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Serge Lutens: Perfume Genius


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?'

The conversation turns to Paul Bowles and his wife, Jane, who for a long time lived in Morocco and knew how to capture in their books the madness and eroticism of Moroccan daily life. We move on to Roland Barthes, Herv' Guibert, Arthur Rimbaud, and, of course, Proust. The conversation with (and surrounding) their ghosts causes us to lose track of time. It seems that literature is pulling us away from talk of the fragrances. On the other hand, it brings us back to the question of origins, to a place: a street in the city of Lille, where Lutens grew up. The Rue de Tournai.

Like in a text by Proust, uttering the name Rue de Tournai brings Lutens back to a particular part of his life: adolescence. He speaks at length about this 'dangerous street,' frequented by Maghrebian immigrant men, his fear and fascination with the street as a teenager, his attempts to get to the bottom of his desire. He ended up getting there, filling himself up with the masculine atmosphere of the place. He tirelessly passed, again and again, the caf's filled with Arab men. He never went inside. He left. He came back. He'd forget about the street. He'd return to it, lose himself there.

All this happened at the beginning of the 1960s, when France was at war with Algeria, which was reclaiming its independence. When Arabs were poorly regarded by everyone in France.

Recalling this street, Lutens remembers his first desire, a palpable one. He remembers violent scenes, his father and mother endlessly fighting, his jealousy of his brother, his life in dotted lines, his almost sickly sensitivity: 'I felt everything too much'I felt like a man without bones.'

He remembers his father too, with whom he never got along ('He never stopped saying to me, 'You're stupid.' '). His father, who called him in Tokyo, at the other end of the world: 'I hadn't seen him in years. He wanted to tell me something. What? I'll never know.' His father died, rather young, a few days after this unexpected phone call. A father that people in the streets of Lille took for an Arab. Was he?

I ask the question several times.

Lutens, each time, changes the subject. He says, 'In Morocco, they take me for a Moroccan. What do you think?'

Boldly, I look him straight in the eyes. I see a man who doesn't look at all his age. An open and anxious face. Big, kind eyes. A vast, smooth forehead, like a continent. I see a teenager. He is afraid, still. Who has he become? Who is he still? A man from the city of Fez, the cradle of civilization and Moroccan sophistication. A man who has white skin but who goes under the sun, in astonishment, in wonder. A man who doesn't understand everything in life, but for whom that isn't a problem. A man who immediately seems so approachable, the kind of man you want to sit next to, have fun with, and listen to as he jumps from one topic to the next, whose delicacy you want to taste, whose silence you want to interpret, whose hand you want to hold. The kind of man who makes you question the world. The kind of man who makes you want to live, through him, another way, who makes you want to invent the origin of everything about him, including his obsessive fragrances.

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