even though I'm not connecting individually with everyone, it's still a connection with your fans, as an entity and these warmth that you feel, that you receive. I do miss that, like for example, we launched a collection called The Liquors, in October, and I think it has been my most successful collection ever. And I have a scent in this collection called Angel's Share. That is my most intimate scent, because it's really my childhood memories of the Hennessy cellars. And usually, if I would be doing PAs, I would be having a lot of stories from customers. This is what happened. You know what? When I think about it, some people do tell me a few funny stories, but it's usually letters that they send me, or there's usually something a bit more detailed involved.
Jodi KatzI love that you can match memories to scents, right? It's like, one of the strongest human connectivity ideas. When I smell orange blossom, you mentioned our boss. I have very vivid memories of that, and travel. And, I'm curious as we close out the interview, since scent is so powerful for memory, if you've tracked back your memories of scent to your time at the Castle versus your time in Paris,
Kilian HennessyI'm not sure to understand the question actually, like in all my creations?
Jodi KatzNo, I guess, personally, like the trial that I was at 10, sometimes those insecurities or fears or whatever, pop up, as an adult. And I work hard to explore those, and understand those, to feel as whole as I can. So, I'm just curious, if you find anything therapeutic and revisiting those scent memories.
Kilian HennessyI only did it for Angel's Share, which was, as I mentioned it, my olfactive memory of the cellars. I'm trying actually to work on an olfactory memory, of my grandfather. He used to wear a perfume named by Job. And, when I would meet him in the morning, he would be smoking his pipe, and the tobacco is some clued. And I went to buy it, and I'm trying to smoke it, and I'm working with a perfumer to try to combine both, because individually none of them works. It's the combination of the two. I'm so far, from anything interesting yet. To be honest, I have worked enough with my shrink to deal. It's my past, not to have to relive it in my creations. So no.
Jodi KatzKilian, I appreciate that honest answer. I have therapists, I have coaches, I have another coach, I have another coach, right. So, I'm constantly diving deep, and I don't have your skill right to match these things up to my fragrance memories. It's just my memories. So, I do appreciate that honest answer. Well, thank you so much Kilian, for sharing your wisdom with our listeners today. And for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Kilian. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show. Follow us on Instagram @Wherebrainsmeetbeauty podcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to, Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again, for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

Want to sponsor the pod?

Available On:

Apple Podcasts