Serge Lutens: Scent Collage

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Imagine these scents put together: cabbage,  tobacco, roses, and green tea.  If collage means, as Wangechi Mutu said, “to embrace…discord with ease,”  such a clash of scents qualifies.

Now free associate.  A restaurant in Paris. A secret garden. Gauloises. A beautiful Chinese girl.  There’s the beginning of a narrative:

During World War II, a man joins the French Resistance.   Soon he must quit his job as a waiter at Le Petit Chou to hide out in an abandoned rose garden.  Late at night. Liang Sha (hostess at Chou) brings him Gauloises, until …

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This is kind of how I think of a Serge Lutens perfume.  The 71-year-old French “architect of dreams” (as one perfume website calls him) creates the most coveted of niche perfumes.

I’m just a rookie perfumista,  so I’ve only tried a bit of Lutens and found it too edgy for me————-so far.   But then, his perfumes might be an acquired taste, which unfortunately it takes a lot of cabbage to acquire.

Still, I’m fascinated by the creativity in his work, the daring and imagination.  His photographic images have a collage-like quality——–I couldn’t find the attributions, but some are his photos, others are styled by him. Like many of his fragrances, they feature strange, startling juxtapositions.

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Here is Lutens’s description of how he creates a perfume, which he likens to “assemblage” in general and Picasso’s bicycle/bull in particular:

“I’m seized by an urge…I’ll use metaphor to explain…Taking the bicycle as my subject, I remove the handlebars and saddle and put one on top of the other. Assembled like that, they suddenly form a bull’s head and there I am, a bullfighter waving a red cape.

“I plunge in the banderillas, and the blood flows…This assemblage of elements, still part of a bike, races towards an “Olé”, which calls Coltrane to mind…”

Actually, Picasso’s bicycle bull” is a stark, simple image, while a Lutens perfume is mysterious and complex————but call it perfumic license.

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Let’s take a look at an actual Lutens perfume, the recently released La Fille de Berlin, The Girl from Berlin.  Read about this on Lucky Scent, and it comes out like this:

“a creature of the decadent 1920s in Berlin: a sleek-legged, smoky-eyed femme fatale…Marlene Dietrich crooning… “Falling in love again, never wanted to… What I am to do? I can’t help it. ”

The Lutens website gives a different narrative: ” She’s a rose with thorns, don’t mess with her.” The actual inspiration was apparently different from both these versions: a book called “A Woman in Berlin,” about the Russian occupation of the city after the Second World War.

As reported by Now Smell This,   Lutens elaborated on this gritty inspiration:  ” …the scent was about finding beauty in the darkness and persevering through adversity with strength and humor, as women in postwar Germany had to do, when they were as plundered as their cities by occupying forces meant to restore order.”

Serge Lutens 1942 | French Fashion and Parfume designer

 Actual ingredients used to tell this story?  Well, Lutens  and his co-creator Christopher Sheldrake aren’t giving too much away, listing only the “easy discord” of rose and pepper.  Reviews mention violet, amber, and musk.

The effect, as reported by Mark Behnke at Cafleurebon: “…almost brutal to experience. Within this olfactory cat-of-nine tails there is sublime beauty to be found….”

So exactly how does this “scent collage” produce these effects? Is it the exact mix of ingredients?  The suggestibility of the perfumista?   Part of it is biological chance.  A perfume changes with the body chemistry of each wearer—-it’s the original interactive art form.

Perfume is the most intangible and unpredictable of collages.

So far, I haven’t been able to get a sample of “La Fille de Berlin.” So till then, I’ll just have to imagine.

A girl in Berlin who doesn’t look like Marlene Dietrich. A cheap cafe where everything tastes like cigarette smoke. A cat lurks.   Warmth of a cup of tea. On the table, fallen rose petals…

Image Credits:

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