Monday, October 29, 2007

Chypre Rouge by Serge Lutens: fragrance review

It's not often that a perfume assumes a stolen identity to pass icognito under our noses, hiding its true nature under a misnomer. Chypre Rouge is not a chypre by any stretch of the imagination, even taking into account the new chypre contestants that assimilate the older façade. It takes the symbolic image of red oakmoss of Chypre Rouge to make one think of an interpretation of a fantasy in which darkness and light mirror the hues of the No-like makeup that Lutens has always opted for in one of his previous incarnations as makeup director for Dior and Shiseido. And much like those waxy materials that metamorphose plain features into studies in cubism, Chypre Rouge has a weird power in it that transports the notion of chypre into the realm of oriental meets occidental.

Chypre Rouge came into the public scene with one of the most impressive yet somehow incoherent press releases to date.
It ran like this:
“I remember looking at the forest ground, covered with dead leaves, and finding it both macabre and beautiful. Something caught my attention: a strange patch of moss at the base of a tree, it looked as if it were bleeding, purple and red. Ceremonial dress, splendid and dying, lit by the rays of a nearby clearing. “Don’t deny, you will confess!” In this doorless dungeon we look for an exit. Thin light comes from a murdering hole.
Eagle nest, precious stones, coat of arms, standards, what are we made of? Eternity, limpidity, freshness, beauty, velvet softness. A secret continent of which we would be the body, in golden darkness, moss of spices and vermeil. The kiss of a choirboy on the ring of an archbishop.
Softness and depth, secret in scents where, laying our cheeks we can only dream.”
(press release courtesy of Scenteur d'Ailleurs)

Now, before you get any naughty ideas about the choirboy and the archibishop's ring, I have to add that imaginative imagery has always been at the core of the Lutens canon, so we are to take this as a flight of fancy, a reminiscence about his childhood in Hansel and Gretel land.

And just where is this mythical land? Osmoz says a propos de Chypre Rouge that it "was inspired by Serge Lutens’s memories of fall in his native Vendée region of western France". Native? Please allow me to disagree on that score. Lutens was born in Lille which is quite far from Vendée. In fact as revealed here, he spent his youth in Lille too!
However I am perfectly willing to believe that he had some extended family or friends who stayed there and that his visits were coloured with the sweeping brush of vermeil and purple mentioned.
It is not without importance to note that he was a neglected child whose mother donned black on her second wedding day, perhaps a symbol that rang poignant in his id. The confessional tone, mingled with the religious overtones of the papal purple, hint at a desire to express some secret ache that needs to surface through the catharsis of the artistic. And so Chypre Rouge becomes deeply personal, psychological endoscopisis rendering it difficult to interpret by someone outside the circle.

Upon encountering Chypre Rouge one is hit with the earthy smell of celery. So vivid is the impression that doubting our artistic tendencies we do a double take wondering what came upon them to devise such a -shocking to many- opening. Of course Lutens is no stranger to exagerration and carefully constructed ugliness; which puts the essential final straw on a perfect specimen, like the demonic camphorous Vapo-rub opening of Tubéreuse Criminelle, another daring Chris Sheldrake creation. However the latter is to be distributed directly from Les Salons du Palais Royal being part of the exclusive range, therefore a touch of the outré is not particularly unexpected. Chypre Rouge forms part of the export line and therefore it stroke me as odd that such a choice of top notes was opted for.
The progression to fenugreek and immortelle (the note that accounts for the maple surupy hot sands of a deserted beach of Annick Goutal's Sables and the pronounced curriness in Dior Eau Noire) comes after some minutes to soothe sensibilities and transport into the territory of the spicy with subtle whiffs of flowers, dried, rolled into heaps of curried dust. Mace and coriander raise their beady heads out of this basket that recalls Arabic souks, like most of the Lutens creations, especially Arabie, influenced by his mysterious seraglioat Morocco that no one has ever visited. Named "Al Medina al Hamra", Red City because of its architecture, Marrakesh has served as a rich pool of inspiration for Lutens and his vision of perfume as a homage to a cross-reference of civilisations.
The final phase of caramelised nuts rolled into musky, smooth moss is the least challengening, but by then potential audiences will have either walked away or braved the initial coup in anticipation of the soft nucleus. It is unfortunate that I tend to the former group.

Chypre Rouge launched in 2006 as an Eau de Parfum Haute Concetration, a term that denotes higher concentration of aromatic essences because of the nature of the latter that demand a higher saturation point to be perceptible and is not meant to imply that it is louder in odour volume.

Official notes:
thyme, pine needles, pecans, fruit gums, honey, beeswax, jasmine, patchouli, amber, vanilla, moss and musks.

Instead of further commentary I direct you to Placebo with brilliant Brian Molko and their song "Meds":

(uploaded by dagonsio)

Please remind me to post "The Bitter End" (again by Placebo) if Serge Lutens trully retires from fragrance creation, per rumours.

Top pic from the film Carrie by Brian de Palma (1976)/Filmhai. Ad pic courtesy of autourdeserge.


  1. Anonymous11:30

    Well, I'm a Chypre Rouge fan. It's an ugly-beautiful perfume, to suit ugly-beautfiful moods.

    As for Brian Molko - I think he might have taken things other than his meds in that video - I'm thinking ketamin, a little acid, and viagra (the clue to the latter is in the first bedroom sequence). Nice to see a nod to The Wickerman halfway through...

  2. Lee, nice to see you here. I was disappointed I could warm up the jolie laide concept of CR. It worked so well for me in Tubereuse Criminelle...

    LOL on Molko and what a cult film The Wickerman is. ;-)

  3. My dear Helg, Placebo is my favorite band and has been for some years now.. I am *delighted* to see this video on your blog! You have made my evening!!

    The beautiful Brian discusses perfume on the opposite end of Lutens here:

  4. Dear J

    I had no idea! I am overjoyed to see that you're such a big fan (and that I made your evening *smooch*), because so am I!
    Brian is so erudite and eloquent and brilliantly fluent in French too, which is more than one can expect from one's average pop/rock star, isn't it?

    Thanks for the weirdly compelling link; punny and informative and yeah, loved the perfume reference.

  5. I have to admit that for as long as this has been out, I still haven't smelled it. Not for lack of wanting to. It sounds really interesting. I like both Sables and Eau Noire C.D. Hmmm... I wonder since it's so weird, will I like? I have a feeling I might appreciate it. One day, I will smell this stuff. Even Tuberose Criminelle, I still haven't smelled. God, I love Lutens and I haven't smelled these two fragrances. For shame!

  6. I quite loved Chypre Rouge when I bought it -- I think I'm quite an immortelle lover, which may or may not be due to the fact that I'm a maple-syrup-raised Canadian... It has since migrated to the stash of the red-headed Brit who shares my life and steals my perfumes, since it seems to suit his chemistry perfectly: if proof was wanted that Chypre Rouge is not a chypre, it would be that it smells delicious on that chypre-killing freckled skin, who transforms any hint of oakmoss in an evil potion... I think the reference to SL's childhood also points to the fact that several spices in this composition are actually Northern spices such as mace and celery seeds, much used in French medieval cuisine. In fact, many Eastern spices were also generously used in pre-classical age French cooking. Somehow Chypre Rouge makes me think of some decadent Crusader's ragoût...

  7. Nah...I think you will soon enough, M. I think they're both interesting, although TC is the winner in my heart.

  8. I appreciate the culinary references a lot, D.
    Crusader's ragout sounds really great as an image.
    I also applaud the further proof (via the freckled skin non-reaction)you provide.

    Myself I love Sables, although EN was too much "curry" for me. CR fell somewhere in between.

  9. I'm still working on becoming friends with this one. I like it and some days I think I need a full bottle, but right now I suspect that it's more of an intellectual game than a perfume that makes me smell and feel beautiful.

  10. helg have you seen Placebo in concert? They are wonderful! I saw them in Melbourne and am in awe of how much touring they do (and how lucky Europe is). Brian is very creative individual.. and also gorgeous to look at :)

  11. Gaia,
    my opinion is that Serge intentionally aspires to provoke intellectual rather than gut responses, which is one of the main reasons that I personally became interested in his vision. Of course wearability is not their strong point, but the line is always interesting to discuss and re-test: like a great book, there is something afresh to discover with every subsequent "reading".

    I wonder which ones of his are your favourites to smell beautiful.

  12. Indeed they are!!
    Wow, did they go as far as Melbourne? Good for you! Hope they come again.

  13. I love this- but sometimes, layering it w/ Amber Sultan [ I know- that one doesn't play nicely with you, either- sorry !]or Santal Blanc helps to undercut the sweetness and celery...

    I think severely cold weather helps this fragrance.

    I DO love to smell it- whether I'm in the mood to wear it or not.

  14. Oh, dear I.
    You do remember my ill-fitting AS incidents...I wish it played nice, I think it suits male skin better sometimes.
    Santal Blanc is tame though and could work; or another of the Bois series, have to experiment.

    It's the intense celery-thing that is hard for me to pull off. The mid to base, although rather sweet for my tastes, I can manage.

    You have a point about the cold weather.

  15. Helg, I can actually wear most of the scents, except for those heavy on white flowers (just like with any other perfume house). I feel especially great in Vetiver Oriental, Cedre, Chergui and Louve (that one surprised me. I was ready to hate it).

  16. We have some overlapping then, Gaia! I love VO, Cedre and Chergui from your choices :-)
    (but myself I do well with his white flowers too; lucky, I guess)

  17. Anonymous14:16

    I love/hate this - reminds me of very brightly coloured poisonous frogs, fascinating but creepy spiders or the plant I saw once on a beach, a sort of penisoid, deadly pale thing surrounded by crimson tendrils. Disgusting, but you couldn't take your eyes off it. I'll follow Chaya's suggestion, though, and try it again when it's very cold.

  18. Dear Z,
    I would be very curious indeed to hear your impressions! The plant you describe is intriguing ~to say the least; and after that I am humbled that celery sticks out to me....

  19. Anonymous10:31

    Thank you for a brilliant -as always- review. I own a few SLs and have been considering purchasing CR lately. However, with the possible exception of Ambre Sultan, and the "safer" ones I have (Cedre, Santal Blanc, Chergui)most of SL fragrances seem to pose an intellectual, rather than a purely olfactory, challenge to the wearer. I am both fascinated and perturbed by this notion of concept perfumery, the idea that fragrance can encapsulate a biographical or even cultural - historical essence (see Filles en Aiguilles for that matter). I will probably get CR, and will let you know. Again, thanks, and greetings from Athens.

  20. Thank you Dimitris, hope you enjoy it, it's been relegated to the Paris bell jars.

    Now, really, now that Hondos in the city centre doesn't carry Lutens anymore (Hermes street last I checked I mean), where do you find the export range?

  21. Anonymous09:15

    Elena, thank you for your reply. Now, Shisheido / Greece stopped importing SL, as you know, a few years ago. I brought Ambre Sultan from Zurich recently, yet, the incredible thing is that, yesterday, while browsing the discount shelves at Hondos/Kolonaki I spotted a Santal Blanc Tester and two unopened bottles, Cedre and Chypre Rouge. I bought Cedre right away and the Shisheido rep was kind enough to offer me the Santal Blanc Tester gratis! I am thinking of going back there soon to "grab" the Chypre Rouge as well! I will be abroad soon again, therefore I will probably purchase Muscs Kubla Khan and maybe Fumerie Turque (I am in for baroque Orientals, rather). Any suggestions from you for possible contenders along these lines would be more than welcome, if I am not imposing on your time. If I don't hear from you soon, best wishes for a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  22. D,

    how very fortunate for you!!! If you want the CR, then go get it, it's a shame being left behind (and who knows for how long)

    Yes, ordering from abroad is advised on these matters now. You have thumbs up from me on both MMK and FT, though MMK is a very polarizing scent: some (me and a few others) get "fuzzy kitten fur", some get "unwashed camel driver armpit". :-D

    Happy New Year!!! Υγεία, χαρά!

  23. Anonymous18:01

    Dear Elena, HAPPY NEW YEAR in good health and with creativity!

    I finally grabbed Chypre Rouge as well, and it has been a mixed experience so far. During the first 15 minutes if feels like a flower scented hand has been dipped in indian curry and cumin. Difficult first stage. After the initially perplexing -to say the least- stage, the fragrance turns more floral and oakmossy, which is a relief. But even then, it is not spectacular.
    Which brings me to the main issue/ concern about some SL creations. They have to be seen as aesthetic experiments in the context of a complex and self-complicating aesthetic logic that willingly, and organically, accomodates ugliness (an aesthetically constructed ugliness, for that matter). And they seem to be completely bi-polar in nature. Now, I don't mind all this in principle. But the said culinary notes I find disturbing, if not off-putting. I don't regret the purchase since it has been a consciously risky one.It has enhanced my involvement into Lutens' polarising universe. And now I can see your reticence about the fragrance (a rare trait in your always immensely gentle and discreet reviews).

  24. Anonymous09:35

    Dear Elena,
    HAPPY NEW YEAR in good health and with creativity!
    I finally grabbed the SL Chypre Rouge, and it has been a mixed experience so far. On my skin, it starts aggressively with a combination of floral notes and Indian curry and cumin! Gradually, thankfully, the culinary notes subside (roughly after 15 to 20 minutes) and the floral and oakmoss aspects come to prevail. Not unalloyed though. The dreaded notes rear their ugly head from time to time. Which brings me to the main issue / concern with SL. Some of his fragrances seem to be well calculated experiments on the dialectic of beauty and ugliness. One would have to engage in a complex discussion on his conception of perfumery and the overall comportment that one has to support in order to integrate such polarizing fragrances in one's life. I don't regret the purchase, though. It has been a consciously risky venture in the interest of enhancing my involvement into his universe. And now I can understand your relative reticence with regard to Chypre Rouge in your review.

  25. D,

    καλή χρονιά!!

    You did well to grab the bottle; I think it's a necessary step to getting to know a brand well, testing in leisure and owning some of the relative "duds" in the line. To me that's what CR is. Not successful, but worth getting acquainted with.
    It's also a highly collectible bottle because so very few actually got sold in the end (hence the relegation to the Paris exclusives line).
    I trust that you might be able to get some use of it or you can decant a bit for people interested in knowing it. ;-)

    All in all, bravo on your dedication!!


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