italo calvino: 2 posts

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.

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On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “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 decided to apply his definitons to perfumery.

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume (updated link), is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

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