THE IN-TRAY

Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian on gender fluidity in fragrance

When Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Gentle Fluidity Gold and Silver slid onto our shelves in 2019, we had to do a double take. Equally modern and traditional, the two oxymoronic scents challenged our expectations of fragrance and formulation, while contributing to the dialogue of ungendered fragrance in an entirely new way. Come August of this year, the coveted perfumer continued that dialogue with the release of L'Homme À la Rose, which, as per the moniker, is a unique rose fragrance designed for men.

In an exclusive conversation with Francis Kurkdjian himself, we unpack the history of binary (and non-binary) tradition in perfumery, and his undeniably playful outlook on the world of fragrance. As the French perfumer says, it’s about “breaking, not the rules, but the boundaries”.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GENDERED FRAGRANCE

While ‘unisex’ or ‘genderless’ fragrances are commonly perceived as a 21st century trend, Kurkdjian looks to its origins up until the end of the 17th century. “Women and men were sharing the same appeal for fashion and beauty,” he explains, “wearing wigs, laces, ribbons, heels, jewelry, makeup, and fragrances, including rose scents or colognes.” It was common for men to wear scents that were “composed with flowers and opulent trails”.

It was only in the 19th century, as Kurkdjian tells us, that “the male figure got rid of ornaments from past centuries that were considered excessive and decadent. Sartorial sobriety and a form of austerity were required and became a norm.” This shift in social codes, he says, “impacted fragrances that then became more and more codified and gendered.” While women continued to sport florals, (“rose, violet, carnation, lilies, and lilac”), men pulled away from bold scents, leaning towards simple herbal notes (“thyme, lavender, citrus and eau de cologne scents”).

Though the globally coveted perfumer believes that respecting tradition is, and will always be important, he aspires to bring “a contemporary vision of creation and the art of wearing perfume.” “Society evolves, he says, “and so do our tastes”.

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HOW TWO IDENTICAL YET ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SCENTS ARE ILLUSTRATING THE DISCOURSE ON GENDER BINARIES

A glance at the notes of both Gentle Fluidity Gold and Silver— juniper berry, nutmeg, coriander seed essence, musks, ambery woods and vanilla—and one could assume they would smell exactly the same. But to Kurkdjian’s delight (and ours) —they do not. For him, it’s all about the balance.

“The two scents have the exact same ingredients, meaning they have the same DNA,” explains the master perfumer. “But what changes from one to another is the balance within the ingredients. Silver has more aromatic fresh-spicy notes while Gold has more of the musky vanillin accord.”

Gentle Fluidity Gold and Silver are a fascinating lesson in the intricacies of fragrance, and a gentle reminder of the similar nature of sex and gender.

“With Gentle Fluidity,” starts Kurkdjian, “I go beyond the concept of perfumery for women, men or mixed. There is a personality, a sensitivity, a ‘gentle fluidity’ between all gender identities.” The two scents, as he describes, “come from two utterly different olfactory worlds,” one imbuing a woody, aromatic scent, and the other, musky, oriental notes. But as he reminds us, “they have been created from the same list of ingredients.”

And, he looks to raw materials in the same way as fashion – neither of which have specific genders associated with it. “Silk is neither feminine nor masculine. But the shape and the cut will transform it into a woman’s garment such as a dress, or into a man’s accessory like a tie,” the perfumer notes, providing remarkable insight into his approach in creating Gold and Silver.

As for the concept of playing with gender through his concoctions, Kurkdjian says it started about three years ago, when he first came across the expression ‘gender fluidity’ via the American press. This, he says, sparked what he calls “the equivalent of the ‘gender fluid’ movement in perfumery.”

THE INTRIGUE OF A ROSE SCENT FOR MEN

Regardless of his explorations in gender-fluid scents—and in addition to recognizing that some scents are in fact gender-free—he considers himself “a strong believer” in that there are scents more suited to female energies, and likewise to male. “You have three categories.”

Enter L'Homme À la Rose, a unique rose fragrance formulated with the intent to define modern masculinity and empower men to embrace rose scents. Undeniably modern, it’s the fragrance equivalent of the Harry Styles’, Timothée Chalamet’s and A$AP Rocky’s of this world.

“Scents don’t have a gender by nature as I mentioned before,” starts Kurkdjian. “L'Homme À la Rose is the continuation of this statement, expressing my freedom to create a rose-scented fragrance for men, with a strong signature.” He continued: “it was a particularly interesting idea to me… I wanted to demonstrate that rose can be masculine as well.”

For the perfumer, the name and story of a scent always comes before the notes, admitting that the interest around L'Homme À la Rose was instant: “it sums up what I want to say with my perfume.”

“My vision for this new scent is giving men the right to wear a rose scent dedicated to them. Women wear roses, why not men. It’s about time to move beyond preconceived notions about men not being able to wear rose scents.”

Need a little help in finding a fragrance that makes you feel (and smell!) your best? Book an in-store consultation with a MECCA fragrance specialist here, or a virtual one here.

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