Friday, 10 October 2014

Persolaise Review: L'Incendiaire from Serge Lutens (Christopher Sheldrake; 2014)

I don't often pass comment on the price of new perfume releases, but sometimes it's hard not to. The latest scent from Serge Lutens - the first in what is being presented as a new range of exclusive, gold-label bottles - is selling at £380 for 50 ml. That's right: £380. Or $600 for my American readers. Before anyone accuses me of being unjustifiably hysterical about this, yes, I realise that L'Incendiaire is an extrait, which means that, per millilitre, it falls within the same bracket as extraits from Guerlain, Chanel or Dior. And sure, I'm aware that we live in a world where prices rise rather than fall: most brands, both niche and mainstream, hike up their prices in small increments on a regular basis, and many of them now offer products which are well above the £200 margin. But even so, £380 for a single bottle of scent (which cannot be purchased in a smaller, less expensive form and comes from a company that isn't known for pushing exclusivity to silly extremes) is pretty shocking. That's why I'm inclined to give free rein to my hysteria and view L'Incendiaire as something of a watershed.

In recent years, several perfume houses have cottoned on to the fact that some people will pay anything for a passable smell in a pretty bottle. Or should that be: 'many people will pay anything'? The general consensus amongst economic commentators is that the poor are getting poorer whilst the rich are most definitely getting richer, which means that the latter need more toys on which to spend their pennies. Enter: canny fragrance brands who know that a little bit of bling goes a long way. Was it Jean-Claude Ellena who said that the way to make a 'luxury' perfume is to charge an arm and a leg for it? Someone's been taking his words to heart.

I know I've cited this example before, but it bears repeating. If a small brand like Neela Vermeire Créations (which, unlike Lutens and its wealthy parent company, does not enjoy economies of scale) can afford to sell 50 ml of a gorgeous extrait for about £300 (and pour it into what I suspect is a much more expensive bottle) then, for want of a better term, somebody, somewhere is having a laugh. And it's at our expense.

But what about the scent itself? Is it worth 38,000 pence? That is, of course, an impossible question to answer: you can't really place a monetary value on beauty. However, I'm afraid L'Incendiaire didn't set me on fire. It didn't even turn me tepid. It is essentially a very dry, monochromatic wood scent, heavy on cedar and incense, with a faintly animalic base and a disappointing lack of any notable contrasts, except for the nondescript 'light' facet which seems to run across the top of its structure. It plays out like a diluted parody of Sheldrake/Lutens cliches. It's not especially diffusive. It doesn't smell particularly rich or complex. And I can't say it's terribly distinctive. 'Smouldering fireplace' perfumes aren't difficult to find - Bois D'Ascèse from Naomi Goodsir is the first one that pops into my head as I write this - and L'Incendiaire doesn't contribute anything remarkable to their number. It does what it does fairly well, but it fails to make a lasting impression.

Will it sell? Yes, I expect it will, because there are enough people out there who equate price with quality. And of course, it's entirely up to them to decide how they wish to spend their cash. But personally, I think it would be a shame if Lutens makes his future output as inaccessible as this release. It's an unnecessary gesture and it smacks of more than a little cynicism. If several other brands follow suit, then the retail landscape could be a very different place in three or four years' time... so start saving up now!

[Review based on a sample of parfum obtained in 2014.]



  1. I do agree. When trying get a price for Dior's Cuir Cannage (I think it's the height of snobbery when you can't even get a price for something via the web because of course these things are only made for those to whom apparently money is no object and anyone else should just forget it) I was disappointed to see how much it was. However, the real sting was that the bottle sizes started from 125ml, which far bigger than the more standard 'small' size of 30 or 50ml. I have so many fragrances that 125ml is more juice than I really need - I'd much rather have a smaller, slightly cheaper bottle. The large Dior bottles (like the Chanel exclusives) do look gorgeous, but the prices are prohibitive to the vast majority. Luckily, there are lots of wonderful scents at lower prices, but as you say, new concoctions seem to be going up and up.

    1. Jo, I agree. Personally, I'd love it if all brands made all their products available in smaller quantities, but I guess that goes against the desire to create 'exclusivity'...

  2. When I first started to explore the rabbit hole of fine fragrance I thought uncle Serge's fumes were innovative and somewhat strange though only a few were what I wanted to wear. For some time his new releases have elicited nothing but a yawn as far as I'm concerned. If I'm going to spend a lot of dollars for a bottle it will have to be something very worthy and lately they've been from the likes of Mona di Orio or Frederic Malle's lines.

    I've also found that being part of a scent split group is the way to go to experience the really expensive ones, they are ever so much more affordable when you can buy it by the 5 or 10 ml.

    1. Kathy, you're a splitter, are you? That's one rabbit hole through which I haven't really plunged yet ;-)

  3. Thanks, Mr Persolaise, for seeing that the emperor has no clothes! There has been a spate of this recently, the most notorious example being the execrable Clive Christian No. 1, which - hideously - DECLARES itself on the packaging to be THE WORLDS [sic] MOST EXPENSIVE PERFUME. That's right, they made a basic punctuation error right there - with terrible attention to detail like that, you KNOW the quality of the fragrance is going to be a secondary concern.

    Furthermore, those with an eye (or nose) for true quality know that it doesn't need to draw attention to itself - how perfectly vulgar it is to have THE WORLDS [sic] MOST EXPENSIVE PERFUME etched across a bottle of scent.

    I admire Frederic Malle's approach: make stunning, unusual fragrances with high quality ingredients but make them reasonably priced - to me, this represents good value. A linear, mediocre scent at £380 (or, in the case of the laughable Clive Christian, £470 for 50ml, or £1000 for 30ml of the "pure perfume"!) is nothing less than a rip-off.

    1. Wayne, thanks for taking the time to leave a detailed comment. I'm certainly not the worlds (sorry, couldn't resist) biggest fan of Clive Christian, so I understand your ire. But I expected more from Lutens, which is why I find L'Incendiaire quite shocking.

  4. Very engaging post. However, you seemed a bit vehement in your frustration over the cost vs quality. As we know this is definitely a direction being taken (expensive without real justification to take advantage of those who can afford it), and that it has a history (eg, Clive Christian’s stuff which has always been mostly mediocre and very very expensive). So, why did this fragrance have such a big effect on you?

    1. Anon, I take your point. Perhaps I should have taken a few deep breaths before publishing the above... although I do think that Kermodian rants have their place, as long as they're not overused.

      Okay, why did this particular scent have such an effect on me? Everything you say about other brands is true, and Clive Christian is an excellent example to cite. Their stuff has always been more about showing off the price tag rather than the contents of the bottle. Other similar brands that come to mind are Creed, Kilian and Bond No 9. There are several others.They are the sorts of organisations from whom I have come not to expect quality.

      However, I always considered Lutens to be in an entirely different class. I don't call myself a fan of the brand - indeed, I don't have a vast number of its creations in my collection - but I have always taken it seriously and I have been impressed by its policy of trying to release interesting scents at *relatively* accessible prices. L'Incendiaire seems like a departure from this policy.

      So I guess the simple answer to the question is: because it's Lutens. Of all brands, I wasn't expecting this one to sink to the same level as Creed et al.

      That said, I don't wish to over-dramatise the situation. I'm sure Lutens will continue to release more 'main range' scents, and I have no doubt they will remain worthy of our attention.


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