Serge and the Great Siege

Vigiles_du_roi_Charles_VII_51What kind of a world would it be now without M. Serge?  Before he came along with Feminite du Bois, followed by his host of Moroccan inspired scents, the microcosm of French perfume was hermetically sealed in its fortress.  Its influences were internal, its masterpieces were Parisian, and no one could really unseat Guerlain or Caron or for that matter Chanel, in a joust of elegance.  They were the champions, and everyone else just prayed not to fall off the horse.

Everyone except for Serge.  He waged his own campaign from the get go, in the idiosyncratic manner of all geniuses and world conquerors.  Serge loved Morocco with an apparently deathless affection and so all his fragrances reflected this love of place in one way or another, whether it was Moroccan sweets as in Rahat Loukhoum or the smell of the souk as in Arabie, or the pine needle filtered air blown off the Atlas Mountains as in Fille en Aiguilles.

Did he make the world a safer place for brands like Montale and Amouage and AbdesSalaam Attar after his conquest of Paris?  In all probability, he did. He also introduced fleet competition, just at the time when IFRA & Co began shooting the toes off European fine perfumery’s feet one by one, thereby rendering them pretty useless in a race and easily outrun in a rout.  Soon there will be no point in trying to find premium perfume in Europe, unless, of course, it is bespoke perfume or Swiss.

The UAE, however, will be another matter, just how much their resident perfumers care about IFRA and its restrictions is debatable.  Presumably such regulations affect their exports to Europe, but then, who really cares about an impoverished European market heading into a second recession?

As for Serge and his Golden Horde, his parent company is Japanese, after all.  This fact gives him and his backers at Shiseido more strategic options. Serge perfumes are richer and denser and more interesting than their competitors’, and this seems to be true almost across the board.  I would really rather wear Douce Amere than Lolita Lempicka, or Rose de Nuit than Guerlain’s Rose Barbare.  As to his florals, they can be wonderful in a  moonlit Moroccan garden style, and there is almost no jasmine perfume that competes with Sarrasins.

There are some clever compositions out there, Jasmin et Cigarette for instance, but the formulas smell comparatively thin. This, set in tiny type, is the problem with most of M. Serge’s competition, they cannot swirl the same oversized calligraphy of scent across the air as Serge. His real competition is probably AbdesSalaam Attar and other independent perfumers.  All his western corporate competitors do not possess the necessary flair or pliancy; their business models, like their ways, are set.

As for me, I am reveling in blasts of Chergui and swathes of Sarrasins (courtesy of the lovely Sigrun at Ryktig Parfym) and of course the smell of the saddle across which all the subjugated scents get hauled: Muscs Khublai Khan.

Hey, sometimes the invaders aren’t all barbaric all the time.  Serge isn’t.







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10 thoughts on “Serge and the Great Siege

  1. It continues to puzzle me that the only Serge I really love is La Myrrhe. I *could* possibly fall for Fleurs d’Oranger (the reformulated, less-skanky version is the only one I’ve tried) or Datura Noir, but so far I haven’t been swept away.

    I’m not sure it’s a richness issue, or a complexity issue… I so adore Amouage Memoir Woman and L’Arte di Gucci, and I’d call those two fragrances comparable in those terms.

    I do understand Serge’s place in the perfumista pantheon, I do… his boldness and total lack of focus-group sensibility makes his fragrances interesting. But so few of them smell *good* to me.

    • A “house” issue for you here, or maybe a style one. I have it in reverse with Amouage to which I can never quite cotton. It’s beautiful, it’s quality, I can smell it, but I can’t wear it – so far, anyhow.

      With Serge my problem is the difference between the export releases and the bell jars. The bell jars are simply in another class. Like you, I love la Myrrhe and even wore the Keiko Mecheri copy Myrrhe et Merveilles for a while. Now I find L’Aimant sort of pinch hits for La Myrrhe. De Profundis knocked me for a loop. It is one of those profound melancholic perfumes you never forget.

      He may not be for all of us, or all the time, but post-1993 perfumery is Serge’s world – and all the rest of us have had to adapt to it.

  2. I own more Full Bottles of Serge Lutens than any other house. I do not even remember how I found him/his brand. My first was Borneo, followed closely by Ambre Sultan, Fumerie Turque, FiveO’Clock au Givembre, Chergui, and Muscs Kublai Kahn. I think his brand is so very special. And I am glad that people like you, facile with words and descriptions, can make concrete, the ethereal, abstract, illusions I have floating in my head. I am happy you love his fragrances, too. Thank you for this good article!

    • Serge is something special, that is for sure. You’ve got a great selection there as well. I understand it completely, and have really been seduced by Chergui, Sarrasins and Muscs Khublai Khan.

      Borneo I have yet to smell. If it’s like Chanel’s Coromandel, then it is one strange and paradoxical perfume, but then there’s something strange, almost half awake, about all Lutens perfumes. I pinch myself, after smelling many of them.

      • I have heard before people comparing Coromandel to Borneo, and honestly I don’t think they are at all alike. To me Coromandel is soft and fluffy and sweet, like Kalimantan by Chantecaille, or Mitzah, by Dior. Borneo is very very dry. The chocolate notes do soften it, but it stays austere and reserved. I adore Borneo, but even better, containing the notes of patchouli and chocolate (and vanilla) is my new Love: Pyschedelique by Jovoy Paris. I have even tried Borneo on one arm and Coromandel on the other, and I think they are barely far distant cousins twice removed.

        • That’s interesting. I’d heard that they were similar but it seems not so much, and actually the idea of an extremely dry perfume with a chocolate note sounds really good to me!

          Of the Jovoys, I’ve only been able to try L’Enfant Terrible which didn’t last very long on me.

  3. I want to start with saying that I think it’s a very good article (I wish I was able to write something like that).

    I like many Lutens’ perfumes but there is not a single perfume in the line I could not live without whereas there are several Chanels and Guerlains that are very important to me. But I’m glad that Serge Lutens exists and I have much more hopes for this house than for the other two (I’m not familiar with Caron much so I can’t talk about it at all).

    • Thanks Undina, I enjoyed writing this one.

      Like you, I haven’t found a Lutens I have to have yet, but there are some that are very hard to resist -that Rose de Nuit for instance (Though I won’t pay 200.00 a bell jar to Barneys-scuse me all to heck) Gotta love some of the Guerlains. Old Cotys are always in my fridge. Respect the quality at Chanel, but never seem to buy them. Hermes I sometimes do buy and wear, but Caron is the only company I wear consistently and never ever sell- and I only wear the perfume strengths.

      However M. Serge really shook things up. We’d never have the Art et Matiere line without him- don’t you think? And that has had some wonderful things in it, or that great Parfums du Desert series. Plus all the Middle Eastern perfumes, all those Amouages! Serge has done a lot for us.

      • I think Imislead you :) : I own several SL’s perfumes and enjoy wearing them. But all those arejust strong “likes” and not a single “love.” So if I had to give up a brand, Serge Lutens would be long before Amouage, Chanel or even Guerlain.

        • Well there you go, Serge does manage to find a home with most of us sooner or later, actually you probably have a bell jar or so. Lucky you!

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