What does the 21st century hold for brands? Japanese and French creatives talk about the importance of "identity"


This is an interview series in which creatives at Shiseido discuss the idea of beauty with other designers and professionals active in their respective fields. Today's guest is Mr. Serge Lutens, Creative Director and founder of the SERGE LUTENS brand, which is a brand of luxury fragrances and makeup under the Shiseido Group.

The relationship between Shiseido and Mr. Lutens goes back to 1980. The encounter was brought about by the signing of a contract between Shiseido and Mr. Lutens, who had been working as the art director for Christian Dior until then, for him to carry out image creation for Shiseido in the international market. Since then, he has been collaborating with the creatives of the Advertising and Design Department in pursuit of the fusion between Japanese (Eastern) and French (Western) beauty.

In conversation with Mr. Lutens is Hiroshi Wakui, an employee of Shiseido currently based in Paris. He is a sixth-generation packaging designer of SERGE LUTENS, and works on the creation of packaging design for fragrance and makeup. Wakui, who has been on a quest toward beauty together with Mr. Lutens since 2010, finds out more about his aesthetic sense. What is Mr. Lutens' concept of beauty? In the 21st century, faced with an abundance of material goods, what should companies and brands that are in the business of disseminating beauty value?

The impact that Japan had on Mr. Serge Lutens

"A GENERIC IMAGE," the first poster Mr. Lutens created in 1980 for the global expansion of brand SHISEIDO
SERGE LUTENS fragrances come with stories that match the respective scents

-- I understand that Mr. Lutens' encounter with Shiseido goes all the way back to 1980.

Wakui: That is right. It was triggered by the request from our current Honorary Chairman, Mr. Yoshiharu Fukuhara, to Mr. Lutens to undertake image creation for Shiseido in the global market.

Lutens: To be precise, my first encounter with Shiseido, and with Japan, was in 1971. I was working for Christian Dior at the time and had visited Japan many times on business, and I remember it having a huge impact on me. I did not love travelling to begin with, and I did not have any particular interest in discovering new cultures in new countries.

Wakui: So what was it that had a huge impact on you?

Lutens: I discovered something about Japan that stirred in me the same feelings as something deep inside me, and that discovery excited and moved me.

At the time, Shiseido wanted to break into the European market. On the other hand, deep in my heart, I wanted to learn more about Japan, the country that I had something in common with despite the cultural differences. These two motives were a perfect match for each other. My mission was to create visuals for Shiseido to transform it into a global brand, with Europe as its starting point. Hence, I decided to create visuals that would be representative of Japan, by further distilling the "something Japanese" buried within myself.

-- Mr. Lutens, what were the thoughts and sentiments that you put into the creation of the brand's image?

Lutens: The thought that is always present in my mind is how we, the creatives, are the onlookers, while the things that we create are in fact the primary subjects. The same applies to my work at Christian Dior, as well as the SERGE LUTENS brand that was launched in 2000; I consider excellent visuals and images as no more than the embodiment of things that should exist, and which are right and proper, rather than things that have been devised and contrived through human intelligence.

There are creatives who often say, "I made this myself." However, creation is the process of being guided toward the product, and the result is what appears at the destination, which the creative arrives at by charging forward without knowing where he or she is going. That is why there must not be a "self" or "I." It would not be a creation if the thoughts of the individual come into the process.

Since the things created through this process are very powerful, there may be people who dislike them precisely because of their intensity. Regardless of like or dislike, these creations nevertheless leave a strong impression on the subconscious. Images, and beauty, have to be as powerful as that. I think that I have grown and developed such beauty together with the people of Japan, which puts down roots in the subconscious minds of people.

Makie (gold- or silver-lacquered) compact case, born through the fusion between Japan and the West

-- Mr. Wakui, you are responsible for the packaging design for the SERGE LUTENS brand as an employee of Shiseido, is that right?

Wakui: Yes. Since 2010, I have been handling the packaging design for the fragrance and makeup of the SERGE LUTENS brand.

-- What are the characteristics of the designs that you create in collaboration with Shiseido and Mr. Lutens?

Wakui: Under the direction of Mr. Lutens, we Shiseido's creatives work with our hands to make a design in the various aspects, including graphics, packaging, and space. I think that the pursuit of high standards and excellence in beauty, achieved through the fusion of Shiseido's "Eastern" aesthetic and Mr. Lutens' so-called "Western" sensibilities, could be described as one of the characteristics of the SERGE LUTENS brand.

-- Are designs such as the foundation compact case covered in makie (gold- or silver-lacquer design) the result of this fusion of aesthetic senses?

Lutens: Rather than carrying out this "fusion" consciously and deliberately, it was more like a chance outcome of the creative process. I knew that the makie craft exists in Japan, but I did not choose it with the purpose of creating a fusion between Japanese and French culture. Similarly, the technique of urushi (Japanese lacquer) used here was brought into Europe around 1930, and is not necessarily something that had not existed in French history. However, both of these were the most suitable when I came up with the image in my mind, and I chose to use them because I felt that they are highly expressive materials.

Wakui: For me, this was the answer that I arrived at after pursuing all the possibilities in order to realize the vision that Mr. Lutens had in mind. The combination of the use of eggshells in makie and contemporary 3D printer technology, as well as the application of urushi on top of that, was a completely new experiment, so we really fumbled and groped along the way. Taking up this challenge of a new form of expression led us toward the discovery of a new type of beauty, and it was a very meaningful experience.

Lutens: I would like to continue having such adventures going forward.

-- In working together with Japanese artisans, what were the things that left the deepest impression on you?

Lutens: Japan has a wonderful system known as the "living national treasures." I once had the opportunity to meet a "living national treasure" in the field of woodworking. This artisan was showing me a paper knife that he had made, and I happened to see his hands. The backs of his hands were knobby and protruding in sharp relief, just like the knots on a tree. At the time, I thought, "This man has had such a long relationship with trees that he has become a tree himself." I think that is exactly what creatives must be like.

Similarly, during photography sessions, I sometimes lose a sense of whether I am a man or woman when I am taking photographs depicting the beauty of women. I think that art is something that has to be pursued with that level of absorption and devotion. We have to disregard the amount of time and effort put into it, constantly pay attention to the details with the aim of achieving perfection, and complete it. You need to commit all of yourself to it.

"Beauty has no nationality." The commitment to selecting and completing things that are truly beautiful

-- Are there any fragrance product design projects that you worked on together which left a strong impression on you?

Wakui: That would probably be the "Section D'or" series, which is the most prominent product line of SERGE LUTENS and the first major project that I completed. In this design, the bottle is wrapped in three layers of wrapping material with different visual expressions, and the act of unwrapping them one by one represents the idea of "an invitation to a world of luxurious scents." We incorporated the Japanese concepts of orikata (the art of folding paper to wrap gifts) and kasane (layering) and used chirimen (Japanese silk crepe) as a part of the materials to make the essence of Japanese culture an intrinsic part of the design. We then filled that packaging with the fragrance that exuded the mysterious concept created by Mr. Lutens. Through that fusion, I believe we presented consumers with a new value that was not present in Europe's fragrance market.

Bottle for "Section D'or," the most prominent product line for the SERGE LUTENS brand

Lutens: The shape of the bottle is a very simple one, but it actually takes an extremely high level of skill to produce the right angles on the shoulder part of the bottle. In addition, the glass is not colored black only on the surface, but is filled solidly with color all the way to the inside of the glass. The text on the label is written in gold against a gold background. If our only thought had been to sell the product, it would be common sense to use black letters against a gold-colored label to make it more prominent. However, using gold against gold means that the text is sometimes clearly legible and sometimes illegible, depending on the angle of the light. This makes it more modest and beautiful. We have incorporated several such intricate ideas into the design.

We introduced the elements of orikata, kasane, and chirimen not because Shiseido is a Japanese company, but because Japan possesses true beauty that is created through the hands, eyes, and hearts of artisans. That is the significance of our design. There is no such thing as nationality in beauty.

Wakui: The same applies to what we are discussing now, but in my work with Mr. Lutens, I have collected many wise sayings not only about the approach toward beauty, but also about life itself. I am learning about how to live from Mr. Lutens in the process of working with him on artistic creation. "It is not about personal achievement; beauty is the victor. We have to work for beauty's sake." When I heard these words, I gained a renewed awareness of the attitude I should adopt as a creative working in the field of beauty.

Is something rare equivalent to something with high aesthetic value?

-- Does the approach of pursuing true beauty, and beauty as art, sometimes contradict with commercial design?

Wakui: Mr. Lutens himself perceives "beauty" as the only ideal, and undertakes creative work toward the realization of that vision, so I also approach design work with the intention of creating works of art. Since the time of the first president, Shinzo Fukuhara, Shiseido has always regarded art as a management asset and incorporated it into our creations. Today, we continue to inherit and pass on "art and design" as a corporate policy. I think that we are very blessed to have an environment where it is possible to undertake product creation that incorporates artistry, and I am confident that this artistry is transformed into product appeal and communicated to the customer.

-- Could I ask Mr. Lutens once again about what your ideal vision of "beauty" is?

Lutens: "Beauty" is not something that can be defined by a single concept. It passes through our bodies, and touches and inspires our hearts. Like love, nobody knows what it is. We do not know when it comes to us, or where it will take us to. But when it comes, it strikes us with an almost surprising level of impact and excitement. We encounter such beauty countless times in our lives, yet nobody can handle it while acting in the role of the main subjects themselves; all we can do is to accept beauty passively. That is the nature of beauty.

Wakui: In the past, you have talked to me about the relationship between rarity and beauty. When something is rare, we tend to perceive it as something with high value, or something that is beautiful. For example, in Japan before the Meiji era, people accorded artistic value to imported goods that had come from overseas. Mr. Lutens, do you consider rarity as being congruent with beauty?

Lutens: To be honest, I am skeptical if things with rarity value can be directly linked with beauty. There are ugly things even among things that are rare.

Earlier, I said that the presence of the "individual" disappears in our pursuit of beauty. When we stake everything in our lives on it, including our energy and time, we draw closer to beauty. In this way, the tenacity, love, passion, time, and energy that human beings invest into this pursuit become embedded in the creations as the soul of these creations, and that is precisely how value is generated. That is what I think. That is the same for the makie that we talked about earlier; the souls of everyone involved in its production, from Mr. Wakui and the artisans, and even down to the quails that had given birth to the eggs, have been woven into the final product. I think that is precisely what makes it so beautiful.

The young people of today are vaguely aware. They can no longer be satisfied with weak and flimsy things

Wakui: Mr. Lutens, I understand that three experiences in your past have had a strong impact on the aesthetic sense that serves as the foundation of your creations. The first is the world of haute couture that you saw with your own eyes during the period when you were working at Christian Dior. The second is your encounter with Morocco in 1968. The third is your encounter with Japan. What did you gain from each of these experiences?

Lutens: The one thing that all these three experiences have in common is "roots." Although this has been forgotten in our world today, which has submitted to the influence of mass production and mass consumption, it is something that was firmly present in the past. If we were to take movies as an example, it is now, regrettably, nothing more than a short-lived enjoyment. In comparison, movies of the past, despite not having any special effects or digital processing, continue to be passed down across generations in history. They live on as "core" elements that should be left behind for future generations. In other words, they have become "roots."

I think that these roots are still present in Japan and Morocco. They are tied in with the bonds and historic narrative that allows a person to identify as himself or herself. Nothing is as important as continuing to hold on to that without wavering. Haute couture of the past also had firm roots in its steadfast faithfulness toward the female body and beauty.

However, the fashion of our current times has lost that root. The world talks about something as being "the trend of 2017," but I think that such trends hold no meaning at all. If we were to simply force the things produced at the whim of creatives onto women, and fail to respect their views as the people who actually wear these products, they would be forgotten quickly even if they did manage to shine for a short while.

-- In these times, what do you think companies and brands that are in the business of disseminating beauty should do?

Lutens: I think that even the young people of today are vaguely aware of the importance of roots, at a subconscious level. Things that are weak or flimsy can no longer satisfy them; they are demanding things with depth. I believe that is a characteristic of the 21st century, the times that we are living in today. The people who fail to realize that quickly, return to their roots, and look for what is genuine and real, will eventually decay and wither away.

Wakui: I have also gained a renewed awareness of the importance of these "roots." To trust sincerely in a brand and become its fan is to understand the roots of the brand and resonate with it; don't you think so?

Looking at the luxury brands of Europe, we can see that, unlike product promotions such as regular advertisements, these luxury brands take the approach of continuing to communicate their "roots" steadfastly to the public. For example, if they were to hold a special exhibition at an art museum, offering an interpretation of the brand, it would draw an unbroken queue of visitors even on weekdays. Everyone is interested in learning about what activities the brand has engaged in till now, and how it has contributed to enriching our lives. When people gain an understanding of these aspects, they become even greater fans of the brand. Regardless of the methods, I think that we must never forget to continue talking about our roots.

How do you protect a brand and help it to grow? The key to that also lies in "roots"

Wakui: The individuality of the SERGE LUTENS brand is clearly defined, and I think that it continues to be communicated to consumers steadily even with the passing of time. On the other hand, don't many companies face serious problems in maintaining and developing a brand? Based on your own experience, how do you think a brand should be protected and developed?

Lutens: For a brand, its image is the most important thing. Where does its image come from? The answer is, its "roots." We could also describe it as the grounds behind the birth of the brand.

The essence of the problem does not lie in how a product is marketed, how it is displayed, or how it is presented. As long as it is created with heart and soul, the consumer will be able to precisely identify its value as a genuine article. For that reason, sales trends should not be significantly affected by cheap tricks. More than that, I believe that it is important to identify and express what our own roots are, and where the genuine values that support the company lie.

Wakui: Perhaps "roots" can also be described as "identity." In advocating this idea, how do you think we should confront any friction that may arise between ourselves and the views of those around us, as well as the trends of the world?

Lutens: The people around me sometimes criticize or find fault with my creations. They say, "This is weird," or "This color is too dark." But when you are on the receiving end of such comments, show your individuality even more confidently, and make the color even darker. Then repeat that process. People criticize because they do not have an identity of their own. That is why they are envious, and attempt—without any justification—to tear down those who have an identity. In response, we take the bold step of developing the ideas that they have attacked, and make active use of these ideas. That is the key to opening the doors to the future.

There is no need to pander to the wishes of those around us. It is a waste to look around us and depend on others. The only person we can depend on is ourselves. What are we actually attempting to sell? What are the origins of our business? We must never lose the conviction that lies at the core of the brand. It is important to cherish our roots, and to return to them.

  • Serge Lutens | Image creator
    Born in Lille, France, in 1942. After working on the development of makeup products as Christian Dior's art director for 12 years from 1968, he signed a contract with Shiseido in 1980 to work on its image creation when the company made a serious move into the European market at the time. Thereafter, he stayed on for about 20 years, taking charge of Shiseido's global image and visual identity. In 2000, he founded SERGE LUTENS, a brand named after himself. In 2007, he was awarded the distinction of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, presented by the French government.
  • Hiroshi Wakui | SERGE LUTENS Packaging Design Manager, Shiseido EMEA
    Born in Tokyo in 1975. He completed his graduate studies at the Tokyo University of the Arts. After joining Shiseido, he worked on packaging design for the domestic business in Japan, the China business, and the international business before his posting to SHISEIDO EUROPE in 2014. In 2016, he was transferred to SHISEIDO GROUP EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) / LES SALONS DU PALAIS ROYAL, and has since been engaged in packaging design work for fragrance and makeup as an exclusive designer for SERGE LUTENS.
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