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King of Hearts: Serge Lutens on Barneys’ Exclusive Palais Royal Perfumes

The tribe of Serge Lutens is a remarkably devoted one. How did that come to be? “The fans are a reflection of Mr. Lutens. He is a passionate creator,” hypothesizes chief executive Hassan Saad. “He does not compromise.”

After a tour of the Lutens collection at Barneys New York, you’ll need no further convincing. Rectangular bottles are displayed on their backs like rare books, their evocative names—Fille en aiguilles, Nuit de cellophane, Un bois de vanille—ready to capture the imagination of willing readers. The new Palais Royal perfumes, exclusively available in the U.S. at Barneys, gets jewel-box treatment—and rightly so. Each fragrance is a petite objet d’art. 

To learn more about the origins of this exquisite collection, we spoke with the one and only Serge Lutens.

The shape of your Palais Royal cloche bottle is very unique—tell us about it.

In effect, the bottle may evoke a bell but the idea was to create a perfume vial for the home, what I would call un flacon de table, rather.  I fashioned this vial to embody the Palais Royal — a unique place in the center of Paris, protected from the hustle and bustle of the city.  The Palais Royal attracts a certain sort of character who is in search for something specific.Though singular, this vial is not without parentage.  The vial reflects the unique aesthetics of the Palais Royal, including its famed restaurant Le Véfour, formerly the Café de Chartres and its neoclassical style.  It is linked to a particular history.

The rectangular vials convey my intimate character as well as my quest to form an encompassing identity that imparts the nature of everywhere I have been.  Such a personal, inclusive nature is the basis of a fundamental identity.  Were this perfume to have been created in a place like Morocco, it would be very different.  The essence of the perfume that carries my name must be the culmination of my explorative experiences.

When it comes to perfume, what’s in a name?

The name of a perfume forms one’s first impression and, consequently, defines the author. For me, the name will always represent an exact moment — of a revolt, a crime, a ray of moonlight, a fear, a victory. This specific narrative is inscribed as much on the label as in the perfume itself.  During the process of creation, the name can be formulated before, during, or even after the conception of the perfume — however, it is vital.  Without the name, without its history, a perfume would be hollow. It would become a simple and banal product with notrue substance abandoned at the mercy of marketing illusions.

Smell can be a powerful trigger for memory. What scents do you remember most vividly from your life?

I do not believe that smell can trigger a specific memory since we all have the same scents in mind. The cells that make up our olfactory sense, our fifth sense, renew from the moment we are born until we die and, as a result, we actually all share the same palate of odors. The brain withholds about 550,000 scents simply from infancy.  Such a vast memory allows one to evaluate a perfume but it does not sufficiently convince one to purchase it.  This freedom to choose is due to everyone’s sensitivities.  Rather than recreate scents, I believe in the creation of altogether new ones.  While specific scents can surprise me, they are not more interesting than that. Instead, I use a scent as one component to create the narrative of a perfume. As you can attest, my work has more to do with creating narratives than crafting unique olfactory senses.

Beyond fragrance, you are known as an expert on feminine beauty. In fact, you launched your own make-up line in 2005. In your opinion, what makes a woman beautiful?

A strong sense of self, nothing more.  I only offer a woman the necessary tools that allow for the strengthening of a sense of confidence and security since, in some way or other, we are all fragile creations that need reinforcement.

Wittgenstein says that when the eyes sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Do you agree? Do you think beauty invites replication?

The hand can stimulate, but it cannot create anything unless it holds a paintbrush and belongs to one with a deep sense of creativity.  I can no better define beauty than I can define love. Wittgenstein’s sense of beauty may be different from my conception — I think that true beauty is irreproducible.  If I were to attempt to frame the concept ofbeauty, I would say that it is the moment we reach a deeper awareness of ourselves and are able to distance ourselves from such consciousness in order to confront and eviscerate our fears, causing them to fall one by one like pins in front of a bowling ball.

You are known as a Renaissance man. What do you plan to conquer next?

It is very kind of you to define me as a Renaissance man but what I am is not a choice, a game, or even a desire — it is an obligation.  My creations are not simply decorative items — they are a necessity if I am to exist as a creator.  If I create perfumes, it is because I seek to elaborate upon a language, like that of make-up, film, or photography.  My creations serve as a way to enlighten and enrich an obscure zone within us all.

The Palais Royal collection is only available purchase at the Madison Avenue Store located at 660 Madison Avenue. The phone number for the Serge Lutens Boutique is (212) 833-2425. 


(Images courtesy of Serge Lutens)