Colour me surprised, I actually like Guerlain‘s new LUI. Quite a bit, in fact. It’s not something I had expected; I’m a Guerlain classicist whose heart beats faster for the old, vintage masterpieces from the house, not the vast majority of fragrances released in the LVMH era. LUI is a rare exception. I find it enjoyable, even delectable at times, smooth, nicely balanced, easy to wear, and a cozy comfort. There is no fruitchouli or goopy red fruits to smother you to death with cloying excess; no cheap vanillin shrieking like a deranged, over-sugared, saccharine banshee; no laundry cleanness; no harsh woody-amber synthetics; and no bombastic amounts of caramel-praline bearing with such an intemperate degree of sickly sweetness that it would put a diabetic in a coma. No, nothing like that for once. Instead, there is only a soft, smooth, carefully calibrated, and good quality cloud of golden sweetness laced with floral, woody, smoky, spicy, and amber flourishes. It’s simple, uncomplicated, and hardly novel, and I grant you that my standards, expectations, and bar for LVMH-era Guerlain are basically at rock bottom levels but, even so, I wouldn’t mind a bottle of LUI for myself and it’s been a long, long time since I said that about one of the company’s new releases.
LUI is an eau de parfum that was released in June 2017 as part of Guerlain’s higher-end Exclusifs or Exclusives Collection. Judging by the company’s US website description, the fragrance seems to have been created primarily by Delphine Jelk, albeit in association with Thierry Wasser.
The aesthetic theme for the fragrance is declared in its marketing tag-line: “Lui, the fragrance for a new gender order.” On its US website, Guerlain goes further, stating:
Feminine. Masculine. Why choose? LUI is a fragrance that likes to blur the boundaries. Not entirely feminine, nor truly masculine, it is both at once. Inspired by a generation that is breaking free from gender norms[.]
Guerlain doesn’t stop there. It also describes LUI as “ambiguous,” then an “unexpected, gender-blending fragrance: LUI is ambivalent by nature, inherently complex[.]”
I just rolled my eyes and snorted. This fragrance has the complexity of a toothpick. And the purported olfactory gender fluidity or “ambiguity” that they’re trumpeting so proudly and hyperbolically is nothing new under the sun. I can give you examples going back to the early 1920s where gender-bending was the specific goal of fragrances. Moreover, the unisex approach has been around for decades in the niche sector. Sometimes, I would really love to throw a bucket of ice water over Guerlain’s marketing department or suggest that they take a Valium.
Moving onto something less ridiculous, LUI’s name is an anagram of and nod to Liu, Guerlain’s floral-aldehydic jasmine fragrance that was released in 1929 as an alternative to Chanel No. 5, and the two Guerlains share the same black bottle design. The blogger and Guerlain expert, Monsieur Guerlain has a detailed post on Guerlain’s marketing of the new LUI, how they’ve sought to connect the two fragrances together, the alleged “gender liberation” theories behind each, and then his review of the new LUI. I’ll let you read his article on your own if you’re interested, and I’ll stick to borrowing two of his wonderful photos in the meantime, although I’ll bring up his review again at the end because he seems underwhelmed by LUI, in part due to its simplicity and in part due to its olfactory familiarity, both of which are very legitimate, accurate points.
Guerlain doesn’t offer a detailed note list or scent pyramid for LUI. They specify only three notes — carnation, benzoin, and leather — then reference broader tonalities in the scent that are powdery, spicy, woody, and resinous. However, a Fragrantica article on LUI’s launch provides more detailed information:
Top notes: pear, clove
Heart: benzoin, carnation
Base: leather, vanilla, musk, smoke
LUI opens on my skin with a cloud of vanilla, ambered sweetness, abstract florals, and floral spiciness, all of it emanating out of a quietly woody, faintly smoky base. The primary opening note is a caramel-scented benzoin that is infused with a delicate fruitiness and a bright, diffuse floralcy, but neither one of last two elements translates clearly in a distinct, concrete way on my skin. For example, the fruit note is sweet, watery, and skews vaguely green-ish, but it doesn’t read as actual pear, per se, on my skin, not in any clear, instantly recognizable way.
The floral component is equally abstract. It starts out being watery, lightly spiced, faintly lemony, and sweet. It doesn’t smell clearly and unquestionably like carnation but, rather, like an impressionistic floralcy that fuses a chilly florist shop’s abstraction of carnation with the lemony, bright, fizzy jasmine qualities of hedione. In fact, the first time I tested LUI, I applied only a small quantity of fragrance and the main flower that appeared on my skin and to my nose was hedione-style jasmine. With a larger fragrance application, a vaguely carnation-ish, eugenol-driven aura lurks about the sidelines during the first 10 minutes before it turns into a rather indeterminate floral spiciness. I’ve read LUI reviews where some people seem to have experienced a lot of clove or eugenol on their skin during the fragrance’s opening; I would have been delighted if the same thing occurred to me but it never has, and I’ve tested the fragrance three times now. What happens instead is that, after 10 minutes, the “jasmine” is followed by a custardy, spicy, faintly clove-ish, vanillic floral sweetness that closely replicates the olfactory characteristics of ylang-ylang. Guerlain’s 1929 Liu was heavily driven by jasmine, so I suspect that parallel in the new LUI is not accidental, while the “ylang-ylang” resemblance is probably the cumulative effect of the abstract florals combining with the clove, vanilla, and benzoin.
Other elements meander about in varying degrees of solidity, strength, and prominence. On my skin, the vanilla is as central as the benzoin, and both infuse everything they touch. Layered within are thin, quiet streaks of a soft, clean, faintly smoky woodiness that nods at sandalwood. It’s accompanied by a darker woodiness that smells like a combination of birch’s singed campfire woods and guaiac’s bonfire of autumnal dry leaves. None of them smell like leather, though, and certainly nothing like the musky, tarry birch leather note in really old vintage Shalimar. What appears in LUI is merely a soft tendril of smokiness that smells predominantly of guaiac’s burning leaves layered with clean, barely smoky, white sandalwood. It’s a gentle, diffuse note that weaves around the edges of the main benzoin-amber, spicy floral, vanilla bouquet, smudging its edges but never detracting or distracting from LUI’s central vibe: a comforting, cozy, inviting, and approachable cloud of golden sweetness lightly infused with soft, bright floralcy and spiciness. The wood and smoke merely serve as a counterbalance that keeps the driving benzoin-vanilla accord in check, ensuring that LUI remains a semi-gourmand, semi-floriental instead of barreling headlong into full gourmand territory.
LUI’s central focus and main elements remain unchanged during the first 2.5 hours, and the fragrance shifts only in its nuances. Roughly 30 minutes in, the floral component becomes even hazier, a broadly painted impressionistic swathe that alternates between suggesting spicy jasmine, spicy ylang-ylang, spicy carnations, or some combination thereof. At the same time, the benzoin begins to waft a strong cinnamon note (which is one of its olfactory characteristics in essential oil form), and it works beautifully with the vanilla.
Speaking of the latter, it’s lovely because it isn’t redolent of white sugar and it’s not screechy or musk-filled either. Actually, to me, it smells like a really good Peru Balsam essential oil with its inviting, smooth, rounded aromas of cinnamon-woody vanilla as opposed to the saccharine-sweet, granular, white sugar in “vanilla” synthetics used in most gourmands, including many of those from Guerlain like last year’s Mon Exclusif (renamed as Mon Guerlain after some minor tweaks).
The note or material used here is of a different caliber, but so is the fragrance as a whole in my opinion, and that’s a big reason why I enjoyed it. All the notes feel nicely calibrated, both individually and in relation to each other. For example, there is enough benzoin to make it a central note and to give a spicy, caramel-and-cinnamon-scented goldenness but not so much as to feel cloying, unbalanced, and nauseating like the praline in L’Homme Ideal. The vanilla is silky, woody, and rounded, rather than being a high-pitched banshee wail of diabetes-inducing saccharine or cotton candy (like Mon Exclusif or some mainstream Guerlains). The florals aren’t goopy with syrup and are also thankfully devoid of the usual fruitchouli gunk or cloying, jammy molasses (like all the La Petite Robe Noire fragrances). Whatever “pear” note there may be is a delicate, muted touch that lasts 75-90 minutes at best, is confined to the background, and, even then, it is more of a watery, faintly green, fruited freshness instead than Guerlain’s usual berries. The smoke, wood, and supposed “leather” are similarly delicate, restrained elements in the background. Even when they eventually become central elements, they don’t smell of the harsh, excessively smoky, overly desiccated boisé sec/woody-amber aromachemicals that I find in so many masculine Guerlains, like the aforementioned L’Homme Ideal, Ambre Eternel, or the ridiculously synthetic, incredibly abrasive Santal Royal. (If you want authentic, high-grade, and genuinely beautiful oud or sandalwood orientals, I can give you a list of names, but nothing from Guerlain would ever be on the list.) And, finally, to my relief, none of these elements is accompanied by a deluge of clean white musk that evokes my laundry room, Bounce dryer sheets, or a mainstream, inexpensive fragrance in Sephora. In fact, I didn’t detect any major musk at all. LUI is not, thank God, Mon Exclusif. In Lui, no one single note dominates like a bulldozer. The main or central elements flow seamlessly and harmoniously one into the next. The tertiary background flickers exist merely to prevent LUI from being either excessively sweet, excessively impressionistic, or excessively simplistic.
It is, however, a matter of degree because LUI is, by and large, a simple and largely impressionistic scent, and it grows even more so as it develops. In its initial phase, the first 2.5 hours, the central elements — the benzoin, vanilla, spice, and floralcy — move in large swathes, rendered primarily in broad brushstrokes to create a hazy cloud of sweet, spicy, vanillic goldenness. In its second phase, as I’ll describe further down below, LUI is a broadly woody scent; the woods become a central element that replaces the floralcy and temporarily overshadows even the vanilla-benzoin accord. In its extremely long drydown, LUI is simply a woody-vanilla-amber blur.
The end result during each stage is both familiar and simple, in addition to the broad brush stroke approach making the scent feeling quite linear when taken as a whole. Some people have compared LUI to Guerlain’s Bois d’Armenie. I haven’t tried the latter to be able to comment, but LUI’s first phase reminded me specifically of La Via del Profumo‘s Tasneem, as well as floral-vanilla gourmand orientals more generally and tangentially. (One of AJ Arabia/WIDIAN‘s fragrances comes to mind, but there are so many fragrances in this genre which focus on amber, vanilla, abstract florals, and soft woods, including Lubin‘s new Epidor which LUI resembles at one point later on.) LUI’s second stage brought to mind the later portions of Serge Lutens‘ Un Bois Vanillé (in its original version) and a richer, heavier version of Aftelier‘s Vanilla Smoke, while its generic drydown felt like that of so many woody-amber fragrances, I couldn’t single out a specific one.
As I’ve often said in the past, there is nothing wrong with linearity and simplicity if one likes the notes in question and if the fragrance has the quality and/or smoothness to back it up. LUI does, in my opinion, but my point is that there is nothing novel, striking, revolutionary, or gender-bending about this fragrance. (In fact, I would call its first phase quite feminine on balance.) On the other hand, what it does, it does well. It’s a simple, basic, but nicely balanced, smooth, inviting, and easy-to-wear fragrance in one of my favourite genres of perfumery, what I call the “cozy comfort” genre. It’s the sort of thing that I could see people (or perhaps just myself) throwing on as a happy, warm, sweet, informal scent to snuggle up with on a Friday night after a long, stressful week while they watch Netflix in comfortable sweatpants or pyjamas. There is nothing wrong with that at all.
As mentioned earlier, LUI changes primarily in the prominence or nuances of some of its notes. Roughly 90 minutes in, LUI turns woodier as the quietly smoky, sandalwood-guaiac style notes cease to lurk in the shadows and arrive on center stage. The floral accord retreats, sometimes hovering on the sidelines, sometimes acting as a soft, wholly amorphous aura in the background. The “pear” dies away. The benzoin and vanilla grow stronger, turning LUI much sweeter. The result is a little too sweet for me personally, just like Lubin‘s similar half-floriental, half-gourmand, benzoin-vanilla-floral-woody Epidor which LUI is beginning to approximate in feel, even if some of its notes are different. Still, there is something delectable about LUI’s cinnamon-scented, vanilla-caramel amber with its soft curlicues of lightly smoked, sometimes incense-y woodiness and soft, lightly spiced floral sweetness.
LUI changes its focus during its second stage which begins roughly 2.25 to 2.5 hours into the fragrance’s evolution. Essentially, the woods come to the forefront and push everything else to the sidelines or the background. More than ever, they smell of guaiac and its autumn bonfire of dry leaves, although there is a small whiff of campfire birch subsumed within. The vanilla-benzoin hides behind the singed woods and is no longer the centrifugal force. There is almost nothing floral on my skin. LUI isn’t even strongly sweet any more. It’s primarily a dry-sweet, smoky, woody fragrance with muted wisps of vanilla and cinnamon-ish benzoin goldenness peeking out from the sides. It inhabits the same general universe as Aftelier‘s Vanilla Smoke during its later stages, even if the type of smoke and amber in LUI are very different. And, for the first time, LUI actually feels unisex in style rather than skewing towards the feminine side.
LUI’s long drydown begins roughly in the middle to late portions of the 5th hour and essentially involves a sweeter, warmer, more ambered version of the woody second stage. In reductionist terms, the benzoin joins the smoky woods, encasing them in a soft and softly spiced cloud of goldenness. The vanilla continues to be a quiet layer subsumed deep within, although it fluctuates in strength over the next 12 hours, waxing and waning, occasionally feeling quite distinct but usually just operating as a soft, hushed breath. There is no longer any floralcy; there is also no longer even a generalized resemblance to Epidor or to any semi-gourmand, vanillic floriental. LUI is simply a dry-sweet woody-benzoin scent. The most charitably detailed description would entail guaiac’s autumn leaves, smoky fires aroma enveloped within a warm, ambered, minimally spiced, and occasionally vanillic haze, but that might be pushing it. The notes here aren’t that specific, let alone clearly delineated. There are really just alternating waves of dry-sweetness, vaguely caramel-vanilla sweetness, and minimally smoked woodiness.
I enjoy it, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the bouquet has a largely generic character. It’s also incredibly linear because the drydown lasts for ages and ages on my skin, more than 12 hours in fact, before the fragrance finally dies away. How you feel about this phase (and probably every phase of LUI) will largely depend on just how much you like the particular handful of notes on display at any given time. How you feel about the fragrance as a whole will depend not only on those personal note or taste preferences but also on whether you’ve already got a fragrance like LUI in your wardrobe. I don’t, because my exceedingly low threshold for woody-amber synthetics, sugary sweetness, gourmandise, or white musk rules out a number of comparable fragrances for me, but some of you probably own something similar to LUI already.
LUI had low projection, good sillage, and excellent longevity on me. My sample was an atomizer decant that I purchased on eBay and its spray aperture was the size of that on full bottles, so all my tests involved 2 sprays in the amount you’d apply if actually owned LUI. With that amount, the fragrance always opened with 2-3 inches of projection. The opening sillage was around 4 inches but blossomed after 30 minutes into a diffuse, airy, but strong, unmistakable cloud that extended about 7-8 inches. The numbers dropped fractionally after 90 minutes, then even more so at the 3.25-hour mark in when LUI turned into a softer, quieter cloud that trailed only about 3-4 inches, at most, although the actual scent was strong up close. LUI turned discreet at the end of the 6th hour but, to my surprise, didn’t turn into a true skin scent until late in the 9th hour. Even then, it wasn’t difficult to detect if I put my nose on my arm until the 13th hour. LUI clung on tenaciously and lasted just shy of 17 hours in total.
Reviews for LUI are mixed. My friend, Monsieur Guerlain, appeared to be wholly unimpressed, even a little disdainful, acidly writing in his review that “[m]aybe Lui would be better suited as one of Guerlain’s scented candles.” Ouch. That is quite a statement coming from someone as diplomatic, tactful, or admiring of Guerlain as he, but it’s quite understandable given the scent experience he describes. Mine was infinitely better, while his sounds like bland minimalism to the max:
It shares the quandary of most niche fragrances, being so minimalistic and linear that you get the impression of an unfinished project. There’s a wonderful herbaceous, licorice-like myrrh note up top, a mineral-metallic note of electric model trains and drilling machines further down, and a comfortable suede note at the base, but the whole thing is so light, subtle and close-to-the skin that it’s difficult to ascertain the perfumer’s intent. Sometimes, less is not more, but simply less, especially compared to the price of 160 € for 50 ml. In fact, Lui smells like a diluted version of L’Homme Idéal EdP, minus the boisé sec cedarwood, or maybe a softer Bois d’Arménie mixed with Jacques Guerlain’s long gone Cachet Jaune (1937), all of which boils down to Band-aid and empty-chocolate-box vanillin. Maybe Lui would be better suited as one of Guerlain’s scented candles. [Bolded emphasis to perfume names added by me.]
On Fragrantica, some people love LUI, but reviews are mixed as a whole. For some of its detractors, LUI is a weaker, “less finished” version of a better Guerlain benzoin fragrance, the $260 Bois d’Armenie. Some people also thought LUI bore similarities to L’Homme Ideal. Two people said they experienced a “fleeting” scent or one that engaged in a ghostly act. A few thought the fragrance was “too expensive” for its flaws.
For its fans, LUI is familiar but great. “Originaldeftom” resorted to all-caps at several points in his review to convey his love, then ended by calling the fragrance “(almost) MODERN MASTERPIECE!” For “IndigoEye,” LUI was “a great mainstream release by Guerlain (something I wondered whether I would ever say again).” For “ScentEye,” a single heart emoji wasn’t enough to express her feelings; although only one appears on the Fragrantica page, the full series showed up when I copied and pasted her comment here:
This feels familiar but oh so special. Warm with the peppery carnation note, lovely vanilla/Tonka vibe, smoky with a birch tar note. This is new to my collection and I’m in love. This is not the generic fruity/floral/oud fodder that is like a tsunami of fragrance. This is a delectable treat, a combination of sexy, familiar, delicate and demure. Divine. ❤️❤️❤️❤️
Interestingly, both fans and detractors found the scent to be quite discreet on their skin, but if you look at the actual votes for LUI’s sillage, there are just as many votes at this time for the strongest category, “Enormous” (13), as there are for the second category, “Moderate” (13). 6 people opted for the third, “Heavy,” but only 4 people chose the weakest category, “Soft.” On a related matter, the most longevity votes are for “Very Long Lasting” and “Long Lasting,” with 7 votes each, and the fewest are for “Weak” or “Poor.” In short, the votes suggest a different picture than the fleeting, weak, discreet, demure scent that is described in some reviews. You might want to keep that in mind.
On Basenotes, there are also several reviews for LUI in a Guerlain discussion thread, starting at post 54. The Bois d’Armenie comparisons come up again, but what I found interesting was the clove issue. Two people experienced a heavy amount of eugenol and/or cloves, too much so for their personal tastes, and one of them had to scrub the scent. On the other hand, one person experienced no cloves at all. And then there is the fascinating account by “MrCologneGuy” who blind-bought LUI and whose his initial first impression was summed up as “pear dipped in dark chocolate, carnation, some incense.” That sounds delightful to me; I would have loved something reminiscent of dark chocolate. Later, after subsequent testing, he added:
Pear note is a bit more prominent than anticipated. It melds well with clove and cinnamon. Smoky notes at the base add to the dark chocolate effect. [¶] You’d think it’s a gourmand with all those foodie notes, but it all comes together in a spiced floral cloud. Yes, carnation forward.
Two wears so far. I liked it better the second time. It will wear well in cool autumn weather.
Packaged in Guerlain’s nice, leather-look box, which almost helps to justify the high price. I predict that Lui will have its fans, but it won’t be a blockbuster hit. A bit too quirky for mass appeal, and a tad too floral for most men. Still, glad it’s in my collection.
I’ve deliberately quoted all these varied accounts to show you how much impressions of LUI’s nuances vary, whether it is Monsieur Guerlain’s licorice-myrrh and mineral-metallic “drilling machines” parts, MrCologneGuy’s pear-chocolate-incense, spiced floral cloud, or the no cloves/strong cloves split. The only consistency in the reports relates to the benzoin, smoke, and, to a lesser extent, the vanilla.
LUI is not cheap for a simple composition that revolves around three elements for most of its lifespan, even if it is good quality. It is $180 or €160 for a small 50 mls. Given the price and the variations in description, this is a fragrance best sampled and tested first, in my opinion, not blindly bought unless each one of these varied descriptions makes you sit up.
For me, LUI was an unexpected, happy surprise, particularly in its quality. It is the first modern Guerlain in a long time that I’ve really wanted and I am seriously considering buying a bottle for myself. (L’Instant de Guerlain Eau Extreme (or “LIDGE”) was the last one I enjoyed this much, and that was almost five years ago.) Is it worth the price? Honestly, no, not really. $180 is far too high for something so basic and familiar (that isn’t even 100 ml in size), and that is the only reason I’ve hesitated thus far. Yet, despite its issues, something about LUI keeps tugging at me with the memory of its delectable, warm, non-gourmand, non-cloying, spicy-smoky, dry-sweet amber-vanilla goldenness. I suppose it comes down to the extent to which one loves “cozy comfort” fragrances and whether one already has something similar.
If you love either benzoin fragrances, vanillic florientals, semi-gourmand orientals, or amber-woody fragrances, then I strongly recommend giving LUI a test sniff. I can think of at least 14 readers who would fall absolutely head over heels for this fragrance. For the majority, however, how you feel about LUI after testing will depend on the various factors I’ve discussed here.