For over 20 years, Serge Lutens has been producing fine perfumery with Proustian accents. From “Féminité du bois” to “Ambre sultan” and “La fille de Berlin,” each creation tells its own exceptional story with its own unique signature
Born in the city of Lille in France, Serge Lutens began his career in 1963 as a stylist for French Vogue magazine. He directed the makeup, hair and accessories for that year’s Christmas issue. Lutens never had any doubts about his extraordinary talents: “I believe very much in destiny … when I began to do makeup, I knew how to do makeup. And the moment I began to do photography, I knew how to take photographs.” Such was his reputation that Dior hired him to create the house’s first cosmetics collection. “I invented a new way to make the color,” he told journalists Jean Jacques Gay and Anne-Marie Morice. “Before, fabrics and paper were used, whereas I mixed the colors directly in dishes. In my work, color is as important as the set design of my images. Color is everywhere.”
Lutens traveled widely. Marrakech, in particular, fascinated him. “I discovered it in 1968 and, in every sense of the word, it was mine; an awakening, a refuge because with its smells, sounds, colors, light. I was caught up in the bustling crowd that engulfed me,” he recalls. “Marrakech produced this taste for fragrance, but these fragrances are the result of both a choice, a taste for the Arab world, and a reaction to a perceived opposition. A culture that I was unaware of.”
In 1980, Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido retained Lutens to reshape the firm’s international image. He took on the task using his distinctive aesthetic, a French sense of luxury, a Moroccan eye for detail and a Japanese passion for simple, graceful forms—always cloaked in black.
During his two-year stint with Shiseido, Lutens directed the creation of Shiseido’s Nombre noir (1982), composed by perfumer Jean-Yves Leroy. Perfume critic Luca Turin reminisces, “one day in 1982, there appeared out of nowhere, on the perfume floor of my local Galeries Lafayette, a shining black monolith displaying a new perfume called Nombre noir, made by Shiseido and signed SL, the initials of its mysterious creator, Serge Lutens. I asked to smell it and my life was altered forever. I wrote that Nombre noir was the best fragrance ever” said Turin. Besides its extraordinary scent, Nombre noir won acclaim for its innovative packaging and posters, designed by Lutens himself.
Indeed, only a few people could appreciate the play the nuances of fine perfumery, and as intuitive as Lutens. He compares a fragrance “In music is a set of chords. It is the emergence of a note, electrified by its collision with the following one, a chain reaction. In writing, this is called the syntax, and this produces poetry.” He continued, “If we combine all the notes of Mozart’s requiem, do you think we would then be able to create a masterpiece just because we used the same notes? Or do you think taking the words of Proust would produce the extraordinary emotion to your audiences?” “When carefully selected, the marriage of two or three essences, whether natural or synthetic, disrupts and redefines the expression of a composition. But when taken alone, they are no more than ingredients.”
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