Liam Sardea (LKNU): “We try to guide each person to create their own constellation in this vast cosmos”

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After starting out online, in 2021 independent perfumery LKNU opened its doors at a high-end mall in Melbourne. It offers a selection of around sixty brands and a resolutely different approach to sales and customer experience. Interview with Liam Sardea, graduate researcher in aesthetic philosophy at the University of Melbourne and education manager at LKNU.

Tell us how LKNU came about?

The driving force came from something that happened to our founder, Lee, who used to be an accountant but switched and became a special effects make-up artist. One day she wanted to buy a perfume for a special occasion, and realised that buying perfume in Melbourne was nothing like buying perfume in Paris or elsewhere in Europe: her choice was pretty limited, and the same could be said about the quality of the advice she was given. You have to realise that the olfactory culture here is nothing like in France. In the end Lee chose Fracas by Piguet – which is a great scent! But the whole process got her thinking about the experience offered to the growing number of people in Australia who are interested in perfume. Ultimately this led to her wanting to open her own store. LKNU started out online in 2015 and moved to a physical store in 2021, the minute that lockdown was lifted. My job title as education manager and my in-store role both focus on LKNU’s overriding ambition: to promote olfactory culture, transmit knowledge about perfumes to people eager to learn, and raise standards in how we communicate with our customers. The language of olfaction tends to feel excluding by people who think they don’t know the codes. But it is perfectly possible to create a dialogue without using it. I always say to our customers: “even when you tell me the wrong thing, it brings me closer to the right thing.” 

How do you go about choosing the brands that you sell? 

It’s really important that the people who work here really believe in the brands that we sell. Because we’re a small team we’ve been able to create a selection process that involves all our staff. We meet regularly to talk and discuss ideas. Everybody speaks up for or against what other people are suggesting, and we try hard to reach a consensus. These meetings are the first stage where we put into practice our belief that everybody has something to say when it comes to perfume. And no logic or pre-set criteria are involved when we choose the brands to submit to these selection sessions, a new discovery will always be a surprise. We are totally open-minded in terms of creative concepts, but we only put forward the ones that have genuine qualities in and of themselves. One the other hand, we are committed to presenting not just perfumes coming from France or Italy; for example, we have a number of Thai brands. 

What appeals to Melbourne’s niche perfume aficionados? 

Personally I divide them into two categories: first you’ve got people who wear Santal 33 by Le Labo and Baccarat rouge 540 by Francis Kurkdjian; these are perfume lovers who follow trends and enjoy high-impact scents with instant charm. Then there are people who want to smell “different”. European olfactory culture is, finally, starting to take root in Australia. We have people here on the lookout for interesting original creations. I like to think that at LKNU we’re helping to shift the dial, one customer at a time. That we’re giving people a chance to discover that perfume is more than just smelling nice, it can tell a story, convey a message, express a personality.

How would you define the experience you provide to your customers?

First of all, we start from the idea that our store is a safe space, somewhere they can try things out freely and securely. The idea is to make our customers feel sufficiently at ease that it’s then possible to suggest things outside of their “comfort zone”. I like to remind that Australians are omnivores: in Melbourne, for example, we’re used to enjoying a very wide range of cuisines. They’re available to you any place, any time, day or night. It’s important to remember, because this open-mindedness really does make it easier to guide people towards creations that are different, so long as you go about it gently. You just have to find the right connections. For example, if I’m advising somebody who’s wearing Portrait of a Lady by Éditions de parfums Frédéric Malle, a baroque style patchouli rose, I’d ask myself how to slip in a new element without radically changing the overall effect: maybe with an oakmoss rose like Eau suave by Parfum d’empire. Or perhaps Rose Oud by Nicolaï. Basically, at LKNU we offer a universe without predefined constellations. We try to help each customer to make connections, to spot a shape that make sense to them. We try to guide each person to create their own constellation in this vast cosmos.

What drives your customers to step through the door at LKNU? 

Well, for one thing our store is beautiful! It’s easy to move around in and the lighting reflects the materials used, light oak and velvet. And the mirrors, on the ceiling, walls and display tables, give a sense of space and airiness. It’s a very relaxed vibe. And then there’s the sense of freedom we try to transmit to people who visit our store. We encourage them to look around and explore, we never pressure them to buy. Finding a perfume that speaks to your soul can take a bit of time. We combine the luxury of time with the luxury of space. 

What are the obstacles that can hold your customers back? 

Something we often notice, particularly with men, is a type of fear. I read this as the natural consequence of a series of failed experiments: there’s nothing worse than popping into a perfumery and getting told off because you don’t use the correct terminology, a bit like being back at school. It’s something many men have already had to deal with. And it results in customers who feel nervous. At the end of the day, it is, as ever, a language problem: they’re scared of saying the wrong thing, of not being understood. At LKNU we encourage customers to use the words they want, because their personal references, how they choose to express things, are all precious clues for our sales team. 

What do you do about a perfume that fails to sell as well as you’d hoped? 

Every perfume has its day. If it was chosen with care, and has genuine intrinsic qualities, then we are certain that its day will come. 

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