Monsieur Lutens - a silent genius, absorbing complete darkness and light, is our ultimate noir character. As Rumi once said "Poetry can be dangerous, especially beautiful poetry, because it gives the illusion of having had the experience without actually going through it". Alike, mr. Lutens is creating an illusionary experience of his poems through scent, creating this whiff in the air that gives you goosebumps. The sillage is such a platonic, intimate and beautiful thing. It is transcendent, ephemeral… and at the same awakens a memory, imprinting us within forever…
Several years ago I discovered Serge's creation "Bas de Soie" and I found myself in it. Since then, it accompanies me always. Bas de Soie, refers to silk stockings, with its cool iris and hyacinth blooms and the poem going with it, is a bit of an anomaly. Chill and warm, it was like a mirror to me:
“A black mass where the voices are low, and soft as silk. A ritual, an image: slim fingers carefully slip the stocking up the leg, from ankle to thigh…The woman alone, scented with a blend of powdery iris and hyacinth, keeps our attention.The iridescence of a dragonfly’s wing.”
i am honored to have this poetic conversation with true visionary mr. serge lutens. Dans la nuit.... his shadow reveals the light. Plunge into the silent night at palais royal, where his store of emotions is, and submerge into Serge Luten's world of wonders and oldfactory narratives...
This interview is devoted to the silent world of oppositions and fine crafts.
Portrait of Serge Lutens
Illustrated by Katarzyna Jagielnicka for Noir Catcher
'The night works on us all.
my night watchman makes
sure of that.'
Mr. Lutens, I have always conceived fragrance as a memory that hugs the soul. What is it for you?
Each of my fragrances is the progeny of a lengthy silence that finds its voice. Whether it’s rape, murder, incest or a work of art, once taken apart and dissected down to its blended but distinct essences, each of them becomes clear and acts as it should. Whether it is beloved or hated, it is proof of our indisputable submission. Its power is irrefutable: in brief, it reconciles good and evil as they first start to sneer.
When I realized that I should keep my distance from the visual world, I felt sullied. Though hidden at first, the slander of what was at the time my very reason for being—proving the existence of my double—was like death for me. I was compelled to replace it with essences. I created Féminité du bois (1992), like an Indian street performer would say firewater or fire staff—I was calling a spade a spade. The tree is typically viewed as masculine. I transposed the symbol of its strength into the feminine realm. It was a first step towards an identity.
Not long after, I opened another fragrance road with Ambre sultan. The road to the Arab world, which was my own. Despite being born to French parents, as a child I had the physique of an Arab. It was during the Algerian war. I created it less for the Middle East then because I felt like the fruit of adultery, and was determined to assume responsibility for the transgression. In other words, to make amends for it and to make it worse. My passion for evil, like the colour black, protects me from danger. I use it to defend myself. Maybe flowers create a vicious shield? It’s dangerous to traipse through a flowerbed, to crush its thoughts. I can compare the petals of a rose to the skin of a child’s wrist, but I refuse to walk on it with the soles of my feet. Perfume is also about progressing from seed to flower. Think back to the beans that we swathed in moist cotton wool as children! After an incubation period, we watched the miracle of life take place before our eyes. Our gestation took place in the secret confines of a small aluminium tin with holes poked in it.
What makes you feel alive and elevates your spirit?
Reacting rather than enduring whatever comes my way. In fact, perfume is already the first response. It’s a precarious bridge between the visual and the verbal. The letters are a vehicle; they drive and create.
Which scent warms your soul and is the one you are most emotionally connected to?
Those that are put into words. Creating perfumes, in the conventional sense, does not interest me. I am not a craftsman. I am the fervent admirer of a woman I invented. Leaving her would be like amputating a limb. The proportions she has taken on are beyond me, destroy me, or take me to new heights. It’s a religion that worships women. God was a woman whose existence was revealed to me by the wicker weaving of the church hassocks imprinted on my knees. Faith is important. Those who don’t have it are dead. In fact, the world is an immense cemetery and has no idea.
When does illumination usually comes to you? What crystallises your analytical mind and senses?
Surpassing myself. It’s not a goal, but a light. We are blinded, but it’s not far from sight. The creative process doesn’t belong to me; it’s not a choice. Like passion—Christ’s or romantic—it acts upon us. It’s the invisible force that guides us: if I get in the way, it’s over. The me is dead. Serge Lutens is dead, good riddance! Once free of me, the creative process can exist.
Do you agree with Baudelaire’s idea that “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will.”?
As a matter of principle, Baudelaire is always right, but childhood revisited is never whole. Memories are liars, nourishing in us feelings that grow and in the end become deformed.
What was your moment of epiphany?
My childhood only existed in fleeting emotions I felt indifferent towards. It was as a teen, during the period of revolt, that I emerged from the nothingness. I would endure no longer. It came out in unexpected ways, sometimes violently, like in this anecdote: In 1956, at the age of 14, I left school and found a position in “the best hair salon in Lille, Chez Besson”. For almost two years, I lost myself between hot rollers, coats to be hung up or put back on customers, bobby pins, forced smiles and painful thankyous uttered upon receiving one-franc coins, until one day:
“Serge, do this young lady’s hair…”
There is a huge crowd, and I’m barely 16. She’s sad, like me. White. Too white, people said. I like it, on boys and girls. And then, before the mirror and the reflection of her face and mine, frozen in time, scissors in hand, I answer and, with the force of all that had gone unsaid, I finally speak and cut the first strands. But I cut “too much” for that era and for the people watching. The silence around me is even more oppressing because it seems to hide noises and whispers. I know that if I turn around and pay attention to them, I won’t finish the cut. So, the scissors, my hand, my anger, time, my age, society, death and my fear chop off another section — a beautiful declaration of war on the people I called assholes.
‘’Like Proust, I went in search of the lost land of childhood.’’ Are we all in search of lost time through our earthly journey?
Proust only lives the present in the past, driven by the momentum of perspective. It’s an compulsion, a force. He invents happiness, like the holidays he spent in Illiers as a child, which were a nightmare—but as he recounts them, they were a dream! Everything we found ugly and impossible becomes beautiful with a pen. Like a snake’s shed skin, the past is fodder for the present.
Do you think we come closer to our child within, to our Orpheline, with aging, paradoxically?
Time doesn’t exist. It’s elastic: we pull it tight, but it comes back to us. To get to the point, we are the orphan of the child we are trying to define. So often we only take one thing away from an event: a gesture, a look, a colour or a hurtful word. From there, from that tiny signal, our memories hoard and stew the entire event, which we then reconstruct. It’s a ricochet, it’s matter. When I talk about perfume, it’s only about that one: the one that a writer could put into words.
Is remembering a form of a silent act of suffering?
If through it we accept ourselves, then why not? In any case, as I’ve said above, our memories often lie to us.
Are you weight down or lifted up by the sensation and conception of Time?
It needles, accents and aggravates the sense of urgency with which I have lived my entire life. I am grateful to time for proving, for me, that it won’t exist for much longer.
What are the time-killers and time-preservers?
There is no absolute. Each of us lives time as best he or she can. Some people watch it fly by on stop watches, others watch it tick by on a clock face. Everyone does with it as he or she wishes, but until we’ve said our last word, time has no hold. Maybe it’s when we’re tired of its indifference that we give up on life.
Do you agree with the idea that we are never alone and ultimately we are all alone in this world?
Your question reminds me of a quote by the novelist Julien Green, who said at the end of his life that he was not sorry to leave this world. According to him, any form of anonymity had become impossible: EVERYTHING leaves traces behind! Information is a haven; it lets us avoid thinking and decides what is good and bad. It’s directive. Writing is both a voting booth and a confessional, where I speak to both God and the devil.
The woman of Serge Lutens always seems out of this world, alien-like.. in her cosmos. Who is She? Is she a woman who accepts her shadowy side?
Do you want me to talk about myself? She is the embodiment of a transgression that I sublime and bury. She has refined features and is more mystical than corporeal. Her shadow reveals the light. What would the diamonds in a necklace be without their black velvet case?
Can we ever escape from the depths of the noir of the soul? Do we subconsciously surrender or its upon our control and choice?
Creation is the unconscious, fodder for evil: black, darkness. It’s also what reveals good. Contrary to what one might believe, I’m a very moral person, made up of the experiences, traps and deaths I’ve been through, which I’ve gradually learned to reign over. In the end, maybe that’s the real definition of morality.
Do you believe the biggest fragment of someone’s soul lays at his first creation? And all the rest are consequences, smaller bits, which build up on the memory..
It’s possible, but what is the first creation? Isn’t even the most beautiful invention the result of ourselves? Society is a vice. It’s important not to be suffocated by it. It becomes more and more terrible, tighter and tighter. Creative space is shaped by “good”, and in this case, that’s a regression.
In the magical interior of Les Salons du Palais Royal there is this spiral stairways… What is the spiral in our life? Is it this dna, the identity we are always in quest to unfold?
The term “spiral” brings back a prepubescent dream. I’m 12 years old. The schoolboy is writing on a white piece of paper. All of a sudden, the metal fountain pen fractures. The two overlapping pieces spill a black ink blotch onto the paper. Little by little it grows, so big finally, that I fall into it. Stuck in a never-ending downward spiral, I wake choking, drowning in perspiration. Later I mention this dream, this vertigo, to three psychoanalysts. The first one says, “It’s death.” The second: “It’s birth.” And for the last one, the stain and the fall itself… “It’s you.” For a long time, I wondered which answer was the truth, but all three were right. Everything was linked, nothing can be separated. In a dream, you can be anything: woman, man, pirate…because the eye of the hurricane has no bottom. It’s a fall. An endless fall.
How did your identity unfold through the years?
Just as they planted seeds in the ground to reap the crop, Egyptians transplanted stones from old temples into the ground set to welcome a new one. What is identity if it’s not sprouting the present out of the past? We’ve already broken the sound barrier, maybe we’ll soon exceed light speed? We’ll be surprised to see dead stars still sparkle. Time doesn’t exist, but we observe ourselves in it. We embody it.
What do you get drunk of? (inspiration wise) What do you find still enchanting in this world?
Intransigence. I am the master of my own light.
In an old advertisement you stated “Beauty is a warm gun”. What is beauty for you? And is strangeness a necessary ingredient of it?
Things said in the past cannot now be compared. I cannot define beauty. It scatters my landmarks and disarms me; I subject to it. Like with love, which is not a choice, we are activated in our passivity. If strangeness were sought after, it would frown.
Are you familiar with any direct influence of your photographic and cinematographic style? Who were your early muses?
My first muses were the women I saw in black and white films in the 1920s and 1930s. I would go so far as to say they put me in the saddle, but I’m the one who’s galloping! I betrayed them all quickly, because creation is one with betrayal.
Was there a movie or a book or any work of art which strongly influenced and penetrated you?
I am permeated with beauty and ugliness. My autonomy only exists if I put things into perspective. The first novel I read as a teenager was The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Artists are not on display in museums, but in the danger they expose themselves to. Whatever they do, they’re “unpainting” their own portraits.
humans are so fixed and concerned about the outer surface of our being, the visual appearance rather than the one within? Is maquillage a tool of protection or a strive for love and acceptance?
Make-up reinforces our weaknesses. In daily life, it’s polite and courteous. It can also curse, stand out, reveal itself, make lines on the skin, cover the lips in a crimson sheath. A quote from Baudelaire’s In Praise of Cosmetics seems particularly relevant: “ (…) Women are well within their rights, and are even fulfilling a kind of duty by working hard to appear magical and supernatural (…).” No matter what, we make love to our own death. It’s the approach to artifice in Death in Venice.
Why do you think people are afraid of being themselves?
Surely because like all of us, each of them is multiple and not always in agreement. There is a crowd in each and every one of us: 42 faces according to the Koran.
You have worked with visionaries as Christian Dior, Guy Bourdin, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn back in time. What is a strong memory, a moment with some of them which re-appears in your mind through time?
It didn’t feel that way. I didn’t work with Christian Dior himself, but with Bohan (the designer who replaced Yves Saint-Laurent when he left). It’s not so exciting, but he cut coats beautifully. It was perfect. I worked with Guy Bourdin. His only talent, if it could be called as much, was mocking models. He was incredibly misogynistic. Avedon was a showman in this world of stars. He made use of talents; his world was one where everyone patted themselves on the back. The opposite of Irving Penn’s, where every photograph captured the pomp of Mass. Without music, the model had to smile. It was glacial. All that’s left from those years are fleeting memories. They’re legends now. I was lucky to have the chance to spend time in the world of French haute couture and among those who created the modern designer!
What is the smell of your home town Lille and your ‘oldfactory maze’?
Smells are memories: a black city under a grey sky, worry, cold, roasted chestnuts warming my hands and a thousand different scents dotting my memories, all in their place in the olfactory maze that was Lille—European Capital of Culture in 2004.
I have always wanted to read a confessional work of yours… written with your poetical sensibility. Do you have any plans in putting yourself in a book?
Alas, I’m never without myself! Whatever subject is my current obsession, I dive in: perfumes, images, texts. “I” is both the drowning victim and the lifeguard. That being said, if there were a book, I’d be very surprised if it were written in the first person. It would be dangerous to lay myself bare in this polar landscape. After all, someone else or myself, what’s the difference?
“It's as if the baker took us by the hand.
Your childhood is a slope. The farther down you go, the more it comes back to you. You must separate the wheat from the chaff to know who you are. All this to say that the smell of fresh bread from the bakery takes us back. The feel of warm bread against the cheek even more so, evoking a familiar sensation from my childhood.”
Is the baker, the memory, the catcher of our noir? The savior of innocence…
As such, he’s nothing—only what we make of him. He could be a fairy or a wizard, just like a butcher, a lawyer or any other representative of my apprehensions.
What is another memory of a scent form your childhood?
Bread is less an olfactory memory than is the warm kiss from the fresh batch just out of the oven—a caress and a consolation, all of that, of course! A breath wafting out the window and into our nostrils. But memories must be stripped of prejudices. By so doing, we portray it.
Can we be broken but complete at the same time?
“I” is a myriad, dust from a world where everything is always superlatively vulgar. Yes, even broken, this attitude and impermeability are protected.
Are we all bi-polar, worlds of oppositions and contradictions? Like “Féminité du bois”….
“Féminité du bois” is not a bipolar fragrance, but a scent in which the masculine and the feminine exist side by side. A carpenter’s pastry, a cake made from cedar chips—it’s feminine masculinity. Femininity is so powerful in me that it unfurls. I find something in it—it’s a mirror.
You have said that instability gave you opportunity in life. What is the wisdom of insecurity?
Instability is disconcerting; it shakes things up and brings down the artificial structures you thought you had built, but it can also take you to the worst extremes. You’re at the very end of something, so it’s a last resort, death and rebirth. There are ordeals from which no one emerges unscathed—they continue an unconscious journey, guiding us to other less static ideas.
How do you escape and self-reflect, where do you find serenity?
With a sentence, an expression, a good read, an overwhelming poetic experience, a slip of the tongue. However, peace is an illumination; it’s fleeting. Things take on meaning after they’ve been said. You figure it out when it’s right in front of you and it finally slaps you in the face. You suffer the effects.
What does the nuit mean to you?
At night we’re harder to see. Maybe that’s what suits me about night: it paints everything black. But it’s also a kind of eternity on earth, in space, in the stars. We don’t see them during the day, but at night there are eyes everywhere! It’s a moment of solitude, of agreement or disagreement with one’s self.
You have mentioned in one of your poems that noir is your religion. What does it mean to you?
Black was my fear and my pride. It closed in on me during my adolescence, protected me and isolated me. Thanks to it, I was attractive, but people hesitated to approach me. Wearing it (it’s almost become a character over time), I could keep a carefree but clear distance. With it I could walk through crowds. But behind the invisible cloth armour, I was alone with my shame. Without my banner, what undertaker would have hired me? Without it, I was helpless. It is impermeable.
You build the invisible bridge between poetry and scent, through the narrative behind each scent… how do you weave the silk strings between words and senses?
As I’ve said above, perfume would have no meaning if it didn’t guide me to words. Perfumery as it is generally conceived of is all about the world of consumerism, of vulgarity. I avoid it like the plague!
What is A genuine moment of yours that would never fade from your memory?
I’ll spell it out in three words: separation, absence and death are the three seeds that sprouted into images, perfumes (as you know them) and their meanings: words.
What is the most beautiful dream that you ever had?
In fact, they’re always nightmares. However, if by dream you mean illusion, I don’t have any. I feel like situations and meetings—what we could happily call destiny—is stronger than me. Nevertheless, I’m the one who follows it, and I’m always surprised to see what it brings.
What are you obsessions? What do you feel possessed of?
By contradictions. I’m torn apart by a double. Obsession is not a choice and there are no results without it. It has me in its grip. When you’re in it, you can only free yourself once you’ve worn it out… until a new one appears.
In what do you find intimacy?
My origins. Going back to my childhood is like descending into hell, burning my fingers without stopping. It demands solitude.
I wonder how does your refurbished house in Marrakech look like? What is your favourite and most intimate space there? How Serge Lutens express himself in his private space? I imagine it with antiques, incense, smoke, wood, silk, velvet, mosaics…. What does it smell of?
Though it looks like it must date back to the medieval period, it’s not a renovated house. It was a pile of old stones. Little by little, I pieced it together. And I rebuilt myself with it. The house is ideal, so not right for me. I spend a few hours per day there, in the afternoon, in a small bedroom that’s more like a refuge. I don’t enjoy the beauty of the place at all. Visiting the house is synonymous with noticing things that aren’t perfect, and the fewer flaws there are, the more I look for them! I want something impossible. The smell of the place is its history. The house is a novel made of stone, wood and whitewash. If there were a physical smell, it would be in the cedar ceilings, in the air of the small gardens, in the even more mystical atmosphere of the library, in the paper. None of that is any sort of luxury, but it’s my story. This house (which is now a foundation), is transgression making amends.
What about your perfume laboratory?
It’s a dedicated room in the house—more of a lair than an actual laboratory. It’s rather dark. There are raw materials in perfume boxes. The forbidden ones interest me the most.
What does your library of plants consist of and what does then garden mean to you?
My interest in plants became apparent when I first began research scents, in the early 1990s. I was studying the hardy desert plants that live in the shade of the dunes and manage to hydrate themselves by capitalizing on the difference between day and night-time temperatures. Obviously, once again, it was also about me, my ability to survive in hostile environments. As for flowers, if I was interested in them it was mostly for their names, which evoked an entire universe: roses and death, but also daisies, pansies, marigold . Flowers touched me by their names more than by their appearance or fragrance. I’m not a florist. My garden isn’t manicured, rather more left unto itself. I lose myself during my perpetual quest for water or the roots of certain plants, or when contemplating for a minute a bud unable to bloom, drying up, tightly closed in on itself. This garden is both a nursery and a cemetery. I’m interested in its permanent renewal.
How did the aesthetics in female beauty altered from the start of your career? Is there anything you feel nostalgic about it?
The aesthetics of feminine beauty makes no sense. Make more beautiful, perfect, frame beauty… I was looking for a feminine ambiance, to place women in the shadows and in the light. I’ve pointed out flaws that I found beautiful. I did everything to make that woman visible, like a blind person following a face’s features with his or her hands. That woman looked back at me.
How do you envision the feature of cosmetics and perfumery?
The world of cosmetics and perfume doesn’t interest me. My goal is to reunite with my femininity, my stronghold. Don’t take it for snobbery, but I don’t even bother smelling newly launched fragrances. I don’t do any marketing or surveys. It doesn’t mean anything to me, that’s all. All I want is to give meaning to what I’m doing.
What are your thoughts on any Sustainable approaches in it and preserving the oldfactory craftsmanship methods?
Craftsmanship can be handed down. There are schools for that. But I have to admit that it doesn’t matter much to me. In fact, strangely, I end up with fans when I isolate myself. I know about the history of make-up and perfume, but it’s not what drives me. The only thing that lasts is a true amorous vocation.
'Time doesn't exist.
it's elastic. We pull it tight, but it comes back to us. '
'What would the diamonds in a necklace be without their black velvet case?. '
'Memories must be stripped from prejudices. By doing so we portray them. '
'At night we're harder to see. Maybe that's what suits me about night: it paints everything black. But it's also a kind of eternity on earth, in space, in the stars. '
Moon. by Serge Lutens
"Fragile but whole.
Its name hints at a break but before the fissures show, its first two syllable conjure Orpheus, a poet who could charm even stones."
Maquillage Serge Lutens.
Shot by Eric Boman. Vogue UK 1970s
Baptême du Feu.
"My emotions are fluid. Like liquid wax poured into a mould, they determine what seduces me—like this gingerbread heart."
“Féminité du bois”.
"...It's all about cedar. Wood accounted for 60% of the composition. Amazed, people called it revolutionary. The fragrance took on its own identity, which is the one thing that really matters to me."
by Serge Lutens
por Serge Lutens
vogue Italia, June 1976.
by Serge Lutens
Ambre Sultan. Inspired by Mr. Luten's first trip to Morocco in March 1968, Based on a scented box containing an alluring wax, he found in the Marrakech’s souks.
Serge Luten's riad-library in Marrakech.
Photo Patrice Nagel
© Fondation Serge Lutens
'Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. '
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
'The forbidden ones interest me the most. '