How Artist Serge Lutens Revolutionized Perfumery

In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness, and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without,” he says. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.

Inspired by Calvino, I decided to draw up a personal list of perfume classics, creations that reflect their moment and yet have timeless relevance. The first I selected was Serge Lutens’ Féminité du Bois, a fragrance conceived by the artist and photographer for Japanese brand Shiseido in 1992. Lutens wanted a perfume based on the Atlas cedarwood, and he sought to convey the softness of the ingredient that beguiled him ever since he came to Morocco in the 1960s. Initially when Lutens talked to the perfumers about his idea, he encountered a lack of comprehension. Cedarwood was traditionally treated as a sharp, masculine note and few fragrance professionals understood how to reinterpret it in a different guise.

It was the brilliant partnership between Lutens and perfumers Pierre Bourdon and Christopher Sheldrake that made Féminité du Bois possible. Bourdon and Sheldrake created a simple but ingenious accord of Moroccan cedar embellished with spice and amber. They turned woods into silk and richness into radiance.

For Lutens, perfume is “a combination of reality and imagination,” and Féminité du Bois illustrates his philosophy. It evokes distinctive images, but it’s a fantasy. It smells of cedarwood shavings tossed with violet petals, crushed cardamom pods and warm amber, but also of antique shops, labyrinthine souks and dry desert air. Depending on my mood – or perhaps, depending on the perfume’s inclination to reveal itself – I keep finding new facets in Féminité du Bois. Sometimes it feels austere and refined, sometimes baroque and opulent.

Since Lutens, Bourdon and Sheldrake released their genie out of the bottle, the idea of “feminine woods” has become much more acceptable. Féminité du Bois’ inflection can be found in the violet cedars of Estée Lauder Sensuous and Tom Ford Plum Japonais. Parfums DelRae Bois de Paradis with its layers of woods, roses and figs is ornate. Comme des Garçons 2, by contrast, is edgy; inspired by Japanese ink paintings, it pairs the crisp freshness of mandarin and aldehydes with the smoky darkness of cedar, patchouli and vetiver.

Eventually Lutens created his own perfume house, and Sheldrake designed a whole wood-inspired collection, Les Eaux Boisées, that includes such elegant compositions as Bois de Violette, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, Bois et Fruits, and Santal de Mysore. Féminité du Bois stands apart however. Available today as part of Lutens’ own line, is a classic that, to quote Calvino, “has never exhausted all it has to say”.

What books and perfumes are among your favorite classics?

Serge Lutens photography

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50 Comments

  • Marsha: Fantastic article Victoria! Thank goodness for visionaries! April 9, 2021 at 9:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! Thank you. April 9, 2021 at 2:47pm Reply

  • Elle Laureano-Oppman: I so love this perfume. It is sensual and lovely. I was introduced to it years ago. I wore it on my wedding day. I have a small amount of the original bottle. I’ve since purchased another but it was NOT the original formula. Then I tried seeking an original and eventually purchased a portion of someone’s collection. Very close, but one knows. April 9, 2021 at 9:40am Reply

    • Victoria: What a beautiful wedding perfume it must have been. April 9, 2021 at 2:47pm Reply

  • Klaas: Oh FdB is indeed a masterpiece. So mysterious and dark, yet at the same time weightless and soft and comforting. I wore the Shisseido version for many years, it had the most incredible projection and sillage. Subtle but very present. Quite rare for a woody fragrance.

    May I direct you to a real modern-to-be-a-classic-soon in literature? I just finished reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Steward. Goodness me, the way he writes! Charles Dickens and Emile Zola come to mind in his description of Glasgows lower class during the Thatcher years…..the misery, the humor, the compassion and the urgency! It is completely enthralling.

    By the way, those Shisseido adds were incredible! April 9, 2021 at 9:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Klaas. I’m adding to my reading list. The reviews and your comment make it sound excellent. April 9, 2021 at 2:48pm Reply

      • Klaas: I really enjoyed reading it. It is a bit of a roller coaster, but it’s like you are there with them, going through their experiences through the written words. Just incredible! April 9, 2021 at 4:04pm Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: Hi Klaas. If you like that kind of novels, you could be impressed by The Nether World by George Gissing April 9, 2021 at 4:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: Definitely will be reading it soon. April 13, 2021 at 6:12am Reply

  • Amalia: Exactly! They turned woods into silk… Siseido’s Féminité du Bois, was/is one of my favorites perfumes. April 9, 2021 at 10:05am Reply

    • Victoria: I still have the original bottle (as well as the more recent one), and yes, it’s a treasure. April 9, 2021 at 2:48pm Reply

  • Amalia: *Shiseido’s April 9, 2021 at 10:06am Reply

  • N: I liked Shiseido Féminité du Bois in the 90’s and I remember the unique sculptural bottle that it used to be in. I don’t know if it is me or it is actually different now with reformation, but it didn’t smell as good to me as it used to be when I tried it again under the Serge Lutens brand a couple years ago. April 9, 2021 at 10:40am Reply

    • Victoria: Not same, but close. The original bottle was also striking. April 9, 2021 at 2:49pm Reply

    • Sebastian: It’s close, probably because it consists of more than 40% ISO-E-Super, and that doesn’t change much. But I still find the old version so much more interesting. More violet, too. I gave my vintage bottle to a friend who wasn’t enamoured of the current version, and she treasures it. April 9, 2021 at 3:21pm Reply

  • Joy: What a wonderful article today. I recall this fragrance, but no longer have it. I must find it and try it again. Your writing was inspiring. The concept applies to many forms. April 9, 2021 at 12:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: The version sold now is different, but it’s still beautiful. April 9, 2021 at 2:49pm Reply

  • Geraldine: I am completely captivated by the photograph you included with this article. Was it used to sell a perfume? To me it shows a perfect melding of classicism and femininity. And the subtle use of color is fabulous. April 9, 2021 at 2:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: It was one of his makeup creations, and it was also his own photography. April 9, 2021 at 2:50pm Reply

  • Fazal: Excellent choice in Shiseido Feminite du Bois. Luten’s rarest creation may be Nombre Noir which I, indeed, like but I also think that his magnum opus is not Nombre Noir but Feminite du Bois (Shiseido’s version). April 9, 2021 at 2:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Nombre Noir is beautiful, but I’ll take Féminité du Bois over it any day. April 9, 2021 at 2:50pm Reply

      • Fazal: Me, too! April 9, 2021 at 2:52pm Reply

  • Dorothy Van Daele: Thank you for that fantastic description of Comme des Garçon 2, one of my favourites. I love Bois De Violette, possibly because I encountered it before FdB. April 9, 2021 at 3:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: One of my favorites from the house too! April 13, 2021 at 6:11am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Favorite classics: L’Heure Bleue. I ever return to Guerlain, in the past Vol de Nuit, nowadays L’Heure Bleue. And I like the new version even better than de vintage.
    No. 5 is the other one, I wear that a lot. A timeless classic.
    As for books: the classic of classics: The Iliad, of course.
    Dickens is my alltime favorite author. I read and reread his novels. April 9, 2021 at 4:05pm Reply

    • Martina: For me too, L’ Heure Bleue, in all concentrations, is THE most loved classic of all times. April 10, 2021 at 6:49am Reply

    • Victoria: If you were to recommend one Dickens’s novel to someone else, what would you suggest? Or which novel have you re-read the most? April 13, 2021 at 6:12am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: I would suggest Martin Chuzzlewit. It is a study of egoism and hypocrisy, but it is also funny. You never will forget Sarah Gamp and the villain, Pecksniff, to name only twoo of the onforgettable characters.
        The choice is not easy, every novel has its own merits. Of course no reader can do wthout David Copperfield.
        I read every november Bleak House with that brilliant opening chapter, and the rest of the book will follow then.
        And oh, the youthful charm of Nicolas Nickleby!
        One of my very favorites is also Dombey and Son. a sombre study of vain proud.
        Martin Chuzzlewit I reread every september, because of the wonderful description of a sunny evening in the late summer. And the rest of the book is irrestitable, every year again!
        Dickens is funny, but there is also a dark side of his genius. Think of Oliver Twist, or Edwin Drood, and the scene of the murder in Martin Chuzzlewit, or the dark side of London in Bleak House.
        Dickens really is the Shakespeare of prose fiction. April 13, 2021 at 6:39am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much for your detailed comment. It helps me as well, since I don’t know Dickens that well. I’m reading Bleak House right now, so I’m glad to see it on your list. The opening chapter is indeed unforgettable. I re-read twice. April 13, 2021 at 10:25am Reply

      • rickyrebarco: I am a great lover of Dickens. I think the best intro to his work is A Tale of Two Cities. Some of the other novels drag on because he wrote them serial style and he was paid by the word I believe. My favorites of the longer novels are David Copperfield and Bleak House. The Bleak House movie adaptation with Gillian Anderson is superb also.

        Another thing to remember is that when Dickens novels were published in serial form they were made to be read aloud to a group of people. I read David Copperfield aloud with my son and we both enjoyed it more that way. If you can find a ‘read aloud’ partner I think it enhances the experience, as with poetry, of course.
        I have always found Great Expectations disappointing and hard to follow. April 13, 2021 at 7:48pm Reply

        • rickyrebarco: Great Expectations is the one Dickens novel I never recommend to anyone. April 13, 2021 at 7:50pm Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: I wouldn’t say that Dickens ”drags on”..I rather think the modern reader is less patient.
            Dickens was not paid by the word, but he was paid by installment. He had to write 20 chapters (32 pages). And he was not a writer for his bread, he was a real artist.
            Of course A Tale of Two Cities is good to begin with, because it is short. So is Oliver Twist.
            And Great Expectations (some think that one is one of its best novels. It is very bitter and an ever mourning forsaken bride can be too strange to our taste. I don’t agree with you, but I see what you mean). April 14, 2021 at 5:31am Reply

        • Victoria: I read Great Expectations and enjoyed it, but I was more accustomed to the style at that point. I also wouldn’t recommend it as the introduction to Dickens, though. April 14, 2021 at 7:30am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: You are right, it is too much biased on the dark side of his art. The ”Werdegang” of Pip is interesting, though. As an introduction to his work I think you made an excellent choice with Bleak House.Time consuming, but we all know you have the perseverance to read all the pages of this rich book with so many of the aspects of his genius.
            Chuzzlewit has more fun. The oeuvre of Dickens is like a sparkling diamond, laid against a dark background.
            Oef, I am carried away, I fear.. April 14, 2021 at 10:23am Reply

            • Victoria: Reading your impressions of Dickens is a treat! I agree with you that modern readers are too impatient. I notice it with myself. I have to discipline myself not to get distracted when I’m reading, and it’s difficult, especially now that almost all of my work is remote. I have no choice but to be connected and to check email constantly, but it’s draining and is breaking up my concentration. As a result, I started making wifi-free hours to focus on writing, reading, creative work. April 14, 2021 at 10:51am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Hi Victoria, How wonderful to reference Calvino and bring it into the world of classic perfumes! I have never had the chance to smell the original Shiseido version of FdB, but I do have a bottle of the Lutens one. It’s lovely and special, somehow different from other perfumes. It’s hard to describe what exactly appeals to me (I normally don’t like cedar notes). April 9, 2021 at 4:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: If you enjoy the current one, then I think that you will like the original too. I wear both and I like them equally. April 13, 2021 at 6:14am Reply

  • Roberta H Titchener: I am a Chanel lover and particularly Les Exclusives . Beige is my very favorite but want to revisit 22. I am reading a new book, a novel about Coco Chanel called The Queen of Paris. Read and enjoy. Its great. I also love Guerlain and Shalimar. Quite opposite of Beige. Would love to try the new release of Guerlain Muget but at over $500 no can do.
    J’adore Muget. Is there any way to get a smaller bottle or a sample?? Why us the new one so pricey?
    When in Paris in May in the past Christian Dior has had a lovely Muget for Mother’s Day. I can’t find that either.
    I love what Proust says about sents in A La Recherche du Temps Perdue. Smells and tastes really provoke some pleasant memories of the past. I grew up smelling Je Reviens by Worth but have not revisited it in years. Does it still exist?? J’adore perfume and love to spay myself at night before getting into my bed! April 9, 2021 at 5:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: It exists, but the reformulations haven’t been kind to it. April 13, 2021 at 6:14am Reply

  • joseph: classic scent: Guerlain Vetiver. No matter how many others I try, it’s the one.
    classic book: TS Eliot’s _Four Quartets._ For decades now I read them every New Year’s Day, and when friends move place, they almost always get the passage from the third (East Coker III) beginning, “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant” and ends with “fare forward, voyager.” April 9, 2021 at 8:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! Guerlain Vetiver is one of my favorite classics too. April 13, 2021 at 6:15am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Femininite du Bois and Bois du Violette were among the very first niches I owned and I still adore them. Wonderful post! I love Lutens photos and his art. April 10, 2021 at 2:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: His photography is so striking. April 13, 2021 at 6:18am Reply

  • Tara C: I was living in the south of France in 1992 when FdB was first released, I loved it immediately. I’m not enamoured of the current version, but I loved the whole suite of woods from the Lutens line. April 12, 2021 at 1:13am Reply

    • Victoria: I can imagine that it would seem thinner in comparison. April 13, 2021 at 6:18am Reply

  • Elizabeth Adams: I too love FdB in the original Shiseido formulation, having first come across it on a trip to Aix en Provence from Australia in the late 1990s. It was my signature scent until they stopped making it- although I still have two thirds of a bottle of the original. I also wear Sensuous by Estée Lauder- can someone identify the note that links these two? I can never put my finger on their similarities. Thanks Victoria! April 12, 2021 at 4:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not one note, but rather an accord of ionone and Iso-E-super, violet and cedarwood. The combination is really distinctive. April 13, 2021 at 6:21am Reply

  • Katherine x: I found the made in France version of Je Reviens much closer to the original than the UK version which is quite different. The scent was my grandmother’s staple. She always had a huge huge bottle (splash) on her vanity and splash she did – with abandon after showering. I loved her scent. April 23, 2021 at 10:07pm Reply

  • Barbara: Barbara here.
    I started to use Je Reviens in the 60’s, as a teenager. I love the edp and cologne. the perfume did not seem the same.

    Je regrette so much that it is no longer around.

    could it possibly be revived??? June 5, 2021 at 11:36pm Reply

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