Black humour has always been part of Serge Lutens’ modus operandi: with his two new fragrances, Vitriol d’oeillet and De Profundis, it takes on an ultraviolet tinge – both fragrances are in fact purple – with overt allusions to death. Could it be a stance on the purported dangers of fragrance? When I met him for my book, Serge Lutens did quip that he was tempted to put “Perfuming kills” on his boxes, just like the tobacco industry puts health warnings in cigarette packs… Which is, at any rate, better than proclaiming the death of perfumery.
As we’d done with Boxeuses, Serge Lutens was kind enough to answer a few of my questions in writing. But as you may have noticed in previous interviews of his, Mr. Lutens favours puns, most of which are impossible to translate, so I’ve decided to add footnotes to this one. They may betray his deliberately cryptic, allusive writing style, but at least, they show there’s method to his madness; a surrealistic associative process.
That said, the new additions to the Lutens opus are so densely packed with oblique allusions they would seem to require as many footnotes as a Penguin reader. Thus, the press release for Vitriol d’Oeillet alludes to the carnations worn by English dandies, sliding from there to Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On top of which the word “oeillet” is a semantic mine in and of itself: it comes from “little eye” and means “carnation”, “eyelet” and, though it isn’t the subtext here, a certain bodily orifice… As for vitriol, the old world for sulphuric acid, it is an alchemical acronym which I quote in my questions.
De Profundis, “From the Depths” in Latin, yields an even richer seam. It draws its name from the first words of Psalm 130, a prayer for the dead. “De Profundis Clamavi” (“From the depths I call”) is also the title of a poem by Baudelaire; Oscar Wilde entitled “De Profundis” the letter he wrote from jail to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas.It is also the title of several pieces of religious music.
In other words, those new bottles are filled to the brim with words and notes... If they burst, don't touch: glass shards cut.
Denyse Beaulieu: Baudelaire, Wilde and the Catholic ritual for De Profundis; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and, again, Wilde for Vitriol d’Oeillet: is it now literature that inspires you?
Serge Lutens: It is my spine, which, as you know, features a few thorns. It is the evocation that a perfume supposes and proposes which speaks to me, or which I read in it. From the outset, my perfumery has always sprung from this source. I will only quote the most striking examples, those that inscribe themselves, as would a book or a film, as much by their name as by their fragrance: "Tubéreuse criminelle", "Serge noire", "Cuir mauresque", "Sa majesté la rose", "Sarrasins"... If essences were merely perfume, what would it conjure for us? A product stacked on a shelf, and to add insult to injury, put on the market!
D.B.: Carnations are not only picked from dandies’ lapels: they are also the heart of many perfume classics, such as Poivre and Bellodgia by Caron, L’Air du temps and Opium. Did you think of them, as you though of the classic era of couture with Bas de Soie?
S.L.: “Œillet” [carnation] also has a homonym designating a perforation through which you thread a lace and if you’re on a mountain road, it can take a lot of dangerous twists!
As for the examples you quote, I never knew that carnation was part of these compositions: if so, it is as discreet as the horizon on a foggy day. That said…
D.B.: Vitriol: “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificandoque Invenies Occultum Lapidem”, or “Visit the interior of the earth and by rectification discover the hidden stone”. Would your vitriol be the alchemist’s formula for finding the Philosopher’s Stone?
S.L.: I don’t have that ambition and if I find something that “philosophizes” me, it would be in a book rather than a perfume.
D.B.: Is your carnation really as mean as all that? I find it quite soft.
S.L.: It’s extremely peppery. What interested me in this vitriol was to dis-figure it. The ingredients themselves led me to the name. The etymology of giroflée [wallflower] conjures gifle [slap]; we bind ourselves to it with clove and finally – but that’s my addition – Cayenne pepper: you have to end up somewhere some day!
D.B.: De Profundis triggers a vague unease in certain people… Have you deliberately sought out this sweetish, slightly mortiferous effect?
S.L.: The chrysanthemum is tinged with bitterness. I added, as is sometimes mentioned, a hazelnut flavour over a superb incense. If “De Profundis” triggers unease, I am delighted! It would have been a pity to let this flower waste away in cemeteries, wouldn’t it?
D.B.: Death, death, always death… Are you thumbing your nose at a taboo or reminding us that perfume, at the outset, was used to embalm the dead?
S.L.: But, my dearest Denyse – I will use an answer I could have made, post-mortem, to my mother who has the same name as you: “As long as I am alive, so is my death, and I can assure you that it is in great shape.” As for serving a God, leave me my lucky star because if it comes to that, I’ll light it up myself.
D.B. : After death, the great beyond… Is the next perfume Heaven, Hell or Purgatory?
S.L. : Il "mord" j'espère, mais, pas trop fort !
Vitriol d’œillet will be available as of July 1st at the Palais-Royal and launched internationally in September. De Profundis is a Palais-Royal exclusive and will come out in October as well.
Stay tuned for the next post, my review of Vitriol d’oeillet, which will feature a sample draw.
THE FOOTNOTES :
 In French, the word for “spine” is épine dorsale; épine also means “thorn”.
 Oeillet, a diminutive of oeil, “eye”, means both “carnation” and “eyelet”.
 A pun on lacet, which means both “lace” and “hairpin bend”.
 There is an old French expression, la giroflée à cinq feuilles, “the five-leaf wallflower”, which means the trace of five fingers left by a slap. The flower itself was named giroflée because its smell is reminiscent of clove, which comes from the giroflier. Etymologically, it is linked to the Italian for carnation, garofano.
 The French for clove is clou de girofle: clou means “nail” (the type you hit with a hammer). The word Serge Lutens uses for “bind” is s’attacher, which means to bind oneself, but also to become emotionally attached to something.
 One of the most infamous French penitentiaries was in Cayenne, in French Guyana. It is a recurring motif in Serge Lutens’ favourite author, the genius thief-turned-writer Jean Genet.
 Ok, I gave up on translating: literally, the sentence means “It bites, I hope, but not too hard!”, the pun being on mord (“bites”), a homophone of mort (“death”).