The Audacity of Mr Lutens
Perfumier, make-up artist and photographer Serge Lutens talks to Maxine Leonard about beauty, audacity and artistic freedom.
Interview Maxine Leonard
My mother bought me your book, Serge Lutens, at the start of my career. It had a huge impact on how I approached my craft. I would take it on set with me like the Bible, and every time I opened it I would see something new. How long did the book take to create and how did you begin the process?
It’s not the book itself, it’s the life, the process of creating, the whole process of living. It’s a process throughout life. It started with hair dressing, then I became a make-up artist, and I didn’t study any of this – I was self-made in those few years. Then I went to photography, cinema, perfume, but really everything started in my childhood. I’m 74 today, but it’s the development over a lifetime. You say things in a book, but really it’s things that you say in a different way. You’re constantly saying the same things in different ways.
Do you think the digital process strips away the poetry captured on film? I ask this because our issue’s theme is plastic and there’s a new generation of photographers who have gone back to celluloid.
Picasso said, “If I didn’t have paint, I would paint with soil, and if I didn’t have soil, I would paint with shit.” It’s the essence that matters, not the technique. Technique is nothing. Digital didn’t exist then. I now use digital to revamp photos; it’s a method to beautify things. What counts is the satisfaction you get from something – it’s the expression, through whatever means, modern or not. Nobody cares what mediums you’re using to produce something beautiful.
Your position at Dior was revolutionary. Was it your editorial work with photographers such as Penn and Avedon that Dior noticed? How did this relationship start? Did you have creative freedom or were there boxes that needed to be ticked commercially?
Yes, I would work with photographers, and Dior at the time were looking for someone to invent their make-up. They only had lipsticks and nail varnish, and that was it. So in 1967 I worked with Dior for one year without a contract, more like a freelancer. So I did try-outs with them, they would call me from time to time. And in 1968 I got a contract and I was in charge of make-up. I become the only person [for make-up] in Dior.
There was a very famous model at the time, [who Dior worked with], named Nicole de Lamargé. She could make herself look beautiful with make-up, and she had lots of tips and tricks. She would do incredible, strange things in photo shoots. One day I remember seeing her sort of pinching her tongue over her lip, to make her lip look bigger. She would put colour on her tongue, and it gave the impression that she had massive lips. It was monstrous, but it worked, and this was before the internet, before Photoshop, but she had that talent to amaze, to use the effects of make-up. She would make herself more beautiful; she had lots of ideas.
Magazines have been contaminated by the very idea of themselves, by a feminine ideal that no longer has anything to do with women, and by an endemic idea of men
I made colour for Dior. They said to me, “You’re going to make colour,” and I told them that I’d never done it before. They said, “Well, you’ll have some paste and some crockery, and you’ll come to Dior, to the laboratory.” And I said, “No. I’m too shy, I’m going do it at home and I’ll bring you what I’ve created the next day. Because it’s too busy at the laboratory and there are too many people. I’d be too shy, I’d be criticised.” I used to be very shy. I am still very shy – I have the audacity of shy people.
So I created the Dior colours for years, in my kitchen, on a Sunday – women throughout the world would have the colours of my kitchen on their face. And the first creation I did for them was a lipstick. At the time there was a lot of mother of pearl, and the lipsticks were really sticky, and I made a product that was very translucent. That kind of product didn’t exist at the time. And Christian Dior used to be very conventional. So I brought these colours, I tried them on a model, and people thought it was surprising – it was good but I was told that the client base was very traditional. So they weren’t sure; they said “maybe yes, maybe no”. For nearly two years it stayed in the box. It didn’t make sense to me, but for them it was the end of the world. Then Estée Lauder launched the shiny translucent colours and then I became a genius – that’s how you become a genius, when people copy you.
And that’s how the French are – they are small, they look into themselves, they don’t have audacity, and they’re boring. From then on I started making photos, I started making up models, and I used to make up girls very white, and oh, my god, the things I heard, all the criticism… Freedom doesn’t exist. You have to grab it. If you don’t violate life you don’t get freedom. It’s not a combat exactly – you either have this personality or not, or you just stand still and don’t do anything. But that’s not me. I go for it. I scream. I break. I don’t care about dying. I never lower my flag. And this is a way of living that gives one freedom; nobody is going to give you freedom.
You have to go and get it.
It’s within you, and you get it because you fight. Either you fight or you’re a victim, and that’s something you learn, and it’s a talent that shy people have because shy people manage to get out of themselves.
Your make-up range feels determined in its approach. There’s a simplicity and a directness, whereas most ranges have hundreds of colours that are overwhelming and irrelevant. How did you design the range? Was there a specific woman you were targeting?
If it was for a specific woman, it was sort of within me – there’s no physical manifestation of that woman. I feel things in myself more than wanting to create for a particular woman. It’s a mental image of a woman, it’s not an actual woman. But of course some women recognise themselves in my creations. And when I started working in make-up, it wasn’t like this at all.
There are different eras in make-up: towards the end of the 60s, people started changing their opinion on make-up: women didn’t really buy make-up – they bought a certain idea of freedom, because they felt constricted in the rules around make-up. In the magazines at the time, you were told that “if you have this kind of jaw, then you have to apply blush a bit like a beard, and put on a lot, or if you have a long face, you have to do this or that…” Basically you were told that you were ugly and horrible and make-up would help you, and so by using make-up you too could improve!
So I created crazy colours: red for eyes, purples, bright yellow. Suddenly people weren’t faced with just colours, they were faced with different opinions of themselves, and it corresponded with the time when women were “burning their bras”. It was a frame of mind, women were fed up with being constricted; they were suffocated in the 50s. And women in the 60s weren’t buying make-up and weren’t actually using it that much. They used one colour out of the three that they bought; they would sort of use the traditional one, but they had the other two as a stimulation.
So that’s what they were buying, they were buying that freedom, this way of saying “no, enough is enough” – and that lasted a while. Then I was consecrated by American Vogue and American magazines in general. Diana Vreeland said that it was a revolution in terms of wearing make-up. She would say, “Serge Lutens, revolution of make-up!” Suddenly it became huge, and it was like a bombshell. And everything changed, the attitude changed, especially in America and in France. Suddenly people changed the way they were doing things in the industry, and then we saw the [emergence of] the stores, the boutiques. It was enormous – you needed 20 years to choose one lipstick! You went in aged 20 and you would come out aged 40 because it took so long! One didn’t determine the will, the desire, one determined the amount of choice.
Freedom doesn’t exist. You have to grab it. If you don’t violate life, you don’t get freedom. It’s not a combat exactly — you either have this personality or not, or you just stand still and don’t do anything. But that’s not me. I go for it. I scream. I break. I don’t care about dying. I never lower my flag. And this is a way of living that gives one freedom; nobody is going to give you freedom.
Do you find that amount of choice slightly vulgar?
It just doesn’t really offer anything. It just offers a purchase. It’s a waste of time; women don’t have the time. I don’t think you need too much choice. What counts is to offer something unique that creates the taste and desire.
You have to make do with your own self; you have to be satisfied with what your self dictates for you. Initially I was just trying to create a vanity case, according to my own taste, because make-up can be just politeness that you apply to your face. It’s a form of courtesy towards others. You sort of improve things, but that’s not really make-up – that’s just limiting the damage. And that’s a good thing as well, but it’s just a quick fix. You do it because you have to present yourself to people. It’s just like the chain that you wear: you wear it but you don’t see it, but you know it’s there, and it’s a piece of confidence. And it’s the same with your hair, it’s a sort of self-confidence that you take with you in the morning – like an encouragement. Your perfume, your blouse, your chain, this blend becomes your suit of armour.
Definitely the hair and the lips are.
It’s very important. And the second aspect of make-up is about wanting to impress. It’s about opening a door on silence, so everybody is suddenly silent, everybody gasps. And that’s a different attitude, and you can achieve this with your make-up, your outfit – it’s a stance that you take, and that you impose on yourself as well. It’s a way of giving yourself courage and conviction. So make-up is the proposing of an attitude. It’s not about offering products, that doesn’t matter. It’s a means of saying, “You could be like this, like that”. At the end of the day I don’t really care what you want to look like, that’s up to you. It’s the attitude that matters. It’s like perfume, it’s an assessment, the nose evaluates; it’s not a machine to buy perfume.
Our magazine took punk in essence because it said “screw the formula”. Is this is an approach you take in your artistry?
It’s not exactly an approach that I took, but I do things as I feel them, according to what I feel at the time. You’re made up of several different things, and you follow different phases as well – of doubt, of fragility, of strength, of conviction. The idea is to perceive those things; it cannot be explained.
Would you say that there was maybe an overall tone of being fairly anti-establishment?
You behave towards society very differently depending on what you’ve experienced before.
In what way?
It’s very complex. It’s a choice that took place very early. I was born in 1942, during the war. My mother was an adulteress, and I was the mistake. My relationship with society, let’s say, wasn’t very ‘sympathetic’. I love [my parents]. But my relationship with society was established from the outset. I am not necessarily ‘against society’, but I hate politicians. I hate most things in fact. I feel very confident in what disgusts me. That’s what gives you strength – this rejection, this refusal. Either that or you’re impassive and you agree. But life put me in such a position that I couldn’t just agree. I was separated from my mother because adultery was illegal at the time, and so she and I were in danger as well. And of course this feeling of rejection that I had worsened. But it’s good too, because it made me. Happiness doesn’t really give rise to anything, it creates boring passive people.
Are you frustrated with the language that is used to communicate beauty in our society and what it is or should be?
It’s hideous. They don’t talk about beauty; they talk about business. They’re sort of peddlers, and the peddlers are usually the ones who don’t have anything to offer. It’s sinister. They don’t use a confident language. They don’t use the language of beauty. It’s not just beauty though, they don’t offer anything; they don’t offer ideas. People are not made to dream. The current generation has no dreams.
Do you think it’s a delusion to identify with imagery we are exposed to?
Identifying with something is never good. You can be influenced by certain behaviours, especially when you’re a teenager you need something to lean on and that can be helpful. It can be a way of finding yourself – but not always. I have always been deluded, but I have never had any illusions. Disappointed is a word that I don’t like myself, because it implies that, for a time at least, you believed in it. On the whole, magazines are no longer able to stand out and to truly be different. They’ve been contaminated by the very idea of themselves, by a feminine ideal that no longer has anything to do with women, and also by an endemic idea of men. The current state of affairs is not the sole responsibility of the magazines themselves, but of an overall, generalised way of thinking, a kind of chamaeleonic mimicry that informs us of the same opinion in different forms.
DH Lawrence said, “Sex and beauty are inseparable, like life and consciousness.” Do you relate to this idea in your work?
Let’s just say that what speaks to DH Lawrence doesn’t necessarily speak to you or me. Some people make love in beds, others on tables. As for me, danger may be what stimulates my senses in intimate relationships, and may even be synonymous with love. Beauty, as I see it, has to be dangerous; danger is incredibly attractive.
Andy Warhol was said to have divided people into “beauties” and “talkers”, but is beauty not in the eye of the beholder? Isn’t one’s mind more powerfully beautiful than one’s looks?
Which group would you put Andy Warhol into? That’s the question I’d like to ask myself! His bleach-damaged hair, pockmarked skin and swollen nose – I knew it quite well from my time working for Interview – piercing eyes, incredible opportunism (always in his best interest), and a delightfully twisted mind that always told him how to get maximum profit out of any situation. Overall, in my opinion, perfect taste! In addition to all of these qualities, he always knew who he was and who else was like him – and I was among them.
I was trained in Japan by Mr Shu Uemura and, coming from London, I was initially confused by their obsession with perfection. Has your work been influenced by perfection?
Yes, but perfection in Japan is very interesting, because it’s actually aimed at death. It’s so perfect that it’s actually aiming at death. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect.
Beauty Papers is a new brand and I do not want to conform to what is expected. Our goal is to change, provoke and be disruptive in an industry that has forgotten how to. I believe in combining the wisdom of the authority with the new voice. Meeting you has been timely. What advice can you give me on my journey?