The main thing I love about perfume is that it’s ridiculous. Every aspect of it is ridiculous. The very sound of the word “perfume,” even as I hear it in my head, makes my skin crawl, and it’s exhilarating. I love the saccharine, schmaltzy snips of copy generously classified as descriptions. I love how everyone involved in the marketing of it has collectively come to the conclusion that the less sense you make, the better.
Full abstraction. I don’t know how an advert featuring Nicole Kidman running around taxis in Times Square, looking completely bewildered in a $20,000 gown, translates into a concrete sales figure, but you know what? I’ll let one of the business majors figure it out; that’s not my problem.
The business of fragrance is built on artifice. Fragrance itself is about as detached as a creative medium can get from reality — the best roses are composed of no discernible rose, chemical compounds that give musk its “sex” factor are naturally occurring signs of decay and an entire scent category (the fougère) was inspired by an odorless plant.
Yet, smell is the sense most closely linked to emotion and memory, and the skilled deployment of scent can communicate things that lie beyond words, logic and rationalization. Few perfume houses have been able to marry creative vision and emotion while wielding the inherent silliness of the industry, and the house of Serge Lutens is one of them.
Serge Lutens, the former art director of Shiseido and pioneering figurehead of his eponymous label, is an intensely private man. Despite his fame, he almost never gives interviews. Outside of his profile on Kafkaesque, there is little to be found concretely about his early life, let alone his swift entree into the fashion and beauty world of the 1960s.
There are hints of his origins in the titles of his fragrances, especially more recent outputs like “L’Orpheline” and “Baptême du Feu” (French for “The Orphan” and “Baptism of Fire,” respectively) that touch on his tumultuous childhood. He was separated from his mother shortly after birth, because it was illegal for an unwed woman to give birth and raise a child as a single mother in Lutens’s French hometown. His experiences with familial rejection and abandonment — and their ties to a societal and legal system steeped in a very conservative interpretation of Catholicism — had a profound impact on his life and work, not the least of which being his contribution to perfumery.
At 14, Lutens began working in a salon in Lille, and despite not wishing to work there, it would serve as a catalyst for his creative prowess to come to life. He soon ventured into hairdressing, makeup artistry, photography, styling and creative consulting. He had a penchant for feminine extremes and borderline-gothic contrasts between white, black and bold colors.
His polaroids eventually landed him a place at French Vogue under Edmonde Charles-Roux, which then opened doors at a number of high profile publications, including Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. He is credited with helping develop the first high fashion cosmetics line at Christian Dior in 1966, working at the house until accepting his post at Shiseido in the early 1980s.
It was under Shiseido that he created “Nombre Noir,” a now-infamous and highly coveted collector’s item, but commercial flop whose stock is humorously rumored to have been bulldozed by the company. Despite “Nombre Noir’s” incredibly high production expense and commercial failure, its liberal use of rose-tinted damascenones and its complicated, yet sheer chypre structure colored the path on which Lutens was headed.
Shiseido’s faith in his ideas didn’t wane, and his collaboration with perfumers Christopher Sheldrake and Pierre Bourdon spawned a dark, yet minimalistic and transparent take on a cedar-based perfume in the inimitable “Féminité du Bois” in 1992. “Féminité du Bois” was a sensation, taking the sheer, uncomplicated sentiment in perfumery represented by Bulgari’s “Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert” and Issey Miyake’s “L’eau d’Issey” and giving it an emotional, yet sovereign and unmistakably dark backbone with piles of dried fruits like peach and plum, ginger, benzoin and his now-signature clove.
It may sound dramatic, but it’s hard to understate the influence of “Féminité du Bois” in modern perfumery. The room-filling ambers and chypres of the 1970s and ’80s had reached their breaking point, but the ethereal jingles issued as a response to them felt more like an apology than a meaningful evolution.
The notion that you could either have a symphony or a wisp was put to rest by Serge’s second release under Shiseido, and it spawned the “Les Eaux Boisées” line that initially occupied his Palais Royal storefront.
The aforementioned “Féminité du Bois,” “Bois et Musc,” “Bois et Fruits,” “Bois Oriental” (a name and olfactory category, now referred to as amber, currently undergoing a politically-inclined reconstruction), “Un bois sépia,” “Un bois vanille,” “Miel de bois” and “Bois de Violette” were among the house’s first releases, which would soon reinvent the modern amber, the tawdry musk and the soliflore with something new to say.
In the house’s nearly 30 years of existence, Serge Lutens has created a number of ambers, florals and other fragrances that remain true to its brand of complicated, interesting, even “loud” offerings that veer from weighing themselves down. Beyond the “Bois” flankers, ranky, stanky fuck me musks like “Muscs Koublai Khan,” leathery florals like “Sarrasins,” sonorous soliflores like “A la nuit” and smoldering ambers like “La couche du diable” all do their part in populating a canon that simply cannot be outdone or diminished.
Though the copy and the art direction may reach far beyond the threshold of camp, the heart of Serge Lutens continues to create products rooted in ideas that gleefully skip down to their scientific and artistic extremes. There is not a bottle that is phoned in, and there is not an accompanying write-up that doesn’t blast beyond the confines of what can be readily imagined, and that’s what makes this house so powerful.
Daily Arts Columnist Sam Kremke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.