mardi 1 juin 2010

Serge Lutens: "The desire never left me" (Exclusive interview)



Serge Lutens came into my life when I was barely a teenager. I discovered the hieratical, blade-sharp beauty of his women in French magazines and knew I had found my Neverland. Years later, I stumbled on his alchemist’s den while visiting the ghosts of the Palais-Royal, and it has been a haunt ever since: his work opened up the world of scent to me and made me veer from perfume monogamy to olfactory polyamory...

Then I met him, and it seemed to me we recognized each other, but that may have been the fantasy of the thirteen-year-old girl in me. There is something magical about Serge Lutens’ sylph-like presence and his light-footed dancer’s gait. Which is probably why his answers read like riddles and verbal glissés… When they’re not swift jabs to the jaw.

Here are those he’s graciously given to the questions forwarded to him in Marrakech, for the launch of Boxeuses (“Female Boxers”), a Russian leather wrapped in Prunol coming out this fall at the Salons du Palais-Royal, and Bas de Soie (“Silk Stockings”), the iris-hyacinth which went on sale yesterday as part of the export line and will be launched in August. I will be back with reviews. For now, forgive the translation: there is something so deeply French about his way with words that any attempt to render them into English fails to fully capture their essence. Meanwhile, meet Monsieur Lutens…


Denyse Beaulieu: Those who’ve been wearing your perfumes for a long time felt betrayed by L’Eau Serge Lutens. Now you’ve come back to a more opulent register. Was your desire reborn, or was it the thread of the story that you picked up again? Was L’Eau Serge Lutens the Boxeuses’ feint?

Serge Lutens: Treason is the very principle of creation, if there ever was one. I was only following what I felt. It seemed vital to me to destabilize a given that was becoming generalized and orientalized. The desire never left me. Tying and untying, but above all, avoiding being bound by this thread, which could trap me inside a self that would only belong to others. L’Eau Serge Lutens is a jab, a K.O. in the first round in the face of sham!

D.B.: Leather is not an essence but a view of the mind, a perfumer’s construction. What does the leather in Boxeuses say that hadn’t been expressed in Cuir Mauresque or Daim Blond? Or should we look towards Féminité du Bois, whose plum accord it reprises?

S.L.: All those accords have long been forgotten and are part of the past. Boxeuses is more of a birch leather (i.e. a Russian leather). If you’re asking me what my perfumes are composed of precisely, that’s all behind me, and so to speak, forgotten. My past doesn’t interest me much. It’s done. Let’s say that this is a fighting leather worn by a female boxer in silk stockings (but here, I’m having fun).

D.B.: After the austerity of Iris Silver Mist, Bas de Soie plays on a very different iris – a powdered marquise or a courtesan of the Palais-Royal… It’s very French, isn’t it?

S.L.: I don’t know. If you think so, but I’d rather say that it is a perfume at the center of doubt; that the beam balance never settles between iris and hyacinth in the main accord, which is what makes the composition interesting. It is this play on hesitation that offers its subtlety.

D.B.:You’ve said that Bas de Soie was born of a phantasmagorical image. Do you think that wearing a perfume is a way of creating a dream-world doppelganger, a parallel life for oneself?

S.L.: I’d say that above all, it’s the name Bas de Soie that delighted me. It answered to the perfume. Is wearing a perfume creating a doppelganger? Why not, but then, in the sense of gathering yourself through one of your parallel facets.


D.B.: In the bottle, perfume is nothing yet. To live, it needs skin, air and imagination; a meeting between the perfumer’s story and the story of the person who wears it. In a word, I am the performer of my perfume, like an opera singer is the performer of a composer… Would you agree?


S.L.: Yes, absolutely. Mind you, some people sing more in tune than others!

D.B.: You say very little about the composition of your fragrances. Are you annoyed to see them scrutinized and analyzed, in blogs, for instance?


S.L.: In yours, not at all. Grain de musc is certainly grain of salt… but it’s very well made. What’s more, the words or sentences of a novel may be analyzed, but the novel itself remains a mystery.


D.B.: Do you consider that Christopher Sheldrake is the interpreter of your ideas, or a creative partner? Do you speak to him at length, or do you understand each other without spelling things out?


S.L.: I’ve been working with Christopher Sheldrake since the origin of Féminité du Bois. I met him in Japan. What happens between two people, through a collaboration in the words given by my very receptive personality, makes the person who’s listening porous, I don’t know why.

For a while, I thought of filming my working method with Christopher, but I gave up because I know that in front of the camera we would probably be placed, he and I, in a position that could bring out a narcissistic aspect, which would have skewed the way the film was understood. The magic and the invisible thread that binds us would disappear. We would be working for the film.

The invisible is impossible to determine and my role cannot be defined by a profession… this disorients the Americans, who like to determine the non-determinable.

My involvement is to suggest essences and direction. I know where I’m going and so does Christopher Sheldrake (it’s his job). The real partner, the core, is the perfume. It takes you where it wants, but never against my wishes.


D.B.: You have told Elisabeth de Feydeau, when speaking about Féminité du Bois, that some perfumes could be bettered by reformulation. How so?


S.L.: In general, it’s not by choice. When the batches run out, laws change and you must find the “ideal” solution which can, on occasion, allow a re-reading of the perfume that will be positive, or even more than that. At any rate, that’s what I strive for.


D.B.: Restrictions on raw materials will soon force perfumers to stop overdosing some materials, like you did for instance in Féminité du Bois. Are you afraid of being hemmed in by regulations?


S.L.: I’m facing this now, and it isn’t simple: I twist, I bypass, but if restrictions became too limiting, I don’t know if my perfumery could endure, or even if I’d stay interested…


D.B.: In North America, many cities and companies ban fragrance because they are afraid that employees will sue them, claiming perfume makes them sick. What if this olfactophobia reached the Old World?


S.L.: Sometimes I can understand the employees’ reaction, in other cases, they can just drop dead! As for the difference between the Old and the New World – if it exists – it is losing ground daily!


D.B.: The tradition of classic French perfumery, which used animalic smells to conjure the body under the silk, is succumbing to the pressure of clean, of fruity shower gels, of regressive cupcake smells. Do you see yourself as a resistant to this pastry and laundry wave?


S.L.: I keep my distance. Waves only concern those who know how to swim. As for myself, I sink like a stone and I drag you to the bottom.


D.B.: “It matters very little that her tricks and artifices should be known to all, provided that their success is certain and their effect always irresistible”, writes Baudelaire in his In Praise of Cosmetics. Is this your philosophy of perfume and makeup?


S.L.: Of course, I adore Baudelaire but it seems to me that all that’s kept from him is his skillfulness with words and that the incisive quality of his poetry is forgotten. The Baudelarama of the French cosmetics industry is starting to bore me stiff! What’s more, do I really have a philosophy? If I do, it never leaves cruelty, which is to say, beauty.



D.B.: Those fibulas on your walls… are they daggers or shields?


S.L.: Only jewels, walls of jewels, but there are still a few gaps. I want to fill them, c’est le comble!


D.B.: Are you writing these answers with a fountain pen or on a keyboard?


S.L.: A Bic pen, three colours. I have hundreds of them. There are less every day: I lose them, I find them again, but they never run out.




Portrait of Serge Lutens courtesy of Parfums Lutens P.R., with all my thanks to Serge Lutens>


52 commentaires:

  1. This is amazing, thanks so much! What a personality. By the way, I think the translation is spot-on.

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  2. La Bonne Vivante, thank you. Email interviews are somewhat frustrating exercises... There are subtleties and word-plays missing in English, but it can't be helped. Traduttore, tradittore!

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  3. Thank you for this interview, I love his wit, or better his "esprit"! Very complex, and also with a diabolical element in it - "..I drag you to the bottom." Great!

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  4. Gisela, yes, that's quite a zinger... Love it too!

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  5. Thanks so much! I thoroughly enjoyed this and I will print it out as a "keeper".

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  6. Anya, I'm touched! I especially love what he says about his work with Christopher Sheldrake, I don't think he's ever spoken so much about it.

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  7. it is not wholly surprising, perhaps, that one of the most deep (and true to the spirit of creation) interviews I've read over a long period of time is this one: the artist a master of mystery, the questions presented to him honest, full of knowledge and - in fact - impulsed by what reads as true and reverent desir (the one in French).
    How I wish some writers, poets and film directors of our days would dare use the degree of sophistication, seduction and gravity that the great Serge Lutens gave us all through this medium.
    Thank you both, so much

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  8. obviously, it is all due to his respect for you dear carmencanada/grain de musc. he answered in earnest, imbued with trust. beautiful

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  9. Eleven European Mystics, thank you. Serge Lutens always answers his interviews with great care and respect, from what I've seen. I don't think I got special treatment in that regard. But I can't say I wasn't thrilled to read those answers! I did feel very special when I opened the document...

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  10. one more, upon reading both versions, the French and the English. Inasmuch as we all enjoy the traduttore, tradittore, as is absolves by means of spreading guilt upon us all, i think translation is a journey between cultures to which one sets out with a strange sense of humility and hybris - both will be put to good use. I loved both versions.
    But what about those fibulas?

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  11. I love how a myth has become a man here...and, given how full of personality and wit, the more interesting for having done so!

    Any number of smaller points to linger on and chat about...but, with my filmmaker hat on, I am particularly interested in how he feels a film could not capture his relationship with Sheldrake. Walking away thinking...

    ...and, of course, thanking you for this.

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  12. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

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  13. I am usually so astounded by Serge Lutens's answers in interviews that I wonder, truly, if I'm missing something. He has a most curious way of avoiding answering questions! But, to your credit, do present this in a less irritating fashion. By your introduction, he does seem on a higher (or at least different) plane. His answers are not consciously slippery in that context.

    Not to mention his answer to your question of waves really resonated with me. As did the last one: I lose pens faster than I do skin cells.

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  14. Thank you for a wonderful interview. I especially appreciate your inquiry of Christopher Sheldrake collaboration. The photos are wonderful.

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  15. Suddenly, it all makes sense. That's the mark of a skilled interviewer paired with a fascinating interviewee -- the answers unfold and the true subject is revealed.

    For the first time, I felt like I heard Mr. Lutens rather than just read his words.

    It's obvious that much thought, care and attention went into this interview on both sides, which is a testament of mutual respect.

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  16. Eleven European Mystics: fibulas, I must perhaps explain here, are not the leg bones in this context, but articles of jewellery used to hold the folds of a garment. Those that are displayed on the walls of Serge Lutens' Marrakech house are shaped like triangles with a spike (hence the shield/dagger question). I own one and wear it as both.

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  17. ScentScelf, I understand very well what he means about the camera, however discreet: it *does* change the given, the intimacy and even subconsciously, you start playing for it. I have always felt the ancient idea that cameras rob some of your soul to be a true one.

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  18. EricBrandon, I don't think Serge Lutens avoids answering: I think he doesn't want to be caught, pinned down but also that he uses words to catch something that's very elusive and thus, enigmatic. It's seduction -- i.e. "leading away from a path" -- and it's also I think a form of mysticism. As well as being playfulness, that I'm sure of!

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  19. Anonymous, I was very happy Mr Lutens spoke more about Christopher Sheldrake, who deserves much credit and seems to be, from the one time I met him, a truly lovely, kind and unpretentious man.

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  20. Nathan, though of course I know great thought went into my questions, and I imagine great thought went into his answers as well, I'm wondering whether the translation isn't also what gives off this impression. I did take some liberties, as one would do when translating poetry, and knowing full well some of the wordplay would be lost...
    Perhaps one day I'll have the chance of doing this in face to face.

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  21. can ignorance be explained by English being my third language and French my fourth? I apologize.

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  22. Absolutely not. You'd have to know either North African costumes and jewellery or perhaps the history of costume. In French though,"fibule" is not the name of a bone, so I didn't remember that it was in English (in fact, I only learned *that* last year translating a novel written by a med student!).

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  23. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

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  24. Nicely done, D. The man is a mystery, but like others have said, he has revealed a good amount of himself and his approach to perfumery w/ clarity.

    Marcus

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  25. Thanks Marcus. As I said above, that translation was a lot of work, but apparently worth it, if it comes off as clear!

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  26. I loved the sinking to the bottom phrase but also the naughty comment about some singers being more in tune than others! Reading even the translation of your dialogue felt like an enchantment, thank you so much for this. (I am looking forward to the Boxeuses - prunol and leather? Yes, please.)Nicola

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  27. fascinating, fascinating, fascinating man

    I was particularly interested regarding reformulations and how much further this can go- it's so upsetting.

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  28. Nicola, because it's you, you'll smell Boxeuses when I'm in London, I'm bringing some for the course...

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  29. Rose, it seems Mr. Lutens is upset as well.

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  30. This is some beautiful and extraordinary alchemy, D, where the two of you create something larger than words between your intelligent and sensitive questions and his playful, authentic and meaningful answers. There is clearly mutual respect here, and I think that must be the magic ingredient.

    I only wish I knew French so I could read it with all the original subtleties and word-plays intact, but you are on such intimate terms with both languages that the poetry managed to shine though. I don't think anyone could have done the man better justice.

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  31. Many thanks to both you and Monsieur Lutens for this interview, which I will reread and think about for some time. I appreciate the beauty of both the questions and the answers. ~~nozknoz

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  32. Well now we know what happened to Confucius!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking interview.

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  33. Robin, hopefully this is so. The French of course gives the fuller flavor, but from the comments here, I get the impression that the English conveys much of it as well.

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  34. Nozknoz, thank you. The Frenchness I think is also in the "philosophie", in the 18th century sense of the word.

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  35. Angela, I just commented about the Frenchness but there is also a bit of Oriental philosophy at play here too, isn't there?

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  36. Mr. Lutens is by far the most interesting if opaque personality in modern fragrance. If I didn't know otherwise, I'd suspect he was a literary creation rather than a living person, the fanciful alter-ego of some reclusive French writer. I find it hard to connect the personality I've seen in interviews to most of his fragrances, aside from the tongue-in-cheek names of a few.

    I'm sure it all makes more sense in French. As for now, he remains something of a mystery to me, more incense smoke and poetry than man...

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  37. in French "fibule" is the name of the brooch and "fibula" the name of the bone (used to be called péroné but it's become obsolete). both have the same latin root "fibula"

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  38. Galamb Borong, it doesn't necessarily. That's the way he talks in interviews.

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  39. Columbine, thanks for the precision. Here is a picture of a Moroccan fibula similar to the ones that Serge Lutens puts up on his walls:
    http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1981.5.2

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  40. Am late to the party, but what a great, GREAT interview. Far from being pretentiously complicated, his answers ring very true and yet the enchantment of his mystery remains. Wow. Thank you.

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  41. Thanks, Silvia, it's sweet of you to say...

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  42. Authentic, inspiring, and humorous. Like tasting the ambrosia of the gods. One of the most enjoyable interviews i've read. Thank you for this exquisite journey.

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  43. Thank *you* Shelley. Of course, I give credit to Mr Lutens for the care he brings to writing his answers.

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  44. LeaTS/Emm... you are a flower, gone with the season, where did you go so quickly? Revenu!
    99

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  45. He looks like such a shy faun. You were so fortunate as a young girl...

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  46. Lucy, it was only his pictures I met as a girl... But the one time I met him last year, I found him a very charismatic, incredibly graceful man. A faun... of the slightly diabolic kind!

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  47. I totally missed this -- so glad to have found it today, escaping the 100 degree heat on my laptop at the Library!

    Your wonderful questions, really speaking to him and they way he thinks combined with your fearlessness and incisiveness, really make for a great read, and the translation really melds the differences between French and English language and cultural points of view, genius!

    I really feel like I actually met him through you today, and I love him! You too of course!

    PS: I can't wait to sniff Boxeuses!

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  48. Wendy, thanks. Since then I have met Mr Lutens in person for the book. Our conversation was much looser and more of a chat... He is utterly charming, and not easily led into talking about what he doesn't feel like talking about! I was toast.

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  49. D, (Sorry for all those "reallys" in my previous post)!

    He does seem very much in control of the conversation (and of his life one can't help but wonder?), but does it in an effortless and charming way, with interesting responses and thought process. Of course he has been thinking about these things for a very long time, but I think he's rather a genius, or else completely visionary, no? If anyone is up to the task of communicating with him, you are, brava! I don't mean to rush you, but when is the book coming out???

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  50. Wendy, these are actually written answers: that's how Mr Lutens usually works with interviewers. In conversation, he speaks thoughtfully but not like a book! Beautiful warm speaking voice...
    The book won't be out for a little while. There's a launch date set already but it's too early to talk about it.

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  51. I imagined they were written, but I could see how he was answering with the emphases of his choice. He sounds wonderful. I look forward to your book whenever it launches! XXX

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  52. what is with the French and their passion for Bic multi-colored pens!-jen

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