Serge Lutens: Perfume Genius


By Abdella Taïa

So who is Serge Lutens's father? Where does he come from? The Arab world? Algeria? Eastern Europe?

I'll never know.

I tried, throughout my interview with the famous French perfumer, to get to the bottom of this mystery. In vain. The more I insisted the more the secret deepened. I'd never have the answers to my questions. The mystery will remain intact.

Yet Serge Lutens is someone who talks freely, who expresses himself, who doesn't leave ideas at the side of the road. But the more he talks, the less one knows him. The origin of things, his passion, his desires remain indecipherable for me, perhaps for the better.

'We're not predestined,' he says. 'It wasn't my destiny to become a perfumer.' But he's not just any perfumer. His signature line, Serge Lutens, which debuted in 2000, has gained a cultish following. And not just in France. His unforgettable fragrances are available in a single place: the Salons du Palais Royal in Paris, a few steps from la Com'die-Fran'aise. It's not a boutique or even a stylish place, but rather a temple, a mausoleum, a tower.

My interview with this refined man, born in 1942 in Lille, France, unfolds at the H'tel Ritz in Place Vend'me, where Lutens stays when passing through Paris. He is there, in a room in the lobby, standing before me. Apart from his white shirt, everything he is wearing is black. Is black his color? ('No,' he admits later. 'It's just protection, my armor.')

He is welcoming, warm. He quickly sets a relaxed, natural, almost intimate tone. He clearly wishes to get straight to the interview: questions, answers. A moment between us. Just us. An open discussion. In confidence. A literary crossing. A walk at the end of the afternoon, out of time, in the company of a delightful man.
Lutens had long hair until he was 16. He was a hairstylist. Then, for a long time, a makeup artist. The biggest makeup artist in the world. He directed films, created images. He collaborated with Richard Avedon, Bob Richardson, Irving Penn. In the 1980s, he revitalized the image of the Shiseido Group. Success came quickly to him. He traveled all over the world. He was in demand. He knew everyone. Without really getting to know himself. 'Between the ages of 16 and 26, I was at odds with myself. I wanted to get away from myself,' he says, adding, 'I was an aimless, faltering boy. Indecisive. I couldn't continue like that. I had to face myself.'

To take on this internal struggle, he traveled south, at the beginning of the 1970s, by car. Once in Marseille, he took a boat to Morocco and disembarked in Casablanca. It rained. He decided to continue his journey. He arrived in Marrakech. He felt straight away that this red city, this Morocco, was already a part of him. Its ochre land, its colors, its sounds, its crowds, its violence, its teeming eroticism, its question marks, all of it'everything was already a part of him, confusingly, intensely. He saw it, recognized it. He had found a land that boiled his senses, where he would reinvent himself. Or attempt to anyway.

'Usually I hate crowds,' he says. 'But not in Marrakech. There, I not only want to let myself get carried away by the crowd into the suqs, but I'd like to throw myself in it, to roll around in it, like it's flour. My connection with that crowd is more than physical, sexual'it's a bond that overtakes me and inspires me.'

To hear Lutens speak this way about Marrakech and its hordes of people, one would think it's not he who created his fragrances but the city itself, this strange, throbbing heart of Morocco. El Attarine, Chergui, Ambre Sultan, Rahat Loukoum, Rose de Nuit, Santal de Mysore'uncommon names for fragrances that go far beyond their context. Each is a novel in itself. A call in the night. At dawn. Tracks in the desert. A star coming back to life.

Lutens describes his scents with literary words. Sweet. Precise. Raw. Erotic. Words writers use. Words that give an impression of everlastingness. He never says how he 'manufactures' them. He deliberately keeps this part of his work vague. Maybe it remains a mystery even for him.

In this hotel, where Marcel Proust used to stay, it seems entirely natural to speak in terms of literature, about writers. First, Jean Genet, whom Lutens considers godlike and whose centennial just passed. 'To read Jean Genet at 22 was a big shock for me. Everything he does is violent and poetic. There's poetry in every sentence, every line. They offered for me to meet with him in the '80s. I didn't want to. I didn't want to meet God in person. What would I have said to him?'