CREDIT: JEFF GILBERT
Killian Wells was 16 when he decided he wanted to make perfume for a living. While his friends couldn’t care less what they smelled like, the teenage Wells was developing an obsession with fragrance; spending his spare time browsing the fragrance floor of his local department store in upstate New York, with ten different scents on the go at any given time.
It would be ten years until he started his own range – but you would be mistaken if you thought he went for traditional aromas, like fig with a hint of vanilla, or rose with woody notes. He wanted to do something different and, after just two years in the job, this self-taught perfumier has shaken up the the industry with scents that smell like new trainers, marijuana, and absolutely nothing (quite literally – at $500 a bottle, it was the first fragrance-free fragrance).
One of his most famous creations – Dark Ride, a mildewy, stagnant, chlorine-inspired perfume, which Wells modelled on the smell of a Pirates of the Carribean log flume – is now taking centre stage in a new exhibition, Perfume: A Sensory Journey at Somerset House – where it has been heralded as one of the most important scents of the last two decades.
“I always said if someone could create a swimming pool scent in a bottle I would buy it,” Wells says. “I’ve realised that I’m very drawn to chemical scents that would otherwise be harmful, things that your mother would tell you: ‘Don’t be sniffing that’.
“I have a fragrance called Sneaker Head that smells like shoes fresh out of the box and industrial glue is one of the notes in it. It’s sort of a safe way to experience off-limit scents that could otherwise harm you.”
In an industry which until recently was still dominated by perfumesfirst made in the Forties, Wells is the bad boy pioneer – a self styled ‘punk perfumier’. He says he likes to think of himself as doing for the beauty world what Andy Warhol did for art, though he seems rather more Damien Hirst (Dark Ride having a touch of the Formaldehyde about it). “I think people look at any artist who is pushing boundaries and they say: ‘Is this art or is this commercialism?’
“Warhol really fused those worlds together and turned it into something that was very cheeky and whimsical.”
Wells’s perfumes are certainly that. Each one comes in a specially designed VHS case, with eighties-style artwork on the cover which is supposed to enhance the nostalgic feeling evoked by his scents.
But why create a perfume which may repulse as many people as it delights? “I guess I just don’t care,” he says. “I started out in pop music so I’ve never been one to shy away from trying to push the envelope on purpose.
“I don’t do it just for the sake of the shock value, I do it because I genuinely think pushing boundaries is artistic.
“Dark Ride was something I created for myself. I was thinking: ‘I want this fragrance, I want to be able to smell this in my everyday life and if people like it then great and if they don’t, well I’m doing others, so hopefully they’ll like some of those.’”
Last year Wells was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which saw his doctor in LA hand him a prescription for medicinal marijuana – and having never before liked the smell, a new range of perfume was born.
Wells, who as well as being a perfume provocateur (his brand Xyrena is billed as being for “Olfactory Rebels”), is also a successful record producer and singer-songwriter, wrote a song to accompany the launch called Blue Dream, fusing together his passion for music and perfume.
Dressed today in a white and gold jacket made by Lady Gaga’s designer, complete with white trousers, gold patent shoes and electric blue contact lenses, the 28-year-old is wonderfully eccentric, belying his traditional Catholic upbringing in upstate New York with a contractor father and stay-at-home mother, who did nothing but “nurture” their creative son.
He is propelled through life, he says, by a whirlwind of nervous energy. “I think I’ve taken some of that and channelled it into art, it’s sort of an outlet for me. My mind is always going.” He is totally untrained – something he feels is a huge asset – and says he prefers to “play by nose as opposed to by ear”.
He obviously wants Xyrena to be a commercial success (and it is – though he won’t tell me what its revenue has been in the two years since he started the company, only saying it’s doing “very well”). But he isn’t remotely interested in making perfume for the masses.
For Wells, fragrance is no longer about making you feel sophisticated and beautiful, it needs to take you on a journey; more than anything, it must cause a stir.
“So many houses just come out with fragrances that are pretty and froo froo and in a boujis bottle, but I think the consumer of today wants something different.
“Everybody wants something they can show off on social media. With Dark Ride I knew that it was going to get a reaction, and sometimes that’s all I’m after.
“If people aren’t talking about what you’re doing in this day and age, then you’re not doing it right.”
He doesn’t believe in gendered scents, saying “that was created by the mainstream fragrance industry in the Forties to just push more product”, and is tired of the rest of the industry watching the work of niche perfumers like him and the other nine artists whose work is also on display in the exhibition (their perfumes include one which is supposed to smell like sex and one which smells like a Catholic confessional) and copying their ideas.
He is currently working on a project which he won’t tell me anything about, for fear one of the bigger houses might get there first. “They look at the niche brands and follow suit but then they just dilute it. Stick to your Beyoncé perfumes.”
So what’s next? A perfume that smells like urine? “Someone could spray themselves with that and one person might just absolutely love it, depending on what you’re into,” he says, deadly serious. Though even he would, he admits, draw the line at creating a fragrance “that intentionally disgusted people”.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House, in association with Coty & Peroni Ambra, with additional support from Givaudan & Liberty London.