A look back on Le Male – an exclusive interview with perfumer Francis Kurkdjian

As the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition opens at The Barbican in London today, Glass meets for an exclusive chat with perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, creator of Gaultier’s iconic 1994 fragrance Le Male when he was just 24 …

Fragrance symposium for Jean Paul Gaultier fragrancesFrancis Kurkdjian

When you created Le Male, did you have any inkling of how successful it would become?
Not at all. It was not meant to be successful; we thought it was so different at the time, the bottle not looking like a bottle for example. There were many funny-shaped bottles in the 1930s and the ‘40s but in the ‘90s it was very unconventional – especially having a metal can on display for example. Now it’s normal. Times change so fast.

Le MaleLe Male

How involved were you with the design of the bottle?
Not at all, it’s very rare for perfumers to be involved in that aspect of it. Also I was too young and a complete unknown – just a student fresh out of school. I discovered the bottle a few weeks before the launch, and I couldn’t imagine [Jean-Paul Gaultier] would come up with a masculine torso with a sailor t-shirt – it was unthinkable. When I saw the bottle I said, “Oh my god it’s not going to work at all.” And here we are 20 years later. I’ve no idea whether [the bottle design] came out of the fragrance or not.

Can you describe the initial idea you had for Le Male?
It was very easy because the brief was about the idea of musk, of ‘clean sweat’ and the idea of sensuality where you want to practically bite into a man’s skin. It wasn’t about dirty things, it was very bright, and also a little bit retro. The idea for Le Male was based on a men’s hairdresser in the ‘50s – these were full of the smell of lavender, which is where the perfume’s main lavender accord comes from. It’s reminiscent of a very good-looking man taking care of himself; kind of preppy, but in a Fifties and Sixties kind of way.

Looking back, what do you think was the significance of the sailor motif on the bottle?
It’s just a motif to put it in the “Gaultier universe”. In the same way that Chanel has the “little black dress” – you have the sailor stripes for Jean-Paul Gaultier. It’s his trademark. For him, it’s the idea of what men are about – being seductive, being sexual, being adventurous…

Did you have much discussion with Jean-Paul Gaultier beforehand?
No, because I was never meant to create the perfume. I joined the business in 1994 when the briefing was issued. I was not hired yet, as I didn’t have the status of being a perfumer, no one knew me at all. I managed to meet the director of BPI who managed the license. And she let me work on the project as a student training exercise. Up against me were major talented perfumers all over the world – being such an iconic brand, everyone wanted to pitch for it. I pitched because I was given the opportunity to – that was it.

At the time, Jean-Paul Gaultier wasn’t even a designer I very much cared for. He was a designer; he wasn’t a haute couturier. Now you see all his haute couture dresses and you realise how iconic he is. I’m from such a conservative world in a way. To me it was all about Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. So if now Jean-Paul Gaultier is Saint Laurent in his own way, 20 years ago he was an enfant terrible. He used to send journalists live turkeys in boxes for Christmas. It was off the chart. So I didn’t even realize how important he would become – but it was just as well, as I wasn’t panicked. It was an opportunity for me to prove myself.

How did you react to the success of Le Male?
After Le Male, I got scared when it came to creating other perfumes as there was so much expectation. But you can’t really explain why things work in perfumery – but you can always explain why they don’t. I think when it came to the success of Le Male it was all about timing: right perfume, right box, right name, right designer. Twenty years before or 20 years later it probably wouldn’t have worked.

Were there any challenges when creating the fragrance?
It’s very easy because it’s vanilla-based. With vanilla, you don’t have to be as technical, whereas floral fragrances are very complex and very difficult to pull off. Vanilla is like a forgiving baggy sweater – it hides stuff underneath that you don’t want people to see! If it had been a floral scent, I don’t think I would have been able to do it [at the time].

Do you imagine men (and quite a few women) wearing Le Male in 100 years time?
In 100 years time we won’t be able to reproduce the original Le Male, as the materials won’t be there any more – you just need to look at the history books with other fragrances from 100 years ago. We can produce something like it, but people won’t know what the original smelt like to be able to compare.

by Viola Levy

Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Le Male is £40 for 75ml EDT, available from Selfridges

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on at the Barbican April 9 – August 25.

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