Sebastian, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Marina, a native Italian, met at a family birthday celebration in Positano. Together they created the Eau d’Italie line to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Le Sirenuse hotel in 2001.The Sersale family founded Le Sirenuse hotel in 1951, which was their family’s summer home before they turned it into a hotel, and today, it still remains a family-run business.
Mood of Living Q & A
Mood of Living: Where did you go to school?
Sebastián Alvarez Murena: Ah, good question, I often wonder that too. I grew up between Buenos Aires, Córdoba (Argentinian countryside), Barcelona, Rougemont (a tiny village in the Swiss Alps), and Rome. Counting them all, I went to eleven schools : two in Argentina, one in Barcelona, two in Switzerland, six in Rome. I don’t know what conclusions one could draw from that, but, basically, I think that, like most people, I detested school most times, and loved it some other ones. To this date I have a recurring dream of not being able to finish high school, not passing that final exam. What a relief being out of school!
Marina Sersale: As opposed to Sebastian I went to the same school from beginning to end. It was a private school run by Irish nuns in Rome. Nothing exciting ever happened there, teaching was with rather antiquated methods, and from as far back as I can remember I was bored most of the time.
MoL: Before Eau d’Italie what were your professions?
SAM: Before Eau d’Italie I was a journalist. I used to write for “La Nación,” an Argentinian newspaper.
MS: I was a documentary film-maker, working free-lance for Italian and British television companies.
MoL: Where did you two meet each other?
SAM: In Positano, in October 2001. And talk of a serendipitous encounter. I will let Marina tell the story, but a funny thing we discovered just a few years ago is that when Marina and I met in 2001, we didn’t know that our families had already been “in business” a hundred and fifty years ago, in Argentina. But that’s another story…
MS: We met in Positano in October 2001 at my cousin Antonio’s birthday. Sebastián had been a friend of my cousin’s for many years and we had many friends in common, but for some mysterious reason our paths had never crossed. To give you an example: Sebastián lived for a couple of years at an address in Rome where my best friend lived. I used to go there practically everyday but we never met – until both of us were in Positano in 2001.
MoL: Le Sirenuse is a family-run hotel, what are your roles at Le Sirenuse?
SM: Le Sirenuse belongs to Marina and her family, I am not involved in it. I only enjoy the beauty of it.
MS: Le Sirenuse is run brilliantly by my cousin Antonio Sersale, I am on the board of directors.
MoL: What inspired you to create your fragrance line, Eau d’Italie?
SAM: Eau d’Italie was born out of the wish to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Le Sirenuse, which occurred in 2001. In fact, there had been a big party planned for October 2001, but then 9/11 happened, and the whole mood changed. It was not a time for celebration, it was a time for mourning. 9/11 touched all of us very deeply, and made us realize how close we all were. Then, the following year, we realized the anniversary had gone by without a celebration, so someone of the younger generation (Marina and I, her sister Giulia, her cousin Antonio and his wife Carla), had the idea of a fragrance. A fragrance that was to be the essence of Le Sirenuse and also the scent of a custom-made amenity line, formulated from scratch to fit the specific needs of Le Sirenuse’s clientele. Marina then had an idea on how to capture the essence of Le Sirenuse and Positano.
MS: We decided to use my childhood memories of summers spent in Positano as an inspiration for the fragrance. For example, I remember that with my sister Giulia and my cousin Antonio we used to race each other on the terrace of the Le Sirenuse, which was covered in hand-painted green terra cotta tiles. The tiles were scorching hot and the point was to be able to run it’s whole length barefoot. So the heart notes of Eau d’Italie are a warm mineral note inspired by the hot terra cotta tiles, whereas the top notes are incense (from the local church), bergamot, and blackcurrant buds. Dry down is amber, patchouli, and musk, and the final result is a fragrance that is the essence of a Positano summer.
MoL: Can you describe your roles within the company?
SAM: We are a very small company, so Marina and I do a bit of everything. In general lines, we do the creative part together, whereas I take care specifically of sales, distribution, and finance.
MS: As Sebastian said, we work on the creative aspects together, and I am in charge of production and suppliers.
MoL: Where do you look for inspiration for your scents? Are you influenced by the smells of your regional flowers and herbs?
SAM: Yes and no. In some cases yes, there is a direct relation between local ingredients and a fragrance of ours. For instance Acqua Decima, an Eau de Toilette we launched a few years ago, is based on the sensations you get when you walk the “Path of the Gods”, a strikingly beautiful walk on the mountains above Positano. On one side we wanted to convey the sensation of continuum of blue between the sky and the Mediterranean below, to the point that if you let your mind wander the line between the two, they can become blurred. This was a work of fantasy, creativity, and on how to convey the sense of open space, light, sun, blue, in scented notes. At the same time there were also some more direct olfactory references to the “Path of the Gods”, like the lemon gardens on the many terraces along the walk, or the wild mint you brush with your feet as you walk, whose notes come up to you carried by the vivifying torrid air of summer.
MS: Sometimes the inspiration comes from unexpected sources: a few years ago we decided to create a floral scent, and at the time I was reading a beautiful book written by a friend of mine, “The Light in Between” by Marella Caracciolo Chia. The book was about a secret love story between one of the founders of the Futurist Movement, the painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni, and Princess Vittoria Colonna, which unfolded at the beginning of the 1st World War on the Isolino – a small island in Lake Maggiore, where there was (and still is) a beautiful garden. That love affair and that garden were the inspiration for our first floral fragrance, Au Lac.
MoL: Do you work with an official “Nose” to help you develop your products?
SAM: We work with various “noses”, and the way we work with them varies. The first “nose” we worked with was Bertrand Duchaufour, with whom we made many of our first fragrances including Eau d’Italie and Eau de Toilette. We then worked with Alberto Morillas, who made the Acqua Decima I was talking about, and our Au Lac, a beautiful and contemporary floral Marina referred to just above. We then worked with Jacques Cavalier, who made our “Un Bateau pour Capri”, and with Annie Ménardo, who made a splendid Italian-style vanilla for our “Morn to Dusk” Eau de Parfum. Lately we have worked quite a lot with Daphné Bougey, whose delicate hand is behind many of our latest fragrances, including “Graine de Joie”. With each of them we work in a different way, and that is one of the nice things about our work: you never stop learning new things, new ways. With Bertrand we worked in a very direct, instinctive way. In the last years we owe quite a lot to help from the fantastic creative team of Firmenich in Milan, a great company we work with and a team with an enormous sensitivity and capacity of interpreting our ideas.
MoL: What are your day-to-day business challenges?
SAM: Where to begin… (smile) Since we are a very small company, we all do a bit of everything. So on one same business day we have to take care of, say, evaluating a future fragrance, choosing the color for a new packaging, deciding which paper to use for a card, and at the same time taking care of a logistic matter, the shipment of an order, or a credit card machine that won’t work properly. We never get the chance to get bored, that’s for sure.
MS: Keeping track of everything and managing to push ahead with the really important stuff in the midst of all the less important – but sometimes much more urgent – things that need taken care of every day.
MoL: Can you tell us about your newest line, ALTAIA?
SAM: ALTAIA was born out of this incredible coincidence in the past of our families that I mentioned before. To make a long story short, when Marina and I met in Positano fifteen years ago, our paths were in fact “rejoining”, since our families had already been in business, so to say, a hundred and fifty years ago in Argentina. In 1862 my great-great-grandfather Bartolomé Mitre became Argentina’s first President. Among his first projects was that of building a railway that would connect the country’s interior with the port of Buenos Aires. Argentina at the time was practically bankrupt, so he boldly decided to open the country to foreign investment, which was quite something in a country which only fifty or so years earlier had fought a war of independence to free itself from Spanish domination. Anyway, his presidential decree was issued, and it was acted upon by Marina’s English great-great-grandfather James Morrison and his sons. Morrison was a fascinating, larger-than-life man, who rose from humble origins to become the richest businessman in England, creating the biggest non-landed fortune of the time, and with it the famous Morrison art collection (which exists to this day at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, were Marina’s mother was born), he also developed the British textile industry, founded various schools of arts (I could be wrong, but if I remember well he was part of the original founders of Central St. Martin’s School of Design), banks, and finally railways, which were the hottest investment of the Industrial Revolution period. So it was Morrison and his sons who built the first railways in Argentina. When we discovered this, at first we didn’t quite believe it: how could such a coincidence be possible? Such a long time ago, in two so distant two countries, and nobody in our respective families knowing about it? But it was actually all there – the official documents, the Presidential decree etc., so in the end we couldn’t resist, and since our language is fragrance, we had to tell the story with scents… Thus was born ALTAIA, which is an acronym of A Long Time Ago In Argentina.
MoL: Are your scents all-natural?
SAM: No, they aren’t. Like all fragrances, they are a mix of natural and synthetic ingredients. There is this fascinating thing by which people tend to think that natural means good, whereas synthetic means bad. This is so different from reality… In fact, “natural” doesn’t necessarily stand for “good”. But also, and this is more important, synthetic is the field in which you find the most extraordinary new raw materials, that give perfumery the capacity to evoke and transport our souls even further.
MoL: Do you have a hobby?
SAM: I read a lot and love cooking.
MS: For me it’s photography and reading.
MoL: What is your favorite quote?
SAM: “Know thyself”
MS: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do”
MoL: Who has been an influential figure in your life?
SAM: My very dear friend Enrique de Rivas, a Spanish writer and poet whose family had to flee Spain during the Civil War. (His uncle was Manuel Azaña, President of the Spanish Republic). He showed me how kindness, culture, art, humor, and cooking could blend together in one single person.
MS: My uncle Franco Sersale, who taught me that there’s a big and fascinating world outside and that the most fun thing in life is to travel and learn.
MoL: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
SAM: Good question. Hopefully in Italy, with Marina, doing what we love.
MS: Same as above: with Sebastián wherever life may take us.
MoL: What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and from whom?
SAM: Not to worry too much. It’s my main problem, I worry. So many people have told me that I wouldn’t know whom to credit for it!
MS: Listen to yourself, to that inner voice that’s telling you where to go. I don’t know who gave me that advice but I sure am grateful for it!
MoL: What is your favorite music?
SAM: I have liked Elvis since I was a child. Then opera, and tango, also since I was a child.
MS: Bach and Mozart, and almost anything that contains a violin. And, very much, Leonard Cohen.
MoL: Words of wisdom:
SAM: Same as below.
MS: Do as you would be done by and be done by as you did.
MoL: Where do you go for peace of mind and spirit?
MoL: We find that people who make beautiful things are more likely to lead an artistic lifestyle. Do you spend much time creating a beautiful home? Do you entertain? Do you cook?
SAM: I cook, and we do entertain, quite a lot in fact. But the cooking is not related to the entertaining. I cook every day for Marina and myself anyway. No favorite recipes, though; in cooking I am more interested in executing a classic recipe well, rather than inventing things.
MS: I take photographs. This was actually what I originally wanted to be – a photographer – but I somehow never did and I re-discovered photography later in life. I love it because it feeds my creativity and allows me absolute freedom. I’m also very happy to eat Sebastián’s exquisite meals…
MoL: What advice can you give anyone interested in starting his or her own business?
SAM: Good luck and brace yourself! (it’s great)
MS: Same as above – I couldn’t think of a better way to put it!
All photos courtesy of Eau d’Italie and Le Sirenuse
Sebastian Alvarez Murena and Marina Sersale