vendredi 4 juin 2010

Bas de Soie by Serge Lutens: Ultraviolet sillage

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)

26 commentaires:

  1. A delight to read, as always. And sounds interesting, if definitively not for me. Boxeuses though, I'm guessing is a replaying of some themes, the same as el Attarine was. Maybe good, maybe samey.

    Legs as deadly weapons - forgive me showing my lowbrow, but you've made me think of the incredibly sexy Famke Janssen playing the ridiculous role of Xenia Onatopp in a James Bond film.

    She dies, of course. Female villain. And on top. It never works out in Bondworld.

  2. Lee, no, I'm not envisioning you in silk stockings just this minute. Although... Boxeuses is, as I wrote, a Prunol-wrapped leather and might strike a chord.
    I, myself, was thinking of Mrs Peel. Who doesn't die. But doesn't kill much either.

  3. Hello D. I enjoyed both the interview and this review very much. Bas de Soie intrigues me, even if it doesn't sound like the type of fragrance that I would regularly wear. Blue isn't a color of preference in clothing or fragrance, though others might tell me that I wear it perfectly well.

    Boxeuses already strikes a chord with me though and I hope it eventually finds its way to the US. Leather, prunol? Yes, thank you. My favorite Lutens at the moment include Cuir Mauresque and Daim Blond. Apparently I am more suited for leather than I am for silk.

  4. Melissa, I'm not sure I'm the blue type myself. But Boxeuses is definitely a non-export! I'd probably wear it more than Bas de Soie, but I found BdS's underlying toughness under the powder very interesting and vaguely malevolent.

  5. D, as you know, we have our ways of procuring the non-exports! Anyone who is traveling to Paris is certainly fair game for a suitcase stuffed with bell jars on the return trip.

    But I digress. I don't mind powder at all, and aldehydes are almost always my friend. I'm not too sure about hyacinths. But add a hint of malevolence and you've truly baited the hook.

  6. Melissa, the hyacinth bit of the fragrance is super-risky because it's a note used a lot in functional perfumery. It's just at the edge here, but once you get "soapy" it depends on how you react to soapy. Me, not too well, which is why I tend not to wear predominantly aldehydic fragrances very often. I need sunglasses to go with my N°22, it's so blinding to me...

  7. I do like No 22, although I recently decided that my (current) favorite aldehydic perfume is Guerlain Liu. It seems to wear much more easily than No 5, which was, apparently part of its "inspiration". At least according to the story on many of the blogs.

    And I really like the little known and discontinued Ferre by Ferre, particularly in the impossible to find pdt. A very wearable floral aldehyde that warms up nicely-not too soapy or powdery. So, maybe I will like Bas de Soie?

  8. Can't say as I know Ferre. I went straight from oldies to niche without ever stopping by the mainstream... Anyway you'll be able to find out in a couple of months since this one is an export.

  9. Hmmmm.... reading your review and the comments, trying to decide (selfishly) whether I'd like the scent! And it's hard to say, which only makes it more intriguing. Soapy/aldehydic can go either way on me. I have to read Octavian's review. And BTW that was a wonderful interview with Mr. Lutens...

    My one-person take on Discovering The Serges (export only) at my local boutique several years ago: I knew nothing about them, first of all. Second, I arbitrarily started with Miel de Bois because I knew that meant "honey" and (at that point) thought it was hideous. Third, I learned in one or two visits that I could only try two at a time! I spent weeks after driving over to Virginia to the boutique, working my way through the collection ... sigh. In its own pedestrian way, it was every bit as magical to me as our visit, at long last, to the Palais Royal. Or: like discovering some literary gem you've overlooked and then questing, trying to find out who else has read it.

  10. Soapy... hmm, probably not for me. But we'll give it a whirl anyway. The first time I smelled the Lutens scents was in the Galeries Lafayette and not nearly as focused on perfume as I am now. I didn't like any of them as they were so radically different from what I was used to. Of course, now they're my favorites. ;-)

  11. March, I'm not sure Bas de Soie will be your vibe... Your story of discovery of the SLs makes me smile: what a shock they must have been. When I take my London College of Fashion students there, they're absolutely goggle-eyed: they never thought that perfume could be that way. Usually at least one of them walks out with Rahat Loukoum or Un Lys.

  12. Tara, my reaction was just the opposite: I thought "at last". But then, as I said above, I was strictly a classics dame and had segued from Habanita and the Carons so I wasn't taken aback. When you've rocked Poivre, nothing can daunt you!

  13. To carry forth (and perhaps mangle) the Cahiers analogy, would it be appropriate to suggest, then, that

    Lutens : L'Eau Serge Lutens
    Scorcese : King of Comedy


    There are, as has often been discussed, attendant advantages and disadvantages to being associated with an ouvre...especially when that ouvre tends to get one grand generalization. In the end, though, even those who come to perfume later in the Lutens game will eventually figure out not to expect all from one, or to let one define all.

    This Bas de Soie has my own heart and mind at attention...I am most curious to see what Lutens does with the green element. OTOH, that soapy excess would be more of a slap in the face to me than L'Eau ever could be...just not in my comfort zone. But I wouldn't hold Lutens responsible for that, nor presume to make a blanket statement on his overall output based on the fact that I have trouble handling a given note/chord/accord. :)

    Thanks, as always, for entertaining and informing.

  14. ScentScelf, I guess the point I was trying to make is that Serge Lutens, having nearly two decades of production behind him, can't be expected to renew the field at this point. And that, being alive, he feels the need to move on rather than be canonized for what he's done. Bas de Soie is such a move.

    I wouldn't say it's very green -- that's just a facet of the hyacinth, but not as prominent as in the classics of the genre.

  15. Great review, as always.

    I'm hoping an image of Anna Akhmatova is a good omen for me and this fragrance; she's my favorite poet.

    This, along with Nuit de Tubereuse, occupies a position of being the fragrance I'm most excited to try and most afraid of being disappointed in. I love iris; I love hyacinth, and allusions to greenness and No. 19 make me happy, but more than one allusion to soapiness makes me wonder what it might turn into on my skin.

    From our conversations elsewhere I know you wear it - how similar would you say this is to Iris Gris? I have a little trepidation on that count from what I've read.

  16. Galamb Borong, if Iris Gris turns to soap on you, I'd say Bas de Soie would be death by suds. They have very little in common. Iris Gris is characterized by its peach accord, welded to the iris. Bas de Soie has no fruitiness, no lactonic effect whatever: it's iris and hyacinth with slight green effects from the hyacinth accord. There is no warm base like in N°19, no amber, no mossiness. It tends to get more metallic in the drydown.
    I actually chose the portrait for its hues and style rather than for the model... Though I'm sure somewhere I'd have found fitting verses of hers.

  17. Also, I think your observation about experience the Lutens line as a whole is quite apt. I must admit I'm guilty of this. When I smell a Lutens that I find disappointing and bland, like Nuit de Cellophane, I feel far more disappointed than if some line like Dior put out something I found equally uninteresting. I judge many lines new releases on whether they can hold a candle to what's come before.

    That being said, some that have been disappointments to others have been gifts to me, for example Sarrasins ( a jasmine much less intense than A La Nuit ), and Fille En Aiguilles ( whose drydown is more or less Arabie Light on me ). In both those cases, the predecessors are too "too", in every way, for me to wear.

  18. Thank you for your response! I think I may wait till I'm at a counter that stocks the Lutens line before venturing to try Bas, then, rather than buying a decant out of curiosity. :)

  19. Galamb Borong, I was actually very pleased with Nuit de Cellophane until Octavian pointed out its resemblance to Dior J'adore Absolu, but I'd still rather buy a Lutens than a Dior -- in other words, you're right, who it comes from does matter.
    I also thought of asking Serge Lutens a question about reworking notes he's already explored: I could totally understand that he'd want to do that, because he felt he could express something different, so I'd pretty much answered my own question.
    For me Fille en Aiguilles was quite different from Arabie, but then my skin didn't bring out the fruitiness at all. I found it a very moving fragrance.

  20. You might want to wait if you're not comfortable with that level of soapiness, but judging from the reactions of non-initiates, it's still quite a striking oddity so worth at least exploring.

  21. D, I got that out of your piece. The reason I brought up the Scorcese film is that at the time it came out, people had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what to do with it. What genre was that? What was the shooting style? The vibe? And okay, there's DeNiro, but Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhardt?

    Since then, Scorcese has stepped beyond "bounds" in a few ways, but that kind of stuck in my mind as a landmark in his pushing back at walls that were being constructed around his career. Hence, my association with Lutens, L'Eau, and your recent interview. Moving on, not dead yet...indeed.

  22. ScentScelf, it's just that I couldn't really think, as I was writing the response, of other examples of directors deliberately doing something outside of what was expected from them because they felt restrained by it. Possibly there are too many.
    There is certainly an enormous amount to be said about the expectations raised by the auteur, the amount of liberty he allows himself within the language he's created, the impossibility of breaking new ground constantly.
    In a way, concerning Mr. Lutens, I think much of it boils down to the star status he acquired, partly through his own doing (giving his name to the house, developing his own vision through it), partly through the development of the online perfume culture which has created a star system where none existed, just like the Cahiers du Cinéma critics created a cult for certain Hollywood directors.

  23. Wow Denyse! Amazing review, as always... very analytical but never clinical. You always seem to capture the spirit and personality of the perfume, which is fascinating. Can't wait for your review of Boxeuses later this year.

  24. Ha Lutens!
    When I first smelled La Myrrhe, my first 'exclusive', I sort of fell over and could not think of anything to say to myself except an assortment of expletives...I've since got a bit of a grip on rationality,but many of them still reduce me to...expletives, they are so stunning...
    I sometimes think - stop all this sampling and just buy all of Lutens' and cut to the chase! He does put such power into the ideas, even if they are 'mainstream'.
    Big lemming on this, a cruel No 19 sounds so, so..must have!! As for the Boxers...I wish my internet would break!

  25. Katherine, thanks. I'm not equipped to do clinical! But notice that the one person who is, my friend Octavian, is very lyrical as well... Which is what perfumers are: technicians and poets.

  26. Winn, expletives are something I reserve for vintage masterpieces, in their vintage versions: Mitsouko, Bandit, Shocking and N°5 come to mind. But I can certainly envision uttering them for some of the Lutens. Though I wouldn't want to restrict myself to his perfumes -- when the dashing Frédéric Malle came along in 2000, I'm afraid I started cheating on Serge after 8 years of bliss.