Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Zaftig Beauty: Serge Lutens Arabie​

Do you remember when the television show Nigella Bites was first broadcast about six years ago?  The British cooking show hosted by the very voluptuous voluptuary, Nigella Lawson.  I remember it well because I was thunderstruck when I first saw this gorgeous creature mixing and stirring and licking spoons in the most languorous way, making bedroom eyes at the camera in her kitchen.  Even though I’m a heterosexual woman with a healthy love of men, I also love to observe beautiful women, and I will admit to having developed a bit of a girl-crush on Nigella.  She and her television show combined so many things that I loved into one very seductive package, made even more seductive because these things didn’t previously seem to fit together: cooking, eating, comfort, beauty, sensuality and sexual allure.  Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me at the time.  Perhaps these things fit together if you were living in another country or in another century (Ancient Greece, for instance); but for an American woman in 2002, they didn’t fit.  Despite the fact that the very bootylicious J.Lo and Beyoncé had arrived on the celebrity scene and were very much in the American consciousness, still, I don’t think you would have seen an American cook on television in 2002, male or female, who had the saucy daring of Nigella, who in one of her more kitschy episodes made one of Elvis Presley’s favorites: a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.  And who had the audacity to eat it.  On camera (and on her white couch).  Licking her fingers, if I’m recalling correctly, and not even making an apology for the calories or promising to work it off in the gym later. 

“She eats like no one is looking,” is the way one mesmerized food writer put it after viewing that very episode.  But, of course, Nigella knew we were looking, which is why she wore a lot of clingy sweaters and heaved a good bit of creamy cleavage on her show, and why the whole thing was erotic in a very exhibitionistic way. 

Oh, how I loved to watch her—even though I was caught up in an intense dieting and exercise frenzy, so frightened of turning forty that I was doing two five-mile walks a day and an hour of pilates on top of it.  Though watching her show didn’t really change my habits at the time, what it did do for me was change my notions about beauty in a way that all of the conversations that were being bandied about on the subject of body image back then—all of the magazine and newspaper writers who nattered on about our need to realign our media towards showing women with “real” and “healthy” bodies—did not.  I had to see it for myself.  I had to fall in love with Nigella Lawson to see that beauty does, indeed, come in all sorts of packages.  Mostly, I realize now, it comes in the package labeled “attitude”: Nigella’s sexy, playful, engaging style won me over as much as her sultry raven-haired looks or her Rubenesque figure.  But seeing her is what made me realize that it is a package anyone can own, thin or thick or in-between. 

I don’t know whether Nigella’s cooking shows are still being shown on American cable, since I decided to scrap all but the most basic cable channels of my television service last year.  Nonetheless, she is still very much a figure that has stayed on my mind, because, after spending a lot of time recently wearing Serge Lutens Arabie and thinking about how to describe the experience of wearing this scent, it is Nigella’s zaftig beauty and sensuous, sybaritic nature that springs to mind. 

Yes, I realize I’m in the minority of perfume bloggers who love Arabie, and that most find this Serge creation to be overwrought: a beastly mélange of spices.  The few bloggers whom I recall as admiring it (and I can count them on one hand) are mainly men, and maybe that explains why this is one of the scents that my husband has, without solicitation, inquired about and complimented me on; it might be a scent that appeals more to gents.  In fact, it wasn’t love at first sniff for me, either.  I first tried it last fall when it came as a sample with a perfume order, and it reminded me of mulled wine; I felt like I should be celebrating winter solstice and drinking glogg when I wore it.  It didn’t match my expectations of what a perfume should smell like: it didn’t smell perfumey in the way of most orientals, and, aside from a bit of an armpit cumin note, there was nothing interestingly naughty or animalic about it either.  It was just overwhelmingly gourmandy.  And yet I kept creeping back to it, hankering for it after the sample was used up.  I tried to dismiss it and found myself thinking about it for months.  Finally, a few weeks ago, I ordered a decant just to satisfy my curiosity and hopefully put to rest my strange infatuation with it. 

Cedar, sandalwood, candied mandarin peel, dried figs, dates, cumin, nutmeg, clove, balsamic resins, Tonka bean, Siamese benzoin and myrrh.  Those are the fragrance notes for Arabie as listed by the description on LuckyScent.com, though the Serge Lutens packaging literature also includes “Russian leather” in its notes.  I can’t say I smell the leather, but Arabie’s dense marriage of spices, woods, and fruits does indeed seem rather reminiscent to me of Russia.  Or more specifically, of Russian foods, like dried fruit compote or a Russian fruit cake.  It is a fairly linear scent, but one that has been made so full and round with its zaftig spices that wearing it seems a very decadent statement.  And, I like that. 

In fact, I love it!  I don’t care that this scent smells of the spices of winter—of holiday wines and dried fruits.  It is summer, yes, I know, and I am sooo loving it.*  Maybe I have the kind of skin that tames beastly perfumes, or maybe my nose isn’t as sensitive as others, or maybe the fact that I work at home in an open flowing space, instead of the cramped confines of a office, is what accounts for why I enjoy it and others don’t.  I really don’t know the reason, but to me, Arabie truly does embody what spice is all about, both in culinary and perfume terms: the dramatic transformation of something plain or mundane into something extraordinarily sumptuous. 

It’s a lesson I learned, in part, by watching Nigella Lawson.  And it’s a lesson I’m reminded of every time I smell Arabie.

Serge Lutens Arabie is available at BeautyHabit.com, LuckyScent.com, and Aedes.com (as well as a number of high-end department stores), $120 for 50 ml.


*Note: I loved it so much, I eventually bought a bottle.

Photo of Nigella Lawson is from The Syney Herald online (SMH.com); bottle photo is from MakeupAlley.com.

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June 16, 2008: