December 12th, 2022
The term living legend is one that is definitely over used. However it is the perfect description for MUA, artist, perfumer and overall maverick Serge Lutens. A prominent fixture in the world of make-up artistry, launching Dior makeup, overseeing Shiseido makeup and now with this own eponymous makeup collection, we jumped at the chance to have an exclusive conversation with the man himself about 30 years of Féminité du bois and his latest fragrance release.
After several years of olfactory creation dedicated to the Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido, Serge Lutens created his own brand of perfumes in 2000. He prefers to express perfume via emotion, rather than by ingredients. Perfume can, after all, evoke the strongest memories. He believes that fragrance is more than a list of ingredients, or a clever olfactory pyramid, rather that perfume is above all the story of each one, a memory that we have sheltered since childhood that it is up to us to find.
Perfume is a form of writing, an ink, a choice made in the first person, the dot on the i, a weapon, a courteous gesture, part of the instant, a consequence.
Serge Lutens, your perfume label was founded thirty years ago with Féminité du Bois, which the media described as the first unisex fragrance. Can you tell us the story of how it was created?
The time was ripe in the early 1990s for the creation of a new perfume. The perfume industry was on its last breath. At the time, fragrances were nothing more than bottled blends aimed at stereotypes of men and women: working women, housewives, men in their varying roles, often sporty. In short, perfumes did not cater to the individual but were targeted at socio-cultural categories and often consisted of blends that merely imitated or riffed on the popular products of the time. Ready-to-Wear!
Féminité du bois went back to the basics of perfume-making and to the principle of fragrance as memory, by highlighting the innate characteristics of the main ingredient, which in its case was cedar wood. It returned to the very fundamentals of the connection that scents make with our psyche through memory. Its name reflected this reconception: Féminité du bois was a symbolic name, in much the same way as American natives in old Westerns bore names such as ‘Fire Water’ or ‘Fire Staff’. It was a distinctive and pure creation that did not shy away from the feminine nor seek to drown out the masculine.
One of the main ingredients of this perfume was of course cedar wood, which accounted for more than 60% of its composition. Were you not afraid of unsettling the customers of the perfume industry of the time?
An overdose, yes. 60% of woods, including cedar, just as I experienced it during my walks through the souks of Marrakesh: honeyed, animalic, persistent, yet hollowing itself out with time. Disruption is a necessary element of creation because immobility is the refuge of fear… a place of death!
If I were made of wood and its scent resided in me, then I simply had to reveal its feminine aspects to bring the fragrance into being.
The relaunch of Féminité du bois brings back personal memories for all of us and is an invitation to relive events from the early 90s. What personal anecdote does it bring to the surface for you?
Those years were marked by wonderful moments but also by moments of illusion as well as disappointments. To invent something, one must go against the tide. When I spoke about the idea of this perfume to professionals in the industry, many of them were sceptical and did not believe in its potential for success. We went through numerous drafts, but I kept finding the wood too unassertive. I went on increasing the dose, saying: “More cedar, more cedar, I want a forest!”.
The success of the perfume took everyone by surprise (indeed, it is all they cared for). As for me, I had no doubts on the matter: I believed in it, or shall I say, I smelt it in the air! Each creation preoccupies me completely. Only after I have purged myself of one obsession can I move on to the next. Féminité du bois transformed the perfume industry. After its release, there was a mad rush for perfumes that similarly highlighted the base ingredients. I was hailed as a revolutionary without ever setting out to be one, with hundreds of its kind appearing in its wake! In addition to this new approach to perfume making, I also invented a new way of presenting and acquiring fragrances, through the opening of the Salons du Palais Royal boutique.
To mark the 30 years of this perfume, you have created a bottle with an extremely unique Cubist engraving of a woman in a tuxedo. Could you explain this choice?
I am entirely made up of right and obtuse angles. When I conceived of Féminité du bois, I imagined femininity in a different light, a little like the Cubist movement in the world of art.
It seems to me that femininity has been seen through the lens of softness and roundness, and has been transcribed for the most part through sluggish, flowing, imprecise curves, while for me Féminité du bois is the embodiment of the one who I dare to call ‘My Woman’!
She is the essence of the feminine, the only one capable of birthing the masculine, the one that helps ‘him’ come into his own. This disorder of angular forms is nonetheless pulled together by the femininity within me.
You once described this fragrance as “A marquetry of wood enlivened by the ether air of Marrakesh” What does this perfume owe to Morocco?
I first encountered Morocco in 1968: it was a shock, but I fell completely under its spell! Every material, every colour, every landscape smiled at me until it was imprinted into my memory! I discovered wood shavings, resins, and other intoxicating ingredients, which, blending with all the emotions stirred by my travels, contributed to the development of my perfumes many years later. In this respect, creation to me is a means of exorcising my most fundamental fears.
Looking back, to what do you think Féminité du bois owes its legendary status?
Féminité du bois marked a turning point! So many women told me: “I’ve finally found my perfume!” It was clearly a way for them to break away from what ‘women’ were supposed to be. They could be feminine and yet retain their individual identity! With Féminité du Bois, they not only wore a perfume but were able to define themselves through it.
You’ve earned your reputation in perfumery from the personal perfume label you’ve been building for 30 years. You have now created a collection of home fragrances, AT HOME. Can you explain this choice?
When someone lives in a house, they give it a colour, arrange their objects and books in a certain way, they determine what I like to call its fragrance. Giving a house a scent is complementary but often separate from what I’ve just mentioned. The home fragrances I offer are the fruit of my imagination, my dreams.
The fragrances you create always correspond to something you’ve experienced, your personality. Is that still the case here?
It’s not so much the houses I’ve experienced, but images, descriptions from novels, a cinematic universe. I’m thinking for example of Wuthering Heights and the Brontë sisters for the Scottish House, or the Palais des Sables, but can you live in an hourglass? I dream, but maybe you can’t actually live in your dreams, maybe it’s impossible.
Of the 5 houses, one of them – Dry stone, wool and leather (The Scottish House) – does not really seem to be in keeping with your story. How is it connected?
It’s the very essence of who I am, of my story. It would be a solitaire cut by a gem cutter, as airtight as a diamond can be: an expanse of heather and green grass in a landscape of grey stones, like a painting from a book of hours. Between the horizon and me, a little house. To get there, you have to make your way along a difficult track which becomes muddy when it’s wet and windy. The windows are small, divided into separate panes, the walls thick and the door hard to open (it would be best if it stayed closed!). From the fireplace, the wood calls out to you. The house is full of memories; it collects them but isn’t exactly forthcoming when it comes to sharing secrets. The library is overflowing with books which are well-read and dog-eared, the corners grubby. The floor is so fleecy you can walk barefoot. It is dry stone, with a cashmere feel! It protects us, defends us, envelops us. It guarantees my seclusion and my desire for it to stay that way. In the distance, awful, downy remorse, as constant as the sea breeze and breaking waves.
These home fragrances can be diffused in three ways: liquid fragrance, incense holder or electric diffuser. Can you tell us about the diffuser?
It’s a little lantern, but the only thing it sheds light on is the very idea of lighting. It doesn’t belong to a place or an era; it’s a tiny prison, the fragrances escaping through the bars…
Follow Serge Lutens on instagram.
Enjoyed this? Subscribe to Warpaint here.