At home with the master – Glass interviews Serge Lutens

Mysterious and elegiac, an icon in the world of beauty and perfume, Serge Lutens continues to evolve. Glass speaks to him about his new venture into home fragrances

There are very few figures in the world of fashion and beauty who are true icons – one of them is the Serge Lutens. Now aged 80 and still at the cutting edge of creativity and style, Lutens has brought his unique avant-garde vision to the worlds of photography, filmmaking, beauty and perfume.

Lutens was born in Lille, northern France, in 1942. He began his career when he was 14, working in a beauty salon in his hometown, a time he regards as crucial to his creative development. There, he began experimenting in photography and make up, with his friends serving as his models.

Serge Lutens and Isabelle Weingarten, 1972. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

Serge Lutens, Modigliani, 1972. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

After military service, Lutens moved to Paris where his talents were sought after by French Vogue, where he worked from 1962 collaborating with photographers such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Réalisation du film Les Stars, 1973. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

From 1968 until 1980, Lutens was Creative and International Image Director for Christian Dior before joining Shiseido, where he was appointed artistic director.  He debuted his first perfume, Féminité du Bois –  now a modern classic –  in 1992 for the house’s niche perfumery line. Later, in 2000, he launched his own line, Parfums-Beaute Serge Lutens, which has been central in developing highly regarded innovative perfumery and cosmetics.

Rédactionnel ELLE US, 1995. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

Now a resident of Marrakech in Morocco, a city that continues to inspire and influence him, Lutens has ventured into the world of home fragrance, debuting a perfectly curated range of five scents this autumn – “olfactory versions of imaginary houses”.

Shooting en 1998 pour l’illustration du maquillage. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

Can you share with Glass the reasons for creating your At Home collection at this stage of your career?
At first, I wasn’t in favour of creating home fragrances, especially if it meant covering up the smells of onions in the kitchen with lavender, because, for me, authenticity is very important. What I mean is, each house should have its own unique fragrance, its identity and atmosphere.

Living in Morocco has spoilt me in this respect: my home is primarily made of organic materials. The ceilings are, for instance, made of cedar wood, which imbues the atmosphere with its warm smell. But the ambiance of a home is also made by the stories of the people living in it.

All these layers build on top of each other to create the fragrance of a home, like [how] the layers of notes combine when creating a perfume.

Serge Lutens in Morocco. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

That was my starting point, but then I realised that not everybody might be as schizophrenic as I am. So, I decided to go ahead with the collection. The idea was to create fragrances around ideal or imaginary houses. Funnily enough, I left the French house out of it because it is too full of meaning, too close to me. It’s hard for me to even speak about that home because it saps me of my blood.

Creating olfactory versions of imaginary houses was precisely a way for me to escape my childhood home and go on those dream journeys, like JS  Bach did with his Art of the Fugue. I often feel more lost when I travel physically from one place to another.

There is no escaping the indecent, monstrous pace of this world, which I can’t keep up with. So, I only travel by staying in one place. I’m one of those armchair travellers who dreams of a throne. My home reflects and provides the space for these stationary “fugues”.  At Home encapsulates these different fugues or escapes, which have become my signature.

Serge Lutens - At Home collection The Serge Lutens At Home collection

In your opinion, why is it important to fragrance one’s home?
A home is no longer one’s own if one is looking to change its fragrance at any cost. That itself is a kind of evasion, a way to circumvent a nightmare. Returning to a home that is perfumed is an attempt to create an illusion, which is more important than reality nowadays. A fragrance is a way of anchoring the sensation of elsewhere inside us.

Serge Lutens home collectionFrom the Serge Lutens At Home collection Le Palais des Sables

Can you tell me about the inspirations behind the Scottish House and the Linen Cupboard home fragrances in this collection?
The Linen Cupboard is made of light wood. Its blond has a calming, restful effect. Just think of the way moonlight illuminates blond hair. The cupboard is welcoming. When you open it, the linen inside is crisp, white  and clean, like a white shirt you slip on to give yourself a fresh look.

The doors of this cupboard are also the doors to our childhood. When we were little, it was like opening the doors onto a snowy landscape where everything was immaculate and blank, when it was possible to start afresh.

The Scottish House embodies ideal, magical solitude. The cosy isolation of those small stone houses with moss covering the stones, where it is gloomy outside and the heavens rain down every day. The wind blows a gale outside, but one feels protected from it inside the stone walls of the home.

The sky is filled with the cries of seagulls, the library is full of books, bookshelves cover every wall. The glowing embers of the fireplace lend warmth to the old Chesterfield and the carpets on the ground …

There are no neighbours, no telephones, no mailman, for even he is tired. It is the home of a man who has never really left his childhood but grown old wondering why he is still there.

How long have you been working on this collection and how has it evolved?
I feel like saying 80 years, but, in practice, I have been working on this collection for about five years now.

Serge Lutens Portrait. Photographer: Ling Fei, 2003 III. Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

Do you have a favourite from the five scents?
They all have a place in my heart, some more than others. Paradoxically, the home I currently live in – my ideal home – is the one I wish to flee the most. Seeing my dream home come to life, seeing it completed, has kind of killed my vision of it, the death of a dream.

Serge Lutens home collection DiffuseurA Diffuser from the Serge Lutens At Home collection

Do you intend to add to the collection?
There are so many building blocks and ghosts waiting to come to life, at least in the form of perfume.

The world has changed a lot since you began your celebrated career. If you were starting out as a make-up artist and creative director in 2022, do you think your approach would be different?
I think I would dig a big trench, build a bunker inside it and hang a bird outside one of the shooting holes. I would shelter myself even more from the outside world. The way success is defined in today’s day and age has reduced it to a game of imitation, which is a dangerous and absurd illusion. In any case, I am only drawn to criminals and madmen. Nothing else interests me.

Serge Lutens Morocco Portraits 2005. Photographer: Ling Fei.
Image courtesy of the Serge Lutens Fondation

Are there any particular make-up artists, perfumers or beauty creatives working now who inspire you?
I would need to know of them first. I spend my time buried in books and I only lift my head when I want to escape. Nothing can hold my attention for too long.

How do you see the world of fragrance and also home fragrance evolving?
So many people have copied or “been inspired” by my work. The world of fragrance terrifies me with its capacity to appropriate, steal, exploit and duplicate. This is not a judgment, simply a statement of fact. In the end, everything is reduced to its function as a product and then is doomed to staying confined within those parameters. I observe it all from the outside, as if looking through a glass.

by Caroline Simpson

Serge Lutens’ At Home collection is available from Harvey Nichols