Serge Lutens is an extraordinary man. Kafkaesque has written a two part biographical piece on his early life and works, which I found fascinating. May I suggest that you take some time to read it as there is no better reference point from which to start if you want to know about Lutens. The writing there collates more concisely than I ever could the story of this man’s life and I would only be repeating great chunks of it here.
It seems that whatever medium Serge Lutens works in, his urgent creativity pushes the boundaries of design and twists the onlooker’s mind in uncomfortable directions. And there is no better medium for manipulation than scent.
Lutens and the perfumer Christopher Sheldrake are artists working under a global spotlight of casual art lovers. Lutens does not endeavour to be understood and praised for his fragrances. The majority of his audience want a perfume they can wear, rather than admire as art. I am impressed with this man’s intellectual ferocity, to produce the work for himself is enough, that others love it and puzzle over it is by the by.
I found the most resonant part of the Kafkaesque article to be about Luten’s mother. Her absence and her continual hold over his creative work. To lift a quote used in the article:
“Serge Lutens’s discoveries since the early 60′s have become historic land-marks in womens’ beauty and womens’ lives. “In this woman’s life,” Serge insists. He hates when you talk about women. That says it all. For him, it’s “this woman,” his own double, whom he reinvents in every photograph, dress, makeup, makeup design, or perfume.”
This Woman’s Life. Just the one woman, recreated over and over in as many different forms as it is possible for a woman to have. This struck a chord with me as I always find I personify perfumes, give them form, features and mannerisms so they might better communicate their message. I have found whilst reviewing Lutens perfumes that they are all women, or maybe, now I know, just the one woman. His mother, imagined in a hundred ways. In ‘Vitriol d’Oeillet‘ she is the perfect, ice cold hatred of a woman scorned, in ‘Amber Sultan’ she is the goddess. In ‘De Profundis’…..
It is widely discussed that the scent of ‘De Profundis’ does not match it’s long and sombre back story. Described as a chrysanthemum soliflore, a flower that in some cultures is used purely as a funeral flower. I make no personal connection between the two, for me chrysanthemums smell wonderfully cheerful, so I would agree with the general consensus that ‘De Profundis’ is a contradiction. However, Monsieur Lutens surely knows this, so for me it is more a case of understanding this contradiction, rather than writing it off as existential self indulgence.
‘From the depths’ as it translates from Latin, is the name given to the epistle written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in 1897. It’s title was given after Wilde’s death and was taken from Psalm 130, another cry from the depths of despair. Which was more inspiring for Lutens when he was making ‘De Profundis’ is unclear, although it is well known that he is an admirer of Oscar Wilde. In the lengthy back story for ‘De Profundis’ Lutens also says:
“In French, the words beauty, war, religion, fear, life and death are all feminine, while challenge, combat, art, love, courage, suicide and vertigo remain within the realm of the masculine.
Clearly, Death is a Woman. Her absence imposes a strange state of widowhood. Yet beauty cannot reach fulfillment without crime.”
Here she is again. The Woman. This time wreathed in blooms that breathe sweet, green beauty into crystalline air. This woman so adorned would speak, and here is what she has to say……
I am still. And time passes below my line of vision, sun and moon playing chase around this blue green world. I see before and I see after, now is inconsequential. It is a small thing and will float like a fallen leaf on the surface, until the water flows away. Now is no small thing for you, my dear, do not think I don’t understand. Now is all you know. It is but the blink of an eye, my love, and over just in time to make way for the new. Do not sink below the water, spin and whirl in the currents, little fallen leaf, be joyful.
I am still. And fear is but a single grain of sand in my vast palm. It is a small thing and will be blown away, hurtling in the wind until the fragments disappear. Fear is no small thing for you, sweet one, do not think I have not felt it’s pointed blade myself. It is but a passing shadow, my beloved, and already skittering away in the dawn’s light. Do not dread the new day, laugh and stride out, adventurer, be brave.
I am still. And fighting leaves only a scratch in my memory. A battle is a small thing and every army marches forth like a ripple in this eternal lake, to break itself upon my shores. War is no small thing for you, loved one. Do not think I do not know it’s devastation. It is but a playground struggle for power, darling, and already resolved in the anticipation of a new game. Do not fight your fellows, soldier, be at peace.
I am still. And one day I will come for you. It is the way of things and every person I have met has seen the world from where I stand, before they choose a path. This is no small task, my dearest love, do not take for granted all that I have lost so that I might help you now. It is but another beginning, oh blessed one, and whilst you move ahead to start again, I will stand and watch the wheel of life for all eternity. Come with happiness, and fill my broken heart with love. Do not fear me, do not fight me, this is not your only end….
‘De Profundis’ blooms so fragrantly into life on the skin that at first I am completely lifted out of my sombre expectations into the bright air of morning atop a mountain. I won’t even try to explain which notes I am smelling, I’ll only give impressions. ‘De Profundis’ demands a more instinctual than intellectual reaction, which is interesting given the intellectual natural of it’s creator. Flowing, ethereal flower veils drifting on a breath as pure as the first dew, the newest green shoots pushing skinny tendrils through the earth, a bed stuffed with hungarian goose down and draped with silks as fine as angels hair, creamy soft leather babies shoes, tumbling hay bales…. All these moments like crystal spheres hanging weightless in the vast expanse of time.
I understand that the above is a profound statement to make about a perfume, but I can think of no better way to describe how truly vast the scope of this fragrance is. It weaves and swoops and soars on wings spread wide for the first minutes of it’s life on my skin, floral, green, airy bright and fuzzy warm. Bizarrely beautiful. A woman wreathed in diaphanous mist, plucking all your most tender thoughts from your mind and hanging them before you like glass baubles. This woman with sad eyes and distracted beauty, settling into your soul and searching out your true meaning.
‘De Profundis’ does settle after a while, and warms and smoothes and comforts, maybe to distract you from the more sombre colours rising beneath. The feeling now is less vast and more deep. Deep and darkening into purple storm clouds. It is somnambular, drifting and unsettling. The veil between worlds is thin here. I understand more at this point where Lutens intended direction is for this perfume. It may well be about death, but abstracted and far removed from the intense loss of an individual. I feel that it may be more about choosing your next path when this one comes to an end, following the angel of death into the mists and emerging on the other side to start again.
It is too beautiful a perfume to be solely about loss, and the ceremony of loss. This is no funeral dirge. ‘De Profundis’ is transcendental and speaks to me of a mind already considering the next life. Maybe Lutens is not afraid of death and makes her beautiful so that others will not fear her either.
I become lost as I wear this scent, lost inside my own mind and the mind of Serge Lutens. When I emerge out of my reverie I force myself to consider ‘De Profundis’ as others will view it, a chrysanthemum soliflore of ambiguous description. Yet it is still singing softly on my skin and I remain convinced of it’s singular beauty. A tremulous mourning flower adrift in the ever flowing current of life. Or the woman with sad eyes standing still among the mists of time. It pulls me back into it’s profundity over and over, it is a truly introspective scent and not one to wear when you need to be proactive. I found it most enjoyable at night, when the whole bed became a raft of soft petals and smoothness, carrying me away into the twilight.
As much as I found ‘De Profundis’ extremely moving, I am glad to say that I did not find it melancholy. Unsettling, yes, and undoubtably a little sombre in its undercurrents, but it is dressed so well with beauty and life that the weight is lightened to become a comforting arm around your shoulder, rather than the heavy drag of fear. Maybe others will not find nearly so many depths as I have, but I jumped willingly down the rabbit hole and was not disappointed.
I know that ‘De Profundis’ will remain one of the most beautiful and thought provoking perfumes I have experienced for a long time.
Dear Monsieur Lutens,
I will never truly know what meaning the perfume had for you personally, or whether my over-active imagination has created a story you never meant to be imagined….I think that however this perfume is perceived is part of the artistry for you. To make the armour then hand it over to me to be worn in my battle through life. I can assure you that when I wear this perfume no battle ensues . It is a profoundly moving dream and one I intend to have over and over again…