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Serge Lutens

Serge Lutens was born during the war, on March 14th, 1942 in Lille, in northern France.

Separated from his mother when he was just weeks old, his personality was indelibly marked by this original abandonment. Permanently torn between two families, he lived life at a distance and through his imagination. He was a dreamer. At the École Montesquieu, they said he was “on the moon”: he paid no attention, although his teachers recognised that he was a gifted storyteller.

In 1956, at the age of 14, he was given a job against his will - he would have preferred being an actor - in a beauty salon in his native city.

Two years later, he had already established the feminine hallmarks that he would make his own: eye shadow , ethereally beautiful skin, short hair plastered down. He also became known for the colour black, from which he never deviated. He confirmed his tastes and his choices with the female friends of his whom he photographed.

He was 18 when he was called up to serve in the army during the Algerian War. He was remoulded. This was an important break that led him to make his decision: to leave Lille and head for Paris. This was 1962.

Helped by a friend, Madeleine Levy, and bearing large prints of his photographs of his friends, Serge Lutens, experiencing his first years in Paris at a time of insecurity and want, contacted Vogue magazine. For him, this magazine represented the essence of beauty: a sort of convent that he mythologised. Three days later, he collaborated on the Christmas issue.

The creator of a vision through makeup, jewellery and extraordinary objets, Serge Lutens quickly became the person to call, and the fashion magazines were not mistaken: Elle, Jardin des Modes, Harper’s Bazaar were constantly after him: he worked with the greatest photographers of the time, all the while pursuing his own photographic work. During these years, his talent was fully acknowledged.

In 1967, Christian Dior, who was preparing to launch its makeup line, called upon him. For the House of Dior he would create colours, style and images. Finally, his vision was unified through photography.

In the early 1970’s, the famous editor-in-chief of US Vogue, Diana Vreeland, was unstinting in her enthusiasm: “Serge Lutens, Revolution of Make-up!” His success was resounding. Serge Lutens became the symbol of the freedom created through makeup, for a whole new generation.

In 1974, mirroring his taste for films and the legendary actresses in them, he made a short: “Les Stars.”

During this period, he travelled widely, exploring Morocco and later Japan. These two countries, with their rich and yet so different cultures, came together in him and confirmed his way of seeing and feeling.

He recalled them some years later, in 1980, when he signed on with Shiseido for a collaboration that was to enable the Japanese cosmetics group, until then unknown on the international scene, to establish such a powerful visual identity that it became one of the world’s leading market players in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.

In 1982, for the same brand, he conceived Nombre Noir, his first perfume, dressed in lustrous black on matte black, a concept that foreshadowed the ubiquitous codes of the 1990’s. While his first perfume marked the 1980’s, it was through his creation of Féminité du bois and Les Salons du Palais Royal in 1992 with their dreamlike décor, that Serge Lutens led his first true olfactory revolution in the field of perfume.

Fragrances like Ambre sultan, Tubéreuse criminelle, Cuir mauresque… have since become indispensable, writing a new page in the History of Fragrances.

The logical culmination of this came in 2000 when Serge Lutens created the brand that today bears his name and establishes his uncompromising style. Perfumes and makeup (“Nécessaire de beauté”), his expressions in this area, are marketed through specialised and selective distribution and more confidentially at the Palais Royal-Serge Lutens.

His innovations in this field have received many prestigious awards, including several FIFI awards from the Fragrance Foundation.

In 2004, at the invitation of “Lille, European Capital of Culture,” he designed an olfactory labyrinth around scents from his childhood: this installation met with great intergenerational success.

In 2007 Serge Lutens was awarded the distinction of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters.

Starting in 2010, Serge Lutens established a connection between perfumes and literature and opened up a new path with what he calls an anti-perfume: “L’Eau Serge Lutens.”

2012...

  • What made you become a perfumer? Was there one particular event that prompted you to make that decision?
    I didn’t actually make a decision. Let’s just call it force of circumstance (What other people call “God”). I don’t think of myself as a perfumer: I’m just someone who sets a fragrance within the context of a suitable story, which is just as likely to be drawn from a fairy tale, fable or novel as it is from any of the encounters I’ve had with flowers and woods during my lifetime.
  • What lies behind the creation of a Serge Lutens fragrance: is it a desire to communicate a story or an experience?
    It is a choice you make right from the start, a desire to keep forging ahead using the vocabulary of scents and essential oils to form a sentence, then a novel, and then a title until you end up with a fragrance at the end of the process. However, at the same time, you’re being guided by the fragrance, which tells you whether you’re doing what it wants or not. At this point, you’re in a state of complete osmosis. Two become one. The number “two” is an anathema for the creative process: it’s all about oneness and, when you finally tear yourself away from it, you can see yourself reflected in it.
  • You’ve lived in Marrakech for almost 20 years now: what influence has that city had on your fragrances?
    I first came here in 1968, and the city immediately felt as though it were mine in every respect: it was both an awakening and a refuge, because the smells, sounds, colours and light had me hooked. I was swept along by the eddying crowd, which felt like a cocoon. It was as if I were being nurtured in the warmth of a womb, a world filled with a vague awakening sensuality which was occasionally sparked off by a smile. All my senses merged and intermingled except, perhaps, my sense of responsibility. Marrakech is what produced my penchant for perfume and awoke my sense of smell. It was quite a shock! To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen on perfume (apart from the odd exception), which is why I starting making it. Marrakech works its magic on dust, fierce light, patches of defined shadow, snow and palm trees… The city is both a witch and an alchemist. It is a poison cabinet in which you might find something marvellous.
  • What is your current philosophy with regard to perfume?
    Perfume resides at the very heart of us. It is a means of self-expression. It is the dot on our “I”, a way of contemplating ourselves and sensing who we really are. It is also, in some ways, a weapon which seduces more by consequence than design. Perfume exists in the first person.
  • What compels you to create a perfume?
    I’m seized by an urge and I interpret it along the lines of what I’ve just explained to you. I’ll use metaphor to explain, since I never stay on the beaten track or take the most direct route: Taking the bicycle as my subject, I remove the handlebars and saddle and put one on top of the other. Assembled like that, they suddenly form a bull’s head and there I am, a bullfighter waving a red cape. I plunge in the banderillas, and the blood flows which is, here, a matter of life or death. This assemblage of elements, still part of a bike, races towards an "Olé", which calls Coltrane to mind. This sight, suggested by an object, a sound, some words or essential oils, becomes part of me, the person who is experimenting with them. It is an amazing state of grace.
  • Are you the sole creator of your perfumes?
    It all happens in work sessions and during the course of an ongoing monologue with input from Christopher Sheldrake, who provides technical and legal support. As far as I’m concerned, this creative process is a bit like casting a spell. My work is essentially far more akin to that of a sorcerer than a perfumer. Nevertheless, pure creation is a language that belongs only to the person using it. The only partner in the creative process is the perfume itself!
  • How do you manage to maintain inspiration during the entire process of creating a perfume?
    It isn’t a conscious decision. The work has me in its grip and won’t let go. What you call “inspiration” travels a long way to get here. It is generated by my life and is then developed and deepened over an unspecified length of time. It is only when I’m on the home stretch that the tension builds, resulting in a feeling of oneness between the perfume and myself, the point when I merge with the perfume and we become one. The fragrance is the true collaborator in this creative process, since it is guiding my senses. You can’t relax until that process has run its course. Only then can you heave a sigh of relief and stop holding your breath…
  • At what time of the day are you most creative?
    My imagination fires up in the early morning (around 5.30 or 6am) and is highly productive in terms of creativity and paranoia until around 2pm. Rather than focusing on perfume per se, my mind goes off in all directions, providing an accumulation of stimuli that allow me to recreate an emotion, which can be expressed in some form or another.
  • What do you do to rest your sense of smell?
    I can see with my fingers and hear with my eyes; the five senses are interconnected to form a single sense. Nothing works in isolation. To “rest” these senses would mean “discouraging” them. This is really the kind of question you should ask a perfumer. For me, this isn’t a profession: I create perfumes that tell a “story”. As for the rest, I don’t regard the sense of smell as a separate entity. It rests when I rest and everything is interconnected. Anyway, my sense of smell is not at the centre of my life.
  • Is it essential to spend time without perfume in order to be aware of your own smell?
    We’re not aware of our own smell whether we wear perfume or not. Perfume gives us confidence. I would have thought it was obvious that we shouldn’t wear it all the time. We might not live life solely with our sense of smell but it is linked to our other senses. Don’t forget it is the fifth in a series of five!
  • Do you think that perfume can have an aphrodisiac effect on the people around us? What makes a perfume seductive?
    To be precise, there’s no such thing as an aphrodisiac perfume only aphrodisiac people. Wearing perfume doesn’t make you seductive. Being seductive is the result of being alive; being loved for who we are is what is important and not trying to be someone else!
  • What is your opinion of unisex perfumes?
    Ask the perfume what sex it is. Who knows if an oak is male or female, or whether a rose is a he or a she? A watch is made for telling the time, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter whether it’s large or small, so long as you can read the face clearly so that you’re on time for a date! Are there CDs for men and CDs for women?! Absurd! Perfume is a product aimed at the senses not a particular gender.
  • What are your favourite perfumes? Are they the most successful ones?
    The only favourite I have is the one I’m working on at any given time. It’s impossible to choose. Some of them marked the start of a new period, such as Féminité du bois which introduced the theme of “identity”, or Ambre sultan, which was the point of departure for my Arab period. Those two perfumes obviously made an impact but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re just as important in this respect as Serge noire or De profundis. They create short circuits and express emotions through fragrance. They serve as reference points or “repères” in French (notice how that word contains the word “père” or father). What interests me is going further, not into the perfume, but deeper into myself, exploring my innermost depths to extract darkness from light, and make it just as visible.
  • What perfumes do you hate? What ones do you wear and why?
    If I hate a perfume, it is only because of the person wearing it, whom I either can’t stand or who makes me feel that we inhabit different worlds and that it would be impossible for us to find any common ground! I could love the most ordinary or revolting perfume if it were worn by someone I found attractive! Personally, I rarely wear perfume and, when I do – and I do so advisedly – I wear Cuir mauresque, applied liberally so you can tell what I’m wearing. I go for this one as much because of its name as because of its fragrance, which is a leathery scent, like Cordoba leather tanned over acacia.
  • You often wear black. Is that your favourite colour?
    It is not a colour, it is black! I like it paired with white. It defines me, delineates me and protects me.
  • What are the origins of the Serge Lutens woman and what was your source of inspiration for her?
    The “Serge Lutens” woman is inside me. This was not a conscious choice but a choice made by instinct (as opposed to the rational mind). She’s my flesh and blood! She isn’t external to me; she is the result of various events that occurred in my life, which meant that she first appeared when I was a teenager, as you probably know. That woman has, since then, existed in my imagination. Like Flaubert who declared: “Madame Bovary is me!” this woman is me, but a different side of me: she is the result of a phenomenon of absorption which bears no relation to the union with a lover.
  • Lastly, what is the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine for you?
    The beginning of Proust’s book starts with these words: “For a long time, I went to bed early” and could finish with the last question and answer on his famous questionnaire: - “How would you wish to die? I’d rather not!”. You could say that, between the two, Proust merely created one big madeleine, entitled: “In Search of Lost Time”. In fact, that little cake is often presented as an example of the way that taste or other things can prompt people to look back at past experiences in the light of unreliable memory. Through Proust’s eyes, all the characters in this book become greater than themselves: they are eternal. This work is a sort of active recollection, a silent cry. As far as I’m concerned, every time I create something, it is the work of memory, whether I’m drawing on what I have done or what I have produced. It is my hope that these madeleine crumbs will help me convey part of my history. Memories are brought to life and recognised, like perfume.