LIVING AT A DISTANCE LIVING AT A DISTANCE
Serge Lutens was born during the war, on March 14th, 1942 in Lille, in northern France.
Separated from his mother when he was just weeks old, his personality was indelibly marked by this original abandonment. Permanently torn between two families, he lived life at a distance and through his imagination. He was a dreamer. At the École Montesquieu, they said he was “on the moon”: he paid no attention, although his teachers recognised that he was a gifted storyteller.
A STYLE IS BORNA STYLE IS BORN
In 1956, at the age of 14, 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, plastered down hair. 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.
He was 18 when he was called up to serve in the army during the Algerian War. He was remoulded. This was an important break that led him to make his decision: to leave Lille and head for Paris. This was 1962.
Helped by a friend, Madeleine Levy, and bearing large prints of his photographs of his friends, Serge Lutens, experiencing his first years in Paris at a time of insecurity and want, contacted Vogue magazine. For him, this magazine represented the essence of beauty: a sort of convent that he mythologised. Three days later, he collaborated on the Christmas issue.
The creator of a vision through make-up, jewellery and extraordinary objets, Serge Lutens quickly became the person to call, and the fashion magazines made no mistake: Elle, Jardin des Modes, Harper’s Bazaar were constantly after him: he worked with the greatest photographers of the time, all the while pursuing his own photographic work. During these years, his talent was fully acknowledged."
THE INVENTION OF A WOMAN
Serge Lutens name has been associated with a particular image of a woman: deified, chronicled, glorified, emerging first in his crayon drawings at school, then later spotlighted in visuals and advertising campaigns that stamped his unique aesthetic mark on an industry that was already excessively codified.
THE INVENTION OF A WOMAN
The Serge Lutens woman made her mark on the world of beauty from the 1960s to the 1990s. She was everywhere, from the Dior ad campaigns of the 70s to those of Shiseido in the 80s and then the 90s. For decades, this iconic woman with a pallid face symbolised an ideal of absolute beauty. With her distinctive blend of sophistication and supreme self-confidence, she was quite unlike the female bombshells of the time. Yet, she remained impossible to pin down, because she wasn't made of flesh and blood. Instead, she represented the struggle and self-assertion of a man who had spent his whole life nurturing a steady dialogue with his inner woman.
Even as a child, Serge stood out in school for his drawings of women in fancy clothes: dresses made of brocade, silk, organza, and so on. These first sketches, spanning a range of fabrics and eras, proved that the boy harboured interests quite unlike those of his schoolmates. Much to the chagrin of his father, who would have quite liked him to take up more gender-appropriate activities, Serge loved queens and princesses.
By the time he became a teenager, this feminine side took over, with the discovery of women's magazines, and especially Vogue, which the young Serge quickly adopted as his Bible. Locked in his room, with his shutters drawn, he copied the poses of high fashion models from the photos in these magazines. He spent hours staring at these images, noticing and picking up on every minute detail. He absorbed the body language of these women, channelled it and made it larger than life. At the age of 14, Serge began to apprentice at a hair salon. His fascination for feminine beauty then began to find an echo in the world of cinema. Movies helped him feed his predilection and take it to the next level. Whenever he had a free moment, Serge would go to the cinema hall in Lille. There, he discovered films featuring legendary actresses such as Greta Garbo, Marlène Dietrich, Louise Brooks and more, whose faces would go on to fascinate him. More than the films themselves, it was these stars who transported him to a different world, with their radically different aesthetic from the one which predominated the 50s.
At a time when Roger Vadim's "And God created Woman" was a sensation, Serge Lutens forged a wholly different ideal of feminine beauty, which he soon began to try out on his young salon customers: razor-straight hair with a neat nape, chalk-white skin and shaded eyes. Very quickly, the young apprentice made a reputation for himself beyond the doors of the modest salon. His female customers, who had since become his friends, began to get noticed in the streets of Lille. Some of this attention was positive and some was negative, but Serge knew that what he was doing was not to everyone's taste. His quest was for the creation of an image in its most finished form. He would dig through clothes at vintage markets to dress his muses in. Androgynous yet terrifyingly feminine, by the end of the 50s, the Serge Lutens woman had already taken form. The 18-year-old was savvy enough to capture these looks using an Instamatic. In 1962, these pictures caught the eye of French Vogue, who hired the young man on the spot and instantly set him on a path to success.
Serge Lutens had struck gold. He left Lille and came to Paris, where he discovered the world of fashion magazines, make-up and beauty, alongside photographers like Avedon, Penn and Bourdin. His work began to create a buzz and he soon landed projects with other fashion magazines, such as Harper's Bazaar, Elle and Jardin des modes, quickly making a name for himself in the business. Yet, money remained difficult to come by for the young Serge. So, in 1967, at the age of 25, he decided to try his luck at Dior. At the time, the high fashion house was preparing to launch its first make-up line, and Serge rose to the occasion by creating an innovative and spectacular range of colours. It was an overnight success. Dior's sales skyrocketed, but Lutens was not satisfied. Itching to go further, he wanted to cement his name through his photographs.
Unbeknownst to the company, Serge Lutens had been creating images of his work during his time at Christian Dior Beauty. These photos brought to life the woman that had always been lying within him. Queen, woman of the streets, circus-tamer, prostitute in a Berlin brothel: in these ten years, Lutens let go off his inherent shyness to give life to this creature. He liberated her from the shackles of the straitjacket. For Dior, the shock was of an equal magnitude. Even though women swore by Serge's work and loved his visual boldness, Dior was worried for its clientele... Meanwhile, oblivious to their concerns, the young prodigy had taken flight. Despite the massive critical and commercial success that Serge won Dior, he tired of their growing worry and circumspection. In 1980, he signed on with the Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido, thus heralding a new chapter for his female alter ego. While the Serge Lutens woman had moved from Paris to Japan, her essence remained constant. She remained immobile, frozen in her perfection, even as she took on new faces and masks. A tad more sophisticated, more radically graphic, this new woman once again reflected the spirit of the 80s and 90s, thus helping the Japanese label gain a pre-eminent position among the beauty labels of the world. People were fascinated by these images, even going so far as to collect them.
Towards the end of the 90s, after 20 years heading artistic direction for Shiseido, the firm decided to end its contract with Serge Lutens, leaving him deprived of his feminine alter ego. In 2000, he resurrected her from the ashes when he founded his own eponymous label.
1°) Serge Lutens, you defined the look for your feminine alter ego quite early on. Can you tell us more about how she came into being? We've talked about your childhood, your fondness for certain actresses, women's magazines...you have yourself spoken about the role played by your mother. What is the relationship between her and this image you created?
(07 :45) Mothers are fundamental to creation, because they are your first creators. A mother brings you into the world and shows you the light. This is true for everyone, not just me, so I am not special in this respect. But in my case, my mother was accused and ostracised, so for my whole life she was blamed and I was the product of her sin. I was born in 1942, during the war. Alongside anti-Semitic laws, adultery had also been designated a crime at the time of the Vichy regime, with the intention of preventing women from cohabiting with occupants. My mother met someone, who I must stress, was not German. So, she met a Frenchman and then married him, but there was an act of adultery, an affair or something. I don't quite know, of course, because the world of our parents is often quite obscure to us as children. And I was not the only one, which is to say that nobody knew what happened exactly and nobody spoke of it. Nobody told me how they met and how I came into being. The little I was told was not enough to put the story together, which remained a mystery to me. For whatever reason, my birth was not registered, which is to say that I was not declared to the authorities when I was born - that happened much later. (08 :59) So this mystery was something I felt, because it was unsaid. Something I felt as a child, and my mother too, because we were both bound by the same fate - this is true especially for mothers and sons, rather than mothers and daughters. So, as I said, I became the child of this sin, because my mother had committed a crime in the eyes of the society and was blamed. And because I defended my mother, I became an enemy of society too. But there is one thing that can resolve and correct everything, and that is beauty. Beauty is an ultimate truth. Not the kind of shy beauty that fades into the background, but the kind of blazing beauty that is spectacular. So, the only way I can make myself whole is through this woman: I atone by the beauty I give to her, through the home I make for her but which I don't live in myself. Through this woman who doesn't live with me, but is unique and whole. I am her greatest defender and advocate. It is my way of giving her life back to her, but in the process, I sacrifice my own life. I would say it's an almost religious thing, that goes right back to an original sin and the hasty judgements of a society that has always been senseless.
2°) To the public, the Serge Lutens woman seems ageless, unchanging, timeless and unique. Many even think that it's always the same woman who plays her... Could her indecipherable mystery be part of this success?
(10 :38) I don't know about success, or whether I can claim to have attained it. All I know is that it was necessary, because if she had remained in the shadows, her beauty was doomed in some way, if you see what I mean. I find it difficult to answer your questions, because I don't myself have all the answers, if you will. What I do know is that it all started while I was very young. I had started sketching her while still in school. Every week, the teacher would tell us to draw a border in the notebook to mark the end of the week's work. A kind of line with a geometric design. So, I would draw these geometric designs and the one day, out of the blue, I began to draw these women, these sketches of women from my imagination. They came from the little I knew of Alexandre Dumas, the first films I'd seen, Milady de Winter etc. But they were always beautiful criminals. There was no doubt in my mind that criminals were more beautiful than virtuous maidens. (11 :47) And they always had red-hot iron brand marks on their upper arms. As it happened, my mother also had the scar of an abscess on her upper arm, which in my mind's eye became one with hot iron branding. It was a sign perhaps, something that left a deep mark on my unconscious. And the unconscious mind is very strong, because, in a way, I need to be accused to be creative. And it is through this woman that this creation takes place. That is to say through the model, who I have to make extraordinary, more beautiful and more astonishing to my eyes. Her beauty must be terrifying. Remember the Evil Queen, who asks the question "Who's the fairest of them all?" to a mirror that replies, "yes, my Queen, you are the fairest in the land, but..." This "but" implies that she is beautiful but that Snow White is more beautiful than her. Yet, the Evil Queen has the beauty of willpower, while Snow White has a bland, unquestionable kind of beauty. So, for me, it is the Evil Queen that is more beautiful in the end, you see. It's a monstrous thing to say, but that's how I am: I need to be monstrous to be alive.
3°) One often referred to her as the Dior woman, the Shiseido woman... Did you to try to make this woman fit in with the identity of the groups you worked for?
(13 :17) I don't think it was ever a question of group or work for me. I am too lazy to work in the traditional sense of the word. Which is to say that I just like to do things; it doesn't cost me anything. Creation doesn't drain any of my energy, in fact it is quite the opposite: I gain energy from the process. And Japan was already there. When I arrived in Japan, this idea was already there in the way of creating and working. This was also true of French haute couture at the time I worked in the field, which is to say it was still high fashion in the true sense of the word. There were iconic models and there was the dressmaker...a collection had almost a religious quality. It was like attending mass, nothing like the banal spectacles of today. A mythical ode to a woman who stood outside reality. So of course, French haute couture as I experienced it at Dior was right up my alley. Dior and Shiseido were poles apart, but I had the same feeling with Morocco as well. In Morocco too there was this idea already in the scheme of things. So, some part of Morocco, of Japan and of French haute couture resonated with what was already in me. It was like coming home to myself - I know it sounds quite pretentious to say - but in short, I saw myself reflected in them. I discovered Morocco, Japan and French haute couture around the same time, and all three had this characteristic. These countries and cultures had already arrived at this way of seeing and being seen.
4°) What would you say to those who ask: who is the Serge Lutens woman?
(14 :53) I don't honestly have an answer to that. Who is she? She is an ideal, she is the accused, she is the one I defend and honour, the one I strive to make beautiful, but who also ruins my life. So that's how it is, because of course the way you describe her is spectacular, beautiful and magnificent, but I've missed out on my own life to defend her. She is my whole life, period. That is the way God willed it for me. Like the story goes, a fairy arrives by the child's crib after birth and whispers "you will be so beautiful, that the whole world will fall in love with you." That was not the wish in my case, if you follow. Nor either: "You will be so intelligent that the whole world will be dazzled by your thoughts and your words, and it will be extraordinary" In my case she said: "You will go through something very different and difficult from the rest of the world, but you will find your happiness through work." Something like that. "But you won't fit in with the rest of the world, because you will always defend something which they find indefensible, even if they don't say it out loud.”
PERFUME IS A FORM OF WRITING, AN INK, A CHOICE MADE IN THE FIRST PERSON, THE DOT ON THE I, A WEAPON, A COURTEOUS GESTURE, PART OF THE INSTANT, A CONSEQUENCE.
The Dior YearsThe Dior Years
In 1967, Christian Dior, who was preparing to launch its make-up line, called upon him. For the House of Dior he would create colours, style and images. Finally, his vision was unified through photography. In the early 1970s, the famous editor-in-chief of US Vogue, Diana Vreeland, was unstinting in her enthusiasm: “Serge Lutens, Revolution of Make-up!” His success was resounding. Serge Lutens became the symbol of the freedom created through make-up, for a whole new generation. In 1974, mirroring his taste for films and the legendary actresses in them, he made a short: “Les Stars.” During this period, he travelled widely, exploring Morocco and later Japan. These two countries, with their rich and yet so different cultures, came together in him and confirmed his way of seeing and feeling.[..]
THE EULOGY TO MAKEUP
Serge Lutens looks back at his conception of makeup and his relationship with painting the face. His way of “staging“ the face – invisible or theatrical, but always instinctive and inspired – made him a legend: the world’s first-ever Makeup Artist.
THE EULOGY TO MAKEUP
What if Serge Lutens' foray into the world of make-up was only an accident of fate? Invited by Dior to develop their first-ever make-up line, the young 30-year-old quickly distinguished himself as a prodigy. In the early 70s, the American press first gave him the title of "make-up artist" and hailed him as a revolutionary. Yet no one could have foretold that Serge would become such an iconic name in the world of beauty of the time.
For starters, he rejected the feminine ideal projected by the women's magazines of the 50s, which remained straitjacketed and restricted by the norms of a previous era. Unusual techniques were reserved for a handful of professionals and models, while a more utilitarian approach to beauty was peddled to the masses. In short, eyeliners were meant for elongating the eyes and nothing else! But the winds of change were coming. The revolution of 1968 was not yet on the horizon, but the arrival of Lutens at Dior just a year prior promised to turn all notions of beauty on the head. Originally from Lille, Serge took pride in being self-taught, and had an unvarnished and uncompromising vision of beauty. Operating on instinct and with flair, he didn't play it subtle, but dared to go full throttle on colour! Serge chose strong, defined, in-your-face shades, and dared to make make-up visible! The words of Baudelaire's essay 'In Praise of Cosmetics': "Woman is an idol who is obliged to adorn herself to be adored," resonated with him. His make-up would move unprecedentedly from the eyes to the cheeks, and if cracks showed on the face of the model, even better! A clean break had been made, and it was impossible to go back. The destruction of everything that the beauty world held sacred had begun.
Soon enough, a section of society began to appropriate this way of using make-up. In just a few months, it became a formidable weapon for French feminists, who in the years following the protests of 1968, used it to break free from the outdated prison of the social norms they had long been confined by. Sure enough, Dior's sales soared in this short span of time, and following this resounding success, Serge was put in charge of a series of ad campaigns for the fashion house. With a keen eye for staging, he instinctively knew, better even than trained professionals, how to light a face in striking and bold ways: "It was a rebellious new attitude that I was trying to represent, and I just had to go all out for it. Can you imagine, red, yellow, black and purple on the eyelids? Bodies covered in sequins, make-up going from head to toe, seamless bodysuits, radical haircuts with clear scissor-cut bangs that would blend and become one with smoky eyes". From Paris to New York, women were now swearing by Serge. His bold looks that broke away from established beauty conventions spoke to their own aspirations. They knew very well, of course, that they could not walk out into the street made up exactly like his iconic photos of models with completely white faces. Buying Serge Lutens make-up meant rather adopting a new way of being, a way of shrugging off expectations to just look pretty and keep their mouths shut. It was a way of rejecting the authoritarianism of a society on its way out. In short, a polite way of telling the world to mind its own business!
Serge proved to be a versatile artist who was impossible to label. Museums from across the globe began to display his photographs, while the world of cinema tried to sway him, with the Cannes film festival screening two of his short films in 1973 and 1976. Yet, Serge Lutens began to feel a profound sense of weariness. The title of the "greatest make-up artist of the world", which the press attached to his name everywhere, began to weigh on him. He didn't want to be limited by this convenient label, even though it was a source of acclaim. He had bigger dreams for himself. In 1980, this ambition led him to take on the considerable challenge of signing on with the Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido - relatively unknown at the time - to help them expand internationally. Fascinated by Japanese culture, Serge was a Frenchman who had already built a reputation for himself through his prodigious talent. He poured his heart and soul into this new venture. As soon as he took charge, he put an end to competitor benchmarking and began to personally handle colour creation. The ‘Shiseido, by Serge Lutens’ make-up label went on to become a must-have beauty essential in the 80s and the 90s. The technical expertise of the Shiseido group and the perfectionism of Serge Lutens were a match made in heaven.
Serge was able to make the most of this experience when he founded his own ‘Nécessaire de Beauté’ line in the 2000s. An ode to the minimal, to the invisible to-and-fro between being and appearance. It was not just a product line but a philosophy of make-up in its purest form, with colours presented in cases as precious as Japanese lacquer boxes. A tribute in praise of cosmetics just as Baudelaire had conceived of it: the garb of a woman. A flesh and blood woman, brought to life through the power of make-up!
1°) Serge Lutens, you have always rejected labels and titles, yet you have contributed to the creation of the designation of ‘make-up artist’ at a time when no such line of work existed. Does the description resonate with you?
(05 :51) No, but then again, did Mishima ever see himself in the 'Confessions of a Mask'? I think it's something like that. I make my moves from behind a mask, and in fact, everything that I have accomplished and created through images has not much to do with make-up per se. My quest has always been for the construction of an image, an ideal, if you will. An image that allowed me to take on the world. So, in that sense, it is a mask, a glorious one! Like in those Noh performances, where each actor moves slowly, each action is measured, and where everything from the hand gestures to the movement of the feet carries meaning. The whole thing is an invention. The image is a woman I've invented, which means her every movement and action is precisely calibrated. She must be purely a thing of beauty. And beauty is inevitably an enigma. (06 :59) Almost to a fault. Which is to say, I am both imbued by her and am her greatest spokesperson. I am neither woman nor man, but both. I am both the musketeer and the opponent, there is no separation between her and I. The lines all blur in the end. When I create the image, there is no difference between me and her.
2°) Through all these years, you've consistently rejected trend books and other benchmarks of reference. Why is that?
(07 :33) Because I always set the trends, and because others have always taken their cues from me. People began to copy me, even though I didn't set out to do anything of the sort, having never had any formal training of any kind. I did not look for an occupation or a career; that was never my intention. When I was just starting out, I wanted to be an actor, but, you know, it was the 50s - 1956, to be precise - but I didn't decide to be a make-up artist or a hairstylist, or anything. Things just fell into place in that way. My father told me to work at the beauty salon – at the time one obeyed – it seems absurd today that one could just obey someone like that, but such were the times! I followed his orders and did what I had to do. When God wants to punish you, he makes your dreams come true. I wanted to be an actor, but never got to become one, but in the end, things worked out better that way, if you know what I mean. What had to happen, happened. The hand of God, in short.
3°) When you left Dior, you said that it was because you had developed such an aversion to make-up that you couldn't stop washing your hands!
(08 :34) Yes, like Lady MacBeth with blood. I was being put to the service of an occupation or a profession that wasn't really what I was after. Make-up began to disgust me when it became a thing in itself. That is, when I became its servant, rather than the other way round, where I was using it to achieve an ideal of beauty, the invention of a woman. Or even for what I wanted to say about this woman, and her lack, because the two are one and the same. In any case, I didn't like that it all became reduced to just a job. Besides, I can tell you, I didn't learn a thing. Nothing at all. Nothing. Everything I did there was a personal endeavour. I won't say that I was self-taught, rather that I was guided and led along. Destiny has been my biggest teacher.
4°) What is the hallmark of Serge Lutens make-up? What is hidden behind the famous "by Serge Lutens" tagline?(09 :37) You know, Serge Lutens is just a name, my birth name, nothing more and nothing less. That is all there is to it. So how did it get here, what's all this about? Again, I can compare it to 'Confessions of a Mask', what I do today. This woman I have invented is beautiful, not just because of the make-up, but through a whole series of rituals. The various techniques, the way one adjusts and uses one's hands, how one can see beauty somewhere, and see something in need of enhancement elsewhere. I have often distinguished, for example, make-up artists who have the eye, and those who do not have this vision. They simply don't see it. Some can see, because they allow themselves to. While some want so much to control everything that they stop seeing anything at all. It's always true, that if you let yourself go and if you give yourself space, only then can you create something. (10 :38) If you want to or must be the one guiding, then you must do so while also letting yourself be guided. That's when you can let beauty express itself. You don't try to control it, you let it shine through. You can do this through the rituals and movements, you sculpt a model, you give her shape. That's what gives beauty definition. It's a kind of sculpture, you need to breathe life into her movements, her gestures, her way of being. She must understand the vision you are trying to express. Make-up dissociated from this image-making does not appeal to me, because I'm interested in the image, not in make-up itself. The same holds true for perfume, by the way. If creating fragrances didn't carry me to the world of words, perfume wouldn't interest me either. These are all just means to an end. They take you by the hand, they guide you and lead you somewhere. I repeat, it really is analogous to ‘Confessions of a Mask’.
The SHISEIDO yearsThe SHISEIDO years
He recalled them some years later, in 1980, when 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 1980s and ‘90s.[..]
THE JAPANESE REVELATION
A revelation or an echo of his own psyche? Serge Lutens gives us continual glimpses of the richness and mysteries uncovered in his never-ending exploration famously called the Empire of Signs.
THE JAPANESE REVELATION
It was in 1971, on a long business trip to Asia for Dior, that Serge Lutens discovered the country that, unknown to him, would go on to have a significant impact on his work: Japan. Admittedly, Serge had other things on his mind in the early 70s. Since his arrival in Paris in 1964, and in the short span of ten years, the artist from Lille had become a leading figure in the world of fashion and beauty. With rebellious insolence and characteristic individuality, his creativity found expression in a gamut of fields ranging from make-up to photography. You could love him or hate him, but you couldn't ignore him! Even though Serge had some insight into Japanese culture through films like Akiro Kurosawa's 'Throne of Blood' and Hiroshi Teshigara's 'Woman in the Dunes', nothing in this first trip to Japan could foretell the mutual admiration that would come into play between the two distinctly different spirits.
His team-mates from Dior were worn out by jet lag, but Lutens seemed blissfully untouched. Charged with energy, Serge was thrilled by the discovery of this new culture, and brimmed with a curiosity to explore new horizons such as Noh and Kabuki theatre. On a photo shoot for a Japanese magazine, he met Bando Tamasaburo in costume, the legendary practitioner of the art of Kabuki and an actor who specialized in female roles.
"No woman could have been more of a woman than him! It was stunning, because he wasn't just cross-dressing, but completely transforming from an ordinary boy into the woman of everybody's dreams. The magic was completely feminine, but it was a boy behind the work of art."
For the first time, the young Serge saw his own obsessions reflected in a country and culture situated thousands of miles away from his world. His amazement went even further:
"The country brought a part of myself to the fore, which was my taste for accomplishment and perfection. This aspect of the Japanese view of beauty is certainly related to the instability of the ground. Not only does the earth quake, but it can completely be pulled from under your feet. There is no room to leave anything to improvisation. Everything must be measured, brought under control. In the winter, they wrap their trees, and in spring, gardeners prop branches up to make sure they grow in a certain direction. Culinary dishes are constructed with the same discipline, and flowers are trimmed before being put in vases to maintain complete order. Nature, flavours, death and beauty all follow strict rules. It is a way of gaining control over the self and no longer being a victim of life's unpredictability."
Some people have a way of absorbing their environment more than others. Serge was one of these people - he felt himself taking on these mannerisms and becoming Japanese through the course of the trip!
Was it this fascination for the country that made him leave Dior in 1980 and sign a new partnership with the cosmetics group Shiseido? It's hard to say. But one thing was certain: a part of his being was irresistibly drawn to the culture, marking the beginning of a creative dialogue between the Frenchman and the Far Eastern archipelago. A rich exchange made possible by mutual admiration and respect: Serge Lutens was able to communicate with the hundreds of employees of the Group throughout the 80s despite not speaking a word of Japanese, and vice versa! Lutens had some things going in his favour: an absolute workaholic, he could spend hours and hours in the studio to touch up a make-up look, adjust an outfit or a photo shoot set, wearing out even the toughest of his colleagues in the process. A complete perfectionist, he couldn't stand even the smallest flaw, and would be willing to redo a make-up colour, packaging or design over and over again, more than ten times if necessary...Shiseido's employees were left speechless: they had found somebody even more obsessive than them. But the results spoke for themselves! The Frenchman had promised them worldwide recognition, and he handed it to them on a silver platter. Lutens was acclaimed, celebrated. His talent and uncompromising vision for absolute excellence won him accolades, and it represented an ideal to which Japan was intimately attached. This shared Samurai-like code of ethics would go on to shape the fate of Lutens and Shiseido for close to twenty years.
1°) Serge Lutens, your name has become so synonymous with Shiseido that one associates your discovery of Japan to your time working for them. Yet, you had actually made your first trip to Japan 10 years before that...
(05 :16) I discovered Japan in 1971, so around the same time as, let's say, Morocco, because my trip to the latter took place in 1968. And just after that, in 1971, I went to Japan, and it came as a shock. A shock, because I found a country that was completely untouched. At the time, travelling meant discovery, even though it seems remarkable to us now. There was very little tourism. Tourism hadn't yet become this mass phenomenon, if you will. People didn't move from one place to another in the same way, and Japan was an extraordinary place. Soon after I arrived, I was taken under the wing by a friend, who's now no more, called Peco. Peco Fujimoto was an amazing girl who sanded down sports cars with emery cloths to restore the metal to its original colour. She drove them at top speed too. She was friends with writers and artists....so, I was thrown quickly into this very exciting world, and we got along like a dream. She was the one who introduced me to Japan and shared her love of all things Japanese. And there was this kind of...you know, the thing I like about Japan is this perfectionism, this sense of finishing something, of taking something right to the finish line. The Japanese are kamikazes, and I like that. I like people who see things through to their end. Even death. Like in the book of Seppuku, called "Hagakure" I believe, which describes this kind of voluntary death to maintain honour. In this kind of honourable death, your life has not been a failure because you have ended it voluntarily. I find this vision quite beautiful, (07 :03) and this sense of honour is something you find in Japanese craftsmanship and its approach to life. One doesn't really encounter a country, you know, one finds it reflected within the self. The Japanese side of me, the Moroccan side of me are quite different – even though in both countries one takes off their shoes before entering the home, for instance – but a kind of invisible thread of nobility bound these two countries together in my mind. It's extraordinary, this Japanese approach to craftsmanship which demands and requires such a level of perfection that it is a kind of death. But a glorious death, because you know I've seen some of the most beautiful woodwork in the world there - extremely precise, assembled together without a single screw or nail - which doesn't move at all except for the contraction of winter and the expansion of the beams in summer. These constructions can be found in Nara, one of the most beautiful sites in Japan after Kyoto, and they are stunning. An impressive feat of architecture, but quite different from what you find in Morocco. And yet I can tell you, that in some way, even the house I constructed in Morocco took its cues from Japan. From this idea of perfection, of things which must endure and last, the idea of keeping things secret and not sharing everything for the eyes of the world and its people - all this was very Japanese in essence. (08 :34) Which is to say, to stay with something, to keep at it. In Morocco, it is a thing of joy, in Japan almost a kind of punishment. But a glorious punishment, one that takes you to heaven and hell and back, so you see, there are always two sides to me. I am the perpetrator and also the judge. I need both to exist.
2°) Was it the memory of this trip that made you want to work with the Japanese company later?
(09 :03) No. No, it was all an accident. You know life is just a succession of events, and I've had so many different experiences. During my 14 years at Dior, I even ended up creating their make-up line, which didn't really exist until then except for lipsticks. I found myself doing things I had never trained in: I didn't learn make-up, or any of this. I hadn't studied photography either. I simply did these things, the way I liked to do them, and because I had a strong vision. The way in which you look at something, the way you listen and see, that's what counts. The rest is all incidental. You know, I come back to this video of Nureyev, in which he is being criticized for not dancing like in the Leningrad ballet. So, you're not fully respecting the rules. He said it himself: "I learned a lot from female dancers and from women." So, in a way, he freed himself from his body through women, and his body was liberated from the shackles of technical rigidity, if you see what I mean. An excess of technique can lead to death, if one becomes enslaved to it. One needs an understanding of both: one needs to have the knowledge, but also know when to break free from it.
3°) One can see that you have felt a real sense of communion with Japan over the course of the years. Would that kind of meeting be possible had you encountered the country today? Does Japan still have a strong place in your heart?
(10 :33) I will say it again, Japan was already in me. Just like Morocco. As well as France, and the haute couture of the time, and by that, I mean the thing I took to be sacred, this idea of female beauty and excellence, which no longer exists. But it lives on in me, and that's what matters in the end. I have no sense of nostalgia about it or idealism about the past. Something existed, which was beautiful, and that's all there is to it. The height of haute couture is not something created by haute couture itself, if you see what I mean, but by the attitude and high standards of the women at the time. I worked for Dior, as I said, and if you've seen the film "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne", directed by Robert Bresson with dialogues by Cocteau, you'll know the kind of social class I am speaking of. They worked together to write these masterful, poetic dialogues and tell the story of a woman seeking vengeance. A woman looking for revenge - does that ring a bell? I am the living incarnation of a woman's revenge, so, of course, that film spoke to me.
4°) You once said: "Japan embodies passion, discipline and torture. A nation of timekeepers who would love to beat the clock but always ends up on time." What did you mean by that?
(11 :57) Nothing other than that, if you will. How should I put it, one must be... there is a kind of discipline one is subject to in a near constant way. There is rigour, dedication to the task at hand, deference to one's work. Morocco is quite something else. But both these directions were necessary for me, as always, a great, living, breathing contradiction.
5°) You no longer work directly for Shiseido. Do you miss Japan? How is it still alive in your work?
(12 :33) In the same way, which is to say, something that makes you see things through to the end, that guides you to an ideal of accomplishment… But the idea of perfection is different for different people, really. Perfection is hard to quantify, and at the same time, one must be careful not to make it a general principle. If there is no love in the idea of perfection, it's meaningless. If there is no love hidden inside, no love that lives deep in you and becomes one with you, then it's not worth the effort.
MARRAKECH,THE AWAKENING OF THE SENSESMARRAKECH,THE AWAKENING OF THE SENSES
Athough this first perfume made its mark on the 1980s, it was the creation of “Féminité du bois” and the opening of the Palais Royal shop – with its dreamlike décor – in 1992 which stamped Serge Lutens’ first olfactory revolution on the perfume world. Deeply moved by his discovery of Morocco, more specifically Marrakech (where he bought an old house in the heart of the Medina in 1974), this was where Serge Lutens established his perfume business. Waxes, cedarwood, orange blossom..., Marrakech provided the inspiration for his first perfumes: Ambre sultan, Cuir mauresque, Chergui... Now well-established, at the time they wrote a whole new chapter in the history of essences. In 2000, Serge Lutens took the logical step of creating the brand which carries his name and embodies his uncompromising style. Perfumes, make-up… distributed through specialist retail channels and, for the select few, his own network of shops.[..]
A MOROCCAN THUNDERBOLT
Morocco, as the point of inception where he discovered perfume and its emotional power, is also a land Serge Lutens fell in love with and that he’s never left. The Frenchman from the North looks back on the spiritual, human and creative dimensions of this magical encounter.
A MOROCCAN THUNDERBOLT
Like a dream, really.
In 1968 Serge Lutens, who’d just signed his first agreement with Dior, set foot on Moroccan soil for the very first time. He’d journeyed there by boat from Marseille, almost accidentally. After three gruelling days at sea, 25-year-old Serge arrived in Casablanca under driving rain. This depressing arrival and the sight of the people in their soaking djellabas almost made him turn back, but ultimately, Destiny moved him to try his luck southwards.
So alone on his Norton motorbike, in his sheepskin jacket and with his little aviator glasses pressed on tight, Serge headed on to Marrakesh. A few hours later, from the top of the little purple hills that locals call the ‘djbelettes’, he saw the city spread out beneath him:
"When I arrived, the air was so pure that it rang right through me like a vibration. The Atlas seemed to tremble with it in the distance. The recent rains had deepened the earth’s natural red colour around Marrakesh, creating a harsh contrast to the bright green vegetation on the plains.”
Over the next three months this man from the North, whose predilections always draw him towards the shadows, would get to know this ancient city of light and dust. It was to hit him like a thunderbolt. The habitually solitary Serge felt comfortable in the crowds, among these people whose faces weren’t so very different from his own. As a child in the 1950s, with the Algerian war raging, locals in his native Lille often took him for one of the region’s North African immigrants. His appearance, which had never previously been an issue, became a source of questions as time went on. But not here! Here he felt welcomed, almost cradled by the eddying crowds in the souks.
One by one his senses, which until then had felt deadened, were awakened by the colours and aromas – his sense of smell was captivated on his very first day there by scented orange blossom being gathered up by a group of women, after they’d shaken the flowers from the trees onto big white sheets. Also, the fragrance of cedarwood waylaid him whenever he strolled near the carpenters’ stalls. Serge felt certain that one day, he would create a perfume and name it Cèdre.
His days and weeks passed in the euphoric joy of discovery. Serge Lutens took up residence at the Mamounia, a magnificent palace whose grandeur was fading by the late 1960s, although before WW2 it had welcomed the greatest names in politics, cinema and song, including Churchill, Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. The waiters’ uniforms were frayed at the cuffs and some of the carpets were threadbare, but Serge didn’t even seem to notice, he thought everything was enchanting!
This journey, that was only meant to last a few days, had no end in sight. Dior could surely wait a few more weeks for his makeup line to be delivered! Serge had decided to hit the road again and explore the far South. He wasn’t interested in the ocean or the coastline – the inlands, with their dryness and aridity, were what drew him. Over a few weeks, having crossed the Atlas, he visited Zagora, Goulimine, Tiznit and a few oases hidden away in the desert. Since he hadn’t brought a camera with him on this trip, the landscapes had to leave their imprint on his memory. The road was winding, and often only wide enough for one vehicle. Serge was a very poor driver – it was a fluke that he’d managed to get his driver’s licence – and sometimes he would terrify himself as he rode along dizzying ravines. But as soon as he arrived in the villages, he’d forget all about that, as he engaged with the people who rushed up to surround him and talk to him.
Morocco was definitely a party. He promised himself he would be back.
1°) Serge Lutens, it’s been over 50 years since your first trip to Morocco and yet you still have very vivid memories of it. Why did Morocco make such a deep impression on you?
(05:25) It was purely by accident. I’d just signed a contract with Dior and I had some money. And because I hadn’t had any money for a long time, all I wanted to do was spend it. I arrived there, well... I’d headed down to the South, like all the people from the North do. And I arrived in Marseille, it was evening, I had dinner in a restaurant in the Vieux Port and I felt a bit euphoric, on my own. I walked along next to the water, as you do, around the edge of the harbour. And I had an urge to talk to someone, anyone, as often happens when you’re alone. Period. There was someone leaning against a ship’s railing and I asked: “Where are you going?” “Morocco,” he told me. I said, “Oh, that’s great,” and we talked for a while. “I’ve been wanting to go there for ages, but, well, maybe later. Is there any room left on your ship?” “We’ve had two no-shows,” he said. So that’s how it happened. When I got to Casablanca it was lashing with rain, it was cold, it was horrible, and I thought: "What am I doing here, this is crazy!”
(06:49) I took that motorbike and I set off. It was freezing all the way, under the pouring rain. And at the same time Morocco was waiting, there was this sense of waiting, while the rain kept falling. I mean the people are happy when it rains, but I obviously wasn’t. And that road was... I kept thinking: “Where will I end up?” because I wasn’t heading to Marrakesh, either, I’d just taken any old road. So I found myself on top of the Jbilet, the little purple mountains – actually, little hills – around Marrakesh, and feasting my eyes on the city below me. And as I rode down, the clouds suddenly parted and the sky turned a pure blue, like ether. So I went down into this teeming city, it was like a dream, really. At first I meant to stay for a week, but I ended up staying there for three months. I arrived in Morocco in February and went back to France in May. And I don’t need to tell you about that May, because it was 1968 and everyone knows what happened in May 1968. So it was a very long period of holidays and reflection. As much in Morocco as in France. That’s how it was.
2°) You once said: “Light is an ether, and shadows are thrown with such blackness that they make this country into angular emotions; Morocco is a cubist, without realising it.” You talk about Morocco in a way that one doesn't often hear – revealing its hidden aspects, the things that we don’t usually see. How did you attain this perspective, and why is it turned specifically on Morocco?
(08:50) Specifically Marrakesh, because that’s where I’ve actually lived in Morocco. I’ve visited the south, I’ve travelled much further afield, as you yourself said earlier, but in fact it’s primarily Marrakesh. And it’s true, the shadows lie flat on the ground, almost as if they were drawn there, very... Emotions are also angular in Morocco. You take sensory impressions in very sharply. Maybe because the West has put the senses to sleep, softened them, made them floppy. And coming here was to travel across smiles, across something that I hadn't encountered before. Something that had been too far away, that I’d forgotten somewhere, if you like. That’s how it felt to me.
(9:38) To be honest, I think Morocco was – like Japan, like all those other encounters, Morocco was an encounter with myself. It wasn’t just, “I’ll paint someone exotic,” I don't have a taste for exoticism, that’s not it. I don’t like travelling, there are too many suitcases involved, it’s too complicated, you have to go through customs, passport checks – I find it all terribly boring. It was sheer chance. I travelled very, very rarely, and if ever I did, it was on behalf of a company or something like that. I generally wouldn’t leave my room much, I might take a quick stroll around the neighbourhood and then come straight back. No, Morocco was a genuine encounter. Japan was an encounter. But it was more an encounter with myself than with the actual country, if you see what I mean. I’ve experienced it, I've learned a lot here, as I did in Japan, they’re complementary. But I also learned a lot in France with haute couture, and these three elements have all become interwoven, they’ve meshed into one. That’s what happened, see. I can’t say exactly what it revealed – well, obviously, the perfume, but also a way of being, also a way of thinking. A way of losing myself, too. That’s also what I found in Morocco, a way of losing myself.
3°) You’ve said that, as a child, you looked like a little North African. Was it really pure chance that you went on that trip to Morocco, or do you see it as returning to your roots?
(11:11) I can’t answer that, it’s a very hard question. You’re asking me something I can’t answer, because I can’t see myself anymore... It’s true that as a child, that’s the kind of face I had. It was during the Algerian war, I wasn’t conscious of my face, of what I was. It’s true, my hair was very curly, and I looked exactly like a little North African, people did say that, it’s true. People would say that to me. And that’s sort of the way it happened, I mean, actually, these things always happen because something jolts you. Someone approached me, around... I must have been about eight or nine. I was in a little public square, sitting on a bench. And a man came towards me, he seemed very big to me then – very, very big and very imposing, really huge. As he came up to me, he said: “Bugger off, you filthy African!” It was the first time I’d heard that, and I wasn’t even sure he actually meant me. Then that set off the kids around the square, and they all chased after me, throwing stones. I ran all the way home, it wasn’t far, and when I got inside, I looked at my face in the mirror. People have often asked me: “What did you think then?” Nothing. Nothing at all. I remember thinking absolutely nothing. But having seen and having met this guy who was – I don't know why, maybe he’d lost a son in the war or something, I have no idea at all what had happened to him. But his reaction was violent, and so was mine. It did have effects, but they were unconscious. Much more than conscious ones. And there you have it, maybe it was also because of him, because of his insult, that I felt even more integrated in society. So in the end, actually, it’s all... Thank you very much, thank you. It was thanks to him that I found Morocco. Thank you. You can see that an insult can sometimes be as effective as a caress.
4°) Morocco is the wellspring that many of your fragrances have sprung from. If it hadn’t been for that journey, would your fragrances not exist?
(13:29) Yes, I’m certain of that. It was the awakening of the sense of smell, and other senses besides. There were many senses that... It created a turmoil, a tumult of the senses. This disorder of the senses settled back into some kind of structure. I was disorientated, and I think Morocco brought things back into order. What I mean is, suddenly to realise what it is when aromas meet, if it isn't... Because in Morocco that’s a little how it is, a tiny bit, usually it’s the eyes first – a child will see first, he’ll move towards what he sees. Then he’ll grab it, that’s the second sense, and put it in his mouth, bring it up to his nose, and if he likes it, he’ll try and eat it. That’s when he’ll spit it out or he’ll swallow it. So it was actually a little bit different in Morocco, because I got the impression that scent came before sight. Meaning, the smell showed up before the sight. So the fragrance was more compelling than what you saw. It was so present, it was sort of like a reversal of the senses, is the only way to describe it.
5°) You’ve been living in Morocco for decades, do you think of yourself as French or Moroccan now?
First of all, I’m not Moroccan, that’s a fact, I’m still French. Of course I was born...It’s the first seven years that matter, though. Although I’ve found something here, whether it’s something that gives me strength in my life, or that has taught me a lot, it’s got nothing to do with those first seven years. Clearly, like I told you before, it’s where you were born that matters – even if you wish you’d been born somewhere else – it’s something you can't change. That’s the way it is, you’re there, you’re... No, not like a Frenchman; well first, yes, you’re French by language, French by education, but as for the rest – no. I'm completely outside of it all. A filthy outsider.
THE SERGE LUTENS FONDATIONTHE SERGE LUTENS FONDATION
In 2007, Serge Lutens received the “Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters” accolade and went on to receive many awards for his multifaceted talent, before he set up the Serge Lutens Foundation in 2014. Based in the house he purchased in 1974, in the historical heart of the Medina in Marrakech, this vast museum-like space of over 3,000 m2 is today a vibrant testimony to an artist who breaks norms and never rests on his laurels.
Serge Lutens open the doors of his Foundation, narrating the genesis, the present and the future of a legendary place : a refuge, and a homage to centuries of Moroccan craftsmanship.
Following a first trip to the country in 1968 that whetted his curiosity and a series of successive visits that unfolded all its splendours, Serge Lutens decided to purchase a house in Morocco in 1974. Perhaps he could rebuild a life for himself, far away from France? In recent years, the Artistic Director of Dior Beauty had admittedly been going through a dark phase in his personal life. The world thought of him as a man who had "carte blanche", with his successful make-up lines and advertising campaigns, but Serge felt that his position was still uncertain: every concept and every white-powdered woman that he put forth led to in-fighting within the brand between those that endorsed his radical approach and others that advocated more conventional forms of beauty. Lutens managed to have the final say despite these challenges, but he paid a heavy price for it!
Suffice it to say that he arrived in Marrakesh in a depressive state, a city he stumbled into, but would go on to win his heart. During that trip, I visited a countless number of houses, I don't even remember how many. Maybe three or four every day for a whole month! Then, just three days before my departure, an old man took me by the arm, and pulled me along, saying: "Come, I know just what you are looking for."
And the old man was right, for Serge Lutens was blown away by what he saw. Nestled in the heart of the Medina, the dilapidated house he set eyes on was utterly charming. Snakes glided in and out of the cypress trees that stood imposingly in the patio. The house was completely abandoned, but Serge seemed undaunted at the idea of its restoration. He saw parallels between the rebuilding of the house and his own self, and the two processes became inextricably intertwined.
Lutens got straight to work on the house, which he hoped to live in. The sounds of picks, hammers and chisels assaulted his senses every day, but rather than annoying him, they filled him with joy. His dream project was coming along! Serge Lutens painstakingly put together a mountain of archival documentation on medieval Moorish architecture as well as 20th-century Moroccan colonial styles to restore each section of the house. Calling on the expertise of traditional craftsmen called maalems, recruited locally from Marrakesh, Meknes and Fez, the Frenchman soon reinvented this past in a way that would surpass all his research. Wells, granaries and galleries buried hundreds of metres under the ground were unearthed. More than 500 workers toiled away at the site.
The house became a real maze, but paradoxically, Lutens began to feel less and less at home. The story he was writing in stone, lime and wood in the heart of the old city of Marrakesh was beginning to seep into his bones. He was chasing an ideal which had now taken over him completely. He was under its thumb. The house possessed and haunted him. Nothing was too beautiful or grand for it.
After obsessing over the wooden structure of the house, Serge Lutens then got down to designing each room and each piece of furniture. He got this furniture custom-made by local craftsmen, and it is quite common, even years later, to find replicas of these objects in the souk. Over the years, he went on to acquire 20 adjoining nobleman's homes, or riads, as Westerners call them. Almost like a living organism, the resulting labyrinthine complex now spreads out its corridors over 5000 sq.m. Yet, Serge Lutens relentlessly pursued his quest for the impossible. The closer his house got to perfection, the more assiduously he looked for the little flaws.
Inside, the air is filled with the scents emanating from the sculpted cedarwood ceilings, the jasmine trees in the lush courtyard and the old books in the library, which lend a mystical atmosphere to the space. The perfume of a life well-lived! For decades on end, Serge Lutens – who had exiled himself to a small hideout a few kilometres away from the city – guarded this house in the Medina away from the eyes of the world. Apart from some locals, nobody in his entourage had ever set foot in the home, reinforcing its mythical status. In the taxis of the city and among the merchants at the souk, tongues wagged: the story went that a man had constructed "the most beautiful house in the world", right in the heart of the Medina. Until one day, Serge Lutens decided to throw open the doors to this mansion, and the reality far surpassed everybody's expectations...
1°) Serge Lutens, I don't know if I should ask you why you kept this house away from prying eyes for so many years, or rather ask you why you've now decided to convert it into a Foundation and open it to private visits (as we know, the House can only be visited through an exclusive partnership with the Royal Mansour hotel)?
(06 :05) Well, simply because they came to me with the offer. They suggested it, otherwise I would have kept the house a secret. I would have left it as it is, closed to the outside world, because I would have kept saying to myself: "It's not perfect yet, so I can't open it. It's not good enough, it's not this or that or the other." And well, you know, it all goes back to my childhood. I was born in 1942, at a time when the anti-adultery laws of the Vichy regime were in full force. And even though I was the natural son of my father, he didn't recognize me until I was 3 years old. So, I was a child of unknown paternity for a while, and that, as well as my mother's guilt, was quite a heavy cross to bear, if you see what I mean. Her mistake became my mistake. I am the living incarnation of this mistake, and in a way, I have spent my whole life both prolonging it and trying to fix it at once. To me it's like the two sides of a knitting pattern. That's how I would put it, really, one stitch on the front side and then one on the back, the garter stitch, or whatever it's called. (07 :23) Yes, that's what it's like. Something like that.
So, you know, all this pursuit of perfection, this quest of beauty for beauty's sake, it all boils down to that instinct. I have worked with many gifted artisans and met wonderful people, and I have learned from them too. I showed them books, objects, things that I discovered in the national library during my research, because I wanted the best, most beautiful result. I am someone who plunders and restores at the same time. I think that's the fundamental principle behind my work. You know, there is this French artist called Reynaud who once built a house, and before doing so, he said: "I need to get rid of my life before beginning this house. " So, he got divorced. He had children and a wife whom he left and cut ties with...he made a clean break with his previous life. Then he built a house using the white tiles used in the Parisian metro at the time, so they were completely colourless, which incidentally I find more beautiful and joyful than all the horrible colours we now find lining the walls of the underground. He made it a kind of bunker, like a kind of shelter...it was a rejection, a fear even, of the ideal world. (08 :47) And he closed off this house, even going to the extent of putting barbed wire around it, and installing a watchtower. His intention was so clear: he wanted to push this house to the limits of solitude. And then, he went about decorating it. Which is to say that he put in beautiful textiles, plants that could live without light – because of course the house was completely sealed off – carnivorous or poisonous plants.
Moroccan houses appeal to me because they too are closed off from the outside, but open on the inside. In fact, the exterior of these houses tends to be quite unadorned. Even the most luxurious houses are modest on the outside. It is hard to tell from the outside what they are like on the inside, because they are so completely woven into the social fabric. I've come back to my knitting metaphor, you see. As for opening it, well, it just wasn't finished. I wanted it to be beautiful. I needed it to be very beautiful. But in the end, if the offer hadn't been made to me, I would have never opened it because it would never have been beautiful enough. Because the ideal beauty doesn't exist. One can only seek it, almost like a religious pursuit. It is a kind of asceticism. Something to which one submits. And do you know what Raynaud did after building his house? He razed it to the ground, demolishing it first with a hammer then with a bulldozer. He tore it down and then put the fragments in small aluminium buckets which were then put on display in Venice. It was incredible. Quite extraordinary, and I quite understand why he did it. He wanted to pursue something to its end. And when the end arrives, well, there is nothing left to say about it. One must begin anew, start something else. That is the way of life, the cycle of life and death.
2°) In the past, you have said that this house is the "redressal of a mistake." What did you mean by that?
(10 :41) It's as I've just explained it, you know, it was like fixing this mistake, a mistake that is not even my own really. In fact, I only learned about all this when I was much older, I didn't know about it at all as a child, despite being separated from my mother. I knew there was something wrong... But I didn't understand why I was being carted from one family into another, and why people came to visit me in secret, in hiding. There was nothing dramatic or tragic about it. It's just something that happened to me, in my life. Everyone has their own life story and background. And everyone has something they have to go through. But in my case, this mistake, which comes from love, is something I’ve tried to repair. I am a man with a lot of anger, it's quite a strong emotion for me. Creation without anger is not possible. It simply doesn't exist. Creation is not a bed of roses. No. That would be lethally boring.
3°) One can see then that the house stopped being a living space to which only you had access. A bit like the white women that appeared in the Dior and Shiseido ad campaigns. How do you feel about it and what is your relationship with it like now?
(11 :59) One's relationship to beauty never changes. I will keep saying the same thing to you throughout this interview, I think. I will keep talking about this mistake, because I feel it is important to go back to the root of it all. Everything happens before you turn seven. The seven-year birthday marks the entry into the age of reason. Everything is determined at that age, who we are and what we are going to be. This is true, not just for me, but for you and for every human being alive. In short, that's the kernel of everything, that's what it all comes down to. Nothing else matters. The first seven years of your life decide whether you as an adult will be a monster, a lover, a lost soul, a suicidal person, a tightrope walker or famous dancer, whatever it is. One's whole life is interesting, but one can only attribute those events to childhood, if you see what I mean.
Some people manage to escape this fate and fit into the moulds of conventional society. I recently watched a short film on Nureyev, who came from the poorest sections of Communist Russia at a terrible time, and how he came to...I've seen him dancing at the Louvre, in the courtyard, Nureyev, and he was a delight. He had wings in his feet and legs. He had absorbed and learnt so much from female dancers, you know, creativity is feminine for a man, and masculine for a woman. And God, who is the giver of everything, is feminine. He creates the feminine, and manifests through the feminine. That's what I mean.
4°) Several magazines have dedicated articles to your house, which is often referred to as a piece of art in its own right, a significant oeuvre in your work. What do you think about that?
(13 :50) I don't like using words like "oeuvre," because I think that it's more a matter of "manoeuvre", actually. In one sense you could call it an "oeuvre", if you like, because I met these artisans and I gave them something and they gave me something in return. One doesn't build something like that alone. It's a collection of things, a kind of machine that gets set in motion. Yes, it's a machine more than anything else.
5°) Many have begun wondering about the fate of the Foundation after your passing? Do you have any vision for its legacy?
(14 :30) No. Because I don't care. Because in the end, it ends with me. Period. My world ends when I go. Period. Just like my world starts with my birth, and this is true for everyone. As to what happens to things after us, well...one is happy to let go of them, but also sad at the same time, because things will happen, and life will go on. I mean, what one person creates is then carried on by others. A caress. A smile. An approach, a gesture. All these lead to other things in a continuing cycle. They weave into each other, if you will forgive me coming back to the knitting metaphor. It's like a dance. We learn the steps but then they are danced by others. Or we create the steps, and they are still danced by others. In either case, we don't know what will happen.
Also, the future doesn't interest me, for I don't know what it means. And in any case, that's not the point, you know. Anything that comes after me will be derivative, something that comes from me but no longer belongs to me. A kind of caricature. Like when a writer who's gone; we can put on one mask or another to make them look the way we see them. I don't need to go on, because I think you get what I'm saying. After one is gone, one becomes a kind of entity, a type of monster, because the human being has ceased to exist. But they have left something behind, which will necessarily turn into a pastiche.
That's not what I am here for, or why I do what I do. I need to create to be alive. What will happen in the future, well I have many projects, too many, in fact. I need to zero in on only one thing, that's the problem. Turning it into a foundation was a way of engaging, if you will. Generosity is a complex thing. Where does generosity begin, how can one be generous without it being colonial, without having this "colonizing" effect, because of course it will help a lot of people but it will also kill others. These questions are interesting. Even the worst encounters can be interesting, because they have so much to teach us.
DISCOVER MORE EPISODES
LITERARY AND ARTISTIC INSPIRATIONS
Serge Lutens reminisces about the images, sounds and words whose echoes still resonate within his personal œuvre : the literary inspirations and cinematic works that have marked his career and fired his imagination.
LITERARY AND ARTISTIC INSPIRATIONS
A creator like no other, Serge Lutens' fields of artistic expression only grew with the years: from make-up to set-design and costumes to photography, cinema and perfume-making – he did it all. Over half a century on, the artist from the North of France birthed a whole creative universe that matched his immense talent and outsized ambition. His style was utterly unique and stood out in the sea of competitors. Admired and looked up to by the greats, and sometimes even blatantly copied, it's almost easy to forget that he also grew up with his own cultural references.
Let's start with the most unexpected among these... After the second world war, at the age of 6 or 7, a young Serge Lutens went to the cinema for the first time, where he discovered Snow White, the classic Walt Disney heroine. The darkness of the hall, the sensation of my fingers moving against the grain of the red velvet seat I sank into, and the company of my mother all created a kind of bubble in which I saw "Snow White" and which sealed its memory in my mind's eye. I was utterly spellbound! Was it the beauty of Snow White or her tragic fate that moved the child so much? It's hard to know for sure, but it’s clear that, from a young age, Lutens sympathised with characters whose lives were troubled. The misfortunes of "Pauvre Blaise" by Comtesse de Ségur or "Little Annie Rooney" by Darrell Mclure resonated with him almost certainly because they reflected his own dull and drab existence. But adolescence was to bring a change of direction for Serge Lutens. Transformed by the discovery of old films he saw on the TV or in the cinema halls of Lille, he developed a strong affinity for female characters and the strong, charismatic actresses who played them, like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The story and plot mattered little to him, so taken was he by the mere presence of these stars on the big screen. Like a sponge, he absorbed each movement, each lift of the eyelid. From the sophistication of Marlene to the sculptural beauty of Garbo, films taught him the power of the image like nothing else. He was equally impressed by the German expressionism of the initial films of Murnau and Lang, in which all was angles, contrast and chaos. The young Serge found in all these, a distinctive and striking beauty fundamentally different from the one that dominated the scene in the 50s and which he increasingly began to reject, without quite being able to explain why.
Indeed, Serge felt quite unable to analyse or put into words the rebellion that had been brewing within him for years on end. His shyness had compelled him to keep his head down for a long time. A mercurial child with a basic school graduation certificate apprenticed fresh out of hairstyling school at the age of 14, Serge had always been a bit out of step with others. He was wary and distrustful of all kinds of intellectualisation, especially through words. But a fateful meeting would change this belief and the course of his life forever. In 1960, Serge Lutens met Madeleine Levy in Lille, who would go on to become his partner-in-crime for many years, and later also his companion. Stepping through the doors of his salon for a haircut, the street-smart young girl brought up in Morocco fell irrevocably under the spell of this young man, as shy as he was bold. 12 years his senior, Levy immediately recognized his unique talent and swept him away with her to Paris. She had a small antique shop in the city, where she spent most of her time reading and smoking cigarettes. Here, she introduced Serge – barely 22 years old – to the writings of Jean Genet, who had a scandalous literary reputation. Madeleine read out the novel Our Lady of the Flowers to Serge herself. The transgressive violence and explicit, free-flowing poetry of this work opened new horizons up for Serge. A dizzying delight!
In two or three years, he went from barely reading at all to completely devouring the collected works of this cursed and solitary author: The Thief's Journal, The Man Sentenced to Death... Genet, became the condemned soul who would go on to become his companion for life. In the 70s, when one of his acquaintances offered to arrange a meeting with the author, Serge refused, saying: "What have I to say to God himself?" More classical authors also found a place for themselves among his list of literary icons: Baudelaire, Proust, Mishima, etc. Yet, none of them would ever match the significance of the author of Funeral Rites, a book to which Serge Lutens would return throughout his life, whether just to browse through or completely dissect. "Down to the bone": Admiration or love were weak words for his feelings towards the author. Woe betide anyone who tried to set foot into his kingdom, which Serge guarded jealously as his private turf! The domain of the damned was not for everyone. Serge Lutens has borne testimony to this singular truth from the beginning of his career, without any explanation or elucidation. Some have considered this a kind of elitism, while others have seen instead an enigma to be solved. Either way, Serge Lutens has created a world tailored to his unique vision for more than 50 years, becoming an icon for many others in the process.
Serge Lutens, you often shrug off or reject the use of the term "Inspiration" when you're asked about your own. Why do you dislike this word so much?
(06 :33) "Inspiration" is, well… it's something like… well it's not "inspiration", as such, like Cocteau said, but "expiration", something that is released rather than taken in. Creation is something that is put out into the world, while inspiration would mean something that you keep within, and that's not what it is. But the word bothers me really, because it is used for what the world “officially” considers artists. Because you see there is a host of such artists, right from Zorro to the fairy queen. And I find that a bit ridiculous. I don't like it at all. To me, that's not what an artist is. Artists cannot be qualified in these terms, for their gifts are God-given and their creations divine.
Your main and strongest influences have been writers, yet your work has been essentially visual over the years: photography, cinema, etc... why doesn't one find more painters and photographers among your sources of inspiration?
(07 :31) Inspiration takes many forms, and occurs at many levels. Which is to say that we are made up of thousands of things, not just one or two, and even if I named just three it would be quite reductive! We are all composed of both good and bad things, an aggregate that makes the whole. There is no escaping it, I mean, we are all human beings, with a wide array of emotions, often even contradictory ones. I came to books later in life, while the visual image made more of an impression on me, especially images of women, if you like. This led me to invent my own image of a woman, because one only invents something one desperately needs. This label, this way of being, of thinking, these perfumes – they are all my ways of existing and moving through the world. They were absolutely necessary. So, I would say, there is no such thing as art, only artists, if you see what I mean. In my view, a baker could be a great artist, and so could a grocer. I don't see the need to separate these things into professions in this way, I don't like putting things into boxes, whether in art or anything else. It is not for the artist to declare himself an artist, in fact, those who do so are quite phoney and hollow.
You've called "Snow White" one of your first sources of inspiration. But the saccharine world of Disney is quite the antithesis of the one you invented. How would you describe the impact of those images on you?
(09 :08) Well firstly, it was the first film I had ever seen in my life; I had never seen any before it. And we didn't have television. So, I went to the cinema. And what was cinema at the time? Luxury, well, luxury the way I saw it. The velvet seats and armrests. So, I saw the film quite late, I think, with my mother, who accompanied me, because I was little. I must have been 6 years old or thereabouts, I'm not sure. And for me it was seeing all those images, with the music, the dwarves singing in the diamond mines, the walls already gleaming with multi-coloured stones, the house and the Evil Queen, who also became one of my muses, because a child has both the Evil Queen and the Snow White in him: the beautiful, sweet loving girl as well as the wicked, cruel, mean mother. "Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" "Famed is thy beauty, Majesty, but hold..." Oh, it was something so special for all the boys watching the film for the first time, a kind of enchantment, surely the first film I saw in a certain way. And, of course it was an animated movie, Snow White, which made it a bit too sweet, but then children are made of sugar, spice and everything nice. We are made up of all these flavours, we carry them within us, including the bitter and the sour.
Jean Genet holds a special place among the people that you admire, which is something people are curious about. The connections with Proust, Baudelaire and even Mallarmé seem more obvious to the general public. What about this author makes him stand out in your eyes?
(11 :07) His words. The choice of words, the beauty and intelligence of his words, the depth of his characters. When he says "He is 16 when he reaches the landing," – who else could say a thing like that? And there you have Our Lady who is about to kill the old man to steal his money. "He is 16 when he reaches the landing." And then the door opens, and he enters and then there is a whole succession of words, whose impression I cannot even begin to describe. He could have been 16 at the foot of the stairs, but no, he is 16 when he reaches the landing. And that's the beauty of it, that's what changes everything. This way of putting words together and looking at them. Because you know often when one says something, one uses a turn of phrase as a course of habit, in a way that one has heard before and is just repeating. But starting from a blank slate, that's where writing begins. True writing cannot happen without wiping all that from the mind. Everything must be broken down and destroyed, even forgotten. One must forget everything to be able to write, and to be able to speak anew. In that way he was an anti-establishment man, as opposed to the conventional man with his ready-made words, sentences, mannerisms and superficial airs. No, with him, there was complete invention. And invention is a matter of gaze, of approach. (12 :42) You must observe the world, and then return to your words. You must put them together in a way that makes them pure, and then you must defile them again. Because that's what literature is, nothing more, nothing less. If you are simply repeating the words of others, you're dead on arrival, because then there's no point to writing, unless you're a journalist, which is different. Writing is a kind of murder, an annihilation of the past to birth something new.
Still, it's important to note that Jean Genet could not have existed without Proust. Proust completely changed the way people read. He observed his characters from the inside, stripping away from just the external descriptors, if you will. He entered into them, took them over, wore their clothes. He lived through them. The 42 facets as described by the Prophet – he explored all of them, he tried them on for size. You can't do this if you're not fully immersed in the web of life, if you don't have the zest for life. Creating means becoming another. If you are always inside yourself, you're damned. The other is the source of richness and diversity. Going beyond the self, that's how I would describe my encounter with Morocco and Japan, as well as my encounter with people. That's what interests me. But I remain a man of reserve. I would like to write, but I'm full of restraint. Writing is a kind of self-sacrifice, you see. You have to forget, destroy words, then bring them back to life and put them back in new and different ways. A sentence demands complete destruction. That's what I'm trying to tell you, in fact, and that's what I like about Genet, which is that he is first and foremost a rebel.
Without rebellion, no creation is possible. We see it with Baudelaire too, who turns a head of hair into an ebony sea with a dark, black swell, and perfume into something that passes through glass, devouring its flask. You see the beauty of it, like desire captured in a bottle, like magic, like Aladdin. You see how one can play with words in this way, throwing them into the air and then catching them, like a juggler. That's what writing is. But if you confine writing to respectable – which is to say, boring – speech, then it loses all its power. One must live and breathe words. And to live, one must die first. And it's something one has to do all the time, because writing is not a one-off exercise but a constant endeavour.
You do realise that you yourself could become a source of inspiration to others? How do you feel about it? What legacy do you think you will leave behind?
(15 :42) I am not looking to leave a legacy; I don't even know what that means. I don't think about legacies and what I could leave behind. We are all grains in the sand: each individual is but a grain of sand on an enormous beach. Just think about it! What are we in the grand scheme of things, when we know that a grain of sand is just a rock or bigger block eroded down to its size? Which brings me back to Genet and his definition of Beckett. When he was asked "What do you think of Beckett?" he replied, "a prodigious grain of sand." A wonderful turn of phrase. Nothing, yet immense. One doesn't know what one leaves behind, because one doesn't really know what one is doing at the time one is doing it. We do things, and then we leave them. What others make of it, well, that's not really our lookout. I don't really know what will happen in the future, but there is the hope and desire to push myself further, because I have been silent for a long time. I think I will finally begin speaking, I mean, through writing, but not necessarily with the intention of becoming a writer per se. Becoming a perfumer or becoming this or that has never appealed to me. My dream is for all of it to be razed to the ground.
ALONG THE WATERSIDE
Water, for Serge Lutens, has proved an obvious response to olfactory shackles and atmospheres overloaded with odours and superlatives. In 2010 it took the form of a minimalist fragrance, serving almost as a manifesto, that sparked a fresh revolution, even within his own brand.
ALONG THE WATERSIDE
In 2010, Serge Lutens was at the peak of his fame in the perfume world. In just 30 years, he had gone against the tide to create a whole new handbook on perfume-making, prompting other global brands to follow in his footsteps. With more than 80 fragrances to his name, his olfactory creations became the go-to for others looking to borrow ideas. In return, and to keep up a semblance of good protocol, Lutens was showered with superlatives like genius of the bottle, perfume maestro and more. Endorsing his vision of perfume-making became a proof of quality and badge of pride for others. Seeing right through this all-out appropriation, the 68-year-old Serge decided to take a step back from the perfume industry for a while.
It may come as a surprise to some, but Serge Lutens had never been particularly interested in perfume as a social product per se. In the North of France where he spent his childhood, and in the social class where he grew up, perfume was completely absent. Style and affectation weren't high on the agenda here, where a good scrub with plain soap and a wash cloth was enough to smell good. Over time, and with gradual exposure to other environments than his own, Serge Lutens would discover perfume as worn by two or three of the clients at the hair salon where he apprenticed, not as an aspect of grooming but as a marker of personal style. The mannerisms, natural reserve and aloofness of these women drew the admiration and deference of the adolescent Lutens. These ladies represented a vision in which perfume was just a small detail...minor, yet integral to the luxury image he began to find increasingly appealing.
But it was only his discovery of Morocco in 1968, many years later, that spurred him to reinvent fragrance. Serge's perfume label became the torch-bearer of his rebellion, marking an opposition to the flurry of conventional perfumes flooding the market in the 80s. In his eyes, perfume needed to be turned back into the audacious accessory it once was; a slap in the face of the world. The bid paid off, and Lutens was greeted with enormous success in the early 90s. However, this success also had a flip side. Lutens now had to contend with the commercial opportunism and appropriation that he so despised. In an industry teeming with competition, did the word "creation" have any meaning? How could he continue to assert his opposition to the mainstream?
Serge Lutens found his answer in eau de parfum and the simple cleaning rituals of his childhood. "Luxury begins with cleanliness." This slogan appeared across a simple bar of soap in 2010 like a provocative statement. Embossing the Serge Lutens name on such an accessible product was the ultimate display of audacity. And, as if to hammer the point home, Serge Lutens accompanied this launch with what he called the "anti-perfume": ‘L’Eau Serge Lutens’. A minimalist fragrance serving almost as a manifesto, enclosed in a bottle with clean, radical lines. Transparency, purity and a return to the basics for the creator, who increasingly decried a "too-perfumed" world where it was hard to distinguish scents from one another.
Anti-perfume was a phrase that spontaneously came to me when announcing the Eau Serge Lutens. A new turn, an alternative to my initial approach to perfume-making, unique at the time it appeared, but which had become increasingly ravaged by a marketing ecosystem that drained it of all its creative value by subsuming it under the term "niche". Hence the term ‘anti-perfume’.
For I refuse to belong to all categories, let alone any single one; and if I were to be relegated to an inhabitant of a niche, I would certainly not be the plush pet of the "Dream Villa", rather a stray dog on the street.
This eau de parfum was a clarion call, and the echoes of its revolt still continue to reverberate.
Many of his fans felt betrayed by the launch, claiming that Serge Lutens had sold his soul and bid goodbye to crafting fine fragrances from rare and precious primary ingredients. But as always, Serge Lutens was far from the madding crowd. Far from the niche that both competitors and admirers tried to box him in. This clean, minimalist fragrance had certainly stirred up a hornet's nest. Unique, distinctive, loved or hated – none of it mattered to him. All he wanted was to avoid being drowned in a sea of pale imitations. In the end, how did it matter whether he was acclaimed or disgraced? Wasn't it worse to be appropriated by one's own triumph? Some chase this success their entire lives, unlike Serge Lutens, who has chosen to flee it instead. Could that be the secret to his countless transformations?
1°) Serge Lutens, do you agree with this explanation? Could your many changes of artistic direction be attributed to the success that finally managed to catch up with you?
(05 :31) Well, I never felt it to be sincere, to be coming from the heart. It was a kind of recognition by default. The only recognition that meant anything to me was when my father legally recognized me as his son, which came many years later. I don't like being well-known or known by all and sundry. I much prefer, if you like, this monstrous couple I formed with my mother. So no, I'm not interested in being recognized, I run away from recognition and popularity. I formed a cursed couple with my mother, not out of love, believe you me...but out of sin, out of a refusal to be recognized. So, I know that recognition is something that can pin me down and end up stifling me.
And I think maybe we are all a bit like that, essentially...I think often, for instance, of escaping my life. How can I escape my life? Or, how can I escape my life, without actually dying, let's say? The only way is to disappear, to take a car and head off, change how I look, put on a new face. Change everything, change my fingerprints, everything, even language. That's one thing that's not possible, actually. Culture is what remains when everything else is forgotten, we all know that. So, when we have forgotten everything, what remains? A way of holding the fork, or of rolling couscous in the palm of the hand? I don't know for sure. But it's somewhere there. Culture is what happens despite and beyond us.
2°) Did l'Eau Serge Lutens represent a rejection of the perfumes you had been making in the early 90s?
(07 :15) No, because really, I discovered and learned about perfume in Morocco. I came to love it through Morocco. I did not like French perfume at all, I didn't like the way it was formulated in France. It wasn't for me. I came to like perfume in Morocco because I came to it through the aromas and scents that pervade the air here and get under your skin. I have never worn perfume. I like making perfumes, but I don't like wearing them. There is a big difference between the two. It's a bit like houses, you see. I don't live inside them, but I design them. There is some mystery to it. Then the question arises again, what is all this for? Perhaps it can all be traced back to the original mistake.
For me the Eau de parfum was disruptive, and like all separations, it was essential. Which is to say, it was necessary in order for me to build a new relationship with perfume. But as soon as any departure becomes official, begins to have a name and become known, when it begins to be copied and imitated, well, I lose interest in it. I have nothing to do with success, which is created by others. And in fact, I cease to exist when that happens. Well, that particular me ceases to exist, in any case. I am a sort of imposter, you see, an imposter everywhere. And I like to keep it that way.
3°) The launch of the Eau was met with some harsh criticism. How did it affect you?
(08 :33) It didn't affect me at all, absolutely not! In fact, I would have quite liked to be at the receiving end of more venomous jibes and insults. They are my greatest gifts, my most precious jewels, my luxury cars and my battle scars. Either way, I would have loved to be insulted. Absolutely loved it. But the criticism didn't go that far, because the industry is just too spineless. They're all too cowardly to go that far. I would have to commit a murder for that to happen, which of course I haven't yet done. One day I hope to achieve my goal of really shaking things up.
4°) You are not immune to another re-appropriation of your work. Have you thought about what more you can do after the "anti-perfume" to maintain your opposition?
(09 :16) Well I don't know, it's not like I go against the mainstream just for the sake of it. For me, this opposition is more about constantly questioning myself and rejecting success, if you see what I mean. Success is a kind of condemnation, you see. It condemns you to stasis. So, if you surrender to success, you're done for. What I mean is you will be doomed to keep doing the same thing over and over again forever.
I am guided by lots of different things. I love perfection, but I have also discovered through literature the beauty of imperfection, the beauty of something that does not belong to the realm of the ideal. When it comes to material things, like houses and objects, there is a kind of taste, how should I put it, a restorative element to their beauty. But at the same time, I need...well, if I saw a tablecloth full of holes printed with a flower pattern, I would find it quite moving too. So, there are these two sides to me: an overly developed sense of self and taste for aesthetic perfection, and its polar opposite, which belongs to the realm of poetry or literature, and which can only be expressed through words and images. The latter forms the substance and basis of it all; without imperfection there can be no repair or restoration... I would like to return to this side of myself. The side that finds beauty in a tablecloth with holes, which is beginning to fray, where the holes of the plastic are beginning to fray, and with the flower print on top. Finding words to describe it is a thing of beauty. This is where the true work of beauty lies. The rest of it is just a kind of repair. Trying to return things to an ideal form is nothing but a kind of aestheticism in the end.