A visionary and much loved beauty forefather, Serge Lutens has provided the world with a legacy within beauty for 30 years. At the heart of the brand’s DNA is Serge Lutens unbridled quirkiness and his natural eye for celebrating the female body. In 1992, Serge Lutens would go on to create the first and original Féminité du Bois unisex scent. The rest was history.
The mysticism of the Serge Lutens brand proceeds itself with the creatives’ captivating shyness and reclusiveness. In a rare moment back in public view, Serge Lutens is celebrating 30 years of the brand, not only reflecting back on his enigmatic life, but the true legacy of Serge Lutens.
In 1980, a passionate Serge Lutens left Christian Dior to travel to Japan, a country that he would come to know over a series of visits. During these visits Serge expected to build the image of a cosmetics brand that had been relatively unknown and confined to the domestic market until then: Shiseido.
In a few years, the French creative cemented his reputation through a makeup line that freed itself from all established codes within beauty and broadened its innovative horizons. Serge worked tirelessly to design products, conceptualise ad campaigns and produce films for Shiseido. A decade later, in 1992, he would go on to begin his journey within the world of perfume at Shiseido. The perfumer notes, “I didn’t see it as a tool of seduction but as the expression of my own desire and identity. With this in mind and the saying ‘If you have good food, people will come to your restaurant’, I opened a space in Paris called “Les salons du Palais Royal”, just like one would open a tea house or a literary club.”
“The historic neighbourhood of Palais Royal was quite derelict at the time; the only stores there sold old-fashioned stamps and miniature lead figurines. I was advised against the location, but I went ahead and decided to anchor my first perfume venture there.”
By 2000, Shiseido decided to move in a different direction, allowing Serge to take the reins and create his namesake brand, Serge Lutens. Over the course of the brand’s 30 year history, Serge set out the brand’s inherent complex DNA. Serge recounts that “As the product of an illicit affair, my whole life has been defined by an attempt to repair the original sin, but sometimes trying to fix something can also make it worse.” Whether it be the perfume or the makeup, Serge associates his whole journey and creations to be of significant importance to identifying the true core of the brand.
“Every Serge Lutens perfume launch has been closely watched by other brands and their marketing teams. I have become a kind of soothsayer for the perfume industry. It started with the launch of “Féminité du bois” and then “Ambre sultan”, followed by all the Arabic-inspired perfumes that came after.” Serge emphasises that he is deliberately using the word ‘Arabic’ and not ‘Oriental’, as to not join in with generalised marketing jargon. His candour is to be celebrated and his sharp take on the world of perfumery has undoubtedly led to his industry authority.
On a journey to discover his truest potential Serge was often referred to during childhood as being that of a dreamer. With such a strong imagination and the ability to see past the vision towards a physical product, he details the challenges of living most of his life in his head. “One often spends more time dreaming about one’s life than fulfilling those dreams. It is a miracle that I have brought to life some creations that I had in my mind, but I never fundamentally dreamt of building a brand of my own. I am one of many professions and simultaneously none at all. I could very well decide to do something completely different tomorrow. Like all those who live perched on the edge of their fears, I am given to violent change.”
He continues, “Dreams are built on a foundation that has already been laid between the ages of 7 and 10. At that young age, I personally never dreamt of creating perfumes or make-up. Being quite fearful and timid, I only wanted to retreat from the world. Later, this distance became a choice. In other words, I am not so much a dreamer as I am a recluse.”
Detailing his experience in the Algerian war and whether that stark contrast of interests redefined his identity during that time he explains, “It didn’t redefine me, I already had this woman in me from a young age: I drew dresses, I went to the cinema and so on. Military service tore this woman apart from me in a sudden and violent way. It drove me quite insane and I ended up in a psychiatric hospital as a result. The image of this woman was already anchored deep within myself, tied in with my flesh and bones. But I didn’t give in even at the hospital where they tried to cut off my hair. Paradoxically, the world of the lunatics – as they called them – put me more at ease than the military, for I found the army to be a sordid affair. That’s when I decided that I wanted to belong to the other side of the spectrum of life.”
Setting his sights on bringing the woman within him alive again, Serge explored photography, preparing the model and shooting her. “I see her as a real vehicle to bring forth the image of the ideal woman I have in my mind, and which protects me from certain other kinds of images of women that I can’t stand.”
“This woman fascinates me, she is my vision and my shield from the outside world. Her pale snowy-white skin and her stylised, musical look is straight out of an opera of beauty and death (as in “Orphée” by J. Cocteau). I plunged headlong into a mystic dream of female beauty, and it is a precise, fierce landscape, not at all meant for dreamers. Photography is my military service; it is where I confront myself and defend what I love.”
Throughout his career, travel became part of the fragrance and beauty journey. “It is a way to discover a part of yourself which is still foreign to you. I didn’t discover Japan or Morocco through my visits there, rather they helped reveal some facets of myself that were still unknown to me. Morocco was also my gateway to the world of fragrance and to the invention of a way to prevent the total annihilation of the self.”
With the re-emergence of the famous Féminité du bois fragrance, a fragrance which once worn, leads to an infatuation for its cedar and honeyed notes. Serge emhpasises the power of a genderless fragrance. “Odours have no sex or gender; they speak to our most intimate tastes and preferences. Whether in Morocco or in England, I have come across men that wear fragrances with rose in them without it ever depriving them of an ounce of their masculine identity. Limiting femininity to florals or masculinity to woods is an error I could never bear to make.”
Whilst Serge has had no problem in blurring the lines within beauty and femininity, he has been able to confidently define his woman for decades. “She embodies my determination and mirrors it. Her features are not well-defined. She can surrender herself completely, but she can also quickly regain control over herself because she is in danger. She knows her fragility as well as her strength and has no choice in the matter. She is not a fighter. Walking the narrow road between shame and pride is the only way for some to survive their own existence.”
As a brand that was helmed by his own name, Serge Lutens has kept the brand on course in embodying an uncompromised style by not limiting himself to the idea of being defined by one thing, but by creating products that are part of the wider story. “Fragrance and makeup are all happy accidents and tools for creating a story. Like a sailor’s hat, a striped jersey, or high heels for those who want to look taller, they are mere accessories to appearance. There are women who like feathers, those who like fur coats, women who have their daggers drawn, women who bite or even who sleep a lot so that they never have to be among the living. My story is the story of a woman who has earned her right to exist.”