In order to even start wrapping my head around L'Orpheline I had to completely ignore two things: my expectation from a Serge Lutens perfume, and the story/marketing materials provided by the company. I usually do the latter anyway, but here it was especially important. Because if you think that "The Little Orphan" is an odd choice for a perfume name, reading Lutens' quotes (you can find the whole thing on Fragrantica) and fragments from his painful and lonely childhood is sends you right to Les Misrables territory, and I don't mean the musical version, but straight to Victor Hugo's written world of wretchedness and endless suffering. How does that go with a luxury perfume? It doesn't (and I don't want it to).
Serge Lutens is the grand-master of oriental perfumes, thick and rich flowers, and otherworldly incense. L'Orpheline is nothing like that. The first time I sprayed it (at a rather crowded store) I couldn't focus my nose on the actual notes or on anything wafting off my skin. The fragrance seemed to move very fast in every direction, wrapping invisible threads around air molecules. It was there but not. Upon subsequent wearings (first from samples and eventually from the bottle I bought) I managed to hold on to these wisps of not-quite incense and fly away with them into a clear blue sky.
L'Orpheline seems at first like air and whiffs of a shockingly artificial musk (we're talking about a perfume from the same man who brought us MKK and Clair de Musk). But it's not. Actually it is shockingly artificial in the same way that several Le Labo and CdG fragrances utilize imaginary wood notes. But this is Uncle Serge after all, the artist who knows skin the way few others do. The not-really-wood and not-really-musk combined create multiple special effects. From cool air to a warm and cozy shelter, tree limbs with life of their own grow and twist like menacing fingers before they form a safe haven. And skin. Creamy, soft, slightly sweetened. Man or man-made, L'Orpheline is enchanting.
The special effects continue when it comes to sillage and longevity. There's something very misleading in the way L'Orpheline wears on me. It pretends to be a skin scent that whispers softly, but this musk is devious and can suddenly project to the other side of the room with no warning (I admit that I tend to go to town with this one because it never feels quite enough at first). Longevity is an all-day affair if you pay attention. Just when I think it might be time to refresh I realize that I can still smell L'Orpheline clearly.I guess this is the one thing that never abandons the little orphan. Or something. It's a great modern perfume no matter what.
Serge Lutens- L'Orpheline ($140, 50ml EDP) is available from Twisted Lily, Luckyscent, Aedes, Barneys, and the other usual suspects. My first sample came from Twisted Lily.
Fashion illustration by Rene Gruau for Madame Gres,1946, via hprint.com.