Q & A With Serge Lutens {Perfume Q & A}

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In this Q & A with Serge Lutens, the discussion focuses on his latest creation, Five O 'Clock Au Gingembre (in the export range) and the notion of luxury, one of the key concepts that inspired the new scent. We had also wanted to ask him broader questions such as: are we still living with the legacy of Baudelaire where perfumery is concerned? Does Orientalism continue to nurture the creation and the imaginary world of perfumes? We decided to be more concise. But as it turns out, there was no need to put these words black on white. Baudelaire and colonialism (not Orientalism) are evoked. Here is an invitation to step into the Lutensian universe.



Marie-Helene Wagner:

1 - The rediscovered taste of ginger seems to have been your initial source of inspiration. Did you tell yourself something like, we are going to try to make a perfume, a beautiful, interesting one, around the ginger raw material? If yes, what olfactory facets or precise impressions around this fragrant rhizome did you want to bring out? Were there any surprises?

Serge Lutens:

 – Treating the ginger as a simple invigorating root did not interest me at all. I most of all wanted to bring out in this ingredient its candied aspect, the idea of luxury, associated with that of rarity.

As you know, the first time one takes a bite out of ginger, it is rarely appreciated. It is part of these things that require that our taste go through an “apprenticeship”. The first time I tasted it, it was in a Vietnamese restaurant in the early 1970s. I initially thought that it was foul. With time, I learned to appreciate it. It is a cultural refinement.......


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2 – Spices carried a connotation of luxury with them originally in medieval European culture since they were not indigenous, then have become much more commonplace in our times. Having perceived that ginger could become anew the support of a sensation of luxury -- by putting it in the right kind of context – how did you try to concretely translate this idea of a precious ginger in Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre?


- It was essential first of all to respect its elegant bitterness and bring out its candied side. Above all, not treat ginger like a fresh material to be prepared! More concretely speaking, the ambiance of this perfume is that of a biscuit mingled with cacao. This contributes to conferring on the perfume a singular sense of elegance.


3- Would you say that there exists a kind of luxury that is typically British, that would be different for example from the conception of luxury found in Moroccan culture, where you live? If you did work with Chris Sheldrake, did he whisper anything to you regarding this?


– The idea of luxury that we have about Great Britain is very much linked to cinematographic memories. As you know, English luxury is also very much linked to colonization, to countries encountered and transformed by a certain Europeanization process (Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy…)

To answer the second part of your question, my collaboration with Christopher Sheldrake is not linked with the origin of the perfume. It essentially has to do with the construction [of the perfume] itself, what I wish to bring out in the ginger….


4- Do you take as point of departure most often a raw material that fascinates you or do you rather take as points of departure a story, a thought association, or images…?


- Everything is a whole. Everything originates from an ensemble of things: a poem of Baudelaire, a perfume, a raw material…it is something that makes its progression along with me.


5 - Would you define Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre as a gourmand perfume or is the gustatory theme ultimately a secondary one, more like a pretext?


- For me “Five o’clock au gingembre is not a gourmand or gustatory perfume. It is a rare perfume. Ginger evokes the rare and the precious. It is not a gourmand ingredient, but an ingredient for connoisseurs [the word is used in English in the original French interview].


6 - What are your favorite flavors in life?


  - The flavor of what I like in the moment. It changes over time.


7 – Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre seems to be a title that is a priori less perplexing than some of your other perfume names such as lately, Chypre Rouge, Sarrasins, Louve. It seems to be less mysterious in appearance, although the oniric mention of a black Rolls Royce gliding against a wintry landscape, then of an English manor where someone is invited to a tea party and where tea is served in a black Wedgwood tea set create that part of silence (the black color, the snow once more) that seems to be the hallmark of your perfumes. Five O’Clock…is it a perfume that is different from the other Lutens (despite the recurring gourmand, tea, and spices themes?)


– I don’t think so. Maybe this wink-of-the-eye aspect, in the manner of Agatha Christie. “Five o’clock au gingembre”. But yes, that’s it -- of course!


8 – What significance do you accord the names of your perfumes? Does a name impose itself from the start in any obvious fashion and help move along the creative process or is it the object of research and consultations at the end only?


 – The name starts to emerge during the gestation of the perfume. Generally speaking, it happens at the end of the process. For me, the name is fundamental! It identifies the perfume and its universe, which is made immediately present by something short. Regarding consulting, let me tell you that there is none, except the worst kind of it: with my own self! To find a [perfume] name today is akin to engaging in a boxing match, as entire dictionaries are almost wholly trademarked. To find a name one must be at the same time a tightrope walker and a female wrestling champion!


9 – You seem to say regarding Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre that luxury would be a form of illusion. In what ways would Five O’ Clock Au Gingembre be the illusion of luxury, of ultimate refinement, rather than its reality? Also is there a luxury that would be real and that you would contrast with an illusory luxury, or is luxury always profoundly to you, an illusion, and in what sense?


 – I think that luxury is not an illusion, but a reality in the first person singular. There are gilded ostentatious luxuries….and the luxury of being alone with oneself and hearing the snow crunching under one’s shoes.


10- What would be the difference between a luxurious perfume and a sophisticated one (two words that you use here)?

– Luxury as described by Baudelaire does not belong to reality but to the imagination.

Sophistication itself can be funny but also pathetic and two-bit. There are no definitive answers, it is a question of lived life.


11- It seems that luxury and the unique here are presented as the signs of a possible recognition between people in search of meaning and affinities. Is perfume more oriented towards sharing for you or is it first and foremost the expression of individuality?


- I think that THE perfume [in an abstract sense] does not exist. Everything is in the plural. Perfume can be considered as politeness, statement, adornment, or insult. I think that there are natural affinities that get created. To share is not a goal by itself.  


12 – Are there inexpensive perfumes that you like or appreciate?


– It’s happened to me that I have found wonderful sources of inspiration, for two cents, in the souks in Marrakech. Today I went through that round dance, which is charming and better than what one can find sometimes in so-called “quality” perfumes.


13- Can you explain to us what are what you call “invisible refinements”?


– Invisible refinements are what make up that difference that changes everything. It is what is unsaid, yet expressed.

  One feels them, one guesses them, but nothing is shown.


14- Can we know what will be the theme of the next exclusif at the Salons du Palais Royal?


– If I tell you: the perfume is…you are going to laugh, but it is indeed that! You will see.


15 – Could you tell us what are the 10 perfumes, besides your own, that you would recommend perfume lovers to discover first and foremost?


– If I really loved a perfume, I would tell you, but when I smell a perfume, my relationship to it as an analyst and a critic soon takes over. This is why it is hard for me to quote a perfume in its entirety.

  Some aspects are interesting to me, but others, often disturb me….

   It is no doubt a flaw, but also a quality!


- We thank you very much.

See the 2nd Part of the interview 

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10 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. The man is as elusive and mysterious as his fragrances.

  2. I second Quinn. To what extent, I wonder, does other people's appreciation of his perfumes really matter to him? The whole SL line is more or less shrouded in question marks, hows and whys and I think Mr. Lutens is aptly maintaining the aura of mystery and leaving plenty of room for the guessing game.
    Thank you for this exclusive treat, Marie-Hélène!

  3. Quinn,

    I cannot disagree with you.

    I tried asking him a couple of practical and straightforward questions to see how he would react and he took it well (sent me a little note afterwards to comment on the independence of the questions - it was a way of recognizing that for X reason he chose not to answer them) but he was not interested in giving particulars. I can understand that. It's not natural for me either to give out info on demand. I think it should flow out naturally, with time.

    He is an artist more than a professional.

    Well, one solid fact people can retain from the interview is that Sheldrake continues to work with him.

  4. Dusan,

    As I told Quinn, I think that Serge Lutens is more of an artist than anything else. Therefore I think that people's approval of his work is only secondary, all things considered.

    Then again he has a secretive temperament, so we have to respect that. After, it is great if his mysterious side nurtures his fragrances. We can be thankful for that.

    I thought it was interesting to see him define himself as a perfume analyst and critic. One can sense through his wok that he has a great mind for it.

  5. This initially seemed like a coup. Unfortunately, even Helene couldn't coax out meaningful and informative answers from a man who has trademarked the word "luxury".

    Still, thanks for the interview.

  6. Quite the coup, dear MH!
    Thanks for bringing SL's wonderfully cryptic musings online for us to savour.

  7. Zztop,

    First of all I would like to clarify and say that this was not a coup and not meant to be one. It was simply an opportunity to discuss Five O'Clock with Lutens. It is more a focused Q & A than a full-fledged interview on his work in general.

    I think that Lutens' forte and interest is not in providing factual details but philosophical and aesthetic insights. I find his answers meaningful. Also, if you follow his work, you will be struck by the recurrence of certain images in his discourse. Look for example at the recurring mention of the snow topos for example, associated, he clarifies that here, with solitude.

    I hope that readers learned more about the fragrance nevertheless:)

  8. Helg,

    Thank you. But again, this is not a coup! It is much more simple than that.

    "Cryptic" puts it well, "philosophical" also perhaps.

  9. Dear Marie,

    Thank you for yet another wonderful interview. I have been reading your writing for many months, and I suddenly realized that I have not complimented and thanked you for your work. The interview series, in particular--Lutens, here, then also Dove and Hopkins--have been particularly well received. And I find your reviews particularly instructive. If Luten's perfumes strikes me in a particular way--I would say that they create "a world." It is a faceted world, but decidedly particular to Luten's aesthetic, vision, and developments in scent and tastes. I especially responded to his image of the luxury of solitude in the snow--which he filled with the "crunching" sound. Often, his scents are calming, comforting, a scented place to take a journey.

    Thank you!

  10. Dear Catherine,

    Thank you for your kind words!


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