Monday, October 6, 2014

Serge Lutens Part Two

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!). 
(from an interview with Serge Lutens at Kafkaesque

In yesterday's blog I introduced Serge Lutens, and briefly explored woody and oriental perfumes. So, as promised, today's post will explore the florals, incense-related perfumes and some of Luten's more eccentric offerings...


In aromatherapy, floral absolutes or essences are sometimes referred to as 'euphorics', i.e. uplifting, encouraging a happier, or even transcendent state of mind. As it happens, my sister practices aromatherapy as part of her work as a therapist, so there have always been essential oils around for me to test and try.

There's nothing quite like natural vetiver with its smoky green earthiness to relax frayed nerves - it would be my first choice as a bath oil if I had a scary situation to face the next day. Florals have an entirely different impact though, it's true that rose absolute has a soothing, balancing quality, though uplifting at the same time, in contrast jasmine absolute's full animalic sensuality can be both uplifting and aphrodisiac, or confidence-boosting in effect. It's rarely given its full-on animalic personality in contemporary perfumery mind you, and there's quite a difference between Sambac and Grandiflora jasmine.

For example, if you try perfume classics such as Patou's Joy you might be aware of a urinal scent (most likely Grandiflora), then on the other hand Dior's Diorama veers more towards fecal (Sambac). In contemporary perfume though, these animalic aspects are often isolated, tempered with other notes or removed altogether to focus on jasmine's greener 'prettier' qualities.

One of the most renowned jasmine perfumes among perfume lovers is Luten's A la Nuit. While I know that this contains a blend of at least three jasmine absolutes, I'm only guessing that it's most likely Sambac jasmine, since it doesn't have the urinal aspect of Grandiflora (which I'm personally not keen on).

To describe Sambac as 'fecal' is not as alarming in perfumery as some might imagine. It really depends on its companions, and in A la Nuit, Sheldrake (Luten's in-house perfumer) has blended jasmine with grenadine (fruity), clove, benzoin (cosy/warm wood resin) and a clean musk (some musks are simply there to add longevity and have an almost soapy scent).

On first spray it's quite intense, with a camphorous, ripe banana fruitiness that feels quite powerful and almost reminds me of acetone, but within ten minutes it settles into a heady, uplifting authentic jasmine blossom effect that reminds me of the scent of jasmine bushes in the evening, somewhere warm, probably not the UK!

It's almost simplistic in its pure jasminey-ness, so it's not one of those abstract super-elegant French style perfumes which lend an aura of refinement. A la Nuit's effect is more like a blast of pure, unadulterated summer. It's definitely uplifting, if you like jasmine (one perfume reviewer described it as 'death by jasmine').

In this sense it's a classic Lutens floral - with a 3D personality, very authentic. Whatever your thoughts on jasmine, there's no doubting the quality.

Others prefer Luten's more abstract, arguably more refined take on jasmine - Sarrassins - it's a far more complex perfume with aspects of leather, developing into a more abstract, gentle floral blend into its heart notes.

Luten's Fleurs d'Oranger is an equally characterful take on orange blossom, though tuberose and jasmine play supporting roles.

Orange blossom absolute is mildly animalic, slightly milky in feel, very rounded and with a subdued soapy orange citric scent.

It's often confused with neroli which is also part of the orange tree flower but neroli is a distillation rather than an extraction (making it more citric in feel, hence its popularity in summer eau de cologne).

The addition of tuberose and jasmine pads out orange blossom here for a far more floral effect - in fact more like actual orange-blossom flowers before extraction (extraction processes don't usually retain the character of the real flower, which requires skill and blending by the perfumer). Tuberose in particular always has a 'fleshy' 3D oily/waxy petal effect (when it's strong, as it is in Piguet's Fracas, it reminds me slightly of petrol). In Fleurs d'Oranger there's also a fairly subtle note of cumin. Some find it quite distinct, but to me it just adds a subtle, spicy edge to what might otherwise be a typically pretty floral perfume. There's also nutmeg, citruses and hibiscus, but in general the effect is a floral statement so orange-blossom-esque that you can almost imagine it leaves a visible trail of sunny yellow behind you! It's definitely pretty, and very feminine, but not delicate, or indeed too 'clean, although into dry-down it becomes more mellow.

When it comes to roses, Lutens offers a choice between the classic powerfully lemony-fresh tea rose of Sa Majeste la Rose, the softly earthy beeswaxy Rose de Nuit and the velvety opulent La Fille de Berlin

Wearing La Fille de Berlin feels like cloaking yourself in deep crimson velvet, I find it somehow medieval in feel, like a damask-draped bed chamber

It's a rich fruity rose, with touches of violet and freshly crushed pepper, and a lingering note in the long dry down that reminds me of sweet wood ash - the powdery white remains of a wood fire, which all adds to the idea of an Elizabethan lady's chamber.

To quote Luten's text which accompanied its launch in 2013; A flower grown under the ruins, cut off from the world, it appears before your eyes; to all of us to open our eyes. I'm not sure whether Luten's story or the concepts behind La Fille de Berlin - the spirit of female survival in a war-torn city - influence how the scent is perceived, but I do think this is one of the most beautiful rose scents I've experienced. Perhaps it says something about the survival of love amidst cruelty - roses are romantic symbols after all, but the spicy pepper and nostalgic violet steer this away from innocent, pretty ideas of love and say more about roses aflame!

Other Lutens florals of note are Tubereuse Criminelle in which Lutens heavily enhances tuberose's menthol/camphorous heady aspects before the perfume settles into a classic fleshy tuberose with spicy hints, Nuit de Cellophane - a burst of soapy, heady, peachy florals which is perhaps more conventional in feel than his other florals and Un Lys - Luten's version of lily. Lily (and also lily of the valley) is a synthetic note in perfumery since it's very difficult to extract enough absolute or distillate from real lilies, so perfumer's interpretations vary quite widely. Lily of the valley tends to smell quite soapy (not least because the synthetic has been used so often in soap and cleaning products!) whereas lily tends to be slightly creamier/spicier in feel. I quite enjoy lily perfumes (read my previous post on lily perfumes Here if you like) and don't find this Lutens version to be among my favourites Again, it's slightly conventional - clean and pretty.

Photograph, Serge Lutens

Being the experimental artist that he is (Lutens was a famous photographer for Vogue in the 80s, also a dancer) Lutens can't be expected to remain within the realms of perfumery convention!

Even when they're not particularly palatable to me, I love the fact that Serge Luten's perfumes experiment with the unsettling, even ugly aspects and effects of perfume.

I mentioned l'Orpheline in part one of this Lutens blog, and I really can't think of a better description than that offered by a commenter on another website: 'malfunctioning android accord' - genius! It has a weird woody musk, combined with a strange electrified incense which does recall faulty electrics. With this perfume Lutens wanted to say something about detachment, reaching for intimacy but being denied. I seem to remember text which mentioned his childhood, and its lasting legacy; being halfway to the moon. Very poignant. If this is Luten's take on childhood abandonment, I'd like to offer him a warm blanket and a mug of cocoa if I ever get to meet him, though no doubt he'd shun such facile comforts!

Bas de Soie -  meaning 'silk stockings' - a strange floral woody perfume with overtones of hyacinth redolent of bathroom air fresheners, lent an extremely odd sulphuric quality which reminds me of the eggy aroma that remains on a plate that's seen scrambled eggs. I'm very mildly allergic to egg, so it might just be me that gets egg, rather than silk stockings, from Bas de Soie

Fille en Aiguilles - (Daughter of needles) Begins with the scent of unlit incense then grows increasingly cosy, until it's as if you're wearing the powdery ash of natural pinewood.

La Vierge De Fer - inspired by Joan of Arc, this is a shining metallic incense/lily evoking Joan of Arc on the battlefield in her shining armour with lily representing the purity of her faith, and incense her religion, or possibly...the pyre? To quote Luten's accompanying text;  She will give birth to our most beautiful monsters. That is how, a little rusty by dint of doubts, my steps have rejoined La vierge de fer (the Iron Maiden); that lily amongst the thorns.

Iris Silver Mist is Lutens in poetic Goth mode, since iris (or orris root as it's called in perfumery) is ultra-enhanced here and its earthy/inky/starch aroma is perceived as somewhat sad, nostalgic or even funereal for some, but for others almost comfortingly rooty - it reminds me of roast parsnips and carrot juice - natural and earthy, I don't find it haunting as some people do.
Last but not least, Lutens range also extends to 'comfort or gourmand scents' - perfumes which relax and soothe the nerves or, if they're 'gourmand' give a comforting feeling, reminding us of being in the kitchen or feeling nourished. A few of the best known being Chergui -a tobacco/hay accord which feels cosy and slightly traditional, like a fedora-wearing 1950s dad, and Jeux de Peau a blend of sunny apricot, wheat and milk combined to wholesome effect, Five O'clock Gigembre - warming gingerbread, and Rahat Loukoume - Turkish Delight with almond/cherry aroma.

I've left out many, many other perfumes, and as mentioned this is intended more as a whistle-stop tour of Lutens most well-known perfumes. If you're intrigued though, and want to explore further, many other bloggers have written about or interviewed Serge Lutens. I recommend the following...

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...