The connection between the eye-watering, nose-hair-singeing odors pumped into malls in the early 2000s and the fine fragrances of Dior is approximately zero.

Unless you’re Francis Kurkdjian, the recently installed perfume creation director of Christian Dior. He admires the cloying scent bombs from Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Victoria’s Secret for building public desire and enthusiasm. So what if many stank to high heaven?

“They made perfume affordable and reachable,” says Kurkdjian. “They opened people to perfume in a very different way.” Kurkdjian, clearly, is no scent snob.

For that reason alone, it’s hard to imagine him at Dior, extravagant, lavish, dripping-with-gold Dior. And yet here he is, inventing the next big scent for the 75-year-old fashion house and, in the process, doubting and fretting, uncertain about which way to go.

Kurkdjian is now the perfume-creation director of Christian Dior.

Kurkdjian is an outlier. He didn’t grow up in Grasse, France, where flowers and perfumers flourish. He isn’t the son, the grandson, or the great-grandson of a revered nose. He didn’t apprentice under one of the masters. Kurkdjian was born in Paris to Armenian parents and studied the art and science of fragrance at a school in Versailles, learning first to identify lemon from orange (“It’s easy when you have the fruit … but when you just have the white [testing] strip … it was very tough for me”) and then combining elements in unexpected and sometimes poetic ways.

It didn’t take long before he established his own identity and his own fragrance house, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, in 2009. His output is a mix of audacity (Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier, which Kurkdjian created in 1995 when he was 25), calm (crisp, sparkling Aqua Universalis), lush (Narciso Rodriguez for Her), and quirky (scented bubbles, which he released from the glass ceiling of the Grand Palais in 2010). He calls himself an urban perfumer.

His string of successes includes the flamboyant Baccarat Rouge 540, an unlikely TikTok hit. There’s even a rap about it by Foshee: “You wear that good shit, Baccarat Rouge.” Kurkdjian is as mystified as anyone about the phenomenon. “I think people see it as an access to luxury.... It’s very pricey. It’s very expensive to make.” Fans describe the fragrance as smelling like money. “Maybe it’s rich because it’s popular, but no one can really copy it. To be honest, I don’t know. How can something smell rich?”

For that matter, how can something smell luxurious? Sure, Chanel No. 5 reigns on the best-seller list of the ages. But is that because of the scent itself or the bottle, the word Chanel, Catherine Deneuve, Marilyn Monroe, the decades of arresting ads, the quick association with good taste, status, reliable correctness? Yes.

Even good smells can have an unappealing aspect. Kurkdjian discovered the connection between jasmine and horse manure one day while walking toward Central Park, inhaling what he thought was the sweet flower. He expected to find a profusion of white blooms and instead came upon a line of horses.

He tries to find beauty even in ugly odors, and that conflict, he believes, is part of what contributes to a distinctive blend. “Most of the perfumes in the market aren’t big enough and bold enough,” he says.

He tries to find beauty even in ugly odors, and that conflict, he believes, is part of what contributes to a distinctive blend.

As he constructs his first fragrance for Dior, Kurkdjian seems slightly overwhelmed. “People expect that I would do something very quickly,” he tells me in his stylishly cluttered office on the Rue Étienne Marcel, in Paris. “But it takes 18 months. It’s like ages.”

He works out of a separate office (“concrete, glass, and marble”) for Parfums Dior. The Dior bottles are round while Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s are square. There are also the burdens of history and expectation—and LVMH executives—that come with creating a Dior fragrance versus the freedom of a young house. The responsibility sits heavily on Kurkdjian. “I’m a bit lost for now,” he says.

Fragrance has been a cornerstone of Dior for decades. Here, the couturier presents his latest scents in Paris, circa 1950.

The idea of comfort—so desirable over the last several years—is tempting him. He envisions a blend of musk and vanilla, for starters. “Or maybe comfortable could be sweet, like the reminiscence of childhood. It would be comforting and not comfortable.”

For adult comfort, he’s attempting to translate the gin-and-tonic cocktail into a scent. It’s a concept more than a literal distillation; not juniper berries, alcohol, or the bracing sweetness of tonic. “I want the freshness, the cleanness of it without being cool, because gin is warm. It smells like there is a cooling effect almost, and I want to get that feeling, the feeling of juniper without using juniper.” For his own house, he’s bringing out a fragrance in September called 724, the French version of 24/7. “In French, 724 sounds better.”

Sales of fine fragrance soared over the past two years for a number of reasons, all of them speculative. One of the symptoms of the coronavirus was a loss of smell, which may have given new prominence to that neglected sense. Rather than announcing itself to an outside world, fragrance became more personal, intimate. TikTok also created a desire for fragrance that seems farcical, given that no one can smell a video.

Right now, Kurkdjian’s dream for Christian Dior is personal, about the man more than the house. “I want him to be proud… I would love to have a sign from him that he’s proud, but I haven’t gotten anything yet, so let’s wait.”

We will. No pressure.

Linda Wells spent 25 years as Allure magazine’s founding editor in chief, served as Revlon’s chief creative officer, and currently consults and sits on the boards of several beauty and apparel companies