Serge Lutens’ admirers often discovered his work by sampling several of the range in one fell swoop, after the development of the online perfume community, which is to say a good ten years after the Salons du Palais-Royal opened their doors, rather than organically.
In a way, they experienced the Lutens oeuvre much like the French critics of Les Cahiers du Cinéma caught up on the production of Hollywood directors in a rush after WWII, when all the movies that they hadn’t seen during the German occupation poured out on the screens. Seeing several Hitchcocks, Hawkses or Fords all at once allowed them to realize that despite the constraints of the studio system, each of those filmmakers had a distinctive style: this experience yielded the “politique des auteurs”. And undeniably, Serge Lutens is one of the people who have imposed the concept of the auteur in perfumery, though he doesn’t actually write the formulas.
Taking on Tubéreuse Criminelle, La Myrrhe, Bois de Violette or Muscs Koublaï Khan all in one fell swoop was bound to be a shock for those who hadn’t been in on the secret from the outset. And this experience, I believe, has almost unrealistically raised expectations for each new fragrance put out by Serge Lutens, as each could generate a similar shock. The very confidentiality and rarity of the Palais Royal exclusives has encouraged the growth of a cult of dedicated Lutens fans, who’re always hoping to have their socks blown off, while demanding that the house codes be respected.
Serge Lutens himself, while cultivating the myth – one gets the feeling it is such an organic part of him it isn’t a communication strategy but a necessity – has expressed his impatience with being pigeonholed. Hence L’Eau Serge Lutens: his was probably the only house in the world that could actually shock by doing a clean fragrance, and it has. Mission accomplished.
Now he’s back with two new fragrances. Boxeuses, out in late August as a Palais Royal exclusive, resorts to the classic Lutensian vocabulary – I will get back to it soon. However, Bas de Soie, the new export, now out in Paris and to be launched internationally in August, introduces a new accord in the palette. It also represents a new take on the idea of “clean” which may or may not have sprung from the disruption of L’Eau, and I’d say a much tougher one. Don’t be deceived by the retro, powdery charm of Bas de Soie: Serge Lutens equates beauty with cruelty. And silk stockings can sheath deadly weapons.
The very point of Bas de Soie, he explained in his interview, is the oscillation between iris and hyacinth: the fact that it never settles for one or the other. I couldn’t find an image that expressed what I envision when I wear it to illustrate this post: bouquets of iris and hyacinth, almost ultraviolet in their intense blueness, dagger-erect in their vases, against a deep black backdrop – somehow, the new blue spotlights recently installed in the Palais Royal boutique translate that black light vibe. Hyacinth is, in fact, a very tough flower, aggressive in its thrust; the iris it’s welded to has the metallic aftertaste a silver spoon leaves on the tongue. Though Bas de Soie may bring to mind the great galbanum, iris and/or hyacinth scent of the late Sixties, Chamade or N°19 – this green note is also new in the Lutens register -- it has neither their feel nor their mood: it is tight-grained, saturated and a little cruel. The scent pushes its aldehydic, iris-hyacinth accord into blinding soapiness – in fact, if feels as though Serge Lutens has found a way to turn soap into some sort of airborne poison: the very antithesis of the rooty, haughty Iris Silver Mist which, in retrospect, has Maurice Roucel’s ample, lush style written all over it.
Bas de Soie also introduces an essential Frenchness to the Lutens vocabulary. But while Serge Noire, Filles en Aiguille or Fourreau Noir, despite their French couture names, remained within the Lutensian canon of dried fruit notes, balms and resins, Bas de Soie is also essentially French in its smell. The flowers are decidedly those of the gardens of the Palais Royal, as Octavian Coifan has underlined in his lyrical, in-depth review; the marquises and courtesans who haunted that garden in the 18th and 19th century, stockings held up with jeweled garters, could well have wafted Bas de Soie…
Illustration: Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Nathan Altman (1914)