Health & Grooming

Seducer of the senses

In the heart of old Marrakech, the world’s most controversial nose has been creating three new scents. Serge Lutens talks to Lucia van der Post about creating perfumes that are ’too wonderful for words’.

October 03 2009
Lucia van der Post

Among perfume connoisseurs, those growing numbers who love truly fine perfumes made with passion and real creativity and who understand why it is that they’re special, the jewel-like little atelier of Serge Lutens in Les Salons du Palais Royal in Paris is a well-known place of pilgrimage. They go there to sniff and make their obeisance, and to fall in love with the spare, elegant bottles and their sumptuous compilations of oils and essences. But if you want to know the real Serge Lutens, the man behind these cult names, then you need to do as I did and track him down in Marrakech, in his Moroccan lair where he now spends most of his time.

It’s Marrakech that has been the inspiration behind most of his perfumes. “I was taught far more,” he tells me, “by the simple people in the souks than I ever learned from the grand professionals. They showed me a new way of saying things in perfume.” But though he found the sights and smells of Marrakech intoxicating, he realised that “the perfumes of the Arab world are rich but often very heavy, so I took the roots of Arabian perfume and then I did something new with them. I opened up a whole new avenue in the world of perfumery.” It is this intoxication with this other exotic world that gives his collection its edge, that makes it special and differentiates his scents from other, often very beautiful, perfumes made in the classic French tradition.

He first came to Marrakech in 1968, the same year that he started to devise a make-up range for Dior. He was blown away by the colours, crowds and smells, and by what he calls “the magic of the place. I fell in love with the beauty of the medina, the light and the people.” Later, when he first began to work with Shiseido in 1980, he went to Japan, and there he fell in a different kind of love, responding instinctively to the exquisite refinement of the Japanese aesthetic; and that, it seems, is what has produced a singular “voice” in the olfactory world – an exquisite Japanese elegance married to the voluptuous sensuality of the Arabian world.

Today he lives alone; a life, it seems, of some austerity (“I am frugal. I love little Moroccan salads at home. I venture out little”), looked after by what seem like devoted attendants. He is famously untutored, which he says was an immense advantage: “Because I was enchanted by perfumery and I didn’t know the rules, I did things that I didn’t know were not supposed to be done. It allowed me to invent, so that I could introduce a new way of looking at perfume. The work that I did could only have been done by a naïf, somebody who learned and made discoveries as he went along. A professional could never have done it.” He was also greatly helped by always having what the French writer and poet Jules Renard called “le dégoût très sur” – which is to say he always knew exactly what he didn’t like.

For the interesting thing about Lutens is that he started out from an underprivileged background in the northern French city of Lille, where he worked as a hairdresser, though he quickly became the most sought-after crimper in town. From there he started taking photographs, and when he took them to Vogue in Paris he was immediately hired by the legendary editor Edmonde Charles-Roux. His work at Vogue caught the attention of Christian Dior, who asked him to design Dior’s first-ever make-up range. The company asked him to do some “colour” and, although he didn’t think “colour” was his thing, he eventually came up with a series of trans­parent lipsticks in brilliant hues, as well as some sepias and old-rose shades. “I did colours that hadn’t been done before and every­body seemed seduced by it.” The lipsticks were a huge success (Estée Lauder immediately brought out a similar range), and Lutens became the resident genius at Dior, going on to do smoky eyes and a whole range of make-up that was revolutionary in its day.

But it was at Shiseido that he seems fully to have come into his own. It was his idea to contact Shiseido. “I wanted to do something different and – I wasn’t stupid – I realised that they had money and so if they liked my ideas they would be able to fund them.”

Shiseido’s head of marketing had already decided to give Lutens a decisive “no” when he called him back. Yet, tellingly, after they’d talked a while he changed his mind and gave him a resounding “yes”. Lutens was given a huge team and put in charge of packaging, carrier bags, everything – the whole international brand image. His work for Shiseido, particularly the graphics and the advertising work that he devised for it (who will ever forget those exquisite, highly stylised Japanese faces painted and embellished with lace and red lipsticks?) was quite simply ground-breaking, with imagery that lives on to this day.

And then came the moment when Shiseido asked him to do a perfume. Perfume seemed to be the next big thing and the company was keen to get into that world. So in 1981 Lutens came up with Nombre Noir. But, to be brutal, it bombed. “I was too timid,” he says now. “I knew nothing about perfume except that I had always, always been lured by smells and odeurs. I wanted to get rid of fake ‘gold’ and to make something pure, in effect something that was more than a perfume. I used white flowers and chypre, but I didn’t take the idea as far as I should have done. Everybody kept saying to me, ‘You can’t do it like this, we always do it this other way.’ And I didn’t push hard enough.”

Part of the problem was that it took an inordinate amount of the extremely expensive natural osmanthus to make it, another part of the problem was that, to quote scent connoisseur and writer Luca Turin, the “maniacally luxurious packaging” of a “black octagonal glass Chinese bottle nestled in exquisitely folded black origami”. However, it attracted a huge fanbase among perfume aficionados and is still much sought after. Chandler Burr, perfume critic of The New York Times, wrote in his book The Emperor of Scent that Nombre Noir was “one of the five great perfumes of the world”, and Turin himself was pole-axed when he discovered that it was being discontinued in the early 1990s. “Just too wonderful for words... and I have none left, none,” he wailed. Sometimes it can be found on eBay, where it can go for as much as $40 or more for a 4ml miniature. The packaging – the black on black – was revolutionary and was copied everywhere.

But it was with Féminité du Bois, the next scent Lutens created, in 1992, that Shiseido put itself on the perfume map. Its sweet, woody notes were conjured up from a memory of the sawdusty smell of cedarwood in a carpenter’s workshop in the Atlas Mountains, and it was an immediate olfactory coup de maître. It took the world of perfume by storm, causing a rival to say he’d have given five years of his life to have invented it. It was the first woody perfume created for a woman (though Lutens dislikes such gender distinctions).

He went on to create a whole family of woody-based perfumes, the Lutens Les Eaux Boisées series, which includes Bois de Violette, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, Bois et Fruits, Santal de Mysore, Chêne and Un Bois Sépia. Of Bois de Violette, Turin remembers “stepping out of Lutens’ purple shop into the quiet walled gardens [of the Palais Royal] armed with this purple smell with a purple name, thinking I was carrying the most precious object in the world.”

Many of Lutens’ scents have their roots in his love affair with Morocco. He believes perfume is as much an expression of a particular culture as literature, music, clothes and food, and he always starts with a story. And, just as he always knew what he didn’t like, so – just as importantly – he was very sure about what he did like. For Iris Silver Mist, for instance, the idea came to him in a Moroccan bookshop that he should look for an iris so refined, so almost grey, that it could be worn by a man in a grey flannel suit as easily as by woman. He worked with perfumer Maurice Roucel on this one and legend has it that he pushed him to “up” the iris volume as high as it could go, so that Roucel put into the formula every natural ingredient he could find that had some iris in it. The result is generally thought to be the perfume that defines all iris perfumes. Turin gives it five stars and calls it “the powderiest, rootiest, most sinister iris imaginable, a huge grey ostrich-feather boa to wear with purple devoré velvet at a poet’s funeral”.

Cuir Mauresque is a play on the great leathery classic, Caron’s Tabac Blond, while Douce Amère is another of his orientals, though this time the starting point was a smell he couldn’t quite place that came from a plant in his garden. He discovered that it was wormwood, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of absinthe, and around that he created a perfume that is remarkably intense and complex. Often there is an element of what his fans call something jarring or almost violent that gives edge, depth and intensity to his creations.

These days there are some 50 scents that can be found in selected shops around the world, but there are 27 that can only be found in the Serge Lutens boutique in the Palais Royal. All are supported by Shiseido and many have broken new ground. Lutens’ long-time collaborator is Chris Sheldrake (who also works with Chanel as deputy perfumer to Jacques Polge), whose tastes run to the minimalist and who is one of the more interesting perfumers working today.

Lutens has recently brought out three new scents that have set all the perfumistas a-twitter. Even before Nuit de Cellophane, the latest one, had launched, the bloggers’ curiosity had been aroused. The name alone seemed strange. What could it mean? “The name evokes Paris before the war,” intimated Lutens. “It’s almost an insult, a shock, a name that communicates the idea of pleasure but also of chic.” It’s turned out to be osmanthus-based, which the bloggers felt was rather mainstream for a Lutens fragrance, though beautiful and fresh, a fruity floral symphony with a white rose note to balance. “But,” asks an anguished blogger on www.perfumeshrine.blogspot.com, “is it really beautiful? The much-needed soupçon of weird Lutensian ugliness is sorely missing, I’m afraid.” For this is an essential part of the Lutens mystique – his way of injecting something dark and unexpected into the more predictable essences.

Also just launched is his Fille en Aiguilles, which has notes of “vetiver, incense, fruits, pine needles and spices in a luminous, woody, oriental formula”. It seems a charming fragrance, without the hint of “noir” that his true fans like. Probably much more to their taste will be Fourreau Noir (to be sold exclusively in Les Salons du Palais Royal). Here is Lutens at his most Lutens-like – it is, to quote the editorial review on www.perfumeshrine.blogspot.com, “sombre yet sensuous, revealing notes of tonka bean and lavender, with musk, almond and lightly smoky accents. [It is] dark, silky and deep and ties with the darker heroines who have so inspired Lutens in the past. After Serge Noire, which was inspired by the black serge material… now comes Fourreau Noir, meaning ‘black sheath’.”

Occasionally some of Les Exclusifs are brought to the UK in special limited editions. This month, for instance, his Muscs Koublaï Khän is coming in 50ml bottles, selling for £74 exclusively in Liberty. It’s an intense, warm, sensuous, powerfully sweet musk with cumin adding an oriental touch. Named after the great Mongol emperor, it has been a bestseller in Lutens’ Paris shop ever since it was launched in 1998.

Lutens’ perfumes are not for everybody. They tend to fall into that category that means you will either love them or detest them. There’s nothing for it but to try them personally. Part of the reason for his success is that he is what he calls an au boutiste, the nearest translation of which is a perfectionist, though it means something more obsessive, somebody who never rests until the nearest thing to perfection has been achieved. This means that many of the perfumes explore extremes of olfactory sensations – which is why the “gale force cool-hot sillage of pine essence” in Fille en Aiguilles, according to Grain de Musc perfume blog, may well be too much for some.

To Lutens, the idea that some perfumes are masculine and others feminine is alien, something dreamed up in the US in the 1950s. Perfumes are there to be shared, worn by those who love them. After all, elegant 19th-century Englishmen wore perfume smelling of Turkish roses and women would use musk. He refers to perfume as the punctuation, the final dot on the i, but he dislikes the notion of using it as an everyday commodity. He thinks there has been a general debasement of perfume, with the world being “trop parfumée”, by which he means that wearing it or using it “like an automatic tic or cash-machine” destroys the beauty that is its point. “Perfume should accompany us at special times but you shouldn’t wear it all the time. These days there is a fashion for using too much vanille, so that sometimes one could think one is in a patisserie. If you want to sell in America you must add vanille – I refuse to do it and my Fleur d’Orangers [a favourite of Sofia Coppola] has no vanille in it at all.”

Besides his perfumes, he is currently obsessed with his restoration of the Moorish palace in the Ben Youssef quarter of Marrakech. It’s a quiet and private place that few people get to see, so vast that it took me over an hour to look around. Dark, brooding, filled with mysterious corridors, rooms that lead off rooms and a few light-filled courtyards, it’s a strange place, more like a cathedral than a palace. Strangest of all is that, though he must have spent hundreds of thousands of euros in pain­stakingly restoring the tiling, the stencilling, the carved woodwork, the fountains and the floors, it is not designed to be lived in. There are a couple of rooms with a day bed or two, a grand marble bathroom and a tiny library/sitting room filled with pictures and Moroccan artefacts, where he reads books of poetry. But there is no kitchen and none of the practical comforts that most houses, let alone palaces, require.

Lutens, it seems, has no intention of living there. It’s a majestic work in progress, his gift to the people of Marrakech, “a place for contemplation”, as he puts it, which he seems to feel would be spoiled by the clutter of everyday life. He spends much of his day in the palace, then retreats at night to his garden in La Palmeraie, where physical comfort again seems in short supply – beauty is what matters to him. There are small and simple little garden huts and houses surrounded by acres of flowering trees, palms and oleanders. There he reads and thinks and ponders on where his life and olfactory journeys are going to take him. “I don’t choose my projects,” he says. “They choose me.”

His journey is far from over, though he senses that time is running out. “I’m 68,” he says. “Time is passing very quickly.” That may explain why this year has seen the launch of three new perfumes. For Lutens “the more I learn about perfume the more I realise how much more there is to know, and how much more there is to do.” As he sits in his Moroccan garden, surrounded by birds and the sound of the cicadas, by palm trees and the heady scent of Arabian flowers, he’s even now dreaming up the next olfactory sensation that will mark a new step in the story of Serge Lutens perfumery.

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Perfume