In an ideal world, perfume should lift you, move you, and make you happy. You don’t expect it to send you into a funk, fill you with overwhelming sadness and a tinge of despair, particularly not when the perfume comes from one of your favorite houses, from a brand justifiably celebrated the world over for its visionary brilliance, and from a man who you respect and admire above all others. Unfortunately, sadness and feeling depressed are precisely what ensued when I tried the remaining three new Section d’Or releases from Serge Lutens. I wish that were dramatic exaggeration or hyperbole, but it is not.
It’s been a struggle over the last few years whenever I’ve tried one of the latest Lutens fragrances, a constant warring between my love of the old classics and my difficulty with the brand’s new direction. I played Devil’s Advocate with myself, saying it was unfair and selfish of me to expect an artist to keep doing the same thing that once made him famous and celebrated, that it was understandable for Oncle Serge to want to try new things, and that I shouldn’t impose my taste preferences on how someone expressed their creativity. I tried to reason that the quality was still there (against some pretty solid evidence of Sephora-like synthetic commercialism like La Vierge de Fer and Laine de Verre). And I tried to keep my growing frustration in check.
The new Section d’Or Collection originally gave me hope because the first release, L’Incendiaire, seemed to promise a return to the dark orientalism that made me love Lutens to begin with. Okay, the price was very high and it wasn’t the most inventive or creative fragrance around in its remix of old hits, but at least we were heading in a good direction, eschewing things like the hideously icy Eaux or unchallenging, commercially safe, clean compositions in favour of the dark richness or orientalism that the brand had once displayed all the time. It was a start. Oncle Serge still had it, I told myself, at least somewhere in there, right? The well hadn’t run dry and there was hope, right? The next ones would be a return to form, I told myself. Right?
After trying two of this year’s five new releases, L’Haleine des Dieux and Sidi Bel-Abbes, I felt crushed. And incredibly confused. That bewilderment was heightened when a friend who loves Lutens and niche fragrances, and who thoughtfully sent me samples of the remaining three — Renard Constrictor, Cracheuse de Flammes, and Cannibale — told me that I’d already tried the best of the lot. I didn’t understand what he meant because I couldn’t understand what he meant. “How is that even remotely possible?,” I asked myself. Guaiac Cream of Wheat and a very generic, linear, smoky, amber-woody aromachemical scent were the best of the lot, the comparatively “good ones”??! I didn’t believe him. He couldn’t possibly be right.
He was right. To my utter disbelief and despondency, the last three are somehow even worse. Not only are they less interesting, distinctive, and creative, more synthetic and/or commercially safe, but they put what little fragile hope I had for the future into jeopardy. To be fair, none of the five new releases are hideous or terrible fragrances as compared to what you’d find in a cheap department store. But when measured against the great Serge Lutens and what once came before, they are either average or, in one case, brutally mediocre to below average. And when considered against the high price tag — $700, €600, or £500 in one case for a small 50 ml bottle — they are lamentably derivative, lacking that special Lutens magic and innovative originality.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was almost on the verge of tears at one point. It’s not any one particular or individual fragrance that did it, but the sum-total of what all five represent in conjunction with what has been happening in recent years with the regular releases. I don’t handle loss or the loss of glory well when it comes to one of my icons. This was a trailblazing house but I’ve always loved and admired Serge Lutens, the man, more than his fragrances. To me, he’s one of the last true greats of the 20th century, up there with people like my beloved Yves St. Laurent, and the perfume version of Picasso, except better in some ways because he had visionary brilliance in a multitude of areas, not just one. (You can read Part I of a profile I did on his early years and his work in fashion, makeup, photography, and film before he set his sights on perfume to see what I mean.)
I haven’t understood for some years now what’s happened to the originality, beauty, style, and general aesthetic of the brand. Not all the old fragrances were wearable to me, but that was usually because they were more like Art with a capital “A.” (Hello, Iris Silver Mist and your futuristic, sci-fi iris.)
But now, I’m truly flummoxed and saddened. These latest fragrances were like seeing a loved one dying, metaphorically speaking. The death rattle is loud, it’s crushing the joyous anticipation I once felt at the mere thought of a new Lutens, and it’s becoming harder and harder with every new release not to give up hope entirely. Matters aren’t helped by alarming portents for the future from Shiseido, like their stated plans to open Lutens boutiques around the world (thereby diluting the uniqueness, the power, and the sanctity of the Palais Royale temple), and their official takeover of the Serge Lutens trademark.
If you think that I’m being overly emotional, it’s not just me who is feeling this way. Mark Behnke, the former Managing Editor at CaFleureBon who now writes at his own site, Colognoisseur, seems to have thrown in the towel entirely after the latest Section d’Or fragrances. He couldn’t even bring himself to properly review them, and his clearly grieving post actually paraphrases Don McLean’s “American Pie” song about the day the music died. His final words above the standard sample disclosure are: “Adieu! It was fun while it lasted.” Two friends of mine echoed similar feelings after trying the latest releases and think the house is finished, its greatness gone for good. A third, the one who sent me the 3 new samples, doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet, but is clearly confounded by the “mediocrity.”
I can’t give up just yet, simply because of my admiration and love for Serge Lutens, the man. So, I will try to cover the last three of the new fragrances as best as I can in the upcoming days and with as much objectivity or balance as I can muster, starting first with reviews for Renard Constrictor, then Cracheuse de Flammes and Cannibale, but I’m warning you now that my heart isn’t in it.