Serge Lutens Interview : “all my perfumes are sixty six years old”

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Photographer, artist, visionaire… The name of Serge Lutens evokes both his beautiful photographs that recall the Japanese woodblock prints and his perfumes that reinvented the concept of luxury and art in perfumery. Born in Lille, Serge Lutens found himself moved by Morocco in 1968 and Japan in 1970. His collaboration with Shiseido in 1981 resulted with the launch of enigmatic Nombre Noir. In 1992, Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido were born in order to provide a setting for Serge Lutens’ rich collection of olfactory art.

It is my pleasure to bring you an interview with Serge Lutens, who kindly agreed to answer my questions about his creations, inspirations and views on perfumery and art in general.

1°) Can you please tell me more about your first experience in Morocco and what moved and inspired you about it so much? What are some of the olfactive memories that are indelibly linked for you with Morocco?

Yes, indeed, Morocco gave me the taste of perfume. It is very difficult to detach the olfactory sense from the other senses. However, I can say that before my arrival in Morocco in 1968, this fifth sense was largely fallow for me and it served mainly to say that I hated perfume! The aroma of Morocco is linked to a form of life that allows you to be an individual in a dense crowd. The crowd here is a movement, a sound, a laugh, a game… By the end, smell was united with the other senses.

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2°) In my own experience (ballet), I have realized to what extent every moment of a creative process is different and yet, what would you say is the most satisfying aspect of the creative process in general for you ? What, on the other hand, is the most challenging?

Creation is a word much used and abused. Creation is what sets in motion the desire to surpass what is known, linked both to a feeling of revolt and to a taste that is a reaction to what is tasteless. I could also say that it is a “yes” in a “no”. This excess is without doubt the moment when, because of a connection with the subject – as in the ballet – the dancer is no longer just a human body. The dancer merges with the music. The dancer is the music. He transcends the physical world to be part of the entire fabric.

3°) Experiencing your perfumes for me is like flipping ornate pages of an antique fairytale book. Despite the different moods and images that your creations conjure, they take me into a story, into another universe. Do you already have a story in mind when embarking on creating your next scent? Or does it develop organically throughout the whole process?

“Story” is not the right expression. It is a conscious and unconscious connection with the subject that is borne of the will and not out of choice. This connection stirs inside us and drives creation. Indeed, you are right, this is an organic process.

4°) I recently saw photos of your beautiful garden in Morocco that were published in the Shiseido brochure for Japan. Does it often provide you with inspiration? If one would take a walk through your garden today, what would one smell?

Inspiration is not something that comes in a flash. It is there within us and belongs to all. Nothing is less inspired than a suddenly inspired person! The components are already there inside you: elements, scents, colors, shapes… and when they express themselves you realize they have always been present. In fact, all my perfumes are sixty six years old!

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5°) Given your background as an artist and photographer, how do you conceive of a synergy between perfume and other fine arts?

I believe that there is no art, only artists. In this vein, the making of a film, photograph, novel, or perfume is all part of the same process. There is neither noble art nor bastard art. C’est comme les gens, il y a des gens nobles et des gens de peu.

6°) When you think of smells, how do you visualize them – as colours, shapes, sounds etc…

I do not form any representation for them. They are already represented in me by all that I have already discussed. Designing for me is the use of perfume to formulate shape, sound, colour… Everything is transcribed in the fragrance without me even noticing. Just as the painter who offers no other response than his canvas, there is no answer for me beyond the perfume.

7°) It is often said that due to the saturation of the market, perfume has lost its luxury status, and yet, it cannot be denied that a fragrance is a work of art. What do you think has to be done to further reinforce the idea of perfumery as art?

I think that what may be art in the hands of an artist is no longer art after being reviewed and corrected. When I say, “correct”, I mean it in the way that we might correct a child in order to coerce him to behave as we want: “Stop thinking about your aspirations for creating a perfume; sell your perfumes and keep quiet!” Any creation which may one day be considered a luxury can be interpreted initially as a reproach, borne of a world that resists change out of a desire for self-preservation. Nothing is more tenacious than mediocrity and so again I would note the refrain of many parents vis-à-vis their adolescents: “He is capable of everything!”

8°) On the topic of commercial perfumery, what do you think is the greatest tragedy or problem that afflicts it?

The great problem of commercial perfumery is that people keep buying it! Reproducing a system, replicating a thought, continuing with this monotony until death. This is a financier’s dream, a nightmare set in the Cayman Islands.

9°) What scents trigger your childhood memories?

Childhood contains everything: likes and dislikes. Imagining that childhood is all sweetness, like a cliché, would be crazy. Childhood is the creation of one’s own world, the result of whatever we encounter. It is both poison and seduction (sometimes the poison contains a little seduction and vice versa). All this is my childhood and I do not always recognize it as such.

10°) If you were to create something special (a perfume, a photograph) for a person from history (your favourite artist, poet, author or anyone else) alive or deceased, who would it be?

Channeling revolution and beauty into one person is impossible. I would be lying otherwise. I have my icons, they are vessels for both my poisons and my vitamins. To choose one would be to betray the others… and to betray myself!

Images ©  Serge Lutens

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25 Comments

  • Pikake: Inspiring questions, inspiring answers. Thank you for sharing V! January 5, 2009 at 2:59pm Reply

  • Tarun: Why can’t Serge Lutens ever answer a question normally…his responses are so pretentious!

    Having said that, I do enjoy many of his perfume creations – sorry NOT ‘creations’ since “Creation is a word much used and abused.” January 5, 2009 at 3:22pm Reply

  • Sveta: What a great interview! I love the way Serge Lutens expresses himself. His vision is so inspiring. January 5, 2009 at 4:20pm Reply

  • ScentScelf: — —

    (No comment, really…just wanted to express thanks for sharing this with us. Interesting to be able to peek into his thinking…especially through your lens.)

    🙂 January 5, 2009 at 2:55pm Reply

  • Margaret K.: I enjoyed reading this particular interview, because you offered a range of questions, from straightforward to those requiring more thought. Lutens’ answers were very interesting (and maybe that’s my bias towards his manner of expression, but I found them fairly straightforward too.) My favorite was “The great problem of commercial perfumery is that people keep buying it!” Can you get more straightforward than this? Bravo, Mr. Lutens! January 6, 2009 at 8:36am Reply

  • Mark D.: Great interview! Thank you for sharing and giving us a glimpse of Serge Lutens’ universe. January 6, 2009 at 9:29am Reply

  • sara: Thanks for this fascinating post–your questions and observations were fascinating–Mr. Lutens seems to be quite the contrarian. Wonder how one says crankypants en Francais? January 6, 2009 at 10:48am Reply

  • Cris rosa Negra: Dear Vic, stunning interview. I am sure that you felt a great emotion in
    having this interview. I also loved to interview this amazing master of the perfumery. It was a great moment for me. He is wise, a very intelligent and inspiring man. Love SL! January 6, 2009 at 11:28am Reply

  • lutensiana: Great interview, thank you!

    I ‘m glad Serge Lutens doesn ‘t answer questions “normally” because that would be so disappointing! January 7, 2009 at 11:12am Reply

  • Kaori: Very intriguing interview. I am glad the Shiseido brochure helps you conducting that a bit. You always fascinate me, Victoria.
    Thank you for the great work.

    Kaori January 8, 2009 at 8:35am Reply

  • Mimi: How maddeningly Gallic and evasive Monsieur Lutens is. I wholeheartedly disagree with his opinion that there is no art, only artists. In my view, the reverse is true, and art suffers from the cult of personality. Shakespeare is the ultimate example of the triumph of great art over the cult of personality/ego – an artist about whom so little is known, who has disappeared entirely into his work.

    I felt he evaded your very interesting questions, Viktoria. That said, I do like what he said about ballet. It reminded me of those remarkable lines from Yeats’ ‘Among School Children’: ‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance.’ January 8, 2009 at 10:08am Reply

  • Soner Serhat: I believe it’s too simplistic to qualify Serge Lutens “Gallic”; after all with such a global success in europe, Russia, south-east Asia, america and the middle-east, he ‘s a very universal artist. January 8, 2009 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Suzanna: This interview doesn’t make me want to rush out and sample his latest; he seemed above certain questions, as if he were shuddering at what he deemed a simplistic and obvious nature.

    I groaned at certain pronouncements. He did not make your life easier, although it should be argued that this is not the interviewee’s job. I felt that your questions were ones of interest to the community at large, rather than those geared towards the esoteric and the “artistic.”

    I do like the idea that the artist is not responsible for the inferences of the public. Reams of scholarly investigation have arisen from just such presumed (and often unintended) message, and here Lutens makes a strong critical point. One need only read the blogs and forums to understand this phenomenon.

    I agree with Mimi on the “cult of personality.” January 9, 2009 at 2:05am Reply

  • Mimi: to Soner Serhat:

    Respectfully (!) I do think the words ‘global’ and ‘universal’ are overused. After all, Britney Spears has had ‘global success.’ Does that make her a ‘universal artist’?

    I meant ‘Gallic’ in a half tongue-in-cheek way. Having spent most of my student years deciphering French semiotic philosophy, I recognised something of this nature in Monsieur Lutens’ divine afflatus. January 9, 2009 at 5:37am Reply

  • sweetlife: Fantastic work, Victoria, thank you!

    Serge Lutens utter consistency will never cease to delight me. January 9, 2009 at 2:02pm Reply

  • shirleyvac: Thank you Bois!

    Global, french, universal or not, viva la difference! January 9, 2009 at 2:57pm Reply

  • the_nose: “The great problem of commercial perfumery is that people keep buying it! Reproducing a system, replicating a thought, continuing with this monotony until death. ”

    How ironic Mr. Lutens, considering your last 5-6 releases have been rife with self-plagiarism and have been rehashing the tired arabian spicy oriental theme over and over .. January 12, 2009 at 12:18am Reply

  • QuinnCreative: Thank you for the work that went into this interview. Although I am half French, I find this man to be in a culture just out of my grasp, who speaks in concepts and contradictions that leave my brow furrowed and my shoulders raised in defense. The non-answers and allusions and reconstruction of what should have been asked but was washed and dried leave me dizzy. January 12, 2009 at 10:10pm Reply

  • zazie33: I don’t like the way SL responds to an interview. He does NEVER answer a question, as if the question was too silly and that he is fatherly providing you with the gift of a witty Q&A session concocted by himself.
    And your questions were smart and interesting.

    This said, I admire SL’s work (admire maybe more than love), even his latest releases, and I like the way all his frangrances are linked by a thread and share a coherent aesthetic view.

    His is a peculiar and original voice, and I am glad he is there concocting delicious potions and picturing haunting portraits.
    Too bad that his answers are as silly as ever.
    But luckily, all we need to know about him is unfolded in his fragrances, and I will not let the (tiny) man shadow the (great) artist. January 14, 2009 at 4:08am Reply

  • elaborate: I quite like his answers. I can see that he doesn’t want to be cocooned or framed, he wants to remain free so he says as little about himself as he could without offending the interviewer. His desire to be free to create is more noticeable in his answer to Q7 and Q8. Well done to both the interviewer and the interviewee!! January 19, 2009 at 10:36am Reply

  • Cindi: Kudos on a fabulous interview. He is a legend and inspires me to dig even deeper into fragrance. January 20, 2009 at 9:34pm Reply

  • Lilibellule: “Photographer, artist, visionaire…”: that’s him! January 22, 2009 at 5:21am Reply

  • itellulikeitis: I like the 66 yrs old thing, it ‘s his way to tell us he couldn ‘t care less about what ‘s considered trendy, young, sexy or not. He ‘s free and his fragrances are more about his own experience and vision rather than pleasing mass market customers. January 23, 2009 at 5:59pm Reply

  • columbine: si Serge Lutens passe par ici lire les commentaires, Tubéreuse Criminelle est le parfum le plus extraordinaire que je connaisse. ce n’est pas juste que son odeur est exquise, que ce soit un parfum de qualité (des maisons comme Montale ou Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier par exemple réalisent de magnifiques parfums)…Tubéreuse est une classe à part: il est original, ou dit autrement il ne ressemble à aucun autre parfum. une véritable oeuvre d’art, un parfum de génie. si je devais emporter un seul parfum sur une île déserte, ce serait celui-là. je ne le mets que pour sortir, le soir, afin de ne pas m’habituer à son odeur: j’aime le choc que le mettre me produit à chaque fois et il envoûte mon compagnon comme un philtre magique.

    i appreciate your passion for perfume, boisdejasmin, it’s nice to read an interview with Lutens.
    i tried to like another perfume from his, but i just can’t: everything else feels bland next to Tubéreuse. This perfume is in a league of its own i even had to stand some of his obnoxious salespersons at the boutique of the Palais Royal (the young guy at Montale is so adorable). but Tubéreuse is just amazing.
    if you know of another perfum that is so unique, please let me know, i would be curious to get to know it. January 28, 2009 at 10:24am Reply

  • columbine: PS i can see what irritated some of the commentators: by giving the impression that he disagrees with the statements that the questions imply (in my sense he is borderline being impolite because the questions were interesting even if he seems to think that they are trivial), he manages not to give a single answer. my guess is that he does not like to talk about himself and at the end he remains elusive. well, artists are known to be difficult people! January 28, 2009 at 10:37am Reply

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