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April 1, 2005

"Dream Team" By Luca Turin

"Dream Team" By Luca Turin

Twelve years have passed since Shiseido opened its Paris Salons in the Jardins du Palais Royal. Right from Day One it was clear that Shiseido’s design supremo Serge Lutens was fully in control, and therefore that no shortcuts would be allowed. Bottles, packaging, decoration, dress of the sales assistants, light level, every exquisite detail added to the dark, intoxicating spell of the place. Few in 1992 believed that Lutens could keep up the promised pace of at least two new perfumes a year for long. Twenty-eight perfumes later, we are blessed with the most coherent modernist oeuvre since Ernest Daltroff’s glorious years at Caron (1904-41). Daltroff was a perfumer, Lutens is not, someone had to translate his vision into fragrances. The Aaron to Lutens’ Moses is Chris Sheldrake of Quest International, probably the most skilled natural-products perfumer around.

What have they created ? Simply put, a new style of perfumery. Considered as music, perfumes sing melody (Diorissimo’s coloratura soprano), harmony (Beyond Paradise’s angelic choir) or some counterpoint in between (most others). By contrast, each of the Lutens-Sheldrake perfumes explores a different timbre. Opening the bottles is like blowing into a weird instrument made of an uncommon material: out comes a loud, steady, startling note. Devotees of the Saint-Saëns school of perfumery have called them unfinished and disparaged them as "bases", i.e. building blocks. That is missing the point. Bases are meant to be mixed, whereas what Lutens wanted, and got, was each idea (or raw material) fleshed out precisely to the point where it ceases to need company but retains its soul entire.

It doesn’t always work, and for example I find the florals, Un Lys, Sa Majesté la Rose and Fleurs d’Oranger a little trite in a white-lace sort of way. But was there ever a more brazenly animalic confection than Muscs Koublaï Khan, a sunnier homage to the nostalgic plushness of hay than Chergui, or a more accurate rendition of the rubbery heart of tuberose than Tubéreuse Criminelle ? The latest two (2004) are outlier points, unusually abstract and apparently prompted by a desire on Lutens’ part to step back from the (delightful) orientalism of most of his creations. Chêne is an astringent, almost bitter tincture of oaks and the mosses that festoon them in primeval European forests. Daim Blond (blonde suede) is a rethink of that most refined of all perfume styles, the leather chypre, stripped of... everything that Chêne contains. It is almost as if these two magicians had taken an axe to Bandit and found that the halves scuttled away, each with a life of its own. The fairy tale continues.

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