As many of you are undoubtedly aware by now, major changes are sweeping over Serge Lutens. They extend beyond changes to the mere look of bottles or their pricing and entail a whole reshuffling and revamping of the many lines or collections within the brand, thereby signifying a new marketing and business approach by Shiseido which took over the full management of the Serge Lutens brand a year ago. Many of you have already read the news of the specific changes elsewhere, but not everyone follows the same perfume sites or groups, so I thought it was worth a post here on Kafkaesque so that everyone had the chance to buy any old favourites whilst they could before the higher prices kick in.
At the end of this article, I’ll share some thoughts about the possible larger meaning of all this, why I think Shiseido differs from other companies (like L’Oreal or LVHM) that have taken control of perfume houses, why the nature of Shiseido’s relationship with Lutens might be cause for cautious optimism, and, finally, which Lutens fragrances have, in my opinion, have already undergone reformulation prior to the new bottling.
Companies rarely make official announcements of their business or perfume changes so, before I start, I want to give full credit to Jakub Piotrovicz of Persefume, Daniel Pescio, and Jan Gonzalez for uncovering the facts. Jakub was particularly diligent in compiling the various bits of news from different sources, and he kindly confirmed the latest findings with me the other day, such as the fact that Jan Gonzalez actually traveled straight to the horse’s mouth, the Palais Royal, late Saturday to obtain the official status of possible discontinuations (or, rather, as “official” as one can have without a company press release). Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc also deserves credit for announcing news of the new bottle designs and details of two, new, upcoming Lutens fragrance releases on her Instagram feed. Finally, I would like to thank Raphael Schäfer for his great kindness in alerting me to the many changes last week.
Early reports seemed to suggest that Serge Lutens was discontinuing as many as 10 fragrances, plus one perfume packaging collection, “Le Vaporisateur Tout Noir,” which perfume lovers usually just call “Le Vapo” line. The ten fragrances are:
According to Jan Gonzalez’s conversations with the Lutens people at the Palais Royal, these fragrances will indeed be pulled but not discontinued. Instead, they will shuffled and moved from the Export line to the Exclusives Collection. However, the Lutens people confirmed that the Vapo line will be axed completely.
The way Serge Lutens classifies its many different “lines” can get confusing if you’re not aware of the details, so it might be worth taking a few minutes to go over how things are set up, particularly as the pricing, bottle quantities, availability, and accessibility greatly differ — and that will be significant. The company has an Export line which consists of thin, narrow bottles that are available at any Lutens retailer or distributor around the world. The bottles are 50 ml and are priced around $150 or between €105 to €115.
In addition to the Export Line, Serge Lutens also sells larger bottles called “Bell Jars.” These are available ONLY at Serge Lutens Paris’ headquarters, his EU/International website, his American one, or at Barney’s US. (Fragrances sold at the last two come with an 80% price hike over the normal retail price.) As a general rule, many of the fragrances in the Export line are also available in the large Bell Jar size, but (and this part is important) a number of highly acclaimed fragrances are ONLY available in those Bell Jar formats and are thereby frequently called the Paris Exclusives. (Again, they are also sold at the aforementioned sites and with the 80% price increase for the US, but generally nowhere else on earth, not London, not Sydney, not Hong Kong, nowhere.) Some of the Paris Exclusives are the most artistic or highly acclaimed fragrances in the brand, like, for example, De Profundis, Iris Silver Mist, La Myrrhe, or Tubereuse Criminelle. All the Bell Jars are 75 ml in quantity and are priced around $300 or €175.
In order to be more democratic about accessibility and price, Serge Lutens has often permitted several of the Paris Exclusives to be available in the “Vapo” line. He tends to switch around which fragrances are offered as such, but the important thing is that the “Vapo” line is sold outside of Paris, is available at numerous Lutens retailers around the world (like, for example, Canada’s Perfume Shoppe or France’s Premiere Avenue), and is cheaper in price. A portable black atomizer and two 30 ml refills (so 60 ml in total) are available at prices ranging between $135-$190 or €90-€140, depending on the scent in question. At the current time, one of the few ways people from Canada to Germany and beyond can access several much-beloved Bell Jars via retailers and at a relatively affordable price is through the Vapo line which presently includes Feminite du Bois, Ambre Sultan, Iris Silver Mist, Rahät Loukoum, De Profundis, and the only lavender fragrance that this lavender-phobe has ever purchased, the gorgeous Fourreau Noir. So, the loss of this option is quite a big deal; not everyone can travel frequently, easily, or cheaply to Paris, or can afford to buy the fragrances in the more expensive bell jar format.
The fact that the Vapo line is being permanently cancelled and that some of the most popular fragrances (like my beloved Fille en Aiguilles) will now only be available as Bell Jar exclusives is merely the beginning. There will be no new fragrances added to the Bell Jar. Up to now, Serge Lutens typically had one new addition every year. No more. Instead, the Paris Exclusives seem to be where old fragrances will be parked and removed from wide circulation. New releases will go to the export line or the super-luxury priced Section d’Or collection where prices tend to start around $600 or €500.
If all this business about lines and collections hasn’t confused you enough, there is more. There will be an entirely new line coming, but there is no information as to the sort of fragrances which will be included or its pricing. I suspect that it will be a middle-tier line in its price, somewhere between the export and the Section d’Or ones.
In addition, the Export line will be renamed as “Le Collection Noire.” Existing export fragrances like, for example, Chergui or Datura Noir will continue to be part of this new line, but all of them will be repackaged in 100 ml bottles and sold at a €180 price. At the current time, these fragrances cost €105-115 for 50 ml, so the Euro price increase isn’t too bad for double the juice. I don’t know what the current $150 US pricing will go up to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were around $220 or $230 which I’ve found is the median or ballpark starting price for a number of niche brands.
Grain de Musc’s Instagram page has a photo of the new packaging design if you want to see. I rather like it, finding it to be sleek in a chic-ly minimalist fashion. One extremely surprising bit of news for me is that, according to Denyse Beaulieu, De Profundis and Vetiver Oriental will be moved from their typical spot in the Paris Exclusives/Bell Jar collection to the new export, more widely available “Collection Noire” line. [UPDATE 6/19/17: A reader has just informed me that Denyse Beaulieu said on Instagram that she was mistaken about De Profundis being pulled from the bell jar line.]
While most of the news has pertained to existing fragrances, Denyse Beaulieu has some details on upcoming fragrances. Serge Lutens has a new export fragrance called Dent de Lait whose literal translation is “milk teeth” but which I think is better read as “Baby Teeth.” (Plus, the baby connection is supported by a photo on her Instagram page showing the new bottle.) She says the notes are: aldehydes, almond milk, and incense. I seriously hope that is only a microscopic portion of them, per Serge Lutens’ tendency to keep the full note list secret, because those three together with the whole Baby aspect triggered a full-body shudder when I first read it.
In addition to Milk or Baby Teeth (shudder), Ms. Beaulieu announces that there will be a new addition to the super-luxury Section d’Or line called Bourreau des Fleurs. The reported notes include charred woods, immortelle and licorice effects but, contrary to the perfume’s name, she says there will be no “fleurs” or flowers included in this one. [UPDATE 11/19: I have a review for Bourreau des Fleurs.]
I’ve spent some time pondering the greater meaning of all these changes, and my thoughts became more positive once I heard that those 10 fragrances weren’t being permanently axed. The initial reports of a total discontinuation had left me with my jaw on the ground, particularly since a number of the fragrances seemed to be more in the oriental vein and extremely popular. I simply could not understand why those particular ones were being pulled while others — widely panned flops like the revolting Laine de Verre or uninspiring La Vierge de Fer, the polarizing Nuit de Cellophane or Datura Noir, and the hideously insipid, thin, watery, fresh, and clean Eaux Collection — were remaining untouched. No-one will ever convince me that Laine de Verre, for example, is a best-seller, or that the mewling mainstream “fresh and clean” aesthetics of the Eaux brought much critical acclaim to the brand. But things make much more sense, at least from a business and marketing perspective, now that I hear the 10 better or popular fragrances are not being killed off entirely.
Essentially, it seems to me that Shiseido is opting for a pincer movement approach to the brand’s offerings which seeks to broaden its market share while simultaneously maintaining its exclusivity. Think of a chicken wish-bone in its shape; Shiseido is going high and low, simultaneously. It’s maintaining fragrances like the Eaux at their affordable price (currently about $110 for 50 ml) because they have a common, mainstream “clean and fresh” scent which will appeal to the masses. The less commercial scents with a darker, more oriental, less mainstream style or a more challenging niche aesthetic will get either a fresh marketing upgrade via new 100 ml bottles, or the patina of exclusivity by being removed from mass circulation and planted in the Bell Jar/Paris Exclusives line. These last two moves also come with the benefit of higher prices for the company. Meanwhile, the brand will continue to expand its ultra-luxury brand to take advantage of that particular burgeoning market, a move which further benefits Shiseido by acting as a bulwark against possible devolution of the Lutens name when Shiseido carries out its planned global expansion by adding new Lutens stores. In other words, by emphasizing the luxury collection while also making certain legendary fragrances more inaccessible outside of Lutens stores, Shiseido might well be calculating that it won’t dilute the famed Lutens exclusivity with its plans to open shops all around the world.
Time will tell if their gamble pays off, but I’m a little more encouraged than I was when I first heard the news back in 2015 regarding the new stores. Back then, I was rather aghast at the thought of freestanding Lutens shops mushrooming everywhere and thereby reducing the special meaning of the Palais Royal headquarters. Those of you who are new to perfumery or the niche world may not be aware of the full significance of that single purple-coloured boutique, a magical place where one could smell beautiful legends not found anywhere else while being teased by the tantalizing thought of the reclusive Oncle Serge perhaps lounging close-by, up the circular staircase to his secret lair on the second floor on one of his rare trips from his Moroccan compound. Perfume lovers would often talk about making a “pilgrimage” to the perfume “mecca” or “shrine” at the Palais Royal, and they usually weren’t speaking hyperbolically or in jest. They meant it. I meant it when I’ve said something similar. The Palais Royal is a bloody big deal in the perfume world if one has an ounce of love for Oncle Serge! So, the thought of that special purple place being devalued by a sudden outcropping of stores all over… it didn’t bode well in many of our minds. Was Shiseido all about the money?
Well, perhaps not, because these latest plans seem to indicate at least a certain protectiveness over the brand name. Unlike LVMH which has milked the Guerlain golden goose nonstop through an unrelenting torrent of new releases, sometimes as many as 20 a year and with a heavily mainstream scent profile, Shiseido is taking a more carefully calibrated approach to Lutens and seems intent on maintaining its exclusivity. The lower priced, more democratic option of The Vapo is going out the window; the prices are rising; the popular dark oriental style with which Lutens made his name is being limited to the Exclusives or the frightfully expensive Section d’Or line; and certain things continue to be available solely at Lutens stores or websites (Barney’s being the sole exception). I find it telling that, if you’re a fan of the original, signature Lutens aesthetic — the dark, smoldering, orientals or the pioneering, revolutionary, challenging “Art” (with a capital “A”) creations — you now have to pay more and/or journey to a Lutens shop to find it. It may not be happy news for us longstanding fans and consumers, but it has a certain positive significance from a brand, marketing, and business perspective, I think.
While a number of people have expressed concern about the fact that Shiseido has fully taken over control of Serge Lutens, I am more cautiously optimistic. For one thing, Shiseido and Oncle Serge have had a close and very symbiotic relationship for more than four decades now. For another, Shiseido was always financially involved with the brand. Just like the Wertheimer brothers advanced Coco Chanel the money to start her business and owned roughly 74% of the rights while letting her run things as she pleased, so too did Shiseido fund Serge Lutens’ foray into his own brand back in 1990. If Shiseido is now stepping forward in a greater, more active capacity, it may well be because Oncle Serge is getting on in years and doesn’t have the most robust health, but he’s still the creative director and makes the olfactory decisions. Plus, I have to say, in my opinion and from past dealings with Shiseido, I’ve found them to be extraordinarily protective of Serge Lutens, the man. When I obtained my exclusive interview with The Maestro some years ago, I had to go through several people at increasing hierarchical levels at Shiseido’s corporate office; they acted like fierce, zealously protective gate-keepers who guarded the door and served as intermediaries for any access to the elusive Serge. And they were enormously watchful about anything that could possibly impact the Lutens’ image, right down to the photos I used. In fact, the head lady actually chastised me quite sternly for not sticking to the scant handful of personal photos on the Lutens website when I published the interview and for using other photos of him from magazine articles around the web as well. (In reality, I had told them well in advance that I needed a lot of shots and that I would use internet images, but I think something got lost in translation.)
The point is, Shiseido is both fiercely protective and extremely controlling of every detail that impacts the image, business, and success of their longtime friend and colleague. And they seem to genuinely value and care about him as a person, not merely as an investment. So, no, I do not think the LVMH/Guerlain parallels apply here, and these latest moves by Shiseido seem to demonstrate a greater concern for the Lutens patrimony and brand reputation than anything LVMH has ever done with Guerlain, not to mention the vile, vulturous, parasitic L’Oreal with the poor YSL Parfums brand. This is a completely different situation because Shiseido is no outsider coming in for the first time; they’ve always been behind Oncle Serge, right from the very start. Now, they’re merely relieving some of the pressures of running the business, while trying to expand the brand. That last part is the bit which concerns me, but at least their motivations seem to be, in my opinion, in the right place. Only time will tell what actually unfolds from all this. (Personally, I am far more conflicted and pessimistic about the change in Uncle Serge’s olfactory aesthetic over the last few years than I am about Shiseido’s marketing decisions.)
If the news is potentially somewhat positive from a future marketing and business perspective, that doesn’t mean it is for the perfume-loving consumer who has been a Lutens fan for ages. The simple truth of the matter is that many companies use new packaging and bottling as an excuse to save money by reformulating a fragrance with cheaper or weaker ingredients. Plus, Oncle Serge has never hidden the fact that he reformulates things. Not only has he mentioned it in past interviews, but I also have a vague, hazy memory from a few years ago that the Palais Royal manager (possibly Suleiman, his right hand man?) told one of my readers quite bluntly that all the Lutens fragrances had been reformulated except for one (at least at that time): Serge Noire, the fragrance that Serge Lutens made for himself and the only one that he supposedly wears himself from time to time. I can’t remember all the details of the story and I may have gotten a few things mixed up after so many years, but the bottom line is that Serge Lutens reformulates, reformulates frequently, and is quite likely to have reformulated even further when they re-release the scents in their new 100 ml bottles in the newly renamed, higher priced, Collection Noire line.
If you’re a longtime fan, that obviously means that you should think about stocking up on your favourites before they’re further weakened and changed. FragranceNet and Fragrance X both sell genuine Lutens at significant price reductions, sometimes as much as 40-50% off. I’ve purchased quite a few Lutens from Fragrance Net in the past and have always been happy. For international readers, they have various sub-sites for the Euro, British, Canadian, or Australian consumer. Plus, as an added benefit, the vast size of their stock has meant I’ve often gotten an older bottle, ergo, one of the less reformulated versions. (My A La Nuit was actually stronger than the sample I used in my test all those years ago, and it’s such a gorgeous, bright, strong, bridal jasmine. While the scent doesn’t last long on my skin, the bottle I got from Fragrance Net actually has comparatively better performance than the sample.) However, you may find slim or slimmer pickings at both discount sites right now; since the news of the Lutens changes got out, people have been purchasing back-up bottles and some scents are sold out.
A number of my readers are new either to niche or to perfumery as a whole, and they may well want to take advantage of this news to get a bottle of one of the Lutens that they’ve heard so much about. But I have a word of caution for you: if you’re reading an old review (mine or anyone else’s) to ascertain which Lutens you should invest in, please examine the date upon which it was written and compare it to the release date of the scent. The fact that Serge Lutens reformulates so often means that a number of the fragrances are no longer they way they were when they first swept people off their feet. It also means that, when someone on Basenotes, Fragrantica, or elsewhere, is raving about one of the scents, they may be raving about a version which is no longer in the stores.
I’m thinking above all else of Chergui, one of THE most beloved Lutens for both men and women alike, because I think it has been particularly hard hit by changes. I cannot tell you the number of private messages or comments I have received from people over the last few years, saying that they tried Chergui because of all the acclaim or because that’s what someone on Basenotes recommended to them as a newbie to the brand, but, once they tried it, they ended up thinking: “it’s terrible,” “I can’t see what all the fuss is about,” or, in one case, “it put me off trying anything else from the brand.” Chergui was released in 2001 and it had already changed by the time I reviewed it, but the version that I last smelt in a store was completely different even from what I had written about: it was excessively powdery and synthetic with a deluge of soapy clean musk, an immediate hit and more elevated amount of ISO E, and significantly weaker hay and tobacco aspects. Frankly, I thought the end result was awful, a major disappointment, and, for my personal tastes with my loathing of major levels of laundry white musk, well-nigh unwearable. [Update: To be clear, I’m talking about Chergui within “the last few years,” so roughly from late 2014/early 2015 onwards. One reader commented on his bottle of Chergui from 2013, but I am referring to the more recent/most recent version of the scent. In other words, what is currently in stores now.]
While many others also feel Chergui has been gutted for the worse, it’s not the only fragrance in which they or I have noted depressing changes. In my opinion, the once-fantastic Cuir Mauresque has taken on plastic-y, burnt, and excessively synthetic attributes, and that was the version I smelt in 2014 or 2015, so who only know what it’s like now in 2017. My reviews for Gris Clair and the once delectable Un Bois Vanillé are also for the poorly reformulated versions. Numerous readers have reported De Profundis has changed in the last two years and has not fared well. Last year, the perfumer at a much admired Indie brand told me that he’d ordered two bell jars scents, Fourreau Noir and Iris Silver Mist, and that both had completely changed from what he’d once loved. (He was actually rather horrified at what they’d become, and called one of them “wan” and “watery,” although I can no longer remember which one it was.) [Update: As these dates should hopefully make clear, I’m again talking about a time frame from late 2014/early 2015 to now.]
It’s not all bad news. On a happier note, I haven’t heard any reports of my beloved Fille en Aiguilles being badly gutted, and if you’re a fan of Tom Ford’s Plum Japonais, you should look into the Fille because it was the original and it is also significantly better, in my opinion. Also, people who purchased Arabie after my review last Fall all seemed very pleased with it; any changes since its original launch date in 2000 haven’t been of the sort to disappoint people. Finally, I haven’t heard anything at all about La Fille de Berlin.
I realize that my comments about the reformulated nature of many Lutens classics will discourage a number of you from trying them, but I thought it was important to share my opinions candidly. I believe it’s better to be forewarned with knowledge of a possibly major alteration than for it to creep up unannounced and have it slap you in the face after you’ve spent a hefty chunk of money. So, now it is up to you whether you think it is worth your while to purchase a back-up.
So, those are a few of my thoughts. What is your reaction to the news? Will you or have you bought some back-up bottles? How does “Milk Teeth” or “Baby Teeth” (shudder) sound to you?