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.
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!
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