How Maison Francis Kurkdjian built a brand around the Picasso of fragrance

Born of a collaboration in 2009 between Marc Chaya and perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, Maison Francis Kurkdjian has become a major player in the luxe fragrance industry, and is sold across more than 700 locations worldwide. Here, Chaya, who acts as president of the uber-luxe fragrance business, explains the chemistry and synergy between him and Kurkdjian, the benefits of joining LVMH Group, the trends and challenges in the fragrance industry, how the brand is building its online revenue, plans for i

or international growth, and the Parisian echoes in MFK’s physical stores.

Inside Retail: Tell me the story behind how you and Francis met and grew your fragrance brand. What was your vision for the brand at the time?Marc Chaya: When I met Francis at a casual dinner, I asked him, ‘What do you do in life?’. His answer was, ‘I am a perfumer’. At the time, I had no idea what a perfumer was. When I learnt from him that he had created Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, followed by more than 40 world-renowned perfumes for several fashion houses such as Dior, Saint Laurent, Armani and Narciso Rodriguez, I asked him, ‘How come I don’t even know your name? You have created all these perfumes that everyone wears, yet no one knows who you are.’ To me, the parallel to art was immediate. It was like going to see a Picasso exhibition, yet no one tells you that the painter is Picasso and only the gallery or curator name is provided. 

With time, Francis and I became close friends and we both realised that we shared the same vision on lifestyle and the definition of luxury, while having complementary business and creative skills. At the time, I was a partner in business advisory at EY and was exploring a path for a more creative and entrepreneurial career, so naturally we started working together and I started supporting him on his strategy and some creative and business ventures during my time off. 

Gradually, Francis and I were more and more often thinking about creating a fragrance house together. Eventually, we decided to launch Maison Francis Kurkdjian in 2009, with a free-standing store in Paris and several counters internationally. We wanted a luxury, independent fragrance house that would bear the name of its perfumer, one of the most talented of our time. Our vision was to put creativity at the center of everything. This was very new, as the perfume industry was mainly marketing driven and creation was just a component at the service of a marketing-led story. For us, marketing had to be at the service of creative ideas and to act only as an amplifier. If you think of it, fashion designers were able to express their vision freely and put their name on their house, while perfumers were hidden behind the curtains, with marketing figures or brand founders sometimes pretending falsely that they were perfumers.

To me, it was necessary to bring back legitimacy to perfume creation and to come up with something that was very beautiful, derived directly from the imagination of Francis Kurkdjian, one of the most celebrated perfumers of our time. My definition of luxury is the combination of extraordinary creative talent with extraordinary craft and an uplifting customer experience. This guides us in everything we do and was always my rule in leading the company. Our mission since day one has been to create for our clients an uplifting, joyful journey through fragrance.

IR: How has the business evolved since it became part of the LVMH Group and what have been some of the exciting developments that have taken place since then?

MC: Since day one, we had a vision to create a House that would survive for years to come, beyond Francis and me. Most of our competitors were acquired by big groups, and while we were profitable in every door and very successful in our ultra-selective distribution network, we felt that being alone didn’t allow us to explore all the opportunities that we wanted. LVMH was an obvious choice for us. We wanted to stay French and LVMH is made of independent companies, the freedom of which is celebrated within the Group. It values creativity and entrepreneurship.

Francis and I are still fully in charge of the business and remain on board as shareholders. 

At LVMH, we are benefiting from access to best practices, know-how and very talented people. It allows us to develop additional capabilities in key areas such as brand building, digital development and operational excellence or gain from state-of-the-art infrastructural support for our international expansion. For example, thanks to the group’s support, we have been driving sharper communication at the service of our brand desirability, working on making our customers’ journey more meaningful, making our omni-store design more elevated, and expanding into new key markets, such as China. 

Francis and I have both been welcomed warmly since we joined, and we feel totally integrated and empowered.

IR: How has the luxury fragrance landscape evolved over the years and how have customer expectations and desires changed? I feel like, traditionally, luxury was dominated by a handful of major players, but now, smaller, independent brands are on the rise.

MC: In the past, the industry was indeed dominated by fashion houses that offered fragrance as an accessible path towards their brand universe. 

Around 2007, however, we started seeing more and more “niche” fragrance brands being launched and entering department stores. There was a rising demand for new players that weren’t big, and that had a more creative and differentiated or elevated proposition. 

Indeed, while fashion houses were ultra-selective with limited, upscale distribution for fashion, they were widely available for their perfume offering, with a mass approach to distribution. This left a big opportunity for a new category of players, who established themselves at the top of the category with a selective distribution, a stand-alone store and a more elevated product proposition.

This category has now matured, and although we are seeing new players continue to emerge, it will require talent and a real creative proposition to survive and thrive.

IR: What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities in the fragrance industry?

MC: The industry is mature and spread across all segments, from ultra-mass market to ultra-luxury. To me, the biggest challenge, which is also an opportunity, is to continue to enchant our customers with extraordinary products that are sustainable in their manufacturing and respectful of the environment.

IR: MFK is well-known for its unique, iconic fragrances. Can you tell me about the product development process behind your scents?

MC: The process of creation starts with Francis’ idea most of the time. He comes to me with his vision and a name. There’s a lot of back and forth and once the concept is clearer, he starts working on the formula. I never give him technical feedback; I just tell him how I feel about it. The conversation is only between us two at the beginning – on the story, on the scent, on the packaging. 

What we have with Francis is unique. We make each other better; we push each other to reach extraordinary results. We complement and challenge each other. He’s very creative but understands business. I was trained to be a good businessman, but I also have great interest in art and other creative fields.  

We work together on the customer journey and on delivering a coherent creative proposal. Then we bring it to our very talented teams, which work to make it even better until the actual launch.

IR: MFK is in 700 doors now. How would you describe the brand’s international growth strategy and what are your plans for the future? 

MC: The Maison’s main market is the US. Today, we are a leader in our category, performing extremely well in all our doors. We are number one at Neiman Marcus, Saks, and Bloomingdale’s and we are doing very well at Nordstrom, only two years after the beginning of our partnership. It was my goal to start there, and we built our presence in the market from the ground up. 

Europe comes next and we are solid in the Middle East as well. We are developing our distribution and opening doors in the Asia-Pacific region, and we are very successful in Australia thanks to our historic exclusive partnership with Mecca, which will continue to thrive and strengthen in the coming years.

This year, we will enter China, with a shop at Nanjing-deji and online with Tmall. We will continue to open new stores in the future, mainly in China, the US and some key European and Asian countries. We will add a second boutique in Singapore, a boutique in Bangkok at Icon Siam mall, a new boutique in Hong Kong at K11 and a new flagship in Paris near Avenue Montaigne.

Our approach is to stay ultra-selective and to open only in top locations worldwide, with the goal of offering a beautiful customer experience in every door.

IR: Since Covid-19, a lot of brands have focused on digital and e-commerce, which would be challenging for fragrance. Can you tell me what’s involved in MFK’s online strategy and how it’s tracking?

MC: The Covid pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends when it comes to online shopping and then digitalisation of the customer journey. The fragrance category has been very successful online, proving wrong the common thought that it was hard to sell a perfume outside a physical location. Indeed, online sampling has been a key driver and customers have shown to be totally ubiquitous in the way they explore and shop their favourite scents.

Our Maison has focused and invested on a fully omnichannel customer journey and we like to offer our customer a meaningful journey whether in stores or online. Digital assets can make the experience truly immersive, and we offer online events, masterclasses and talks. Our online customer support is also key, and we continue to invest in making it better. This has delivered significant growth and our online sales are now in excess of 30 per cent of our total retail sales.

IR: What is MFK’s physical store strategy? Do you see the store network growing in the future?

MC: Maison Francis Kurkdjian draws its singularity from the creative power of the perfumer and artistic director whose name it bears. Its uniqueness is sustained through carefully defined identity codes of purity, sophistication, timelessness and audacity, in a style that is at the same time classic and modern. These codes are magnified with the new aesthetic of the Maison Francis Kurkdjian boutiques. Echoing Parisian architecture, sensorial and mineral materials, such as Lutetian limestone, marble, and fluted concrete are enhanced by elegant, contrasting details of gold and wood. The decor also features a reference to the Maison Francis Kurkdjian monogram: a K-shape is used in the fragrance display table profiles and in the architecture of certain walls. This new aesthetic approach conveys understated luxury, a light-filled, elegant atmosphere, and a welcoming, sophisticated minimalism where design, know-how and modernity all converge.

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