- a review of Parfums Serge Lutens’ La Vierge de Fer
When rumors began to circulate some months back about a new Serge Lutens perfume named after a medieval torture device (I’ll be getting back to that one), you can imagine that a discussion ensued on a perfume forum I frequent as to what that name might imply in olfactory terms – or not. Never mind we legions of Serge Lutens acolytes will always be insatiably curious about the next launch, certainly curious enough to feed the rumor mills and grease the wheels of our own olfactory imaginations.
But a medieval torture device?
Some stated flat out they would rather drop dead than wear anything so euphoniously named simply for the associations that came with it, while others among us have many fond memories of a rock band bearing that name’s English translation and were already flashing the horns in anticipation, all allegories of the Inquisition or indeed our mortal souls be damned.
So let me start there. The Iron Maiden as it exists in the public imagination today was a hoax. No historical evidence suggests it even existed until 1793 when the German philosopher Johann Phillipp Siebenkees became inspired by a reference in St. Augustine’s ‘The City of God’ to invent a particularly chilling example of manifest human cruelty. The most famous, known as the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg, can be dated no earlier than 1802 and would have been patently counterproductive as a torture device.
Meanwhile, the diabolical duo of M. Lutens and Mr. Sheldrake pulled out the rug under all our fragrant and/or morbid phantasms with La Vierge de Fer and in the process confounded us all. Again.
Knowing something of Serge Lutens’ propensity for audacious and inventive florals, I could have half-expected something at least as outré as its name, but also – experience is a witch – I know enough by now to expect the unexpected, which was precisely what I got.
La Vierge de Fer is indeed a floral, indeed a novel interpretation of a lily, but this lily bears no resemblance to Un Lys. Forget all you know about lilies and take a walk on a wintry path where gothic flowers bloom, as it begins to bloom in a huge, frilly, feminine pouf of aldehydes as blinding white and frigid as snow.
The lily grabs those aldehydes in moments and keeps them close by as a demure lily of the valley sidles in between them, but both the lily and the lily of the valley are immaculately scrubbed clean of all their earthier memories, suspended in an endless aldehydic mid-air somersault like flying floral trapeze artistes, and the safety net of arctic incense, a touch of chilly vanilla and white musk waits an infinite space below as they swing back and forth between the perpetual lily, lily of the valley in a morally ambiguous aldehydic love triangle. Where aldehydes are usually used as top notes, here they’re present front, center and nearly all the way to the basenotes some long hours later, as cold and nearly as bleak as a frosty December night before they give way to the no less chilly, steely incense, vanilla and metallic white musk at the base.
After multiple wearings this past fall, I’m still not sure whether this is a perfume, a benediction of light or a curse along the lines of that Chinese proverb: ‘may you live in interesting times.’ I suspect it may be all three at once, but bear with me…
According to the enigmatic press release, La Vierge de Fer was partly inspired by Joan of Arc, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and even memories of M. Lutens’ mother. Yet I sense an artistic theme in many of Serge Lutens’ latest releases that not only runs counter to our usual expectations of former fragrant and etiolated Oriental bombast, but also makes sense in terms of further explicating a personal aesthetic. I was reminded of M. Lutens’ own photographed demoiselles, those pale, sublime, elegantly articulated creatures of perfection which seem to exist in an alternate, timeless universe that keeps the rest of us mere mortals at a distinct, chilly and intimidating distance even as we are helpless to surrender to their bewitching spell. Even as we wonder whether their peerless complexions and enchanting eyes are masks concealing another kind of prison.
So I wonder at La Vierge de Fer and the other recent releases that have also highlighted florals in new and compelling ways: La Fille de Berlin, which was the tale of a thorny rose, Vitriol d’Œillet, the fiery carnation with teeth, Bas de Soie with its cool, restrained hyacinth or De Profundis with its intimations of impending mortality and chill frissons of chrysanthemum, violet and incense. All are far removed from the usual olfactory tropes of ‘floral’, and all are usually recreated in plush, dense fashions, except somehow, M. Lutens and Mr, Sheldrake have lately created florals as diaphanous as chiffon even as they are no less plush than before.
Make no mistake – La Vierge de Fer is a stunning, beautiful perfume. I find it not at all boring or linear. Although I do suspect those blinding, vivid aldehydes are not entirely benign…
And I’m reminded of a favorite fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen in the depths of La Vierge de Fer. Where a little boy named Kai is afflicted with a splint of a goblin mirror only to see the ugly in the world, and is abducted by the beautiful Snow Queen to the far, far North, where he sits at a frozen lake trying to assemble a puzzle to spell the word ‘eternity’ to achieve his freedom.
In the fairy tale, he only succeeded when his childhood friend Gerda after endless tribulations found him by the lake and melted the splinter in his heart with her tears, and the puzzle spelled eternity as they left the realm of the Snow Queen and returned to the world, and it was no longer winter, but glorious summer.
And at long last, the lilies are in bloom beneath an infinite blue sky, spelling out that chilling, endless word…
Notes: (my own impressions) Aldehydes, lily, lily of the valley, incense, vanilla, white musk.
La Vierge de Fer is an exclusive eau de parfum available as a 75 ml bell jar from the Palais Royal in Paris, from the Serge Lutens website for EU customers and from Barneys NY.
With profound thanks to Jack for the opportunity.
Photo: Detail from Alexander McQueen’s Haute Couture presentation, Autumn-Winter 2008.