Serge Lutens, the enigmatic perfumer, talks scent and tells us about his foundation in Marrakech.
Creating hypnotic potions is only part of Serge Lutens' life - and he's about to let a select group of visitors see why...
The reclusive face of perfume, Serge Lutens has become the figurehead of a niche in the fragrance market that he himself created. Lutens first started bucking the trend for far-reaching and crowd-pleasing scents from international powerhouses in 1990 when he opened a small salon beneath the arcades of the overlooked and leafy Palais Royal in Paris for Shiseido, where he was image creator. Here he began to present heady, intoxicating fragrances that were at once olfactory vestiges of Marrakech - his chosen place of residence - and antidotes to the generic, marketing-driven scents to be found everywhere else. From these small beginnings a mini-empire grew, a succession of perfumes bowing in selected stores around the world, with some scents kept exclusively for the Palais Royal store - that has since become a Mecca for perfume aficionados. Constantly absorbed in the creative process - two new perfumes, Chypre Rouge and Mandarine Mandarin, will be launched this fall - Lutens is soon to open a foundation in his adopted city. A house and garden extensively refined and worked upon for more than a decade where he will invite people who want to learn about his life's work and who share his interests in literature, art and, of course, perfume. Here Lutens discusses his views on the perfume industry, inspiration, Marrakech and his foundation.
Serge Lutens Interview
What is perfume to you?
One doesn't make a perfume uniquely from raw materials. A perfume is a composition of the mind, it's a personal experience, unexpected. It's not created in accord with society, it should be something that expresses a different view.
How do you feel about the modern, corporate fragrance industry and the perfumes it produces?
From start to finish they're consumer products, with a consumption price, in a consumption environment, with consumption marketing. It has nothing to do with perfume, with culture, taste, the senses. It's a socio-cultural product, constructed from A-Z, and completely artificial. This product is created at round-table meetings, by a group of highly paid marketing professionals who want to hold onto their jobs. So straight away the perfume is created in an environment of fear, of doubt.
You are one of the few major perfumers with creative liberty. Is this state of being vitally important for you to maintain?
For me creation can only exist with liberty. It's not possible to imagine creating in a state of anything but liberty. Otherwise it's not creativity, it's just an empty name. Creativity is not something that we possess, it's something that comes to us, we don't own it, and so it can leave us too. We don't know how it happens, we don't even understand it.
How do you go about creating a perfume? Can you work on more than one at the same time?
Yes, but not at the same time, not on the same day, never on the same day! That is to say that I'm working bit by bit on several perfumes. It's very easy. It's like picking up a novel I've been reading. I can recognize the story because I've been reading it, so there's no problem. A perfume starts with a story. It could be a piece of wood that I found, a flower, an odor that I don't know that I find interesting and will look for mentally. While reading a book it could be a word that I like. A perfume is a pretext, a form of olfactive writing, a succession of accords, from the meeting of nature and inspiration. You must always have an idea of where you're going, but the destination you arrive at is always surprising. Adding a link to a link, you end up with a chain. It might take one year, it might take seven.
Speaking of destinations, what do you love about Marrakech?
The culture, the beauty - beauty is what I'm always looking for. In fact if I couldn't live without it, life would be too squalid.
How did you first fall in love with the city?
I love it, because I had a shock. It was March 1968 when I first went there. I went there by accident. I went to Marseilles for fun, I don't remember why, just after signing a contract with Christian Dior; they'd asked me to look after the make-up line. In Marseilles I took a boat that was leaving the following morning on a three-day cruise. I hate cruises, they're so boring - water everywhere for days and boring people on sun loungers. When I got to Morocco it was cloudy and freezing, and it was around the time of my birthday. I took a road at random and that road took me to an area of low mountains, and where I arrived the clouds were just parting, and the light, the brightness was almost audible, the beauty, the forests of palm trees, beautiful people in scarves, it was incredible.
Could you be as creative if you weren't in Marrakech? Does Marrakech really shape how you work and the perfumes you produce?
Marrakech doesn't inform my level of creativity, Marrakech is where I live, to which I have gently adapted. A city where you go and set yourself up is like a sorcerer, a magnificent sorcerer, it pulls you in. I don't want to get bogged down in clichés. It's not a dream town, an art de vivre, with a dream villa - I hate such notions.
So you don't go in for the whole 'wandering through the souk' experience?
I don't go out much in Marrakech. I live in my house, my garden. I have sufficient mental provisions and memories. The things I have went into my head a long time ago. I don't need to go out smelling spices or into the woods to get ideas.
Now you're establishing what you term a 'foundation' in Marrakech, where people can come visit and spend time with you, and presumably learn from you. What exactly does the foundation strive to do?
I am the person around whom we've made a foundation; that's very different. I don't need a foundation to exist - I'm not a building. It's a house that's located in the middle of the historic neighborhood, the oldest in Marrakech. It's not an area riddled with people, being constantly photographed, it's a very personal, private place where I intend to receive people I could like, who I would be interested in meeting. It is I who would like to meet the people, or it's they who contact me, but it's not the kind of place where we do business, where people telephone and we schedule meeting times.
What can someone who comes to see you expect to get out of the foundation experience?
If it interests them to know this place, if it interests them to see the perfumes, to speak with me you can come by to say hello, and then we can talk. And if there are things that interest you I'll show them to you if I can. For literature there's a big library; for poetry there's a big library; for botany there's a big library; for perfumes, there's everything; for essences, architecture, beauty, on all subjects that might interest you.
The location is pretty much finished after more than a decade of construction and perfection. Why did you take so long to do this?
And when I say it's finished I mean it's like when I finish a perfume. It's good, it's not good, I don't worry, we can like it, not like it, whatever, but it's done, and that's it. Not until the last dot is right is it done, and only I know when. With perfumes it can be a year, or it can be seven years. This house I've been doing in theory for, hmmm, 30 years. It's not a marketing idea, this story; it's not about a man who wants to do something straight-away. It's something I did with my knowledge of the things that I have learnt,
Should one scent ones clothes with perfume?
Normally it's the skin that gives the base to a perfume, it releases the real scent. But what one can do is to scent the lining of your jacket. That is total elegance, from former times, naturally. Only a little bit of perfume is required - if there is too much there's no intimacy.
What's your definition of luxury?
Luxury is fear, it has to make you scared, create a distance. If there's no distance there's no luxury. If you can acquire it so easily then it's not possible. Even the price is a form of distance.
If luxury were –
An object: Luxury for an artist isn't possible. Luxury for someone like me is not something that exists, it's something that resembles what I would like to do or will do.
A moment: It's the time of creation, the moment when I'm doing, not the moment when I have something.
A person: I can't think of anyone! I would be lying if I just picked out a name, it wouldn't mean anything.
A place: The place where I do the maximum of things. It doesn't matter if it's a little hut with a broken table or a palace - it's all the same to me. Doing things is my luxury so where that happens is the best place to be.