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1968_Yellow_©Serge Lutens
Courtesy Serge Lutens, 1968

How Serge Lutens changed the language of beauty

With the release of his latest fragrance collection, Politesse, it seems that even at 77 Serge Lutens shows no signs of stopping

In our series Icons we profile the individuals behind some of the greatest beauty images of all time, looking back on their work and forward towards their enduring influence and legacy. 

In certain corners of the beauty industry, the name Serge Lutens is spoken in hushed, reverential whispers: as the mysterious creator of some of the world’s greatest and most mythologised scents. Even for those who don’t instantly recognise his name, you will, at one point or another, have seen his work: across more than four decades in the industry, Lutens has built a reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated and innovative perfumiers, make-up artists, hair stylists and designers. But when asked how he would go about describing his polymathic career to someone unfamiliar with his work, Lutens is typically cryptic.

“It is impossible to summarise it,” he says from his home in Morocco, “but I would say it has something to do with putting words together. Against a backdrop of curiosity, astonishment, gentleness and pleasure, we move through childhood until we reach the age of reason.”

“At around seven years of age, we make the emotional choices that distinguish us from others,” he continues. “After the age of ten, they are set in stone. In my case, these choices then ricocheted around beauty, and its ideal, anger, through various occupations and trades—without them ever having been practised as such—and conjured up a mirror-woman, the guardian of my excesses and the perfect companion of my secret rebellions.”

Even if his florid way with words tends to raise more questions than he answers, it’s this interest in the transition between youth and adulthood – a subject Lutens returns to again and again throughout our conversation – that is the key to unpicking his ability to craft scents and images of beauty that have become some of the most iconic ever created.

Creating a scent that will stand the test of time requires an understanding of the universal, and what is more universal than childhood? It’s here, after all, that we develop our primal, instinctive responses to scent and the associations they will carry for us throughout the rest of our lives. “My childhood was a long time ago,” he adds, drolly. “The only way I can describe it is by comparing it to those long-life foods: a vacuum-packed child. They are long past their use-by date, they are unfit for human consumption.”

Even if the worldly, sophisticated figure he cuts would seem out of place in any other industry, back when Lutens started he was reluctant to work in a beauty salon, with ambitions instead to become an actor. It was, ironically, a stint in the French army that galvanised his interest in beauty, following which a then 18-year-old Lutens travelled to Paris; within weeks he was collaborating with some of the biggest magazines of the age, including Vogue Paris, Elle and Jardins des Modes.

It was his collaborations with the house of Christian Dior from 1967 onwards, however, that would truly make his name. At 25 years old, Lutens completely reshaped the landscape of luxury by making Dior the first fashion house to be producing cosmetics and beauty products alongside clothing, a model that almost every major fashion brand has now adopted. The runaway success of the Dior beauty line was even more unlikely given Lutens’s refusal to compromise, crafting campaigns that reflected his radical, youthful approach to beauty, and prompting Diana Vreeland herself to describe him as a revolution in make-up.

“The things I had done at the time for Dior were viewed with suspicion by French editors,” Lutens remembers, “but Diana immediately saw the liberation it represented. It was the uncontrollable cry of women who wanted to be free. America immediately understood this and made me famous.”

It was around this time that Lutens began to travel more widely, which in turn sparked a passion for fragrance. “Culture is something that we carry within us,” Lutens says when asked about how his increasingly broad worldview influenced his work. “There are seven billion Americans, seven billion Japanese people, seven billion Moroccans, seven billion French people, seven billion thieves, seven billion liars. No one is cut off from other cultures. I love America with its impulses such as they are, Japan with its perfection, I love so many things!”

But it was this fascination with the precision of Japanese culture that captured his imagination most, leading Lutens on a brief tangent to the second great collaboration of his career: with the esteemed cosmetics house of Shiseido. “I had already been to Japan in 1971, and between then and 1980 I visited those islands many times,” he says. “The culture fascinated me. It’s true that I am imitative and porous, and wherever I go, I tend to behave in such a way as to blend in: when I’m in Japan, I become Japanese, and in America, I become American.”

His campaigns for Shiseido, inspired by everything from the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, were a lightning rod of radical creativity in the otherwise staid world of beauty advertising. In direct opposition to conventional wisdom for marketing beauty, which tended to focus on product, Lutens created a mystical, impressionistic vision of beauty for the brand that has dictated how beauty and fragrance are advertised to this day: the breathy voiceovers and ethereal visuals of your average perfume commercial owe a debt to Lutens’s game-changing strategy for beauty advertising.

All of this backstory is necessary to explain what Lutens did next, and what he is now arguably best known for: his eponymous fragrance line, which began with his first fragrance for Shiseido, Nombre Noir – now widely considered one of the greatest scents ever created, even if its time spent on shop shelves was short-lived. Blending the light-sensitive and fragile properties of damascones – an artificially created rose oil that was so expensive to produce it’s said Shiseido made a loss on every bottle – with exquisite packaging that resembled black silk origami, the rare and wondrous fragrance was discontinued a year or two after its release. It’s been called “one of the five greatest fragrances in the world” by biophysicist and scent expert Luca Turin, and whenever bottles come up on eBay or similar resale sites they are known to fetch thousands of dollars.

If the story of Nombre Noir had a tragic end, it was also a new beginning for Lutens, as he discovered his true calling in the world of olfaction. He created another iconic fragrance, L’Eau Serge Lutens, in 2009, known as Lutens’s attempt to create an “anti-perfume”, a kind of palette cleanser for our over-scented world of, as he puts it, “candles, sprays, potpourri, diffusers and deodorants”.

What did he want to bring to the fragrance market of the 21st century that he felt was missing? “An impression of cleanliness, cleanliness as a response to the overabundance of fragrances. Everything is perfumed—nothing has a smell anymore! What would be the point of a fragrance if it didn’t help us to refocus and be recognised? L’Eau Serge Lutens was a way of catching one’s breath and turning away from the need for a ‘scent at any cost’.”

With the release of his latest fragrance collection this month named Politesse and inspired by transparency – or in the poetic words of Lutens by “disappearance and reappearance, a game of hide-and-seek” – it seems that even at 77 Lutens shows no signs of stopping. After his many decades making seismic changes in the industry, does he have any predictions for the future of beauty? “Not really,” he says. “I move forward with the little knowledge that life has given me. Something drives me, but to make myself the protagonist in my own story without knowing anything about it would be a deception.”