Exclusive: An Interview with Serge Lutens

I was recently granted the enormous honour and privilege of interviewing Serge Lutens. He was not in Paris during what had originally been intended to be a short stay on my part, so he kindly offered me a written interview. I cannot express my gratitude enough; even for someone as verbose as myself, there are truly no words to adequately express my appreciation, and how excited I was to receive the news.

Serge Lutens at his Marrakesh villa. Photo, courtesy of Shiseido and Serge Lutens.

Serge Lutens at his Marrakesh villa. Photo, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

My admiration for “Serge Lutens” has always been primarily for the man himself, even more than for his fragrances, despite their beauty, creativity, and originality. I’m utterly fascinated by the way he thinks, by his intellectuality, and by his elusive, enigmatic, Sphinx-like nature. The more I probe, quite often the less I understand, and the more intrigued I become. At this point, I think it’s quite safe to say that I have a full-blown obsession with trying to figure out Serge Lutens, and a complete acceptance of the fact that I never will. Genius is simply not subject to normal analysis or understanding. And, for me, Serge Lutens is the last of the 20th-century artistic greats, a combination of Picasso, Camus, Yves St. Laurent, Herb Ritts, and Richard Avedon — all in one very sylph-like, elegantly stylish, black and white, enigmatic package.

As a result, I intentionally asked questions that were designed to be more personal or theoretical in nature, and to focus on the mysterious man behind the legend. I also did not want to bore Monsieur Lutens by repeating the same sorts of queries that he gets so often, like what perfume he wears. Besides, I have already covered extensively both his background and childhood, his rise to success, his time at Vogue and Dior, and his perfumes in a very detailed, two-part profile. (Serge Lutens Part I, and Part II). In short, I was selfish and asked what I personally wanted to know, regardless of whether it pertained to perfume. In most cases, it did not.

The responses I received were detailed, long, philosophical, and thoughtful. Monsieur Lutens had taken the time to respond to each one (and there were twelve in all!) in depth and with enormous seriousness. I was thrilled, and a little awed. However, the responses were all in French, and, to be honest, I sometimes find my dear “Oncle Serge” to be a little oblique and abstract. (Even in English!) So, while I certainly understood his meaning and most of his nuances (I think), I did not trust my own French enough after all these years to provide you all with a truly accurate translation. (For example, I had to go look up what the word ‘ankylose’ meant, as I’ve certainly never encountered it before in either French or English!)

Consequently, I enlisted the help of two friends to provide a translation that faithfully captured the underlying tonalities, right down to the smallest metaphor and nuance. In a few, rare instances, I lightly reworded their interpretations or combined their two separate versions into one. Below, you will find my questions, Serge Lutens’ original French response (in italics), and then, the translated version (in red). Linguistic or contextual notes are in green. I hope you find his answers as interesting as I did.

Photo: Marco Guerra, Alaoui Marrakesh, the Palmeraie Villa.

Photo: Marco Guerra, Serge Lutens at the Palmeraie Villa, Marrakesh. http://marcoguerrastudio.com/?projects=portraits

1.      Out of all the great painters, are there any whom you might consider your artistic twin in terms of their aesthetics, poetic self-expression, or overall sensibilities? If so, why?

What may be one of the two portraits in London's National Gallery to which Serge Lutens is referring. This is Rembrandt's "Portrait of an old woman ages 83." Source: rembrandtonline.org

What may be one of the two portraits in London’s National Gallery to which Serge Lutens is referring. This is Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an old woman aged 83.” Source: rembrandtonline.org

Si vous voyez quelqu’un traverser un musée à toute vitesse, ayant l’air de chercher un ami dans un hall de gare, ou de chercher la sortie, cela doit être moi ! Mon œil est à ce moment-là aux aguets et aguerri. Il se ressent en danger et par lui, s’en trouve aiguisé (L’Art lui-même est un danger sinon, pourquoi ?). Parmi la foule agglutinée au milieu des chefs d’œuvre, je jette un œil, comme on le dit, mais parfois, je freine ma cadence et me dirige vers un tableau comme aimanté. A lui seul, il a l’air de justifier ma venue en ce lieu. Je ne sais pas pourquoi ; cela peut être n’importe quoi. C’est inexplicable mais cette toile me touche. Elle peut être signée ou pas (dans ce cas, c’est encore plus magique car plus mystérieux). A partir de ce moment-là, le tableau est en tête. Je garde éventuellement en mémoire la période et la signature (s’il y en a  une) et je sais qu’un jour ou l’autre, par un texte, une photographie, un parfum…ce tableau se fera connaître. Les grands peintres ne me sont pas moins indifférents que des inconnus. Aimer quelqu’un de connu peut vouloir dire qu’on essaie de se situer par rapport à un goût. Cela me gêne. Cependant, à la National Gallery de Londres, il y a deux femmes très vieilles. Traits et yeux semblent pris dans les rides, comme une mouche dans une toile d’araignée. La position de leurs visages est fixe et prise dans l’immense collerette de coton blanc amidonné. De cela, on retient la robe noire, la couleur blanche de ces godets multipliés autour des épaules et qui, comme un plateau pour une tête coupée, mettraient le doigt sur l’âge et sa beauté juste avant qu’ils ne meurent. Ce sont des Rembrandt !

What made be the other portrait to which he is referring: Rembrandt, "Portrait of Margaretha de Geer."

What made be the other portrait to which he is referring: Rembrandt, “Portrait of Margaretha de Geer.”

If you should ever see someone hurriedly crossing a museum, looking as if he is searching for a friend in a train station, or looking for the exit, that someone must be me! At that instant, my eye is wise and watchful, it feels the danger and is thus sharper (Art itself is dangerous, otherwise what is the point?). In the middle of the crowd huddled amongst the masterpieces, I cast a glance, as one says. But sometimes I slow my step and am drawn to a painting as if it were magnetised. This work alone seems to justify my being here. I do not know why, it could be anything, but the work touches me. It can be signed or not (in the latter case, it is even more magical because the experience retains its mystery). From that moment, the painting will remain with me. I may keep the period and the signature (if there is one) in mind and I know that at some point, through a text, a photograph, a smell that the piece will manifest itself. Great painters are no less important than the lesser ones. Liking someone famous may mean that one tries to position oneself in relation to a given taste. This bothers me. However, there are two very old women at the National Gallery in London. Their features and their eyes seem trapped by their wrinkles, as a fly in a spider’s web. The position of their faces is fixed and caught in the immense ruff of rigid white cotton. From this image, one retains the black dress, the whiteness of the multitude of ruffles ringing the shoulders which, like a platter holding a severed head, would accentuate age and its beauty just before they both succumb. They are Rembrandts!

2.      What pieces of music or particular songs move you emotionally and intellectually, or have such an impact on you that you turn to them in moments of great joy or sorrow?

La musique a ceci d’étonnant : elle vous enveloppe et si elle vous touche, elle vous comprend, elle vous gagne comme le ferait une ankylose des pieds jusque la tête. En un mot, elle vous saisit. Parfois, afin de découvrir en elle ce qui m’intrigue, je l’écoute et la réécoute. Il se peut, si je suis heureux, qu’elle me fasse danser seul, ou plus tard dans la journée, qu’elle me rejoigne et que sans elle, malgré tout, je la chante. Les joies et les solitudes qu’elle peut engendrer sont autant souhaitées l’une et l’autre mais, à dire vrai, la musique était surtout le lien indispensable qui, dans le temps de mes images, constituait l’atmosphère amniotique entre le modèle et moi-même. Elle était moi et je me voyais en elle. Se voir dans un autre sexe que le sien n’est pas évident mais, pour moi, cela a toujours était naturel.

[R.A’s Translation Note : “Musique” is a feminine noun in French (“la musique”) and its gender is paramount to the sense of Mr Lutens’ answer. It is thus also referred to as “she” in translation.]

Music is astonishing: she envelops you and, if she touches you, she understands you and  she conquers your being, like pins and needles running the entire length of your body. In a word, music grasps you. Sometimes, in order to find out why she intrigues me, I will listen to her again and again. On occasion, if I am happy, I may start to dance alone; or, later in the day, she might find me again and, though she is not with me, I may begin to sing. While the joy and the solitude she brings are equally pleasing, in the period of my photography, music was the amniotic atmosphere that connected me to my model. Music became me, and I saw myself in her. To see oneself in another gender than one’s own is not easy, but for me it was always natural.

[Kafkaesque’s note: I read those last two lines in a different way, and thought Monsieur Lutens was saying that music also helped him see himself in the model. That it was an indispensable link and atmospheric amniotic fluid which made the model become “me, and I saw myself in her. To see oneself in another of a sex other than one’s own is not easy, but for me it was always natural.” Given the issue of gender pronouns, I think his meaning can probably go both ways.] 

3.      What was one of the most meaningful things that someone has done for you? I’m not talking about gifts of great value, but an action that touched you deeply, even if it may have been a small thing?

Elle n’est pas une petite chose vu qu’elle est ma naissance et, par ce fait, ma mort. Je ne développerai pas ici ce thème. Cela est trop personnel mais, je suis né en 1942 à Lille, dans le Nord de la France. Je suis un enfant naturel, reconnu par une seule personne. Celle qui m’a mis au jour.

It is not a small thing as I am speaking of my own birth and, consequently, of my death. I will not elaborate on this, it is much too personal. However, I was born in 1942, in Lille, in Northern France. I am a natural child, recognized by only one person. She, who brought me into the world.

"Solitude has hard teeth." - Serge Lutens. Photo taken in Morocco by Ling Fei. Source: Le Monde Magazine. http://www.lemonde.fr/style/portfolio/2012/05/11/la-vie-en-images-de-serge-lutens_1699467_1575563.html

“Solitude has hard teeth.” – Serge Lutens. Photo taken in Morocco by Ling Fei. Source: Le Monde Magazine. http://www.lemonde.fr/style/portfolio/2012/05/11/la-vie-en-images-de-serge-lutens_1699467_1575563.html

4.      Were there any classic fragrances that you loved or wore before you started creating perfumes of your own?

Avant de les générer moi-même, je ne m’intéressais pas du tout au monde du parfum. Cela ne me touchait pas, aux deux sens du mot. Les senteurs sont depuis  un moyen de dire ce qui m’est cher. Que je sois en colère, en retrait du monde ou autre, l’instant où je les réalise est notre moment. Cet instant dépassé, cela cesse de m’intéresser. Certains s’y reconnaissent, d’autres pas ; cela n’a aucune importance. Le parfum se doit d’accuser ce tout que vous êtes, composé du mal et du bien que vous seul connaissez.

Before creating them myself, I had absolutely no interest in the world of perfume. Perfume did not touch me, in both senses of the word. Since then, scents have become a way for me express what is dear to me. Whether I am angry, isolated from the world or what not, the moment I create a scent is our moment. When that instant has passed, I am no longer interested. Some may recognize themselves [in a scent] and others not, it is of no relevance. Perfume must bear witness to all that you are, the good as well as the bad that only you know.

5.      What historical eras and places interest you so much that you wish you could go back in time to explore them for yourself, and why?

Ce que l’Histoire de France a eu comme effet sur moi, c’est le rêve, mais retourner dans le temps n’aurait pas de réalité. Ce qu’on garde d’une époque est souvent capté par le regard d’un peintre, d’un écrivain… et de ce fait, contient une part plus ou moins grande de suggestivité. L’Histoire sert une idée, une cause, une patrie. Ses visions nationalistes me sont étrangères. Pour répondre à votre question, je n’ai pas cette curiosité. Je ne serai pas mieux dans une autre époque que celle où je vis actuellement, même s’il est certain que la création née toujours chez moi, d’une situation qui me déstabilise.

The impact of the History of France on me was to make me dream, but to return to the past is not realistic. What one keeps of an era is often captured by a painter, a writer… and can thus be more or less suggestive. History serves an idea, a cause, a country. Its nationalist visions are foreign to me. To answer your question, I do not have that curiosity. I would not feel better in another era than my own, even though it is undeniable that creation only comes to me when I am feeling destabilized.

Source: news.madame.lefigaro.fr

Source: news.madame.lefigaro.fr

6.      You seem to draw inspiration from literature as much as from history. Who are some of your favorite writers? Is there a particular book or poem that you could read again and again without getting tired of it?

Si la poésie s’écoute parler, je ne l’aime pas. Si un auteur s’enfonce dans l’anecdote, il m’ennuie. C’est ce qui le met à vif, qui est insupportable aux autres et qui lui, le fait vivre, qui m’attache. Je retrouve ceci chez Baudelaire comme chez Jean Genet. Ces deux personnalités veulent à la fois être aimées et pour ce faire, nous montre à quel point, elles peuvent être détestés. Le condamné à mort est une œuvre magnifique, même si Baudelaire est le plus grand orfèvre des mots qu’il cisèle comme des bijoux fins mais avec toute la violence du forgeron. La littérature n’est pas un choix. En général, tous ceux qui ne l’ont pas lu, retiennent d’un auteur ce qui est dit partout. De Proust, on ne garde de sa Recherche du temps perdu, que l’histoire de cette madeleine mais c’est ignorer que Marcel Proust est la plus grosse madeleine du monde !

When poetry likes the sound of its own voice, I find it unattractive. If an author sinks into anecdote, he bores me. What connects me to a writer is what makes him bleed, what is unbearable to others but allows him to live. I can find this rawness in Baudelaire and Jean Genet. These two individuals show us how profoundly they long to be loved and in order to achieve this, show us how much they can be hated. Genet’s “Le Condamné à Mort” is a magnificent piece, while Baudelaire may be the greatest goldsmith in the way he chisels his words like a fine jeweller, yet with all the violence of a blacksmith. Literature is not a choice. Generally, those who have not read a given author simply retain what has been said about him. Of Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” [In Search of Lost Time] many only remember the story of his “madeleine”, but that is ignoring that Marcel Proust is the biggest “madeleine” in the world!

[My Note: The episode of the madeleine in Proust’s work (specifically in Swann in Love) is famous for being the first instance of the theory of involuntary memory, and that theme is repeated throughout Proust’s work (and In Search of Lost Time). You can read more of the Involuntary Memory Theory, as well as the specifics of the madeleine incident and recent, modern analysis of Proust’s concept regarding memory triggers at the Huffington Post. You can also find an explanation of the Madeleine incident and the nature of cognitive memory recall at Wikipedia. It’s briefer, but, in my opinion, not as clear as perhaps the initial paragraph at the Huffington Post explaining the Madeleine metaphor. In essence, though, Monsieur Lutens is saying that Proust and his works are themselves an involuntary trigger of memories. He is also saying that the “madeleine” reference is itself a memory trigger for those who have not actually bothered to read the book, but are merely relying on what they have heard.]

7.      Is there a person in history or character in literature with whom you particularly identify? If so, why?

S’il m’est arrivé parfois de m’identifier à des personnages, c’est plus pour certaines parties. Un peu comme un homme miroir qui rechercherait des similitudes. J’ai ce talent qui est aussi un défaut mais il est certain que l’autre se voit également en moi. Remplacer et trahir c’est ce que, profondément, je fais et je suis. C’est le double en un seul.

If I have sometimes likened myself to characters in books, it has only been in morsels. A little like a mirror man searching for similarities. I have this talent, which is also a flaw, but yet it is undeniable that the other also sees himself in me. To replace and to betray is, fundamentally, what I do and it is what I am. It is the duality within the one.

8.      How has the perfume industry changed from the time when you first started in the 1980s? I’m not talking about IFRA or the EU, but in terms of your experiences as a perfumer and any pressures created by the business in terms of yearly output, the type of perfume genres, or the nature of the industry as a whole?

Serge Lutens in his perfume studio at his Moroccan villa. Photo, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

Serge Lutens in his perfume studio at his Moroccan villa. Photo, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

S’il n’y avait que la finalité produit d’un parfum, cela ne m’intéresserait pas. Quand il n’est pas un véhicule de ce qui me tient à cœur, à corps et à cris, le parfum n’a pas plus d’intérêt que l’assaisonnement d’une salade (surtout que je ne mange pas !). L’industrie opportuniste de la parfumerie a fait du parfum un produit d’identification dont l’objectif est que chacun puisse se retrouver via des scénarios stéréotypés : l’idylle amoureuse (très vendeuse), la réussite professionnelle et ce qui en découle, l’argent, le luxe…Tout cela n’a rien à voir avec l’identité et ce qui devrait toucher nos fibres les plus sensibles. Niche ou pas niche ! Ce que je fais depuis maintenant plus de 20 ans tient d’une démarche autant littéraire qu’olfactive, mettant en scène des zones et des terrains vagues en moi-même ignorés. Pour le reste, je ne sais pas si le monde de la parfumerie a changé. Il faut vendre plus, en faisant passer la banalité pour de la rareté et de l’ordinaire pour du luxe. Un immense trucage qui n’a rien à voir avec nous. En tous cas, pas avec moi !

If the perfume as product were the end goal, it would be of no interest to me. When perfume is not a vehicle for the things that I hold dear to my heart, to my heart and soul, then it might as well be a salad dressing (especially since I do not even eat any!). The opportunistic fragrance industry has turned perfume into a lifestyle product where the objective is for everyone to identify with stereotyped scenarios: the romantic idyll (a great seller), professional success and everything that stems from it, money, luxury…none of this has anything to do with identity per se, nor with what should strike our most sensitive chords. Niche market or not! What I have been doing for over 20 years stems from an approach that is both literary and olfactory, depicting areas and wastelands ignored within me. Otherwise, I do not know whether or not the world of perfume has changed. One has to sell more and thus banality is passed off as rarity and the ordinary as luxury. All the smoke and mirrors have nothing to do with us. At least not with me!

9.      What are some of your favorite dishes or things to eat? Do you have any gourmand or gastronomic weaknesses?

Serge Lutens in the Palmeraie Gardens, Morocco. Photo: Patrice Nagel, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

Serge Lutens in the Palmeraie Gardens, Morocco. Photo: Patrice Nagel, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

Peut-être est-il logique ou destiné que tout artiste se dirige, dans le temps, vers une forme d’ascétisme, rigueur oblige ! La faim crée une tension qui me semble providentielle à celle que la création requiert. Cependant, il n’est pas exclu que cette tension puisse, d’un jour à l’autre, se transformer en un comportement gargantuesque et cette autre extrémité de la rigueur prendrait alors des proportions énormes, dont je serai l’image vivante. Toute restriction implique une autre extrémité et ceci vaut dans les deux sens.

Perhaps it is logical or destined that all artists, at some point, drive themselves towards an ascetic approach, as rigorous standards may require. Hunger creates a strain I believe to be providential to the tension required by creativity. Which does not mean that that this tension cannot, from one day to the next, be transformed into gargantuan behaviour. This other extreme of rigour would then take on enormous proportions of which I would be the living image. All restriction implies an opposite extreme, and this goes both ways.

10.   You are clearly a perfectionist, and that can come with a high price. Are there any aspects of perfectionism that plague you in particular, or that you wish you could change?

Je me permets de vous contredire : je ne suis pas un perfectionniste même s’il est certain que tant que la justesse ne m’aura pas rejoint, je ne la lâcherai pas. La justesse se présente à tout moment, dans notre comportement, notre choix vestimentaire, nos attitudes, nos goûts…C’est en quelque sorte le point sur le I. Cela parait dérisoire mais sans ce point, le I n’existerait pas. Il ne serait qu’un droit-fil. La perfection pour la perfection ne pourrait pas me toucher alors qu’une erreur, une maladresse peut le faire mille fois plus, qu’une chose dite « bien faite ».

[R.A’s translation note: the concept of “justesse”, which is at the heart of this answer cannot be translated in a single English word. Not only does it encompass concepts such as authenticity, truth, perfection, or exactness in all their philosophical, literary, artistic and scientific senses, it is deeply embedded in a part of French culture that presupposes that there is one “right way” to everything. For that purpose it has been left in French in the text below.]

Please allow me contradict you: I am not a perfectionist, even though it is undeniable that I will not let go until “justesse” has caught up with me. “Justesse” can present itself at any given time, in our behaviour, our choice of clothing, our attitudes, our tastes…It is the dot on the “i” so to speak. It may seem trifling, but without this dot the “i” would not exist. It would only be an unbroken line. Perfection for perfection’s sake does not move me, but a mistake, a blunder can touch me a thousand times more than something that is “done right”.

Source: alafoto.com

Source: alafoto.com

11.    “Veni, Vidi, Vici” would seem to apply to many areas of your life, but it can’t have been easy. Which of the many worlds that you’ve conquered was the hardest? Are there any worlds or areas that you wish you had explored on a professional basis?

Ce n’est pas une question de difficulté puisque c’est un non choix. Rien n’a jamais été facile ou pas. Cela a toujours été tenu par une exigence, une rigueur, un besoin d’éclaircissement pour un texte, une mise en trouble pour un parfum, une entrée dans le royaume des ombres pour le fard. C’est là au fond que je me sentais chez moi ! L’idée de facilité me ferait reculer. Je sentirais que je suis mon propre imposteur.

It is not a difficult question since it does not involve a choice. Nothing has ever been easy or not. It always had to do with an exactingness, a rigor, a need for clarity in a text, a feeling of uncertainty for a perfume, an entrance into the kingdom of shadows for make-up. This is where I felt at home! The idea of ease would make me recoil. I would feel as if I were my very own impostor.

12.   What do you do to relax, to de-stress, or, perhaps more importantly, to get your mind to stop thinking so much?

L’esprit est occupé. S’il ne l’était pas, ce serait un temps vacant. Le temps est la seule valeur à laquelle j’accorde de l’importance. Rien d’autre que lui ne pourrait me donner ce sentiment d’urgence que j’ai toujours eu. Il met l’alarme au rouge ou, si vous préférez, la conscience de la mort depuis le début de ma vie est peut-être ce qui fait ce que j’ai fait.

The mind is busy. If it were not, it would be empty time. Time is the only value I give importance to. Only time can give me the sense of urgency I have always felt. It activates the alarm bells or, if you prefer, the awareness of death that I have felt since the beginning of my life [and which] may account for the fact that I have achieved all that I have.

Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. (Website link embedded within photo.)

Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. http://www.crisbarnett.com/serge-lutens/

Again, I extend my deepest thanks to Serge Lutens for taking the time out of his busy schedule to so patiently and thoroughly answer my questions. I’m so grateful for this enormous privilege, his graciousness, and his kindness. I’d also like to thank my two friends (Liesl E. & Richard A.) for helping me out with their translation skills for all the finer nuances. (I know it wasn’t easy, but I don’t know what I would have done without you two!)