Many beauty experts pronounce Serge Lutans's name in a quiet, reverent whisper. Even those who have never seen his photo, probably know his aromas. For more than four decades, Lutans has gained a reputation as one of the most famous perfumers in the world. We tell his story.
Serge Lutens studied at a high school in the provincial French Lille, but at the age of 15 he abandoned classes and became an apprentice at the Chez Besson hairdresser. For a long time he swept the floor, served tea and tools to the craftsmen. Once, when the salon was full and the masters were not enough, the owner handed him scissors and ordered a haircut for the client. Serge famously cut her long curls, making a young lady four of a kind.
Soon, girls from all over Lille wanted to get a haircut to the young hairdresser-experimenter. Why, there, they say, even the ladies from Paris signed up for him for three months. Then he first became interested in photography, experimenting with staged photos on his acquaintances. These pictures, taken for himself, became his first step towards professional photography.
At the age of 18, Serge Lutans was drafted into the French army in connection with the war in Algeria, but tried to evade being sent to active troops. By his own admission, at first he tried to simulate dysphoria, and then he really fell into depression and spent several months under medical supervision. Ironically, it was the French army that prompted him to get carried away by beauty. In 1962, he went to Paris. In his hands were pictures of his friend Madeleine Levy, in whom he lived the first years in the capital of France. Thanks to them, Serge began to collaborate as a photographer and expert on hairstyles and makeup with the Paris editions of the magazines Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar and Jardins des Modes, as well as with such photographers as Richard Avedon, Irwin Penn and Bob Richardson.
He became world famous thanks to the collaboration with the house of Christian Dior. In 1967, the brand commissioned Lutans to develop colors, styles and visual images to launch the Dior cosmetics line. In the early 1970s, Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, called what Serge did “a makeup revolution.”
What I did for Dior at the time was first suspiciously accepted by French fashion magazine editors. But Diana immediately saw this as an innovative idea. It was the cry of women who wanted to be free, – recalls Lutans.
He becomes a symbol of freedom of the new generation. In 1973, the New York Guggenheim Museum dedicated a separate exposition to Lutans' work.
Around the same time, Lutans began to travel, and in turn a passion for aromas arose. He designed his impressions of what he saw abroad in two short films: Les Stars, shot in 1974, and Suaire, shot in 1976. Both films were shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
Culture is what we carry in ourselves, – says Lutans, when asked about what affects his work.
Seven billion Americans, seven billion Japanese, seven billion Moroccans, seven billion French, seven billion thieves, seven billion liars. No one is cut off from other cultures. I love America, as it is, Japan with its desire for excellence – I love so many things! He recalled.
A trip to Japan made an indelible impression on him. It was after this journey that he began working with the Shiseido brand and became its art director. He signed a contract with this Japanese cosmetics company in 1980.
I first visited Japan in 1971, and since then I have returned there many times. This culture fascinated me. It’s true, it’s inimitable and unique, He said.
Lutans developed the branding of the brand that has become Shiseido's hallmark for many years. The press noted the significant influence of Russian constructivism, the work of Tamara Lempitskaya and Fritz Lang on visual images created by Serge.
Violating all the rules of marketing that were supposed to focus on the product, Lutans emphasized images and associations. So, in 1982, he developed for Shiseido his first fragrance, dressed in a glossy black bottle resembling a silk origami, called Nombre Noir. Subsequently, this composition was named one of the five greatest in history. However, a year later, Nombre Noir was discontinued.
If the story of the fragrance itself ended tragically, then for Lutans it was only the beginning. In 1992, Serge created the legendary fragrance Feminite du Bois, and then opened a boutique in the Palais Royal in Paris. This was the first and only place where only Feminite du Bois was sold. Boutique for one fragrance. And only in 2000, the perfumer created his own perfume brand Parfums Serge Lutens.
In 2009, he created another iconic fragrance – L'Eau Serge Lutens. It was Lutens' attempt to create an “anti-perfume,” a kind of remedy for purifying our inner world.
Its notes give the endless sensation of cleanliness that you experience after a hot bath, and remind you how nice it is to put on freshly washed clothes. I did not seek to create a replacement for perfume, I wanted to help you regain the true pleasure of wearing aroma. This creation is my answer to the world of excessive perfumery, He said then.
Almost all home scents are unisex.
Pleasure has nothing to do with sex. So, the question arises: can a fragrance belong to a particular sex? My answer is no, – sure Serge.
La Religieuse ("The Nun"), released at the beginning of 2015, became the 70th fragrance of its authorship. For the presentation of some new perfume compositions, Lutans shot three-minute videos where he read the voice-over text or appeared in the frame himself. In March 2015, Lutans sold the rights to the Parfums-Beaute Serge Lutens trademark to the Shiseido brand, retaining the position of art director of the brand.
The last line of Serge Les Eaux de Politesse ("Polite Waters") was released a couple of months ago. He combined the most transparent, cool and clean compositions of the brand in one collection. The notes of mountain air, cold steam, mowed grass, Somali incense and artemisia – even the bottles resemble pieces of pure ice.
Life in Morocco
Lutans does not really like Paris and has been living in Morocco for many years. In the center of Marrakech, he owns a palace the size of a quarter with 200 halls. Serge himself did not spend a single night in the palace, but lives not far from him, in a small modest house with one room in the middle of a huge garden.
His passion for the East was embodied in the scent that the master himself calls the most impudent and wild – Ambre Sultan.
About 30 years ago, I found a piece of amber in the old city of Marrakesh. That smell literally seduced me, and from that day I dreamed of creating an amber scent.
The starting point in this story was the odorous wax found in one of the eastern bazaars and for a long time forgotten in a wooden casket. The amber in this composition became truly Sultan's only after I mixed it with a cyst – grass like tar stuck to my fingers, then added overtones that no one expected to hear here – vanilla. Why? Yes, because vanilla literally sticks to our soul, forever remaining in memory, – the perfumer spoke about creation of this bestseller.
The perfumer is sure that creating a fragrance that will stand the test of time requires immersion in childhood. In the end, it is at the beginning of life that we develop our primary, instinctive reactions to smell and the associations that will accompany us throughout life.
How is life now
Serge gets up early, drinks three cups of coffee with milk and sits down to write something like a diary.
I write about two hours and then go to my house, located in the Medina area. I built it not for life, but for the soul. It is beautiful: mosaics, carved walls, antiques – and large. Surprisingly, I work in the most modest part of it – in a small office located on the second floor. My house has been under renovation since 1974, and I won’t finish it in any way – all the time I want to add, move, outweigh, drive a new nail. In the evenings, I read or watch TV.
Lutans has been leading a reclusive lifestyle for many years. For example, the last time he was in a cafe in 1968, he also rarely gives interviews.
I call my life rich loneliness, which allows me to focus on the really important things for me and work, He notes.
Here, in the laboratory in his house, he creates aromas. According to him, the process of creating a new smell always begins in his own mind.
I start with the desire to work with certain smells and feelings, such as the fragility of smoke or the fury of a rose. Then there are several sessions per month, here in the laboratory in Marrakesh or in Paris with technical specialists. Objectively, perfumes are alcohol and other components, but I do not care. Subjectively – they are much larger – says Serge Lutans.
As an artist who fully expresses himself through the canvas, Serge does it through perfume. For him, spirits tell their stories, not only in the form of words, but in notes. On the day when he has nothing more to say, he will stop producing perfumes, but this, fortunately, has not happened yet.