Sunday, October 5, 2014

Serge Lutens

 It is the memory, forgiveness and like this, what we have today, it was able to survive: From the dust. It is not only in the feminine but it also has no plural. It is the wake of my life, that which remains when all has disappeared. It is the invisible which, veil after veil, there where it is forgotten, fades into grey.

If you're struggling to make sense of that quote, don't worry - you're not obtuse, it's just Serge Lutens in characteristically obscure French form, describing the inspiration of his latest perfume creation - L'Orpheline.

Where others might reject a difficult past, or allow it to dominate life to their detriment, Lutens has made inner conflict his creative life's work; he seems to embrace every facet of loss or abandonment, expressing his ideas with dark poetic imagery inspired by his childhood years, which were scarred by war and the loss of his mother at an early age. He claims himself that many of his 70 (and growing) perfume creations are a sort of ode to this personal narrative. Each perfume is launched with a short story, or semi poetic prose, which unearths yet another layer of his conflicted psyche.

'Unearths' is a deliberate choice of word since there's something slightly dark about Lutens with his swept back hair, pale visage and preference for dark velvet lounge jackets - if he auditioned for the part of Dracula he'd pass with flying colours. On the other hand, people have described him with adjectives such as 'endearing', 'vulnerable' and 'sensitive' - he's even referred to by perfume bloggers and industry insiders as 'Uncle Serge'!

Where some may find his semi abstract, intense outpourings pretentious or obscure, others feel that this adds to the mystique of his perfumes. Still others might feel that all this intensity sits strangely with a luxury item such as perfume - surely intended as one of life's simple pleasures.

Whatever your perception, if you're interested in perfume, you're probably interested in Serge Lutens, because many of his perfumes are truly lovely, some ground-breaking, others uncomfortable, or surprising - they range from rich velvety orientals and charmingly strident florals, to thin, screechy or metallic offerings, one of which - L'Orpheline (The orphan) I've heard a blogger describe as 'malfunctioning android accord'.

I haven't tried all of his perfumes, and I'm just an appreciator, not an expert so all I can offer is an introduction for those who've not explored these perfumes - a whistle-stop tour, and my impressions which I hope will be of interest to those who have explored Serge Lutens perfumes.

It's not Lutens himself who composes the perfumes, but rather the perfume creator Christopher Sheldrake. Lutens is more artistic director of the process, and it's true to say that Sheldrake's perfumes are quite different 'animals' outside of the Lutens influence.

With around 45 perfumes to choose from (those I'm familiar with from testing, sampling or owning), I've decided to create a two part blog and I've separated perfumes into loose categories - 'floral' 'woody' and so on. So without further ado, let me begin with the most loved..
(Part 2, florals and oddities, can be viewed Here)


Feminite du Bois

Lutens and Sheldrake became famous with this woody/fruity perfume, which was unusual for the fact that its dominant note was cedar - not usually associated with female perfumes - hence the name; 'the femininity of wood'.
This was first launched in the 90s for Japanese company Shiseido, then re-lanched as part of Lutens new perfume company based in Paris, around 2009.

I've already devoted an article to it, which you can read here
But to briefly describe Feminite du Bois, the keywords I'd use are grounded, autumnal and natural. It's not a cocktail hour/swish dress sort of perfume -  its nutty, rich, plummy/spiciness seems more ideally suited to an Autumn walk snuggled up in wool. It's a sensual perfume (cinnamon, plum and cedar combined are slightly 'sweaty' in effect) which is why, though I'd describe it as having a sort of natural elegance, it wouldn't be my choice for very formal events, but that all depends on style and personal choice.

Such was its popularity that the central note of cedar was enhanced to varying effect in several perfumes with wood or 'bois' accords, such as Bois de Violette, Bois et Fruits, Bois et Musc and Bois Oriental. The titles are self evident, but of this group Feminite du Bois and Bois de Violette would seem to be the most popular. My personal favourite is Bois et Fruits which focuses on a slightly warmer, softer spicy/woody/fruity accord - arguably easier to wear since Feminite du Bois has an almost wood workshop intensity (think of the scent of newly sharpened pencils and the scent when you first uncork a bottle of Shiraz).

Other woody accord perfumes by Lutens/Sheldrake are Chene (Oak) and Cedre. Chene's woodiness is tempered with an accord of sweet, spicy rum - perhaps more cosy though also (arguably) more masculine, Cedre's woodiness is considerably altered with tuberose, more of an oriental (warm/spicy/amber) floral with background woody notes.

Luten's orientals express a variety of ideas of the Middle and Far East, sometimes the 'real thing' - a literal olfactory translation of a Moroccan bazaar with the pungent scent of spices, leather and dates, for example, or romantic translations of the Middle or Far East - a Westerner's imaginary take on the exotic. He also lives part of his time in Morocco, so it follows that immersion in Moroccan culture would lead to inspiration.

Where some perfumers toy with the idea of exotic spices, Lutens is characteristically full on. These perfumes do more than hint at Middle Eastern perfumery, they often ladle on actual, literal everyday scents of the Middle and Far East in a style that some find heavy, and others beautifully authentic. Lutens orientals would rarely be described as delicate

Perhaps the most known or infamous example is the humorously named Muscs Koublai Khan - the title of which immediately evokes ideas of warrior horsemen traversing the windswept plains of Mongolia, as does the perfume.
Transport yourself back to the Middle Ages in Mongolia, imagine the scent of someone who's traveled for many weeks on horseback, the scent of leather, spices, the sweat of tired horse and tired self - and there you have Muscs Koublai Khan - a love or hate sort of perfume, for obvious reasons!

The oft used term 'animalic' describes perfumes which have facets of urine, sweat, faeces or earthy notes inspired by soil for example (originally perfumes literally contained animalic notes, extracted from, for example the civet cat or musk deer, until animal rights concerns ensured these were banned).

Nowadays these notes are synthetic, partly they exist because they add longevity to perfume. For some, such notes are sexy, for others they have the opposite effect sought from perfume - whether or not you like MKK will depend very much on whether you like to feel elegantly refreshed by perfume, or to have your inner animal enhanced.

Speaking personally, I mostly get horse-sweat from this perfume, and the underlying authentic rose absolute lends an almost soapy quality, as rose in perfume often does. Similar to the equally 'barnyard' L'Air de Rien by Miller Harris, I find this oddly comforting, but not necessarily easy to wear. (I worked in horse stables as a girl so the scent of hay makes me feel nostalgic).

In contrast, there's the cosy, slightly sticky sweetness of Santal Majuscule; definitely one of my favourite Lutens. The listed note include rose, sandalwood and cacao, but I also get something a bit similar to maple syrup - a sort of balsamic smoky sweetness that's balanced by a milky/sour/nutty sandalwood and opulent rose. (By opulent I mean that this particular rose is more a damask, velvety rose, than a lemony tea rose).

It's a wonderful perfume for frayed nerves, and it's a crowd-pleaser - very relaxing, grounding and just pretty enough to be a good unisex perfume.

Other Lutens orientals include Arabie - a richly fruity, spiced sweet-date scent, which definitely conjures up Middle Eastern market places - it's a lovely scent, authentic and rich, but personally I'd associate it more with room fragrance than skin perfume.

Cuir Mauresque- leather imbued with the scent of spices, strikes me as ahead of its time (it was created in the mid 90s). Leather perfumes have become more popular as have spicy perfumes, notably Dior have quite recently created an exclusive (i.e. expensive, difficult to find) range a few of which explore this theme.

Others of note - El Attarine (a sticky honey/spicy scent) and Fumerie Turque probably worn more by men since it smells of spiced tobacco, a lovely scent, but not all women would want to smell like this.

I have a lovely cigarette case embossed with butterflies in which I keep a few self-rolled cigarettes with liquorice paper for when I'm going out (I know, it's a shocking habit) and sometimes I store whole spices in it, it's quite a nostalgic scent, very different from manufactured cigarettes.

Ambre Sultan is Lutens take on amber, all perfume houses have a take on amber (usually wood resins, sweetened with vanilla).  Amber perfume oil has been available in Indian shops for as long as I can remember, it's characterised by a woody warm, tingly scent that conjures up the gemstone itself - golden tawny in feel. Lutens take on amber is balanced by herbal or balsamic notes, less sweet, more unisex in feel - it's another of Lutens most popular perfumes, satisfying for those who feel disappointed with somewhat prettified amber scents such as Balmain's Ambre Gris

In tomorrow's post I'll explore Lutens extraordinary 3-D florals, some are breathtakingly lovely, using several floral absolutes, others are just, well, breathtaking! I'll also describe some of the more unusual offerings, such as the aforementioned L'Orpheline, also Fille en Aguilles and La Vierge de Fer.

Lastly apologies for the recent absence (I haven't posted here for over a month!) this is largely due to the Scottish Referendum which practically eclipsed all other activities - but it's good to have my nose back in perfume bottles again.

Here's Lutens in casual-attire, relaxing in Morocco...

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