Viktoria Minya & The World of A “Nose”

A grey afternoon in Paris unexpectedly turned into one of the most fascinating, educational perfume experiences I’ve had in a long, long time. It’s all thanks to Viktoria Minya. She gave me the chance to peek behind the curtain, and to glimpse a small portion of the life of a “nose.” We talked about everything from IFRA/EU restrictions on perfumes, how she studied to become a “nose,” some of the surprising things she deals with in perfume creation, and the very elementary basics of the raw materials that noses use to create fragrances. I hope you enjoy the glimpse behind the perfumed curtain.

Viktoria Minya. Source: Fragrantica.

Viktoria Minya. Source: Fragrantica.

Hedonist. Source: Parfums Viktoria Minya on Facebook.

Hedonist. Source: Parfums Viktoria Minya on Facebook.

Viktoria Minya is a perfume creator who founded Parfums Viktoria Minya, but also an actual, genuine, trained “nose.” Her debut perfume, Hedonist, is a gorgeous, luxurious, elegant, airy, honeyed-floral affair that I really loved. But I also enjoyed the little bit that I got to know of Ms. Minya herself in our email correspondence at the time. Then, a few weeks ago, close to the time of my departure to Paris, and by a complete fluke involving something else, we had a few email exchanges where I happened to mention that I would be in her city. Unfortunately, both our schedules seemed extremely complicated, and it seemed unlikely that we’d be able to meet.

Then, while roaming the streets of Paris one afternoon, and with some incredibly lucky timing that happened out of the blue, everything seemed to fall into place. I somehow found myself in her perfume studio, sitting across from an absolutely beautiful woman with the most unbelievably stunning eyes, and the warmest smile. (Not a single photo that I’ve seen of Ms. Minya actually does her — and her eyes — justice.) Ms. Minya had prepared a lovely selection of things for me to nibble on while we talked and before we went into her actual work area where she has her perfume “organ.” (See photo below.) As I ate some French cheese (yes, I said cheese! And she didn’t even know of my obsession with it!), I tried to focus on the conversation but those absolutely mesmerizing eyes made it a little hard at times. Plus, as usual for this entire trip, I was somewhat in a daze from sleep-deprivation.

As a result, I fear I don’t remember all the details of the technical stuff I learnt, but I thought I would share some aspects that I found really fascinating, from the issue of IFRA (the “International Fragrance Association”), to her studies as a nose, the black market for ingredients, and more. Then, later, I’ll share what it was like in her perfume studio with all the raw materials and the perfume oils. The photos I took suffered from the problem that I mentioned earlier in another post: my camera is dying, so some of the images are blurred and the writing on the bottles isn’t always completely clear. Hopefully, though, it will give you an idea of the sorts of things a “nose” may have in her arsenal, and the feel of that day.

Photo: my own.

Ms. Minya’s perfume “organ.” Photo: my own.

In terms of general discussion, one of the things that came up a few times was the impact of the IFRA and EU restrictions. You and I — consumers and buyers of perfume products — usually think about the impact in terms of its effect on us. We moan about chypres and oakmoss, we talk about reformulations, and we gripe about the sorts of perfumes available to us or the massive changes to perfumery in just the last five years alone. We almost never think of what it must be like for a “nose.” It’s not surprising, after all, because their world is so far away from ours. But it’s not for Ms. Minya.

As an actual, working nose, the IFRA/EU restrictions create a whole different set of problems for Ms. Minya than they do for us. For one thing, I get the impression that she finds that they stifle creativity. (She was too polite to say so, but that was my impression.) For another, the restrictions have an impact on a nose’s actual business dealings with clients. Ms. Minya may have her own brand and perfume line, but she also works as a nose for clients to create scents in accordance with their particular wishes. She gave me one example of a situation where a client requested that she make a perfume with certain ingredients at a certain level. Again and again, she had to say something to the effect of: “No, it’s not possible to that extent,” or “No, that is illegal in the EU.”

Chris Bartlett of Pell Wall Perfumes Blog is a perfumer and consultant who has an absolutely wonderful, useful, eye-opening and completely depressing listing of all the IFRA/EU ingredient limits for Category 4 (fine perfumes in an alcohol-based solution). Though his list is not yet updated to include all the changes from the 47th Amendment of June 2013 (yes, I realise how ludicrous and Kafkaesque that sounds), I still look at it from time to time, usually resulting in complete irritation and annoyance at the EU. I looked again at the listing upon my return from Paris and in light of my meeting with Viktoria Minya — and I saw it in a whole new light from the perspective of a “nose.”

Let me give you some examples from Mr. Bartlett’s list of IFRA’s standards and limitations as of June and before the 47th Amendment took place. Some of the terms may seem like gobbledygook to you, but just pay attention to the percentage numbers at the end of each line (or whether the ingredient is permitted at all in perfume creation), and things will eventually become clearer:

Cumin oil 0.4%

Eugenol* [clove oil] 0.5%

Farnesol* 1.2%
Fig leaf absolute Prohibited
Galbanum ketone (various trade names; 1-(5,5-Dimethyl-1-cyclohexen-1-yl)pent-4-en-1-one) 1.13%
Geraniol* 5.3%  […]

Iso E Super 21.4%  [ME: GOOD GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!]

Jasmine Absolute 0.7%

Jasmine Sambac Absolute 4%
Lemon (expressed) 2%
Lime (expressed) 0.7%

Musk ambrette Prohibited

Oakmoss Absolute 0.1%

Opoponax 0.4%

Peru balsam (crude) Prohibited

Quinoline Prohibited
Rose Ketones 0.02%
Santolina oil Prohibited
Safranal (2,6,6-Trimethylcyclohexa-1,3-dienyl methanal) 0.005%
Safrole, Isosafrole, Dihydrosafrole~ Prohibited (EOs containing these permitted if total below 0.01%)
Savin oil from Juniperus sabina Prohibited
Styrax (from Liquidambar styraciflua macrophyla or Liquidambar orientalis only) 0.6%
Styrax (all other species) Prohibited

Ylang ylang extracts 0.8%

* – the main sources of these chemicals is in natural materials and you need to work out how much is in all the oils that contain them and keep the total in your product below the levels quoted here. These are some of the most complex standards to ensure compliance with.

NB- The limits for Oakmoss and Tree Moss are cumulative (so the combination of both must be below 0.1%)

I tried to include in that list a good number of things with which we common lay-people are familiar, but, also, a portion of the many things marked with a red “Prohibited” notice (even if I have no idea what some of them are). The fact that things like ylang-ylang is limited to 0.8%, lime to 0.7%, and oakmoss at 0.1%, while that bloody, godawful “ISO E Supercrappy” (™ Sultan Pasha) can be as high as 21.4% suddenly clarifies things a bit more to me. It’s not just that some perfumers love that ghastly, cheap, synthetic crap; it’s that they are running out of ingredients to use at any substantial, rich or useful levels! I mean, seriously, some poor flower is at less than 1%, while the laboratory-created, aromatic equivalent of a hospital morgue’s antiseptic is at 21.4%??! Plus, a portion of the ingredients on the list are completely illegal to use?! To me, and from my layman perspective, that doesn’t seem to leave perfume noses with a huge amount of original options or alternatives.

Source: CaFleureBon

Source: CaFleureBon

Which brings us back to Viktoria Minya and her world. She went to school in Grasse, perhaps the heart and soul of the perfume creating world, and attended the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. I asked her about the program which is one-year long, and followed by internships within the perfume world. Within the program, the students take a variety of courses on such subjects as: natural and synthetic raw materials; fine fragrance formulation; legislation courses; evaluation courses; and even functional perfumery courses (how to create fragrances for soaps, shampoos, candles, shower gels, etc).

There was much more, too, but, again, the haze of a particularly grueling travelling schedule means I’ve forgotten some of the details. So, I did some research, and stumbled across a 2009 article called “Smelling like roses… or not” which actually quotes Ms. Minya as a student and which also talks about the way “noses” are trained:

In class, the students flared their nostrils against white tester strips dipped in scented, mostly clear liquid. The exercise tested their olfactory memories as they built on the more than 300 natural and synthetic odors they had memorized since the course began in late January. The task included identifying the scents’ compounds and family. […]

By the end of the yearlong course, which includes a mandatory internship at a fragrance company lasting several months, students will have acquired a lexicon of at least 500 raw materials; the rest of their creative arsenal, which eventually could include thousands of ingredients, will be developed in the field.

As for Viktoria, as that old article makes clear, lessons in building an olfactory memory bank sensitize the nose:

On a recent visit to a horse stable, Viktoria Minya had to hold her breath until she could step outside. And at home recently, the 27-year-old perfumery student has found she needs to take out the trash as often as three times per day. It’s a side effect of her developing olfactory organs: “I smell too much.”

The article also mentioned a few other interesting things:

“A perfume hides a story,” said Laurence Fauvel, a perfumer and one of the teachers at the school, which opened in February 2002. “To create something really new is very difficult.”  […][¶]

An official at the school estimated that about [only] 20 star “noses” exist worldwide.

Mr. Fauvel’s comment reminds me of the common line in many writing classes about how every plot or novel has essentially been written before. It’s true, and I’m sure the same theme applies, broadly speaking, to perfumery as well. But, to bring things full circle to perfume notes, it certainly can’t help when IFRA and the bloody EU restrict your options even further in terms of quantity and type of ingredients. As Ms. Minya told me, there are no longer quite as many avenues for self-expression and artistic creativity.

Vincent Van Gogh, "Irises" (1889). Source: hdwallshub.com

Vincent Van Gogh, “Irises” (1889). Source: hdwallshub.com

She compared the situation to a painter being told that he cannot use certain paint colours on his canvas, while other colours are limited in amount. So, perhaps it’s more apt to talk about “vibrancy” instead of the broader terms of “originality” and “creativity.” If a painter is forbidden from using brown paint, if he can only use blue if it’s 0.7% of his overall creation, and if green is limited to no more than 0.1%, then how do you end up with Van Gogh’s Irises? You can’t. You get a watered down, diluted, much less vibrant composition that may be good — perhaps even very good, in some cases — but it won’t be the masterpiece that is the Irises.

Stephen Weller, IFRA photo, via The Scented Salamander.

Stephen Weller, IFRA photo, via The Scented Salamander.

In the faintest fig leaf to appearing fair, I suppose I should mention IFRA’s side of things. Stephen Weller, IFRA’s Director of Communication, has given a few interviews in France defending his organisation as the supposed savior of certain key ingredients. The blog, The Scented Salamander, states that Mr. Weller:

makes the particularly salient point in this exchange that without IFRA, a number of perfumery ingredients would have altogether disappeared from the palette of the perfumer as they have come under attack from the European Union and before that pressure groups voicing their concerns…

Weller explains in this new interview with Premium Beauty News how his organism permits a more nuanced approach to the dermatological and allergic risks presented by aromatic materials.

You can read more about his claims at the Scented Salamander, but they essentially include the argument that you should thank IFRA for saving oakmoss and other ingredients from complete eradication in perfumery. I can see his point in theory, but I have great difficulties with his attempts to portray IFRA as the purely protective, angelic and benevolent savior of perfumedom! And don’t get me started on the oakmoss. Yes, the EU is driving most of this, now, but, correct me if I’m wrong, I believe early IFRA regulations started all this.

More to the point, and to use a parallel, I don’t see manufacturing associations putting restrictions on factories who produce food items or on chefs in restaurants simply because there are some pressure groups who complain about nut allergies. Some of the EU proposals (like the ludicrous idea of possibly banning Chanel No. 5 that I’ve talked about in another IFRA/EU post) are akin to shutting down the Eiffel Tower simply because 1%-3% of the EU’s 503.5 million population may have vertigo. (It’s been estimated that “1 to 3 percent of the EU population… are allergic or potentially allergic to natural ingredients contained in fine perfumes, according to a report published in July by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), an advisory body for the European Commission.” [Emphasis added.])

And IFRA’s substantive actions don’t seem like true championship or defense of the perfume industry to me. For example, why aren’t warning labels enough? They put such warnings on cigarettes, and on pre-packaged food items that may have been prepared in a factory that had some nuts in it. Are perfumes actually more dangerous to people’s health than cigarettes??! Also, why are perfumes to be regulated with such ingredients as the amount of lavender or citrus oils, but massage oils are left alone? Presumably, that minuscule percentage of EU citizens who have allergic reactions — or just the mere potential thereof — might possibly decide to have a massage one day. Why are those oils fine, but the ones in perfumery — which allergic people can simply avoid using — subject to increasingly Orwellian, draconian measures?

I’m sorry, I got sidetracked and derailed in rather irrational rage, so let’s leave the issue of IFRA and get back to the realities of creating a perfume. There, even apart from ingredient limitations, there are other hurdles to originality, too. This time, however, they pertain more to the business tail-end of things for one who is a brand’s creator or founder. Take, for example, the simple, seemingly prosaic issue of a perfume’s name. Now, obviously, you don’t want to use another brand’s exact name for your new creation, but I wasn’t aware of just how tricky the issue might be for French perfumers. According to Ms. Minya, back in the 1980s, many French companies bought up the legal rights to a whole host of names — lots of them being common adjectives or phrases — for future use. Now, when you try to launch your new perfume, there is a good chance that they might sue you for using one of their vast stable of trademarked names.

Hedonist. Source: Parfums Viktoria Minya on Facebook.

Hedonist. Source: Parfums Viktoria Minya on Facebook.

I remember hearing this, blinking and having a light bulb moment when she explained that this old 1980s situation is the reason why so many French perfumes have some generic variation of “Rose de ___” or “Vanille de ____”  as their name. To quote Ms. Minya: “This is why we have more and more names with numbers, botanical or common names of ingredients ( like “orange” ) and geographical names – because these cannot be trademarked by anybody.” I suspect this may be the reason why Neela Vermeire might have had to recently change the name of her upcoming Mohur “Esprit” to just plain “Mohur Extrait,” though I am just guessing. (I have not asked Ms. Vermeire, and I certainly don’t know for sure.)

While trademark concerns are hardly unique to France, the situation there seems a little more complicated for perfumers than for artisans or artists in other fields. Even if you can get the money to make a perfume, even if you survive the draconian IFRA/EU’s restrictions to make something good, even if you spend all the money for the further compliance minutiae, you still aren’t home scot-free. Now, you can’t even choose your perfume name without the risk of a lawsuit.

Yet, the real issue that I see is something much broader in reach: you need very big pockets to engage in the perfume game, and to survive. I’d like one day to explore the issue of perfume creation primarily from a perfume creator’s perspective, but it’s clear even now that the real bottom line is money and how hard it is for truly “niche” perfumers to flourish in light of so many minefields. Someone like Tom Ford — who is backed and owned by the Estée Lauder multi-national conglomerate — or Kilian Hennessey is obviously going to have a very different time of things than someone like Viktoria Minya, Andy Tauer, or Neela Vermeire.

To me, as a layman and outsider, each of the things discussed here seems to represent a noose tightening around the neck of a truly vibrant, creative, non-homogenous, flourishing perfume world where small voices have as much chance in the marketplace as the big behemoths. It’s a sad parallel to the overall conglomeratization of the world in general, from the media and entertainment industries to banking and the airlines. But the last time I checked, neither the banking nor airline worlds depended on creativity and the freedom of imagination, so it’s substantially worse when artistry is stifled in an industry like perfumery.

IMG_0034_4b

Size makes itself an issue for noses like Ms. Minya in some ways that surprised me. As promised, I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about the raw materials used in the perfume process. When I went into Ms. Minya’s actual perfume studio with its vast, impressive “organ,” I gasped. As far as the eye could see, there were bottles of ingredients. Everywhere! Not just the organ, but filling whole bookcases and even in a fridge. As I was exclaiming about the endless varieties of orange blossom, iris, or rose accords, Ms. Minya mentioned how obtaining some of the ingredients wasn’t easy. Apparently, some companies are extremely unwilling to sell in the sort of small order sizes appropriate to a small, individual perfumer or nose. I didn’t ask if the companies countered things by charging much more for orders that aren’t in bulk, because I never like to talk about money or intrude into someone’s financial matters, but I assume that it’s a frustrating hassle and obstacle at the very least.

So, let’s drop money, and move onto the actual ingredients in question. First, we should probably begin with the basic difference between a perfume oil and an essential oil. Now Smell This has an easy explanation that puts it much more succinctly than I could ever manage:

Essential oils are volatile, fragrant liquids extracted from plant leaves, bark, wood, stems, flowers, seeds, buds, roots, resins and petals, usually through steam distillation. In other words, they are raw materials that can be used to create perfumes. They are highly concentrated […].

Perfume oils are fragrance components, natural or synthetic, in an oily base rather than an alcohol base, and can be used directly on the skin.

Now, here’s a glimpse of some of the things in Ms. Minya’s arsenal:

Perfume oils distilled in 10% alcohol. You can see various types of orange-related oils on the top shelf, rose on the middle, and things like vetiver on the bottom. Remember, this curves all the way around.

Perfume oils distilled in 10% alcohol. You can see various types of orange-related oils on the top shelf, rose on the middle, and things like vetiver on the bottom. Remember, this curves all the way around.

A fridge filled with fragile perfume oils, or oils of the weakest strength and diluted in 1% alcohol.

A fridge filled with fragile perfume oils, or oils of the weakest strength and diluted in 1% alcohol.

As you can see from these photos (which you can click to expand even more), there are two separate categories of ingredients. One are the oils on her curving, circular “organ” which are ingredients diluted in a 10% alcohol base. The other photo shows bottles in a fridge, and that’s where my memory failed me. All I could really remember is that the latter are very expensive and have a very fragile shelf-life, so they are usually kept in a fridge to ensure that they last longer. So I wrote to Ms. Minya to ask for help in clarifying the differences between the various bottles, and this was her response:

what perfumers are working with are what we call “raw materials”, some of them are liquid ( like most essential oils ), some are powders ( like vanillin – molecule present in vanilla, I am using the very expensive Natural version of it), some are resins ( like peru balsam or mimosa absolute). Every perfumer has their different habits, but I like to work with them in a 10% solution form, they are called 10% solution or 10% solution of … ( any given raw materials ). This helps me to directly smell the “end product” after formulation.

Perfume oils like grapefruit or guaiac wood.

Oils like grapefruit and guaiac wood on the top row; magnolia and mandarin on the bottom.

Perfume oils distilled in 10% alcohol. Here, you can see different sorts of orange oils like bigarade to other sorts.

Oils distilled in 10% alcohol. Here, orange bigarade and what Ms. Minya tells me is a “different origins orange oil.”

The raw materials in the fridge are simply weaker, more diluted solutions of some raw materials ( so like 1% or 0.1% solutions ) OR fragile raw materials, like rose oil, the citrus oils like bergamot, mandarine, orange, lemon and lime, or spices like nutmeg and safran, etc. [Emphasis added.]

More of the almost diluted 1% oils in the fridge such as Ylang-Ylang and Osmanthus.

More of the almost diluted 1% oils in the fridge such as Ylang-Ylang, Osmanthus and some sort of Sandalwood.

More of some of the delicate but weakest "finishing" ingredients. You can see Narcissus Absolute is one of the ones in the first row to the left.

More of some of the delicate but weakest “finishing” ingredients. You can see Narcissus Absolute is one of the ones in the first row to the left.

[As a whole and generally,] the raw materials comes from the producers in “pure”. Then we dilute it with alcohol. 10% solution means 1 GR of rose oil -let’s say- and 9 GR of alcohol in a 10 ml bottle ( the ones you saw on my perfume organ ). 1% solution means 0,1GR of rose oil and 9,9GR of alcohol in a 10 ml bottle. The 1% solutions are for “fine-tuning”, sometimes it is to give a small aspect of a certain material, other times the given raw materials are very strong and we like to give just a tiny amount into the creation.

Just like the perfume you get from a boutique is a concentrate of pure mixture of raw materials which then is diluted with alcohol.

So, to simplify things if you’re a dodo like me, a 10% solution in Ms. Minya’s case has really just 1 gram of actual perfume oil, while a 1% solution has a mere 0.1 gram of the raw material.

Speaking of materials, Ms. Minya mentioned something just in passing that made me almost fall off my chair: there is apparently a whole, lurking black market for some ingredients! Guess in what context this issue arose? The thing about which I’m the greatest snob: sandalwood. It seems that my beloved Mysore sandalwood is so rare that some people — not all, but a tiny, unethical few, and primarily in the Far East or the Middle East — resort to the black market to obtain it. I imagine that this is an issue which applies more to some small-time or experimental perfumers who may not have the access to the very few places which still hoard have small quantities of Mysore sandalwood to sell at outrageous prices. It certainly seems related to the issue of how some companies selling raw ingredients are unwilling to fulfill small orders. Again, however, I do not like to discuss money, so I did not ask follow-up questions, but it is certainly something that gives one pause. A black market? Seriously? Who knew that perfumery could involve secret cloak-and-dagger skullduggery of the highest order?!

While I was absorbing this tidbit, Ms. Minya quietly assembled a little surprise for me: a blind testing of some of the concentrated perfume oils. She had actually just returned from Hungary where she’d given a lecture on the issue of perfumery, and had a lot of bottles previously prepared for a similar sort of demonstration. I can’t recall the precise percentage of what she made me sniff on strip after strip of the paper mouiellettes, but I believe it was the 10% stuff.

And it was quite an experience…. A number of notes that I’m very familiar with in actual perfume were wholly unrecognizable to me in essential form. Granted, I’ve never been particularly good at detecting the nuances of things from a mere paper strip and it’s a whole other matter on skin, but still! In a number of cases, I could detect the notes after the paper strips had time to breathe and develop, or, perhaps, to decrease from their concentrated opening moments. In other cases, however, the usually familiar notes smelled quite alien to my nose. Aldehydes? I wouldn’t or couldn’t have guessed correctly if you’d put a gun to my head. (In fact, I’m still finding it hard to believe that that odor was aldehydes!) Incense, one of my favorite notes? Forget it. I was absolutely convinced it was some type of wood, if my hazy memory serves me correctly. (Ms. Minya now tells me it was myrrh, but all it smelled like to me was dry wood.)

To my relief, and to avoid the complete destruction of my ego, some of my guesses at least hit upon the adjacent characteristics of a note. One of the first ingredients that Ms. Minya made me try smelled to me of smoke, amber, leather and wood. Well, all those things are either used with the ingredient, or are subset nuances of the note — which turned out to be….. patchouli. After she told me, it seemed somewhat obvious, but I have to emphasize the “somewhat” part of that statement. In reality, for me, the essence of one of my favorite ingredients really did NOT have the exact same smell as it did when mixed in with other stuff in an actual perfume. And this was the case quite often. (The one exception was the synthetic, Safranal, which smelled precisely as it did in some saffron-oud perfumes, was so strong that a mere drop on a mouiellette completely overwhelmed all the other paper strips, and thereby explained a whole host of overly intense, hotly buttered saffron perfumes that I’ve wondered about….)

On another test, Ms. Minya let me smell a concentrated perfume oil that I thought was a spicy geranium. It turned out a type of rose oil. Well, geranium in essential oil concentration has an odor that is rose-like, so… I was close?? Still, I can’t get over the aldehydes and incense myrrh being completely unrecognizable. (Have I mentioned that none of this was particularly great for the ego?!)

Joking aside, I truly loved every minute of it, and it was pretty hard to drag me away from the lure of those bottles. Each one seemed to contain a whole new world of smells that was different from what I had previously experienced. I’ve had a few cheap oils that I’ve used to add to scented heaters, candles and the like, but nothing quite like the hardcore oils I smelled in her studio! If I lived in Paris, I would definitely avail myself of the opportunity to take one of the classes or workshops that Ms. Minya offers.

Actually, at the time of my visit, I didn’t know that Ms. Minya actually teaches this stuff to dolts like myself! The other day, while doing my research preparation for this post, I noticed a section of the Parfums Minya website listing the services she offers as a nose. For example:

courses range from beginner level to levels tailored to the talents of more advanced candidates. The most popular themes are as follows:

• Main Olfactory Families
• Exclusive Natural Raw Materials
• Basic Formulation / Accords
• Perfume Creation

All course can be easily adapted according to clients’ specific needs. [¶] Price: Starting at 220 EUR ( five session course )

She also offers a cheaper workshop that let’s you create your own perfumed product, be it a fragrance, a candle, or a body product:

For those clients who would like to experience the joyful moment of perfume creation without going through the advanced studies of raw materials and ingredient classification, we propose a facilitated perfume creation workshop where clients will be manipulating fine essential oils and fragrance accords to go home with their own crafts.

The most popular themes are as follows:

• Perfume Creation Workshop
• Scented Candle Creation
• Scented Personal Care Creation (lotions, bath balls, etc. )

Price: 90 EUR for individuals. Starting price for groups: 50 EUR / person.

Hedonist in its handmade wooden box that is "fashioned to capture the sleek look and feel of snakeskin leather."

Hedonist in its handmade wooden box that is “fashioned to capture the sleek look and feel of snakeskin leather.”

Despite some of the issues mentioned up above, things are hardly doom and gloom for Ms. Minya. Her debut perfume creation, Hedonist, sold out in just a few months, and there is already a long list of pre-orders. Apparently, that does not happen very often, especially for one’s first fragrance. In the meantime, Ms. Minya is being kept busy as a nose for clients, but also in travelling to give lectures on perfumery-related issue.

The future looks bright too, with two new perfumes being slated for release in 2014. While they are works in progress and the details were kept secret, they are apparently going to be in the style as Hedonist with the same sort of philosophy of using “the most noble raw materials and giving them an indulging edge.” When pressed for a little hint or two, Ms. Minya merely smiled and said that the perfumes are centered around “the two most expensive flower essences existing in perfumery.”  Aha! Iris! One of them has to be an iris scent! 

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own. It does her beauty absolutely no justice at all!

I have to thank Ms. Minya for many things. One is for being a lovely hostess, but, more importantly for really taking the time to explain the technical and basic details of what is involved in perfume creation. More importantly, however, I want to thank her for pulling aside the curtain and giving us all a peek into a world that is often shrouded in some mystery. You and I, we buy perfumes; few of us know anything about the process of actually making them. Things like the building block steps, the basic procedural tasks of how to dilute the pure oils and in what amounts — those are a foreign world for the vast majority of us. Ms. Minya took the time to explain it to me not only in her studio where she welcomed me with warmth, but also in subsequent follow-up emails where she patiently answered my bewildered questions on what must be the equivalent of the “A, B, C” for her.

Just as importantly, she was open and candid throughout. As she wrote to me, “I think some brands are totally mystifying perfumers on purpose for the public. They say the magic goes away if people find out about the small details of our work, I disagree, I think the magic starts whenever they are let to have a look behind the curtains!!!”

I really hope you saw some magic today. I certainly did when I was in her studio. And, it turns out that the Wizard of Oz actually and truly is a bit of a magician. A very beautiful, incredibly sweet magician with gorgeous eyes and the warmest smile.

Note: Photos of Ms. Minya’s studio are all my own. Other photo credits or sources are as noted within the individual captions.

FURTHER DETAILS:
For additional information on Ms. Minya or Hedonist, you can check out her website, Parfums Viktoria Minya. If you’re curious about Hedonist and how it smells, you can read my extremely positive review here. Hedonist retails for $195 or €130 for 45 ml of eau de parfum. Hedonist can be pre-ordered directly from Viktoria Minya with shipment going out in November. (I assume that means that the new stock will arrive then, and so pre-orders will not be necessary for anyone who reads this post much later in time.) In the U.S., however, the perfume is currently stocked and available for purchase at Luckyscent. Samples are available from Luckyscent or from Surrender to Chance, which sells vials starting at $6.49 for a 1/2 ml vial. I think Ms. Minya has always offered a much better deal on samples, in terms of a cost per size basis: it’s €5 for what is almost 2 ml, if memory serves me correctly and I think there is free shipping.

Paris Perfumers: Laurent Mazzone & LM Parfums

Fate, planning, and a little bit of serendipity gave me the chance to meet with three, very different, Paris perfumers during my trip. Actually, to be completely precise, one is primarily based in Grenoble, and one is an actual nose/creator, while the other two are more technically considered as perfume creators with their own houses. Semantics aside, I had a marvelous time with each one, and thought I’d share a little bit of the experience, each of which was very different but utterly memorable. Today, the focus will be Laurent Mazzone and some of the LM Parfums that I tried, including some gorgeous upcoming, new releases slated for November 2013 and early 2014.

LAURENT MAZZONE & LM PARFUMS:

Hotel Costes. Source: hotel-costes.semuz.com

Hotel Costes. Source: hotel-costes.semuz.com

The Hotel Costes on the Rue St. Honoré in Paris is perhaps the pinnacle of stylish, ne plus ultra, sophisticated cool. Velvet, opulence and excess are the bywords for the decor inside, but one of the main attractions is the indoor courtyard. And what a scene it is! Imagine a large, covered, indoor courtyard surrounded on high by Roman statues and greenery. At its pristine, white tables covered with crystal glasses, an array of pencil-thin, black-clad, social x-rays — draped in ennui as much as in Hermès — pose stylishly on thin, black chairs. Their fragile bones seem likely to be crushed by the great effort of lifting their cigarettes. And they’ve clearly followed the mantra and example of Anna Wintour, Vogue’s “Nuclear Winter” editor-in-chief, when it comes to haughtiness. Their male counterparts are all tanned, in dark suits with crisp white shirts that are opened a few buttons, and fixated on their cellphones as they sip a glass of chilled white wine with one well-shod limb elegantly crossed over the other. All around are a phalanx of haughty waiters, many of whom seem to be aspiring models, who look down their noses at your from their great height and seem almost offended that you’ve bothered them with a request. (Or perhaps they’ve simply got issues with people who ask for ice, or for directions to the loo? At the very least, they’ve got issues with a variety of things, and need a serious attitude adjustment.)

Hotel Costes courtyard. Source: lefigaro.fr. photo : DR.

Hotel Costes courtyard. Source: lefigaro.fr. photo : DR.

Outside the Hotel Costes. Photo: my own.

Outside the Hotel Costes. Photo: my own.

As I walked up to the hotel from the aristocratic, luxurious Place Vendome just around the corner, a large chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce was idling, and a bodyguard talking into his microphone. The chauffeur stood in the middle of the road with the famous Chopard jewellers behind him. Hovering like a gaggle of geese, outside and in, were extremely tall, elegantly clad women whose clothing, looks, and attitude marked them as somehow being involved in Paris Fashion Week which was ending the next day (October 2nd).

It was into this overly hip, excessively cool, “in” scene that I arrived — sleep-deprived, with my voice half-gone from the early part of my trip, and feeling rather bedraggled, if truth be told. I was scheduled to meet Laurent Mazzone and Fabienne, the international business agent for LM Parfums, whose incredibly warm, sweet, and friendly emails had resulted in this meeting. We had begun communicating just a few days before my departure and after my enthusiastic, extremely positive review for LM Parfums‘ gorgeous Sensual Orchid.

As luck would have it, Laurent Mazzone was going to be in Paris for the fashion shows. He had greatly enjoyed the thoroughness of my review (happily, my verboseness seems to a positive thing for some people!), and invited me for drinks. When I warned Fabienne that my French was rusty and that I hadn’t spoken it consistently in almost 20 years, she offered to come along as well. (It was just as well because, despite her opinion that I wasn’t at all rusty, I most definitely am! Plus, in the fog of my exhaustion, I often blanked out on words or phrases. Merci, Fabienne, for saving my linguistic hide.)

Laurent Mazzone and Fabienne during Moscow Fashion Week 2013. Source: annarusska.ru

Laurent Mazzone and Fabienne during Moscow Fashion Week 2013. Source: annarusska.ru

I found Laurent and Fabienne easily, sitting at a couple of tables in the corner along with Laurent’s partner, and was greeted with kisses and even a hug. Laurent Mazzone is a very dapper, youngish man in his early ’30s (I think), with a cherubic face, a naughty gleam in his mischievous, warm, brown eyes, and a big grin. He has an enormously exuberant personality, which I loved, and endless passion. Yet, he is also extremely serious when it comes to the subject of perfumery, and has a true commitment to the idea of making luxurious, sensuous perfumes in the grand tradition, but with a modern feel. There was enormous sensitivity in those brown eyes when listening to my comments about some of his line, sometimes followed by a huge, infectious smile from ear to ear when he saw that I understood and appreciated their nature.

Source: uae.souq.com

Patchouli Boheme. Source: uae.souq.com

He had brought a chic, black, and black-ribboned, LM Parfums bag of what I thought would be perfume samples. They turned out to be actual, full, 100 ml bottles of 3 of his fragrances: Ambre Muscadin, Patchouli Boheme, and the new, limited-edition, Chemise Blanche. Yet, despite my patchouli and amber obsession, I never tested any of those perfumes that day and, instead, ended up trying his forthcoming, new perfume, Hard Leather.

Hard Leather will be released in November, and I can’t wait because I absolutely loved it! In fact, I think I may have yelped or cried out rather loudly upon sniffing it because, suddenly, some tables of black-clad, haughty Parisians were turning around with raised eyebrows. I didn’t care, and I think I may have hugged Mr. Mazzone at one point over Hard Leather because it was (and is) absolutely fantastic. Mr. Mazzone describes it as an “animalic leather” that, to my opinion at least, isn’t particularly animalic or aggressive after the opening 10 minutes, but, instead, much more beautifully well-rounded and warm. It might be “animalic” by French standards, but I don’t think it is generally or as a whole, and especially not by Middle Eastern or Amouage standards.

Hard Leather has its musky side to be sure, but it’s primarily woody, sweet, rich, spicy, ambered, and incredibly sensual. From the first sniff, I could instantly tell that there was oud from Laos in it, with its own very unique, aged character, but what I liked about this version of it is that it didn’t smell fecal like so many fragrances that use that particular Laotian wood. Even better, there is none of that revolting Gorgonzola or cheese undertone that very aged Laotian oud can sometimes have. Soon after the agarwood announces itself, there is a burst of pungent civet which quickly calms down (in less than ten minutes), and melts into the rich, well-blended, richly burnished whole.

In essence, Hard Leather smells like your boyfriend’s leather jacket, lightly mixed with his musky scent, along with deep, almost honeyed, slightly smoky oud, and a vague tinge of floral sweetness, atop a base of ambered warmth. At times, it seemed to share some kinship with Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque, which is one of my absolute favorite Lutens fragrances, but there are clear differences in smell. Even apart from the oud, Hard Leather has a little more edge at first, and is significantly more woody. It also seems to have a different (and much smaller) floral vein running through it. I can’t remember the rest of the notes that Laurent later told me about, but, if memory serves me correctly, there is iris absolute in Hard Leather as well. [UPDATE 10/17/13 – I have the official press release for Hard Leather with its sleek graphics and the full list of notes in the perfume.]

I also can’t recall the name of the perfumer with whom Laurent worked, but I laughed at his description of the process whereby he kept telling the nose to put in “more. More, more, more!” Not only is such a comment completely in keeping with Mr. Mazzone’s character, intensity and passion, but the perfume really has deep richness. I was so crazy about Hard Leather that Mr. Mazzone sent his friend up to their rooms to get his own small decant to give me as a gift, which resulted in a further exuberant outburst that undoubtedly horrified the Hotel Costes’ snobs, but too bad. This is such a fantastic perfume! I will do a review closer to the perfume’s launch date, but I’m telling guys, in particular, and women who like masculine, woody or leather scents: you need to check this one out.

Source: Silkcosmetics.nl

Some, but not all, of the LM Parfums line. Source: Silkcosmetics.nl

What I love about LM Parfums is that they are luxurious, sensuous, full-bodied, and rich. Hard Leather, unlike most of the perfumes from the line, is an extrait de parfum (only three of the current LM Parfums have that concentration), and clocks in at 20% perfume oil. All the perfumes, however, have an opulence that really harkens back to the golden age of perfumery. They’re not fuddy-duddy, old or dated in smell, but Laurent is clearly driven by his love for the classic perfume greats. These fragrances all feel like actual, serious perfumes — they proclaim their richness and luxurious nature without hesitation, announce their presence, and feel no shame over the fact that they are both perfume and French in nature.

Yet, the thing I found with Sensual Orchid and Hard Leather is that their richness contrasts with a surprising airiness in feel. These are not opaque, thick perfumes by any means! Based on what I’ve tested thus far from the line, even the sillage drops after about 2-3 hours to hover somewhat discretely just an inch or so above the skin. The perfumes are potent when smelled up close and linger, but they aren’t battleships of heaviness with nuclear projection that trails you for hours. (In all honestly, I wish they were like that, but I realise that my personal tastes are not the modern style, and that ’80s-style powerhouses are rarely made today.) Still, LM Parfums are all very French in feel or spirit. Mr. Mazzone mentioned a number of the perfume legends, like Guerlain’s Mitsouko, for example, and how he wants his perfumes to reflect the same sort of sophisticated complexity with layers of nuance.

His philosophy certainly shows in Hard Leather, but also in another upcoming fragrance called Army of Lovers. It is a chypre and, honestly, this is a true chypre! None of that neo-chypre or wanna-be, pretend, quasi-chypre business. (Le Labo’s Ylang 49, I’m looking straight at you with your revolting purple patchouli!) No, this is an actual, genuine chypre with an amount of oakmoss absolute that you have to smell to believe. It’s beautiful, very elegant, and reeks of class. It was created by Mr. Mazzone with a Robertet nose (I think) whose name I have now forgotten, and the perfume name references a Swedish group that Mr. Mazzone loves. I have to wonder if there will be any trademark issues in using the same name, but the perfume won’t be released until 2014, so I’m sure he has time to work out any problems that may arise.

I wish I could recall the notes in Army of Lovers, but all I remember now is how impressed I was with its elegance. At one point, I had Hard Leather on one shoulder or bicep, and Army of Lovers on the other — and I may have uttered a rather strangled, guttural moan. I certainly did something very loudly that seemed to have (further) shocked the constipated denizens of the Hotel Costes, and I saw a very disapproving gleam in our server’s eyes when he stopped by next. At this point, I most definitely did not care. Laurent Mazzone was spraying me with glee, and then himself, and we were standing up to sniff each other publicly without the slightest bit of thought to those around. I might have entered a slight fugue state at one point as the potent chypre of Army of Lovers, and the spicy, oriental, animalic leather-oud warmth of Hard Leather billowed out around me. I may have this incorrectly, but if I recall, I think Laurent Mazzone stated that Ambre Muscadin and Patchouli Boheme are two of the main corner stones or representational fragrances from his line. I suspect that either Hard Leather, Army of Lovers, or both will be soon joining them.

In telling you all this, I’m being completely honest. Just as I am when I say that there were some things I smelled that day that were not my cup of tea at all. Very well-made, and beautifully blended, yes, but most definitely not my personal style. Mr. Mazzone sprayed me with something and — blame my usual bluntness or, perhaps, massive sleep-deprivation — I instinctively recoiled, my whole body jerked back, and I grimaced. It was some floral fragrance with purple, fruity patchouli and a synthetic element. So much purple, sweetness, and fruitiness! I had blocked out the name entirely due to my sheer horror, but, in looking over the list of names in the LM line now, I suspect it was O de Soupirs.** If I recall correctly, Mr. Mazzone described its feeling or inspiration as something a woman would wear before going to a rendezvous with her lover. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out something along the lines of “Absolutely not! This is for a 14-year old girl!” (Oh God, now that I’m remembering more of the day, I think I even tried to rub it off my arm with a napkin!)  ** [UPDATE: it turns out the fragrance I didn’t like was a new, upcoming, not-yet-released perfume called Lost Paradise. It will be launched in 2014. — Further Update 1/29/14: the name has been changed to Ultimate Seduction. ]

I usually try to be more tactful and polite, so I’m quite chagrined at my rudeness, but I really couldn’t help the outburst or my instinctive, gut-level reaction. There was a pause in the conversation, and Mr. Mazzone blinked, but he was extremely gracious about it, though there was a hurt look in his sensitive eyes. I tried to explain that I was always very honest in my opinions, and that my candour should let him know that I was quite sincere in my raves for the other two perfumes. He actually seemed to like that a lot, but he’s also incredibly polite, so perhaps I’m just hoping that he put it all into context.

Even before this incident, Mr. Mazzone had quickly caught onto my personal tastes, which strongly mirror his own, so it wasn’t a surprise when he immediately noted that I would very much dislike another perfume that he had included in the very generous “samples.” It was the new, recently released but limited-edition Chemise Blanche which — unlike its siblings — is not done in a black, velvet box imprinted with the LM Parfums logo. It’s also not in one of the black bottles that Mr. Mazzone has intentionally made almost just barely opaque, but not quite. He was concerned that perfume owners would not be able to see how much was left in their bottle if it was a solid black, so he specifically had the glass done in a way which would show how much liquid was left if the bottle was held up to the light. I loved the thoughtfulness and attention to detail involved in that, especially as the issue of remaining quantity is a problem that I always have with my old, jet-black bottle of Fracas.

Chemise BlancheInstead, Chemise Blanche is in a clear, glass bottle and in a white velvet box. The reason Mr. Mazzone was sure I would dislike it is because it is very much the opposite of my favorites from his line: it’s a perfume centered around aldehydes and citruses. To me, it very much evokes something crystalline in visuals, almost Alpine, if you will: white, pure, clear, airy, and very light in feel, despite being an extrait in concentration. According to Fragrantica, the notes include:

aldehydes, bergamot, mandarin, iris, lily of the valley, rose, benzoin, tonka, amber and musk.

To my surprise, given my loathing for aldehydes, the note was much tamer than I had expected but, alas, even Mr. Mazzone admitted that Chemise Blanche smelled of soap and dishwashing liquid on my skin. (By now, sniffing yet my another portion of my shoulder, we were really receiving some strange looks!) Chemise Blanche is not my style at all, and my skin is always a huge problem when it comes to aldehydes, but I freely admit that the perfume is very well-done. Actually, with a few wearings, I occasionally persuaded myself that Chemise Blanche might almost be something I would opt for if I were looking for a crisp, light, gauzy perfume with a citric edge. Almost. I’m wearing Hard Leather as I write this, and I doubt I would ever go for crystal white when I could have shades of richly burnished brown, red, black and amber instead!

Nonetheless, Chemise Blanche turned out to be quite a hit with my friend with whom I was staying and who has very difficult perfume tastes. It’s not only that she is someone whose tastes are the polar opposite of mine; it’s also that she finds almost everything to be “too sweet” or “too strong.” She recoils in horror at even the slightest bit of Orientalism or spice, isn’t a huge fan of most pure florals, and adores airy, light, clean and citrusy fragrances. Even in that last category, however, she thinks the vast majority are “too sweet.” (It was quite interesting going perfume-shopping with her one day! No matter what citrus fragrance I found for her, almost all were rejected and, in a few cases, deemed to be “too masculine” as well.) Chemise Blanche, however, smelled lovely on her skin, and she seemed almost convinced that it wasn’t the dreaded, verboten “sweet.” (It is not. Not even remotely!) So, I left her a large decant for her to test out while she decides if it is full-bottle worthy. 

Laurent Mazzone. Source: unique.ru.com

Laurent Mazzone. Source: unique.ru.com

All in all, I had an absolutely wonderful time meeting Laurent Mazzone, his partner, and Fabienne. They were incredibly warm, friendly, effusive, generous, and filled with life. It was truly fun, whether we were laughing over Mr. Mazzone’s astringent views on some of the Paris Fashion Week collections, sniffing each other publicly, or having passionately robust discussions about the state of perfumery in the past versus today.

You know, all perfumers talk or claim that they put a little bit of themselves or their personalities within each fragrance, but it’s not always true. Commercial perfumery certainly doesn’t have that, and neither do some purportedly “niche” lines. Yet, in sniffing the various LM Parfums, I can actually and genuinely see a little bit of Mr. Mazzone in most of them. There is a quietly refined, passionate lustiness or sensuality in the ones that I’ve tried — whether it’s the overtly sexy Sensual Orchid, the smooth, sweetened, goldenness of Ambre Muscadin, the hugely smoky Patchouli Boheme with its almost mesquite-like opening, or the more masculine Hard Leather — that really seems to epitomize different parts of the gregarious, outgoing, exuberantly passionate man I met. Chemise Blanche seems to be an anomaly, at least to me personally, in terms of that character assessment theory, but the line certainly carries something for everyone and its clean crispness should definitely appeal to some modern tastes.

I may end up doing a proper review for Chemise Blanche down the line, but I definitely plan to cover Patchouli Boheme and Ambre Muscadin. Hard Leather as well, when it is released next month. In the meantime, if you have the chance to try any LM Parfums, do give them a sniff. The line is now in the U.S., and is no longer exclusive to Europe. Plus, Osswald in New York has a very affordable deal on samples which should make testing quite easy. For readers in Europe, the line is not hard to find, and LM Parfums sells 5 ml decants at a very reasonable price (€14 or €19). As for me, I suddenly fell upon the genius idea of layering Sensual Orchid with Hard Leather on occasion, and now, I really have to get my hands on a proper decant of both. The people at the Hotel Costes are lucky they’re not around to witness my reaction….

[UPDATE: I have now reviewed Ambre Muscadin and Hard Leather, with shopping information and pricing information provided in the appropriate reviews.]

Disclosure: Some of the perfumes covered in this post were, as noted, provided by LM Parfums. There was no financial compensation for any of this. I don’t do paid reviews or posts, and my views are my own. 

DETAILS:
Cost & Availability: LM Parfums always come in a 100 ml/3.4 oz bottle. The European price is generally either €120 (€125 at some online vendors), or €195 (or £195). The American retail price is either $175 or $225. In the U.S.: Laurent Mazzone’s fragrances used to be European exclusives, but the range just came to America two months ago. It’s sold exclusively at OsswaldNYC. For some strange reason, the website seems to show only two fragrances now, and not all the ones it had earlier when I reviewed Sensual Orchid. In terms of samples, none of the U.S. perfume sample sites currently carry the LM Parfums line, but Osswald has a special deal for all its perfumes for U.S. customers who telephone the store: 10 samples for $10, with free shipping in the U.S., and it’s for any perfumes that they stock! That means the full, existing, current LM Parfums line (or whatever parts they may now carry of it), and some other goodies only found at OsswaldNY, for less than a $1 a vial! The deal is only available for telephone orders, however, so you have to call (212) 625-3111. Outside the U.S.: In Europe, you can buy the perfumes directly from LM Parfums for €125 or €195. (At this other LM Parfums site, some of the bottles are priced at €120.) Samples are also available for €14 or €19, depending on the perfume in question and its concentration, and they come in a good 5 ml size. In the UK, the LM Parfums line is carried exclusively at Harvey Nichols. In France, you can find the perfumes, and 5 ml samples of each (usually about €14) at Laurent Mazzone’s own Premiere Avenue. In Paris, LM Parfums are sold at Jovoy. Germany’s First in Fragrance carries the full line and sells samples as well. You can also find LM Parfums at Essenza Nobile, Italy’s Vittoria Profumi, or Alla Violetta. In the Netherlands, you can find LM Parfums at Silks Cosmetics or Parfumaria. In the Middle East, I found most of the LM Parfums line at the UAE’s Souq perfume retailer. For all other countries, you can find a vendor near you from Switzerland to Belgium, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Croatia, Azerbaijan, and more, by using the LM Parfums Partner listing. Laurent Mazzone or LM Parfums fragrances are widely available throughout Europe, and many of those sites sell samples as well. 

Interview – Neela Vermeire: Ashoka, Perfume, Food & Life

In Rig Veda Psych4u  blogspot

Source: In Rig Veda Psych4u blogspot

A while ago, I asked Neela Vermeire of Neela Vermeire Créations (“NVC”) if she would be kind enough to do an interview. She graciously agreed, and I sent along some questions. “Some” is an understatement — not being one for brevity, I’m afraid I inundated her with rather a lengthy list. Ms. Vermeire never blinked, and never once said that her incredibly busy schedule couldn’t accommodate such a barrage. Instead, she spent a portion of her holidays answering them. (And she never told me to fly a kite when I came back with follow-ups, twice!) I’m incredibly grateful for her graciousness, her time, her enormous patience, and her always sunny disposition.

Neela Vermeire. Source: NVC

Neela Vermeire. Source: Ms. Vermeire.

My goal with the questions was for us to learn as much about Neela Vermeire the person and perfume lover, as about the one who creates beautiful perfumes. Many of you know the brief outlines of Ms. Vermeire’s story. She was born in India, living life in the lushness of Calcutta (now Kolkata), before travelling around the world. She studied in America, completing a Master’s Degree in social sciences, then eventually moved to England where she studied law and became a solicitor. She spent a little time in Aberdeen, Scotland, practiced in London, and, for a brief period, moved to Paris where she remained for two years. She went back across the pond to England, then, six years after she left Paris, Ms. Vermeire and her Belgian husband moved back for good, this time for her husband’s work.

Bertrand Duchaufour. Source: mparis.ru

Bertrand Duchaufour. Source: mparis.ru

Ms. Vermeire was always passionate about perfumery and, in an almost organic process, she decided to express her love concretely by starting her own line. So, she approached Bertrand Duchaufour — one of the most famous perfume noses in the world, who has worked with everyone from Dior, to Acqua di Parma, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Comme des Garcons, Givenchy, Penhaligon, and many others. The result was Neela Vermeire Créations, three highly acclaimed fragrances, an award nomination, inclusion at the top of many perfume sites’ annual “Best of” lists, and a passionate following of admirers. And now, a fourth creation whose release is just a week away: Ashoka, Imperial Buddhist, a scent intended to capture the essence and life of India’s most famous Emperor, the man whose very symbol (a chakra) is now placed right in the center of India’s flag.

Emperor Ashoka.

Emperor Ashoka.

I asked Ms. Vermeire about Ashoka, its creation, and the feelings that she sought to capture. But what about the woman herself? As I said earlier, I wanted you to know the complex, intellectual, extremely diverse, fascinating woman behind the fragrances, as much as the perfumista who created them. Ms. Vermeire kindly shared everything from some of her favorite perfumes that she used to wear, to her favorite television shows, her culinary weaknesses, and even her favorite type of chocolates. I hope you enjoy the answers as much as I did.

*    *   *

What are some of your favorite notes in perfumes? Notes that make you sit up with excitement when you see them on a perfume list?

There are too many to list but here are some: iris, jasmine sambac, tuberose, rose, lavender, vetiver, galbanum, sandalwood and most precious woods, styrax, resins…

Are there any perfume notes that you struggle with or that you don’t like at all?

Certain fruits, heavy patchouli, overtly sweet “gourmand” notes.

Which fruit notes don’t you like? Peach? Grape? Grapefruit? Blackcurrant?

I have difficulty with fruity notes in general – difficult to point to and blame certain fruits. It really depends on how a perfumer works with some of the fruity notes.

What was your earliest perfume memory? 

It comes of course from my childhood years in India –smell of sandalwood paste, incense, tea, spices, flowers…

Before you started your own perfume line, what were some of your favorite perfumes?

There are too many to list as I collected many fragrances over the years. What I reached out for the most were:

Chanel Bois des Iles Extrait; Chanel No. 22 Extrait; Guerlain Jicky, Vega, and Sous Le Vent; Frederic Malle Iris Poudre and Une Fleur de Cassie; Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist and Bois de Violette. used to wear the Le Labo Tubereuse 40 NY exclusive, Iris 39 and Labdanum 18.

Also, I love and collect vintage perfumes. My main haul this year include an unopened Shalimar extrait in the box from the 1940s with the original wrapping paper, vintage Femme, and vintage Madame Rochas over summer from an antique fair, among a few…. [All font emphasis to the names added by me.]

Did you ever have a signature fragrance?

I don’t have a signature fragrance; I have always been too interested in experimenting or trying new scents. That said, I do wear NVC Mohur frequently, and a future creation which is still work in progress. [Font emphasis added by me.]

When you started your own perfume house, you obviously had a clear overall vision and inspiration for the perfumes that subsequently became Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling. What happens after you have that initial idea for a scent? Can you share a little about the steps in the creative process, and the methods by which you and Bertrand Duchaufour rendered your initial idea into something concrete? For example, would both of you test out different formulas each week? 

Once I have clear vision – it is expressed to the perfumer. Sometimes we can start with a part of the entire vision and then build the foundation of the fragrance – we usually work on a couple of options in line with the original idea.

For Ashoka, the challenge was rather different compared to the first trio (which express vast periods of history) and not a legendary personality who helped spread a magnificent religion Buddhism. [Font emphasis to the name added by me.]

Can you expand a little on the process of building the perfume’s foundation and working with different options in line with the original vision?

It is one of the ways for me to develop and flesh out ideas – when you express an idea – you may not get (as a mod) what you think it is going to be. [Me: “Mod” is industry-speak for “version.”] The guiding factor is in imagination of the notes and the balance of the work-in-progress creation.

A perfume can take shape from those early stages to something very different from what was presented at say stage one. It is truly a matter of being on the same page for all parties involved in the creation.

Things take time in general – it is either a matter of being quick/hurried and accepting mods which may not be fully formed or the tougher route when one decides to carry on with the development and make sure that one reaches a satisfactory stage where the “eureka moment” actually happens!

Why did Emperor Ashoka appeal to you in the first place as a source of perfume inspiration, as opposed to some other Indian figure representing peace? Has he always interested you?  

Emperor Ashoka's Chakra, which is the very symbol in the center of the Indian national flag.

Emperor Ashoka’s Chakra, which is the very symbol in the center of the Indian national flag.

Personally as an Indian, Ashoka has always held a very special place since my childhood. One cannot ignore his importance if you grow up in India.  In a nutshell – he was a true humanist (after his self-realization) and possibly one of the greatest emperors ever. He believed in secularism and was way ahead of his times.

NVC LogoIn fact, our logo was adapted from Ashoka’s famous Chakra.

The bottle for Ashoka, as designed by Pierre Dinard.

The bottle for Ashoka, as designed by Pierre Dinard.

Our new bottle, designed by Pierre Dinand, has 24 ridges just like Ashoka’s chakra. The logo [adaptation of the chakra] is also embossed on the metal cap. [So, the perfume] is about the meaning of this important symbol.

H.G. Wells summed up what you need to know about Ashoka in his book A Short History of the World. (1922):

“Asoka was at first disposed to follow the example of his father and grandfather and complete the conquest of the Indian peninsula. He […] was successful in his military operations and —alone among conquerors—  was so disgusted by the cruelty and horror of war that he renounced it. He would have no more of it. He adopted the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism and declared that henceforth his conquests should be the conquests of religion.

The Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India, constructed by Ashoka. Two monks are meditating in front of it. The tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment is on the left, behind the monks. This temple is the number 1 pilgrimage site of Buddhism in the world.  Source: Wikicommons.

The Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India, constructed by Ashoka. Two monks are meditating in front of it. The tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment is on the left, behind the monks. This temple is the number 1 pilgrimage site of Buddhism in the world. Source: Wikicommons.

His reign for eight-and-twenty years was one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind. He organized a great digging of wells in India and the planting of trees for shade. He founded hospitals and public gardens and gardens for the growing of medicinal herbs. He created a ministry for the care of the aborigines and subject races of India. He made provision for the education of women. […]

Such was Asoka, greatest of kings. He was far in advance of his age. He left no prince and no organization of men to carry on his work, and within a century of his death the great days of his reign had become a glorious memory in a shattered and decaying India. […] But beyond the confines of India and the realms of caste Buddhism spread—until it had won China and Siam and Burma and Japan, countries in which it is predominant to this day…”

Perhaps the sole sculptural depiction of Emperor Ashoka that remains today.

Perhaps the sole sculptural depiction of Emperor Ashoka that remains today, though the identity of the figure has not been fully established.

What made you both decide on certain notes, like fig, being a perfect way to reflect a stage in Emperor Ashoka’s life?

The main idea was to ensure that the fragrance has a contrasting start from a strong top note to a gentle drydown. We included some floral notes, fig leaves and fig milk, styrax, and sandalwood as some of the important notes to bring about this contrast.

Buddha achieved his enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree/Sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa) and the fact that Ashoka converted to Buddhism to gain his own enlightenment.

Ashoka.

The new NVC bottle design by Pierre Dinand.

For each of the perfumes, including the upcoming Ashoka, when did you finally know that a particular version or formula was “the” final, perfect one? Was there one of the perfumes that was a little harder to finalize and perfect (according to that mental vision) than the others?

I could go on perfecting a perfume forever and I do not care to rush towards any deadline. In the case of the trio, Trayee was the toughest to declare “final” as well as Mohur. Bombay Bling appeared to be relatively less complex to finalize in comparison to the other two.

Ashoka was incredibly tough and took many iterations. [All font emphasis to the names added by me.]

Speaking of Ashoka, there is already a tidal wave of anticipation and excitement. I read your interview with Fragrantica back in April about the two versions of the perfume that you showed at Milan: versions 108, 110 and their differences. To quote the relevant part of the Fragrantica reviewer’s perceptions: “108 is more masculine, green and harsh, with a fierce start recalling the period of the youth of Ashoka—a fearless hunter, cruel warrior and a great conqueror. 110 is more lactonic and sleek; it shows Ashoka after his enlightment [sic], as a kind and compassionate person…” Given his description and your own words about having different versions in Milan, it sounds like you went through numerous different interpretations for the scent. Did you finally settle on #108? And, if so, what made one formula seem like a better, truer, more representative fit for Ashoka than the other?

The numbers got juxtaposed somehow and did not get amended! It is 110 we settled for as it “is more masculine, green and strong, with a fierce start recalling the period of the youth of Ashoka—a fearless hunter, cruel warrior and a great conqueror.”

110 was the overall character of the perfume that we had in mind for Ashoka.

108 was relatively gentle in the opening.

One of the many, many things that I think will make Ashoka such a hit is that it hits that sweet spot in your line-up for a comfort fragrance. Each of your other ones represent a certain type of fragrance: Trayee is the seductive temptress with flair; Mohur is quiet, refined elegance; and Bombay Bling is fun, jubilant, exuberance. For me, Ashoka represents soothing comfort, a sort of serenity mixed with a mother’s protective embrace. Obviously, that’s my subjective interpretation of it, but I’m curious if you thought about the types of perfumes that you had already, and if you sought to create a type of refined, sophisticated comfort fragrance for your line-up?

Thank you for your faith in our fourth creation! To answer your question, for us – it is about the general mood of a fragrance.

Trayee is spiritual, contemplative and refined.

Mohur is elegant and glamorous as the same time.

Bombay Bling is sheer sophisticated fun.

Ashoka is intended to be that sophisticated comfort fragrance that you describe, both powerful and gentle.

All are created for men and women. We wanted everyone to be able to select a fragrance wardrobe from the collection. [All font emphasis to the names added by me.]

If you had to choose a painting, picture, photo or place that you think sums up the overall feel of Ashoka, perhaps as an emotional experience, what would it be? 

It is very much a collage of various images – it is very tough to link it to one single image. The only image I can think of right now is the Ashoka’s chakra.

Emotionally it is a fragrance that works from a powerful top note to a very warm and comforting heart and base notes.

Ashoka's Chakra in stone

I’m always in awe of the quality of your ingredients but, especially, of that stunning sandalwood in your original trio. Without getting into trade secrets, can you tell us anything about the sandalwood or perhaps the Laotian Oudh that you use?

I have faith in a specialist perfumer like Bertrand Duchaufour’s choice of materials – naturals and aroma chemicals he uses in the compositions and we know that in the case of the NVC perfumes we did not cut any corners for the sake of economics.

We have used some precious woods like Mysore sandalwood oil and Laotian Oudh.  We hope to continue on this path.

To what extent has your creative process or the perfume’s development been impacted by sourcing issues for ingredients? For example, that beautiful sandalwood is neither cheap nor in great abundance.

As mentioned above, I leave this to the perfumer and the essence company. The perfumers are specialists and know their materials well. It is their tool. Using some of the rare and precious raw materials can make a formula exorbitantly expensive.

When you work with experts/professionals in the fragrance world and I will underline experts – who know how to create a formula and know that if the ingredients are excellent – the end result will usually be very good.

There is a level of complexity to get an idea or message across through the perfume – even though the message is used mainly as an intellectual prop.

The perfume should make one “feel”/emote…

You make very French perfumes, even if they have an Indian inspiration. I think there is a very definite style to French perfumery as a whole or, at least, there was. Do you think that may be in danger in the years ahead due to things like IFRA or EU restrictions? Do you see any changes ahead for French perfumery?

Yes, but as long as one can conform to the new rules – it will hopefully be ok.

Perfume and your company obviously take up a vast amount of your time. What do you do to relax? Or, to put it another way, what are some of your non-perfume-related passions? Do you have any guilty pleasures — whether in television, books, food or something else — that you would confess to? 🙂

Music – all forms – I do enjoy going to classical concerts and productions of baroque opera.

Theatre when we visit London or NYC. We enjoy some French Theatre.

Art – everything from street art (like Space Invader), to Chagall.

Food – see below.

I adore the Cinema but rarely find the time to go.

I am also a fan of intelligent TV series – enjoy some excellent HBO productions, BBC and Nordic productions.

I know you love the TV show, Borgen, but what else? Which HBO or BBC series?

Borgen, Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge. On the BBC, there are too many to list, as I grew up with the BBC – crime, justice, comedy. But I am a Downton Abbey fan. I’m also a HUGE Poirot fan.

From HBO or American television, there are also too many, but some include The Wire, Boardwalk Empire (fabulous), The Sopranos…. I also watch other shows like: Engrenages (French), The Shield, and The Good Wife.

I’ve enjoyed Mad Men very much. It’s very stylish, and I love John Slattery’s part, as well as many other characters. Homeland is also great, and I liked the original Israeli version, Prisoners of War. Another show I like is the new Netflix series, House of Cards, mainly for Kevin Spacey. I’ve been a fan of his since early in his career with The Usual Suspects.

I do not dare to mention feature films, as I am film buff and have an endless list that may bore everyone.

Source: Ms. Vermeire.

Source: Ms. Vermeire.

Since you live in Paris with all that glorious food, and since I’m a foodie myself, I have to ask as my last question: what are some of your favorite dishes, cheeses, patisseries, breads, or other aspects of French culinary life? Please let us live vicariously through you!

Even though I live in Paris, I remain a huge fan of all types of Asian cuisine (which I still like the best). Second for me comes Italian cuisine. I also enjoy savoury Persian and Lebanese cuisine. In fact, I am known to impose Asian or Middle Eastern cuisine on my friends.

There is nothing like good organic bread and we have some excellent artisanal boulangeries near us.

Sadly, we have not found a truly great Indian restaurant in Paris, the UK and the US just seem better for that.

In India, the cuisine is varied – I love most regional cooking. My favourite type of cuisine is Dum Pukht. If you are in New Delhi, you must try the restaurants Dum Pukht and Bukhara for an excellent culinary experience.

I also enjoy creative meals from any of the great French chefs and from chefs from all over the world. There, I go more for quality than quantity.

Source: goodealmart.com

Source: goodealmart.com

However, if I have to go for general French cuisine, I enjoy good fish restaurants. I enjoy platters of my favourite French oysters — speciales Gillardeau with some vintage champagne — followed by a deliciously cooked sole (grilled or fried), or grilled sea bass with olive oil or cooked in salt crust.

Biscuits Roses de Reims. Source: agence-des-grands-crus.com

Biscuits Roses de Reims. Source: agence-des-grands-crus.com

I also enjoy wine tasting wherever we go. And we enjoy looking for good champagne houses that are rather niche in production. My favourite champagne maison is Jacquesson. I also enjoy dunking rose biscuits from Reims in champagne.

I’m not fond of heavy patisseries, but I enjoy some good dark chocolate from time to time. My favourite chocolatiers include Pierre Marcolini (Belgian), Patrick Roger, Debauve et Gallais (French)…

*    *   *

Oh my God, I don’t know about you, but I salivated like a dog reading her food answers! Wouldn’t you love to go eating and drinking across Europe with Ms. Vermeire?! Coincidentally, I went to the famous Bukhara in New Delhi years ago, and can attest that it is as good as Ms. Vermeire says it is. (Actually, it was completely mind-blowing. And I gained 6 pounds to prove it!) Ms. Vermeire clearly knows her food. And her oysters, too! The New York Times calls Gillardeau “the most famous name in oysters.” If you’re curious about Jacquesson, the champagne house has a fascinating history that goes back to 1798 and not only pre-dates Krug, but arguably gave rise to the latter.

Macarons, Pierre Marcolini, via Wikicommons.

Macarons, Pierre Marcolini, via Wikicommons.

Lastly, if you’re a masochist who loves to torture yourself with food porn from afar (as I do), then you really should check out the handsome Pierre Marcolini, his lovely website with its various chocolate collections, and his e-Boutique that offers everything from macarons to your own choice of chocolate selections. (No U.S. deliveries, alas.) A much less visually appealing website is that of Debauve & Gallais, and it offers chocolate deliveries on a more global basis, including FedEx shipments to the U.S. The company was founded in 1800, and became the official chocolatiers to Emperor Napoleon, as well as to several kings who followed him.

As for the perfumes, I think we would all agree with Ms. Vermeire that the fragrance should make us feel. And the very best ones always do. I have felt the soothing comfort of Ashoka, and I think many of you will love the Emperor’s embrace. I’m still madly in love with the upcoming Mohur Extrait above all else (yes, even more than Trayee!), but I think Ashoka has a refined gentleness that makes it very appealing and perhaps the most versatile of all the NVC creations. I can’t wait for you all to try it!

I would like to repeat my grateful thanks to Ms. Vermeire for taking big chunk of time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer my questions. She is working on a new fragrance, is constantly on the move, and is also preparing for the new launch of Ashoka that is mere days away. The fragrance will be officially released at the Pitti Immagine Fragranze Faire in Florence on September 13th! In light of all that, her graciousness, and patience mean even more. I shall see if I can one day repay her with dark chocolates or, perhaps, with some grilled sea bass.…

[AVAILABILITY UPDATE: Ashoka will be available for sale starting on September 23, 2013. In the U.S., it will be sold at Luckyscent and Min New York. I asked Ms. Vermeire about Ashoka samples and the Discovery Sets. This is her reply:

Here is what we are planning till we have Ashoka in the sets.
Try your India sample sets (3×2 ml) and Discovery sets with Ashoka EDP from late autumn from the site.

We will include a free glass vial sample of Ashoka with every purchase of the NVC Discovery set 10 ml x 3 of the first trio.

Please stay tuned for news on e-boutique.

The full flacons of Ashoka will be available at 190 Euros plus shipping.

So, starting on September 23rd, if you order the Discovery Set, you will get a glass vial of Ashoka. Ms. Vermeire says that samples of Ashoka won’t be available to go with the smaller “Try your India” sample set until much later in the Fall. So you can only get a sample if you order the NVC Discovery Set. As for a possible 10 ml bottle of Ashoka, at some point much later in the Fall, Ashoka will be added to the Discovery Set, but it is not offered being right now. (When it is, the Discover Set’s prices will presumably change for 4 x 10 ml, instead of 3 x 10 ml, but that is just my guess).]

Serge Lutens Profile – Part II: Perfumes, His Inspiration & The Search for Identity

In Part I of this two-part series, we looked at the life of the visionary who is Serge Lutens, a lonely man, born in war, unwanted by many in his family from the time of his birth, whose very existence was considered to be “a problem,” but who went on to revolutionize the worlds of fashion, beauty, photography, and perfumery. Now, in Part II, we’ll talk about his philosophy and approach to perfumery, as well as the sources of his inspiration. We’ll address the issue of inaccessibility and exclusivity, and his views on such issues as whether perfumes are aphrodisiacs, what he thinks about fragrances being unisex, and how his creations are ultimately about the search for identity. (You can also turn to my exclusive interview with Serge Lutens himself if you are interested in learning more about the man.)

Photo: Marco Guerra, taken at Serge Lutens' Marrakesh villa. http://marcoguerrastudio.com/?projects=portraits

Photo: Marco Guerra, taken at Serge Lutens’ Marrakesh villa. http://marcoguerrastudio.com/?projects=portraits

SERGE LUTENS & PERFUMERY:

Like every artist, Serge Lutens reveals a little about himself in each of his creations. For example, Tubereuse Criminelle shows his love for Baudelaire (who is my favorite poet as well), while De Profundis reveals, depending on your interpretation, either a spiritual appreciation for the Psalms or his enjoyment of Oscar Wilde. Yet, Serge Lutens’ intellectualism is clearly drawn to the darker things in life. Baudelaire, after all, is known for Les Fleurs du Mal, a compilation of poems about death, sex, decay, hedonistic excess, and finding beauty in the darker parts of human existence.

Serge-Lutens ad

Serge Lutens photo and ad for Shiseido.

De Profundis is an extension of the same theme, finding beauty in death. In a telling bit of symbolism that would have Freud salivating, Serge Lutens’ strange backstory for the fragrance includes the line: “Clearly, Death is a Woman.” Oh dear. The rest of the story, as provided by Fragrantica, isn’t any cheerier:

When death steals into our midst, its breath flutters through the black crepe of mourning, nips at funeral wreaths and crucifixes, and ripples through the gladiola, chrysanthemums and dahlias.
If they end up in garlands in the Holy Land or the Galapagos Islands or on flower floats at the Annual Nice Carnival, so much the better!
What if the hearse were taking the deceased, surrounded by abundant flourish, to a final resting place in France, and leading altar boys, priest, undertaker, beadle and gravediggers to some sort of celebration where they could indulge gleefully in vice? Now that would be divine!

In French, the words beauty, war, religion, fear, life and death are all feminine, while challenge, combat, art, love, courage, suicide and vertigo remain within the realm of the masculine.

Clearly, Death is a Woman. Her absence imposes a strange state of widowhood. Yet beauty cannot reach fulfilment without crime.

Hard as it may be to believe, De Profundis’ backstory is (in my opinion) almost joyful, relatively speaking, as compared to that of La Fille de Berlin. Contrary to some people’s belief, that fragrance has nothing to do with Marlene Dietrich or the decadent excesses of Weimar Germany. When I was writing my review right before Valentine’s Day, and during my research, I stumbled upon a YouTube video in which Serge Lutens read the story behind the fragrance. I also found a brief interview he gave to the New York Times. The two things made abundantly clear that La Fille de Berlin was focused on the struggles of a German woman or women in Soviet-occupied, post-war Berlin. It is a story that is filled with implications of rape and, even, perhaps murder, to the point that I can’t really bear the perfume itself, even to this day.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who is this man?!” Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, the bleak backstory about the beauty of Death for De Profundis, and now, rape by Soviet occupiers, the transformation “of murder into a masterpiece,” and a woman’s lips covered by “the blood of Siegfried”?

Now, however, with all the things which I have learnt and which are discussed in Part I of this series, now, I get it. It’s about survival through the very worst of human suffering, through the greatest of all pain, even through the most traumatic aspects of war. It’s about the triumph of survival. And, ultimately, it’s about his triumph, and that of his mother (with her own wartime experiences) as well.

This ability to take the wounds of the past and see them as something more positive is reflected in his comments to The Independent in the interview discussed in Part I:

In one breath Lutens states, “You have to create your own happiness, we are the key to our own happiness,” while in the next he says, “It’s very dangerous to believe in such a cliché”. What he means, of course, is that happiness should not be confused with material wealth, beauty or success. “Even if society thinks you’re a mistake, you need to come to terms with it,” he says without sadness. “Maybe be happy about it, rejoice. Sing it as a song, clothe it, perfume it and close it to yourself.”

Serge Lutens has certainly clothed his past in perfume, and used it as a source of happiness. Yet, you may be surprised to learn that he does not actually see himself as a perfumer at all. According to the FAQ section of his website, he sees himself merely as a storyteller whose fairytales or fables are expressed through flowers and wood.

It is a process that takes time, and one whose inspiration often lies at the junction of “scent and memory.” He elaborated on both issues for The Independent:

“Sometimes it takes 12-17 years [to create a new perfume],” he says. “Sometimes it takes one year – that is the minimum – and then I will say that’s it. Then I’m not interested any more, I’ve said what I had to say.”

Source: Serge Lutens website.

Source: Serge Lutens website.

Although the inspiration for each creation comes from a different source, Lutens believes that through his work he is “trying to determine an identity, find a new language”. He shares his philosophy of scent and memory that underpins all his work: “It is an exercise of the memory, of your sensitivity. By the time you turn seven, this is what we call in French the reasonable age, you are going to, so to speak, record 750,000 odours in a box. Your nose is not made by these fragrances, but is there to assess whether you like, or you love, or you hate. These odours are going to create an interlace of paths going in all directions. From these odours you’re going to smell millions more, and only say ‘I love’ when you recognise something, not discover something. What you can recognise is nothing else but yourself. So around this [identity] I am trying to make the perfume recognisable. If I am using wood I want the perfume to smell like wood.”

Indeed, wood marks the beginning of Lutens’ fragrance journey. In the past he has attributed his first trip to Marrakech in 1968 as his moment of epiphany. At a small wood-workers’ studio in the souk he found a piece of cedar, “a quite attractive and a captivating type of wood; tasty, very sweet but also musky”. So overwhelmed was he by the scent that Lutens knew he had to make a perfume from it.

The impact of Morocco on Lutens went far beyond the mere appreciation for cedar. The country, its history, and its culture have become the source of much of his perfume inspiration. A good chunk of the Lutens line is oriental, after all, with clear references to the Middle East. Yet, Morocco has also become something more. It’s become this very solitary, lonely man’s sanctuary, his peaceful haven, and the place where he purposefully goes into self-imposed exile for much of the year. In my research into Lutens’ life, I stumbled upon a detailed photo series of his stunning, elaborate villa in Marrakesh, and, honestly, if it were my home, I’d probably never leave either!

The site, Kontraplan, features a photo-series called Casbah Confidential that shows Serge Lutens’ hideaway. I was so completely staggered by the sight of various rooms, I decided to include a few of them below. In order to give full credit to the site, all photos have the Kontraplan link embedded within, so clicking on them will take you to their article:

It’s quite something, isn’t it? Can you blame me for straying from the issue of perfumery? And can you imagine living in such Oriental opulence?! (On a side note, I wouldn’t be surprised if that militaristic room played some inspirational role in his development of either Sarrasins or Cuir Mauresque!) But we should return to the topic of actual perfumery.

In the FAQ section of his website, Serge Lutens shares a few of his thoughts on everything from the question of whether perfume can be an aphrodisiac, the issue of “unisex” in perfumery, and the purpose of fragrance. Please accept my apologies in advance for the wonkiness in the formatting, as the Lutens code and WordPress’ system seemed to be at war for much of the time. (And HTML coding is not my thing!)

  • What is your current philosophy with regard to perfume?
    • Perfume resides at the very heart of us. It is a means of self-expression. It is the dot on our “I”, a way of contemplating ourselves and sensing who we really are. It is also, in some ways, a weapon which seduces more by consequence than design. Perfume exists in the first person.
  • Do you think that perfume can have an aphrodisiac effect on the people around us? What makes a perfume seductive?
    • To be precise, there’s no such thing as an aphrodisiac perfume only aphrodisiac people. Wearing perfume doesn’t make you seductive. Being seductive is the result of being alive; being loved for who we are is what is important and not trying to be someone else!
  • What is your opinion of unisex perfumes?
    • Ask the perfume what sex it is. Who knows if an oak is male or female, or whether a rose is a he or a she? A watch is made for telling the time, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter whether it’s large or small, so long as you can read the face clearly so that you’re on time for a date! Are there CDs for men and CDs for women?! Absurd! Perfume is a product aimed at the senses not a particular gender.
  • What are your favourite perfumes? Are they the most successful ones? 
    • The only favourite I have is the one I’m working on at any given time. It’s impossible to choose. Some of them marked the start of a new period, such as Féminité du bois which introduced the theme of “identity”, or Ambre sultan, which was the point of departure for my Arab period. Those two perfumes obviously made an impact but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re just as important in this respect as Serge noire or De profundis. They create short circuits and express emotions through fragrance. They serve as reference points or “repères” in French (notice how that word contains the word “père” or father). What interests me is going further, not into the perfume, but deeper into myself, exploring my innermost depths to extract darkness from light, and make it just as visible. [Emphasis added.]
  • What perfumes do you hate? What ones do you wear and why?
    • Serge Lutens Cuir MauresqueIf I hate a perfume, it is only because of the person wearing it, whom I either can’t stand or who makes me feel that we inhabit different worlds and that it would be impossible for us to find any common ground! I could love the most ordinary or revolting perfume if it were worn by someone I found attractive! Personally, I rarely wear perfume and, when I do – and I do so advisedly – I wear Cuir mauresque, applied liberally so you can tell what I’m wearing. I go for this one as much because of its name as because of its fragrance, which is a leathery scent, like Cordoba leather tanned over acacia. [Emphasis added.]
Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. (Website link embedded within photo.)

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

As a side note, I recall reading somewhere that his choice of perfume is not Cuir Mauresque, but Serge Noire. It is one of the more challenging perfumes from his export line, in my opinion, and a fragrance that reportedly took ten years to create. I can see the fragrance suiting him because, for me, Serge Noire is the story of a phoenix with a two-sided, almost Janus-like duality. And, as this peek into his history may show, Serge Lutens is definitely a phoenix in some ways. Still, if he wears Cuir Mauresque, I’m even more glad as it is one of my absolute favorite fragrances from his line. It is a scent that I think oozes classic sex appeal, a fragrance that would suit Ava Gardner, just as much as the man who began his career by celebrating female beauty at places like Vogue and Dior.

The contradiction in his personal perfume choices matches the contradiction within the man himself. The interview in The Independent emphasizes more than a few times that Lutens can be, as they put it, “contrary”:

On the one hand, he talks dispassionately, almost disparagingly, about people who declare their work a passion, but then declares that if he did not create he would die. To him, the message is important, the medium only secondary: “The passion of fragrance does not exist. You go inside something, you’re pulled to something you can’t resist despite yourself. But that’s not a passion for a fragrance; it would be ridiculous to call it that.”

Or take his view that perfume should be “inaccessible.” It is a philosophy that Lutens seems to have intentionally tried to render concrete in the most literal, geographic, physical sense possible: you can’t get to his Salons directly from the street, but, instead, you have to enter from the gardens of the Palais Royal. The Independent article has more on the issue of inaccessibility, the concomitant aspect of exclusivity, and the paradoxes within Lutens’ view:

[His store’s] inaccessible location was apparently chosen by Lutens to “attract a clientele of connoisseurs, not casual customers”. […][¶]

Originally sold only through the Palais du Royal, his creations are now slightly more widely available, with selected stockists including specialist perfumery Les Senteurs and Harvey Nichols. The complexity of the blends, the narrative behind each scent and the formulation of cosmetic means that this is a brand that appeals to aesthetes. “Perfume is just molecules,” he says in his contradictory way. “The best perfume-maker was the wind, rivers and pollens…”

Lutens does not believe perfume should be accessible, nor that it should be worn every day. To him, if you wear perfume, “you are giving yourself arms, weapons. Transforming a weakness into a strength, protecting yourself by making a stand. This is the main purpose of my perfumes – strengthening your inner self”. Indeed, he explains that he only wears his own fragrance of choice, Cuir Mauresque, very rarely: “I wear it because it makes me feel good on this particular day”.

His philosophy of “perfume as weaponry” differs vastly from my own views of the purpose or nature of perfumery, but I’m fascinated by the psychological layers behind it. And, ultimately, I’m even more fascinated than I originally was by the man himself.

In the past, I set out to systematically answer the question — “Who is this man?!” — by exploring the side of “Uncle Serge” that he’s shown in his olfactory creations. This new journey into his biographical past has been a further attempt to understand the man whom I admire and respect like few others in the perfume world. Nonetheless, I always knew one could determine only the tip of the iceberg, and little else, from second-hand accounts. Even so, this journey has left me simultaneously more perplexed, more awed, more confused, more illuminated, more impressed, and more at a loss of what to make of Monsieur Lutens than I was before.

Perhaps that is how it should be. Genius is complicated. Visionaries can be contradictory, and their core essence sometimes elusive. Serge Lutens is a quiet, complex, unbelievably talented, utterly brilliant man with a painful past, a vast range of interests, an enormously inquisitive intellectual mind, and a unique creative vision. One can’t neatly tie up such a man in a well-ordered package, and stick a bow on him. If his perfumes show anything, it is an infinite capacity for metamorphosis, and more layers than an onion. In that, and in their sophisticated, multi-faceted, sometimes difficult, contrary nature, they are the ultimate representation of the man behind their invention.

So, perhaps the best one can do in trying to decipher the enigma that is Serge Lutens is to remember that his olfactory art is really a search for identity, an identity he himself does not always understand:

“I don’t know what I am really, but by creating my own weapons and talking about them I provide them to you. Some people are going to recognise my fears. I do not want to be recognised or famous, I don’t really care about having my name in big letters, the point is to recognise who you are. All I’m talking about is identity – that is all I’ve been talking about my whole life.”    

 

[UPDATE: you can read my exclusive interview with Serge Lutens here in which he talks more about his intellectual interests, his artistic loves, his philosophy, and his aesthetic approach to perfumery.]

Serge Lutens Profile – Part I: His Childhood, His Early Years & What Drives Him

A lonely man, born in war, unwanted by many in his family from the time of his birth, whose very existence was considered to be “a problem” and who later went on to revolutionize the worlds of fashion, beauty, photography, and perfumery. It is the story of a visionary called Serge Lutens.

"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

He may be the darling of the perfume world now, just as he was once the rising young star in both the fashion and beauty industry, but Serge Lutens’ origins are shrouded in some mystery. It is surprising, for even though he is, by all accounts, an intensely private man, he is also an incredibly famous one. In fact, his accomplishments from the 1980s to today are so well known that I found it unusual that there was rarely much talk about his early years or his background, especially on a personal level.

His official biography on the Lutens website wasn’t much help in terms of such details, so I was utterly stunned to find an article, tucked away in the absolute bowels of the site, in which Monsieur Lutens talked about his childhood and his family. The article is entitled “Serge Lutens: Conversation” by Pierre Lescure for the RM Exhibition in France (hereinafter referred to just as the “Lescure article“), and it explains so much about the man who we know and love today as “Uncle Serge.” That Lescure piece was the impetus for me to dig deeper into the famous legend, his past, and what drives him.

I ended up discovering more than I had expected, including the extent of his difficult childhood, the scars he bears, his genius and his accomplishments, but also many things about his philosophy to perfumery. So, this will be a two-part series with Part I focusing on Serge Lutens’ background and biography: his childhood, early years, and the events that have shaped him. Part II will focus on perfumery and his philosophy towards it. It will cover such things as, for example, his views on whether perfumes are aphrodisiacs, what he thinks about fragrances being unisex, and how his creations are, ultimately, the search for his own identity. 

I’ve always been a die-hard admirer of Serge Lutens, but I was rather awed by all I learnt, as well as a little heartbroken for him. I hope you enjoy the story of the solitary visionary who brushed off his painful origins and persevered like a triumphant Sisyphus to take the worlds of beauty, art, photography, and perfumery by storm, before transforming them all forever. 

THE MAN & HIS LIFE:

Serge Lutens, age 10. Source: Serge Lutens website.

Serge Lutens, age 10. Source: Serge Lutens website.

Serge Lutens was born during WWII, on March 14th, 1942 in Lille, in northern France. He was not wanted, at least not by his father or his grandparents. In fact, it seems the tiny baby was born from adultery which is something that makes absolutely no difference today, but it did back then, especially in Pétain’s Vichy France where women (but not men) could be severely punished under the law. In the Lescure article, Serge Lutens’ painful childhood is laid bare — and it’s not easy to read:

Serge Lutens was wanted by his mother. But she was the only one who wanted him. His father didn’t want her to keep the baby. The grandparents wanted nothing to do with “this woman” for their son. But she stood her ground, despite Serge’s father, despite a new husband, despite Pétain’s law that targeted women for adultery. A courageous mother, liberated in fact, despite her lowly station in life, despite everything.

Soon after his birth, at just a few weeks of age, baby Serge was removed from his mother, and put into what would be the first of several foster care homes. That fact is borne out not only by the official biography on the Lutens website, but also by a 2013 interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, entitled “Master perfumer Serge Lutens: ‘I don’t want to be recognised or famous‘.”

There, the famously shy Lutens opens up a little about his difficult childhood and how “the lack of a maternal figure had a profound effect on him.”

“I was born in the midst of the Second World War,” he says. “At the time, my mother was married and it was a complex situation. She was unfaithful to her husband.”

“My dad is not German,” he jokes. “Let me just be clear about that. But my mum had to give me up because if she hadn’t, the laws at the time meant she would have been punished as an adulteress. She did it in order to protect me and protect herself. My mum didn’t abandon me, but it means that I didn’t see her that much and I didn’t have a motherly character in my life. My personality was influenced by that.”

Lutens has spoken previously of his “blurred identity”, partly influenced by his illegitimacy. It is a subject that he has only spoken of in a veiled way before, but in person he shrugs it off. “It’s just a normal story,” he says. “All these things are seen through the light of your own experience.”

“All my life I went from one foster family to another, and this great instability provided a great opportunity for me to be able to work on myself, to write life in a way that wasn’t planned originally.”

Despite being constantly shuttled around, and the loss of a real home or mother figure, it would seem that the very young Lutens did see his mother on occasion as a toddler. According to, the Lescure interview with Monsieur Lutens, it might have been more of an on-and-off-again thing in the early years, perhaps due to a mother’s natural fear for her baby during the terrifying time of war and Nazi occupation.

At the very least, he saw her on one occasion in 1943, in an incident he recounted to Pierre Lescure and whose painful, traumatic memories have even been rendered concrete in the architectural structure of his Paris headquarters today:

Source: smh.com.au

Source: smh.com.au

At the center of the boutique gallery, anchored in the floor, at the heart of the Royal Palace, is a massive spiral stairway that seems to spin into infinity. It takes us up to the floor. The deep, intimate, violent and artistic relationship Serge Lutens had with his mother was forced in a stairwell in Northern France in 1943 under a Nazi bombardment. “There was a warning siren. I can still see my mother’s empty eyes — empty of everything but fear. For me and for herself. We go down to a bomb shelter. I’m very small, but the memory is very precise. Everyone squeezes together. And I literally lose my mother. I am squashed by grownups. At the all-clear, I see myself being jostled and bumped, climbing this interminable rusty staircase, hanging onto the honeycomb-like surface of each step. We found each other, but the terrifying vertigo of the stairway for me is the loss of my mother.

Serge Lutens may have been only a year old or 18-months at the time of that event in 1943, but it clearly left a mark. (For those of you who wonder about how a child so young may have such a detailed memory of an incident, there are apparently some studies from child psychologists and neurologists on “event memory,” which claim that toddlers can indeed recall deep trauma, even if they can’t verbalize it at the time. I’m am wholly unqualified to speak on either issue, and am merely quoting Lutens’ comments to the interviewer.)

Whatever the precise nature of his memories, I think the issue of his mother is the key to understanding Serge Lutens. As the Lescure article makes clear, it is the context for everything that drives him:

Serge Lutens’s discoveries since the early 60’s have become historic land-marks in womens’ beauty and womens’ lives. “In this woman’s life,” Serge insists. He hates when you talk about women. That says it all. For him, it’s “this woman,” his own double, whom he reinvents in every photograph, dress, makeup, makeup design, or perfume.

Source: Serge Lutens website.

Source: Serge Lutens website.

And “this woman” is really just his mother. As Pierre Lescure emphasizes throughout the article, Serge Lutens’ mother is his ultimate muse and source of creativity. He is never far from her, mentally and emotionally, and has always sought to keep her near. In a moment of philosophical and Freudian symbolism, Monsieur Lutens told the journalist, “I invented her so I could exist.” She is the one whom he is ultimately and symbolically always capturing — regardless of medium, whether it is photography, makeup, fashion, or perfumery. Thus, he, “whom his father always more or less intentionally melded with his mother” has now explicitly and defiantly melded himself with her.

According to Lescure, “[t]hese fragile beginnings, the solitary path, the double life, he and she makes him a sort of anti-Lagerfeld.” Which may explain, in part, why the fashion visionary to whom Lutens feels most connected is Yves St. Laurent. “Like Yves, Lutens ‘started as a problem.'” And like St. Laurent, Lutens worked incredibly hard from an extremely young age to start on his road to success.

In 1956, at the age of 14, Lutens was sent off to work “at a bourgeois hair salon in [Lille, in] northern France.” He hated it. The official biography on his website states,

he was given a job against his will – he would have preferred being an actor – in a beauty salon in his native city.

Two years later, he had already established the feminine hallmarks that he would make his own: eye shadow, ethereally beautiful skin, short hair plastered down. He also became known for the colour black, from which he never deviated. He confirmed his tastes and his choices with the female friends of his whom he photographed.

There, in that beauty salon, the teenage apprentice hair-dresser absorbed everything like a sponge, and took photographs all the while. To quote from the Lescure piece:

He observes authentic versus fake elegance, learns how to do everything, and how to adapt everything. Like an extension of his arm and his eye, his simple little camera is always with him.

War, unfortunately, had not finished with Serge Lutens. This was France in the late 1950s, after all, and the Algerian war was raging on. It was a conflict which I studied quite a bit at one time, and you cannot begin to imagine its impact on France. It was a war that threatened to ignite the country into a civil war, and there was almost a military coup which sought to topple the French government. Like all young men, Serge Lutens was subject to national military service; in 1960, at the age of 18, he was called up. The crucible of violence had its impact, and when his one-year period of conscription was over, Serge Lutens decided to forever change his life. Around 1961 or so, he left his hometown of Lille, and made his way to Paris.

Photo: Image courtesy of Barney’s / Serge Lutens, via essence-quintessence.com.

Photo: Image courtesy of Barney’s / Serge Lutens, via essence-quintessence.com.

Helped by a friend, and carrying large photos that he had taken with his tiny camera, Serge Lutens sought to make it big in the capitol. It wasn’t easy at first; the official bio on his website states, elliptically and obliquely, that he experienced a time of “insecurity and need.” Then, in 1962, at the age of 20, he contacted Vogue. “For him, this magazine represented the essence of beauty: a sort of convent that he mythologised.” And, thanks to those photos and his little Instamatic that he had taken everywhere with him while working as a teenager in Lille, he got the attention of Vogue’s legendary Editor-in-Chief, Edmonde Charles Roux. To quote from the Lescure piece:

His Instamatic would wind up opening some of the very best doors. He comes to Paris in ’62. He is 20. He brings his photographs to the great Edmond [sic] Charles Roux’s Vogue, at Place du Palais Bourbon. At Elle, the […] very young Lutens would be called upon whenever there was an emergency: a photo, the perfect jewelry to complete a shoot, the Christmas edition going to press in 3 days… Quick, quick, Serge, we need an idea! The man in black would become indispensable.

A 2012 article on the Lutens’ website entitled Mysteries of Beauty by Karim Moucharik for Dalia Air Magazine elaborates further:

At the age of 20, he entered French Vogue – whose editor-in-chief was then academician Edmonde Charles- Roux – with a portfolio in hand. He contributed to it as a photographer, along with great names like Guy Bourdin, Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton.

Actually, the young Lutens was such an instant star, that he worked with everyone, not just Vogue. All the magazines came calling, from Elle to Jardin des Modes and Harper’s Bazaar. He collaborated with the most famous photographers, while also pursuing his own art. It wasn’t just Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, or Helmut Newton, but also Bob Richardson, the great Irving Penn, and every other photo legend.

Serge Lutens wasn’t done yet. There were new worlds to conquer, and he did so when Christian Dior came calling. It was 1968, and though Serge Lutens was very young, his genius and versatility were clear to all. So, when one of the most prestigious fashion houses of all time decided that they wanted to expand into a new venture called “make-up,” they entrusted it to a 26-year old photographer and hairdresser.

Serge Lutens ad for Dior in French Elle 1977. Source: Beauty is a Warm Gun blogspot.

Serge Lutens ad for Dior in French Elle 1977. Source: Beauty is a Warm Gun blogspot.

Yes, it is Serge Lutens who is responsible for the invention of fashion house “makeup” as we know it today. He had already created such a buzz that, as the Lescure article makes clear, Dior and the legendary Mark Bohan turned over their entire plan “to ‘create’ make-up,” along with the development of an entire range of products, to Paris’ young, new star. Ironically, despite his love of black and his insistence on wearing nothing but black like his other heroes, Chanel and St. Laurent, Lutens would be most successful in white. According to the Lescure piece, it was the use of that unexpected colour in makeup which made the Lutens line so revolutionary. The result was a blockbuster hit, for the both of them, and a life of “Travel, luxury, airplanes, Rolls-Royces.”

Serge Lutens, age 30, in 1972. Source: Le Monde Magazine.

Serge Lutens, age 30, in 1972. Source: Le Monde Magazine.

In the 1970s, Lutens continued his meteoric rise. The famous editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Diana Vreeland, was unstinting in her enthusiasm and put his face on Vogue’s cover with the headline: “Serge Lutens, Revolution of Make-up!” To quote his official bio on the Lutens website, “His success was resounding. Serge Lutens became the symbol of the freedom created through makeup, for a whole new generation.”

It still wasn’t enough. Lutens started to explore different artistic ventures, and succeeded brilliantly each and every time. In 1972, according to Wikipedia, his series of photographs (inspired by such famous painters as Claude Monet, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani) was impressive enough to be shown at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1974, he made several short films based on his passion for movies and the legendary actresses in them. They were good enough to get shown at the famous Cannes Films Festival.

Serge Lutens 1971. Source: Serge Lutens Archives, via Le Monde style magazine

Serge Lutens 1971. Source: Serge Lutens Archives, via Le Monde style magazine. http://tinyurl.com/qj2hke6

During this time, he also travelled widely, especially to Morocco and Japan, two countries whose very different cultures would impact him enormously in years to come.

The 1980s mark the start of the period in Lutens’ life which most people know about today. It was the beginning of his Shiseido era. As his official biography explains:

in 1980, […] he signed on with Shiseido for a collaboration that was to enable the Japanese cosmetics group, until then unknown on the international scene, to establish such a powerful visual identity that it became one of the world’s leading market players in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.

Lutens created makeup for the company, designed its packaging, took photographs, and sought to reinvented Shiseido’s entire image, while also expanding their business into foreign markets. It is all thanks to Serge Lutens that Shiseido, today, is a market force and beauty giant. However, his success wasn’t limited just to beauty, marketing, and business development. Throughout the 1980s, he also shot various advertising campaigns and films for Shiseido. He was so brilliant, he won two ‘Lions d’Or‘ at the International Advertising Film Festival.

serge-lutens-28

Serge Lutens 6

Self-portrait in 1986, via The Independent

Self-portrait in 1986, via The Independent

All these conquered worlds, but it still wasn’t enough for the versatile, seemingly restless genius. Lutens now decided to venture out to explore a totally new area of beauty and art: perfume. He became Shiseido’s Master-Perfumer, and released their first fragrance. Everyone has heard about his famous 1992 creation, Feminité du Bois, for the company, but what some people don’t realise is that the very first Lutens fragrance actually came a whole decade earlier. To quote his website biography, in 1982, “he conceived Nombre Noir, his first perfume, dressed in lustrous black on matte black, a concept that foreshadowed the ubiquitous codes of the 1990’s.”

Source: Fragrantica

Source: Fragrantica

Nombre Noir was a masterpiece, according to all who spoke about it to the Independent for their Lutens profile (linked up above):

[It] “burnt a hole into everyone’s collective memory”, according to Chandler Burr, former New York Times perfume critic, in his book The Emperor of Scent, which chronicles the work of ‘nose’ Luca Turin. Turin, for his part, classifies Nombre Noir “just too wonderful for words, one of the five great perfumes of the world”. No longer in production, but still a favourite among fragrance-lovers, a 60ml bottle is listed on eBay for $999 (£614) at the time of writing.

Serge Lutens 4In 1992, Serge Lutens established his perfume headquarters at Les Salons du Palais Royal, but he was still working under Shiseido’s umbrella. Then, in 2000, with Shiseido’s financial backing and blessing, he went independent and launched his own, eponymous, niche brand. In all cases, however, whether it was perfume for Shiseido or creations for his own house, the effect was the same: he revolutionized the field of perfumery just as he had done decades before in beauty. By 2007, the range, depth, and impact of his decades-long work across various artistic platforms resulted in Serge Lutens being awarded the title “Commandeur des Arts et Lettres” by the French government.

Serge Lutens shiseido_adNo matter which world he conquered, the emotional truth seems to be that he did so not for all women (plural), but always just for “‘this woman‘.” According to Pierre Lescure, Serge Lutens hates it when people talk about “women’s lives,” and corrects them to talk about “this” woman, singular. And that abstract, unnamed, representative, singular woman really seems to be one, very real, flesh-and-blood woman: his mother. Everything he has done seems to be in homage to her, in an attempt to symbolically meld himself, through different artistic mediums, to the one woman from whose arms he was ripped away in infancy. It is all for her, a woman “of great silences” who told him at some unstated, undetermined time: “‘Now it’s your turn. You must go on without me.'” 

I’m not a psychologist, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Freud would have had a field day by Serge Lutens’ symbolic attempts to return to his mother’s womb through the exploration of every possible artistic medium concerning women. Even that great spiral staircase in Les Palais Royale has Freudian meaning, particularly in light of Serge Lutens’ stairwell trauma that night back in 1943. Please don’t think I’m making judgments; I am not. We all bear childhood scars, but some of us have suffered more than others. And, frankly, my heart goes out to Monsieur Lutens for what clearly seems to be an emotionally devastating childhood. 

mode, architecture, beautŽ,Whatever the past or the source of his inspiration, there is no doubt that Serge Lutens’ artistic homage to the famous abstract “woman,” singular, results in work that is absolutely stunning. From the Shiseido ads of the 1990s that reference modern art (and Dada-ism), to his stylistic endeavours and marketing, he has a style that is incredibly powerful, eye-catching and provocative. Take a look, for example, at some of his work in the 2012 Dalia Air Magazine piece hidden in the bowels of the Lutens website, the photos shown on the website of the French newspaper, Le Monde, or any of the Shiseido ads easily found on the web:

SL ad poshlady
Serge Lutens Ad 3

mode, architecture, beautŽ, Serge Lutens 80s

SL Ad 1 SL 3
 

CONCLUSION:

We are all shaped by our past and, as Thomas Hardy once wrote in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, “experience is as to intensity and not as to duration.” Serge Lutens began his life in war and emotional trauma, but he used those experiences as a wellspring from which to draw strength and to overcome all obstacles. A prodigy and genius, he took the beauty and fashion world by storm, changing their face forever, before eventually setting his sights on the world of perfumery. In Part II, we will explore that world and his fragrance philosophy.