Serge Lutens : Excerpts from Barney’s Interview

Lutens_photo_with_orchids

I would like to share a very interesting interview with Serge Lutens I discovered via Barney’s catalogue. After reading it, I feel inspired to wear Ambre Sultan today.

Why fragrance? After years as a make-up artist and photographer, what attracted you to this world?
I don’t think that I’ve switched from one world to another. I believe that it is an extension of myself in other realms of creativity. In that sense I can say that my fragrances make me grow creatively. As for my choices, things are not always what they seem. For instance, in the first part of my life, make-up for me was not really about make-up. Images were what it was all about. For me, perfume making is a language. Essences for me are what words could be for a writer. They are tools of expression. …

What is your idea of happiness?
It’s a tricky word. As far as I am concerned, happiness is a state of grace.

What is your idea of hell?
To want to keep things the same, that’s hell. Change is dynamic. In order to evolve and to enrich oneself one has to embrace it.

Which is your most transformative, wild fragrance?
I have yet to create a fragrance with claws and fangs, but in all seriousness Ambre Sultan is my most audacious fragrance. About thirty years ago I found a piece of amber in the old city of Marrakech. The smell seduced me and from that moment I dreamed of creating an amber fragrance. It is our best seller.

What is your first smell that you remember?
The smell of fresh bread in bakeries in Lille, France, where I was born. It’s funny but I believe that Santal Blanc is particularly linked to that smell.

What are you reading at the moment?
I rarely read only one book at a time. Sometimes it takes me years to figure out a writer. I just finished reading Jean Genet. He is an unparalleled writer, a genius. Right now I am reading Marcel Jouhandeau. I also amuse myself by reading some of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s commentaries on women.

Who are the biggest influences on your creativity?
There are so many. I just finished designing unique bottles that are part of a limited edition based on Malevich, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein and Pasolini. These artists have one thing in common: a personal expression that is absolutely poetic.

Which fragrances are you wearing right now?
I don’t often wear them but my favorites remain Sa Majesté de la Rose, Ambre Sultan and Clair de Musc. I constantly create new compositions and take note of their chemical reaction with my skin.

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36 Comments

  • Håkan Nellmar: Thank you. I have wanted to read this interview ever since I heard of it. January 18, 2006 at 5:40am Reply

  • Judith: Great interview! And I completely agree with his idea of Hell! Hope you get lots of work done (hope I do too:)! January 18, 2006 at 8:59am Reply

  • Marina: I have a crush on M. Lutens. How sad am I…
    “A fragrance with claws and fangs” Oh yes, please! 🙂
    And I must give Ambre Sultan another try, clearly I must have missed something. January 18, 2006 at 9:50am Reply

  • Victoria O: Clair de Musc is one of my faves too. Wonder what it is like on a man? Never known another man to wear it. January 18, 2006 at 11:23am Reply

  • Evan: Weird, Serge’s favorites are the ones I consider the least interesting from the line, except for Ambre Sultan. I really like Ambre Sultan but audacious? I’m not sure about that, though perhaps we have different definitions of audacity in mind. Tubérose Criminelle, Muscs Koublaï Khän, those are audacious!

    Interesting that he likes Genet, Eisenstein, Pasolini, all dark gay poets whose work explores violence and extremity with such conflicted poetic beauty; each lived such extreme and troubling lives (Eisenstein worked in service of the most murderous regime and ideology in human history, Genet a habitual criminal, Pasolini a radical who was eventually murdered by street thugs) that I have trouble enjoying their work save Pasolini. Pasolini’s film “Il fiore delle mille e una notte” (Arabian Nights) is very Serge Lutens, and I think of it often when I smell the Lutens orientals: Arabia through the eyes of a European. It’s a beautiful movie, like a hallucination, and I recommend it (beware though, if you don’t like strong, strong sexuality and violence). January 18, 2006 at 2:49pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Håkan, I was about to toss the catalogue when I discovered it. Very interesting, especially for the reasons Evan mentions below. January 18, 2006 at 2:57pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Judith, yes, that would be my idea of hell too. Of course, I have a few other ideas as well… 🙂 January 18, 2006 at 3:51pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: M, I would never have imagined Ambre Sultan as being closer to audacious fragrance than some other fragrances from the line, however perhaps I just did not give it enough chance. January 18, 2006 at 3:52pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: V, I would imagine that it might very nice on a man. It has a chilly freshness about it that might work nicely. January 18, 2006 at 3:53pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, I was wondering the same thing on both points. Even among the export line, I would find other fragrances that I prefer to the ones mentioned, such as Fleurs d’Oranger and Daim Blond. Clair de Musc and Sa Majeste de la Rose are my least favourite as well, even though they are pleasant enough to have in the collection.

    I was very curious about his reading choices. I am familiar with Pasolini’s work, and I agree that it is easy to understand why Lutens might enjoy it. Indeed, the very character is based on the juxtapositions that find their life in Lutens’ compositions. January 18, 2006 at 3:57pm Reply

  • carmencanada: Oh, how I understand Serge Lutens’ love of Pasolini… Muscs Koublaï Khan for the scent of sweat on his actors..

    Malevith is closer to his work as a photographer. I find no olfactory equivalent in his fragrances.

    Genet wrote a book called “Notre Dame des Fleurs” where I can smell “Fleurs d’Oranger” and “Un Lys”: a nearly venomous purity, suited for angelic thieves and saintly tranvestites…

    Both of Eisenstein’s Ivan films are extraordinarily daring, stylised aesthetic objects and the outrageous Russian orientalism (angles, excess, shots of colours into the B&W footage) are echoed in SL’s asymetrical masterpiece Tubéreuse Criminelle… Fumerie Turque, of course, suits the banquet scene in Ivan II, with its baroque, opressive, murderous banquet.

    Fritz Lang? Perhaps Iris Silver Mist for the cold sharp contrast of his German expressionist period — could you smell it in the vapours rising from his female robot in Metropolis?

    Which brings to mind a vearly early science fiction novel by French poet Villiers de l’Isle Adam, called l’Eve Future in which the perfect woman is created by a totally fictious Thomas Edison out of the purest metal alloys, to counteract the corrupt soul and poisonous beauty secrets of real women. The robot Hadaly emits the most exquisite perfume from tablets which she ingests. Do you know the novel? It’s worth a read. I almost wrote my PhD dissertation about it: how to fabricate a woman (sugar and spice and all things nice…). January 18, 2006 at 5:32pm Reply

  • Bela: In a earlier interview, Serge Lutens said that one of his favourite books was A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans. *No one*, but no one reads that novel these days (unless they’re studying the 1890s esthetes or are one themselves). It’s the book that pervades Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray but isn’t mentioned in it. It’s unreadable (I had to, because my MA Thesis was on OW). Serge has ‘difficult’, ‘sulfurous’ tastes. I suggested he might be gay (elsewhere on the Net) and was practically lynched for it. LOL! January 18, 2006 at 9:33pm Reply

  • Evan: Bela: I’ve read “A Rebours”, though in an English translation as I cannot read or speak French, and I rather liked it, as it was a great encapsulation of a period style that both attracts and repels me. Interesting to hear that Serge likes it.

    I don’t know much at all about Lutens personally, but his aesthetic IS a gay aesthetic; JK Huysmans and Wilde begin a lineage that traces through Genet and Pasolini, aestheticism to decadence to the extreme forms of both in the work of the latter two. One reason I love Lutens’ work is because it embodies this gay aesthetic so beautifully, an aesthetic to which I can personally relate. Lutens is almost alone in this regard in the world of modern perfumery; his aesthetic seems to have nothing to do with flattering women (which usually the goal of perfumery, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that) or making pretty things that attract pretty people (though some of them certainly do that as well). His aesthetic is one of archetypes, of strangeness, of dissonance, the outsider, the orientalist. Lutens was one of the people that led me to realize that perfume could be art. I’m glad to have his beautiful work in my life. Whether he is gay or not, his aesthetic certainly is, in the best sense. I don’t know why this would upset people (OK, I do know why this would upset people, but I’ll pretend I don’t) January 18, 2006 at 11:39pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: D, what a stunning post! Thank you so much for this. I read it as I was sorting through 1000 articles on the effects of institutions (do not ask on what), and it was such a beautiful example of the kind of synthesis and comparisons I admire. I wish you would have written that dissertation! As for the book, I will be sure to seek it out. Sounds like something I would enjoy. January 18, 2006 at 11:50pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: J, I also find A Rebours difficult, but I was drawn into it and had to finish reading. I am always very interested in hearing about your MA thesis on Oscar Wilde. The topic could not have been more fascinating. January 18, 2006 at 11:53pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, indeed Marcel Proust was also a big fan of A Rebours, and I read that he considered it to be influential for his vision. And we know about Proust’s preferences. Therefore, I think that you are rather on the mark with your comments.

    You also underscore the very quality that I find fascinating about Lutens work, whether it is fragrance or photography. It exists for its own sake. It revels in its uniqueness. It is the dream of an outsider looking into another world and his interpretation thereof. That is why I am drawn to his fragrances. January 18, 2006 at 11:59pm Reply

  • carmencanada: Just a quick word to concur with Evan and you, in that SL’s aesthetic does have a “take it or leave it” quality about it, and that is truly transgressive in the days of marketing. And “A rebours” I’ve read several times… Huysmans was himself very influenced by Sade. January 19, 2006 at 2:17am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: D, “Huysmans was himself very influenced by Sade”–that also does not surprise me. January 19, 2006 at 2:23pm Reply

  • julien: Excellent review as always.
    I find serge Lutens creations very fascinating though i can’t wear them most of the time.
    My favorites are Un Cèdre(thanks to you!;)),Cuir mauresque wich reminds me of L’HEURE BLEUE EDP very strangely in its leather accord with a kind of “almost gourmand” flavor.
    Of course Rahat Loukhoum for it is the most mainstream fragrance from his line,but i love honey,almonds and cherry,so what else could i do?
    And also the beautiful Tubéreuse Criminnelle…

    By the way,what is the oriental rose from Lutens,with honey and richness?Sa Majesté la Rose or Une Rose?

    Kisses dear.
    j. January 19, 2006 at 2:50pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Thank you, Julien. Perhaps, you are referring to my review of Gris Clair…? I do like the ones you mentioned. The oriental rose must be Rose de Nuit. Sa Majesté la Rose is a lighter, fruitier rose. January 19, 2006 at 6:28pm Reply

  • Bela: Sade! Who reads Sade nowadays? I’m not passing a moral judgment here. At least Huysmans could write! I just find him boring.

    Evan, I agree with you 100%. I expect you have read The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz. Wonderful book about the period.

    The reaction of those women (they were women) was hilarious. They went, “But but but, he’s had a child!” “So?” I have no idea why they would accept a designer being gay but not a creator of perfumes. January 19, 2006 at 6:46pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: J, thank you for mentioning Mario Praz. I had it on my list for a while, but I think that I shall move it closer to the top. I have been curious about it for a while. January 19, 2006 at 7:05pm Reply

  • Qwendy: What an interesting group of posts today around that enigmatic character Mr Lutens, who, according to LT, drives around Paris in a Rolls. Whenever I saw one on the street there in September (and they are rare, much more so than in LA!) I glanced to see if it were he! I too adore his aesthetic in every way (the Rolls is too much, but he is most likely a rags to riches story so we’ll let it pass — Lille is a depressing industrial suburb of Paris I think)………..I have A Rebours sitting half read on my bedstand, and it has been replaced by Tania’s fave Moby Dick. I get all of my reading ideas from Perfume Blogs, hurray, and thanks for a stimulating conversation! And my boyfriend introduced me to the Palais Royale store 8 years ago, he reads Vogue, knows about all of the designers, loves scent………..just a Metrosexual I suppose (grew up in Paris) and as a quite educated guess, I would say that Serge is gay, sorry Marina! January 20, 2006 at 1:56am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Wendy, I also loved this discussion! And I certainly got a couple of reading recommendations from it as well. From what Bela once said, Lille is depressing indeed. I personally have never been there. January 20, 2006 at 11:43am Reply

  • Campaspe: Fritz Lang … Joan Bennett as La-Z-Legs could have rocked Tubereuse Criminelle, that’s for sure. January 20, 2006 at 2:12pm Reply

  • Campaspe: I am irked, my link didn’t post. Here’s Joan:

    http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Bennett,%20Joan/Bennett,%20Joan%20(Scarlet%20Street)_01.jpg January 20, 2006 at 2:14pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Oh, that is such a stunning shot! She definitely has an affinity with Tubereuse Criminelle. January 20, 2006 at 3:25pm Reply

  • Bela: Yes, V, do read the Mario Praz (I feared it wasn’t in print any longer; very happy that it is). It transports you to another sphere. Really evocative and very learned.

    Lille might be quite nice in the sunshine. I’ve never managed to see it other than in the pouring rain. I only go there to shop at Carrefour. It’s not very French; it’s a typical Flemish town. I’m not fond of Northern towns, but Serge says he is. Is that why he’s lived in Morocco for the past 20 years? LOL! He’s not ‘shtupid’, is he? Everything’s so much pleasanter in the sun.

    Rags to riches? I don’t think so. Bourgeois to very wealthy, more like. I don’t think his background is working-class. He wouldn’t have wanted to ‘escape’ so soon. The French bourgeoisie is more stifling. January 21, 2006 at 12:04am Reply

  • Uella: Pasolini dark gay poet? uh lol! Pasolini a homosexual yes but gay? ewwww! he was against all those ludicrous meaningless words of the consumerism society that he hated so much. as a reminder “dark/gay” is an oxymoron! lol
    I love Pasolini, Medea or Salo, he ‘s a genius poet. January 21, 2006 at 1:32am Reply

  • Uella: Bela, Sade is more than ever a modern philosopher of our society. the real violence of our society (war for oil, guns and violence on television , africa left alone to die of aids, starvation or diseases, rich and poor gap bigger than ever…) seem to be easier to deal with for mainstream audience than the psychological and philosophical violence of DAF de Sade and Pasolini s’works.
    Sade and Pasolini only sublimed with poetic genius the real cruelty of human beings ‘ nature that we witness everyday.
    I find it insulting to call unique poets like Pasolini “gay artist”, even more so “dark” (isn ‘t our society the real “dark” cheap thing?).
    You don ‘t call poets of this caliber “gay”, such an anglo-american concept, so wrong too.
    Please no offense but I believe unique artists like DAF de Sade, Jean Genet, Lutens ‘s works are better understood and respected by european elites than anglo-americans mainstream. January 21, 2006 at 7:49am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Uella, whatever the case may be, I doubt there is much utility in juxtaposing and comparing european elites with anglo-american mainstream. Would the mainstream anywhere have easy access to either Sade, Genet or Lutens’s work? Yet, from what I have seen, Lutens works enjoys much success among all sorts of people, because real art does not need intellectualising about it in order for it to be understood. Lutens’s work certainly fits into this category. One does not need to read Sade or Genet to appreciate his fragrances. Not that you were implying this. January 21, 2006 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Uella: one cannot expect the whole world to speak french or italian I admit it and read Jean Genet and appreciate Pasolini ‘s films.
    I just felt very uncomfortable when I read posts above mentioning their “first-degree or mainstream” visions of Sade, Genet and Pasolini that I found almost insulting at times considering the caliber, the genius of these unique artists.
    Let me remind you I wrote “no offense” and I meant it when I talked about mainstream anglo-american. but you what? there is an intellectual american elite and an english one too that are utterly francophiles and cultured you know and there are millions of ignorant europeans too.

    noone needs to appreciate russian artist Malevich to fall in love with Lutens scents of course but since your article deals with Lutens ‘s influences in Art…I believe most of Lutens ‘ creations and his vision are the results of these artistic and cultural influences.
    I don ‘t think a famous nose like Ellena or another one like him, alone, can come up with such a vision.
    As we know Serge Lutens is like an orchestral conductor; he has a vision of what he wants to accomplish, the noses who work for him are technicians. January 21, 2006 at 1:07pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: I agree that artistic direction is often required in perfumery, and many perfumers will say that clear direction from the client is often one of the most important aspects for a successful creation. However, reducing perfumer to the role of technician is what I would object to, because there are perfumers who are true artists and who see perfumery as such. The noses Lutens works with are among the top perfumers, and considered so not just for their technical skills.

    No offence taken, I merely pointed out that your comparison between European elites and Anglo-american mainstream is of little utility, as the entities are different. If you were contrasting European and Anglo-American elites, then at least there is some comparability. January 21, 2006 at 1:47pm Reply

  • uella: I ‘m happy I agree with you more than disagree and thank you for the opportunity to debate great articles like this SL interview.
    Of course Olivia Giaccobetti, JC Ellena or Gobin Daude and others are more than technicians.
    in the case of Serge Lutens, to simplify things thats how it feels like though, the “visionaire” artist and his professional perfumers entourage.
    Serge Lutens admitted he never went to the production sites and that he strictly holds no interests in doing so; very atypic perfumer, his world is more cultural than technical.
    I ‘m sorry again if I appeared to be an elitist which I am not but I respect elitism and authors considered elitist; Serge Lutens himself in his interview says it can take him years to understand and go through a writer like Jean Genet, so comments above really made me feel uncomfortable, angry and yes I was upset lol. January 21, 2006 at 4:47pm Reply

  • Evan: Uella,

    When I said I was not comfortable with Genet or even Pasolini, not to mention Sade, I meant it. It might be dreadfully “anglo-American” of me, but I think there is a correlation between those writer’s lack of a coherent moral sense and their negative and destructive view of human relationships, not to mention the sad and degraded ways that each of their lives progressed towards pathetic conclusions. I don’t believe that Art is meant to serve merely as a mirror and a witness to the times, but rather as an active force in shaping its times. If you view the aforementioned artists as having “only sublimed with poetic genius the real cruelty of human beings” then you have assigned to them the role of glorified reporters, not artists. What salvaged their works (Pasolini and Genet anyway, I find nothing redemptive in De Sade) was the fact that the beauty of the work transcended its nihilism, something that they were unable to do in their own lives. That is, the sublime poetic genius, when it manifested itself, belied the narrowness of their ideas about life. You go on about humanity’s degraded nature, about its cruelty and violence, as if that is a clever observation. But the fact that we are talking about art and beauty at all reveals the absurd small-mindedness of that observation. Certainly our animal nature inflects everything that we do, and makes us capable of the most heinous crimes and basest acts, but we are also blessed with the mechanism of our own salvation: consciousness, the ability to think, the ability to reason, the transcendent power of art. Je pense, donc je suis. Because of that, we are not defined by our animal nature, but by how we are able to transfigure that into art. Genet was able to do it, and Pasolini and even De Sade tried; had they not succeeded in some measure, they would have died criminals and misanthropes and we would not be discussing them.

    As for your objection to the use of the term “gay”, I again apologize for my unforgivable “anglo American” simplicity. I thought it was generally accepted that to speak of “gay” was to differentiate the cultural and psychological components of homosexuality from the physical and sexual ones. I certainly understand the limitations of the term and the concept it describes, and am aware of its origins. But it is also quite useful when discussing aesthetics and culture, just as other limiting terms serve a useful conversational purpose. When I described Luten’s aesthetic as gay, I was doing so in a rather loose and freewheeling way, this being the comments section of a weblog rather than a doctoral dissertation. I thought it was interesting to frame his aesthetic in terms of the other writers and artists we discussed as a way of understanding the similarity of some of their aesthetic concerns, and how that relates to a tradition of European homosexual artists from Huysmans to Wilde to Aubrey Beardsley to Pasolini.

    As for the rest of your comments, I’m afraid I have little idea what you are talking about but perhaps that is a function of my Anglo-American simple-mindedness. I confess to having little tolerance for the opinion of “elites” of any nationality or stripe; the whole concept of an elite is just a game of animal dominance dressed up in expensive clothes. De Sade is certainly a good example of my darkest conception of a continental elite: a nobleman who wrote of raping and degrading peasants and is still for some reason lauded for this several centuries later. Again, I put my inability to accept and understand the nuances of De Sade’s work down to my Anglo-American simple-mindedness. I will certainly concede that European elites generally have a more intimate and broader understanding of nihilism, decadence and decay than do we.

    I think BoisdeJasmin’s last comment really sums this argument up well. One of the most attractive aspects of perfumery as an art is the fact that one needs to know nothing at all to be able to appreciate a beautiful perfume. And conversely it is very hard to pass off something that smells like shit in perfumery, something that is unfortunately all too easily done in the other arts. January 23, 2006 at 10:27pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I suppose that in a nutshell, the reason I do not feel any sense of connection with the writings of de Sade is because of his nihilism and view of human relationships. Maybe, being born in a place and era that was marked by the belief in the “bright future [add: of Communism],” I am unable to connect with the decandence of that worldview. Perhaps, having lived in a society that rejected eliticism on one level and yet created another, that of Party, makes me glance at the socio-economic hierarchy with a suspicious eye. Those structures are indeed first and foremost about power and dominance. I am studying the behaviour of political elites in my graduate work, so perhaps, it is the political scientist in me that you hear speaking on this subject. January 24, 2006 at 11:39pm Reply

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