SCENTS OF A WOMAN

DEAUVILLE, BIAR­RITZ AND VENICE WERE THREE PLACES THAT LOOMED LARGE FOR GABRIELLE CHANEL. TO­GETHER WITH PARIS, THEY FORM THE IN­SPI­RA­TION FOR THE LAT­EST TRIO OF FRA­GRANCES FROM THE MAI­SON.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - COLOUR CODE - STORY JOSEPHINE McKENNA

An en­counter with one of the world’s lead­ing per­fumers can be daunt­ing. The first chal­lenge is to se­lect the right per­fume, then hope he ap­proves. Chanel No.5 was ei­ther a safe bet or a se­ri­ous risk, since Olivier Polge was about to re­veal Chanel’s new range of fra­grances nearly 100 years af­ter the re­lease of that strato­spheric best-seller. There’s no re­ac­tion from Polge, Chanel’s per­fumer, when we meet for a tête-à-tête in an el­e­gant sa­lon over­look­ing the Place Vendôme in the heart of Paris. But the lux­ury brand’s “nose” makes no se­cret about the crit­i­cal role he thinks fra­grance should play in our lives. “We have five senses and if we don’t play with scent, we are miss­ing some­thing very im­por­tant,” he tells WISH. “The fra­grance we wear tells us some­thing about our per­son­al­ity, the same way the clothes we wear or the way we move, or how we talk. I think it re­veals some­thing.”

Chanel’s new col­lec­tion, which is be­ing re­leased world­wide this year, is en­ti­tled “Les Eaux de Chanel” and con­sists of three per­fumes that pay homage to the brand’s leg­endary founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and some of her favourite places: Paris, Deauville,

Biar­ritz and Venice. “I am in­spired by her and how she de­signed clothes, and she was the one who saw that senses were re­lated,” says Polge.

Polge re­placed his fa­ther, Jac­ques, when he was ap­pointed Chanel’s in-house per­fumer in 2013, only the fourth in the brand’s his­tory. The softly-spo­ken 43-yearold may never be able to re­peat the over­whelm­ing suc­cess of the iconic Chanel No.5, but he ex­hibits a boy­ish en­thu­si­asm when shar­ing the se­crets of his new fra­grances. “Let me go through each of them,” he says, like a child show­ing off a new toy. He’s clearly ex­cited as he sprays a light sam­ple of each of the three per­fumes and hands them over for a sniff. “My most im­por­tant work was to an­chor them in clear ol­fac­tive ter­ri­tory so they are not the same,” Polge says. “That’s why I like peo­ple to dis­cover them all to­gether.”

Les Eaux de Chanel col­lec­tion in­cludes ParisDeauville, Paris-Biar­ritz and Paris-Venise. Each per­fume is rooted in a dis­tinct lo­ca­tion iden­ti­fied with the leg­endary Chanel and her per­sonal ad­ven­tures. Polge wanted to tap into the spirit of the ac­claimed de­signer who once fa­mously de­scribed per­fume as “the un­seen, un­for­get­table, ul­ti­mate ac­ces­sory”.

“She was the first who com­bined fash­ion and fra­grances,” Polge says. “She must have felt that there was a link, she was very much in­volved in the cre­ation of the first fra­grances – not only Chanel No.5 but many af­ter.” Polge worked dili­gently for months to match each of the three lo­ca­tions with a char­ac­ter­is­tic scent that re­flects ex­pe­ri­ences from the life of the cou­turier who thumbed her nose at so­cial eti­quette and rev­o­lu­tionised the world of fash­ion. “I like to think we take a par­tial view of her uni­verse,” he says. “I think those des­ti­na­tions are so sym­bolic, they go be­yond what re­ally hap­pened.”

The gutsy vi­sion of a small-time milliner who grew into an ac­claimed sym­bol of French style has since de­vel­oped into a global fash­ion con­glom­er­ate. Chanel is one of the few lux­ury brands that re­mains pri­vately owned and has a turnover last year of $US9.6 bil­lion ($13bn). These days it’s recog­nised for its fra­grances and jew­ellery as much as its sig­na­ture tweed jacket, quilted hand­bags and bal­le­rina shoes.

Yet Chanel started from hum­ble be­gin­nings. Gabrielle Chanel was born into a poor fam­ily in the Loire Val­ley in 1883, and af­ter her mother died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis she spent sev­eral of her teenage years liv­ing in a Catholic or­phan­age, where she learned to sew.

Af­ter dab­bling in cabaret, Chanel be­gan de­sign­ing hats. In the spring of 1912 the sea­side town of Deauville caught her at­ten­tion and a year later the young seam­stress opened her first store there, on Rue Gon­taut Biron. With the help of English busi­ness­man Arthur “Boy” Capel, who was also her lover, she launched her first col­lec­tion. She rev­o­lu­tionised women’s fash­ion overnight with hats, jack­ets and sweaters in loose-fit­ting styles and flex­i­ble fabrics that lib­er­ated a gen­er­a­tion of women from decades of corsets and con­straints.

By 1919, Chanel was recog­nised as a cou­turier and es­tab­lished her “mai­son de cou­ture” at 31 rue Cam­bon in Paris, where the brand’s flag­ship store still stands, just un­der the apart­ment where she lived. Her ca­reer took off and the Deauville store was closed in 1925, but the mai­son says it re­mains “en­shrined” in its her­itage.

“Deauville is next to the sea but it is in the mid­dle of Nor­mandy,” Polge says. “It is a week­end desti­na­tion for peo­ple from Paris and that’s some­thing I wanted to ex­press. It is some­how ca­sual.” The first of the three new per­fumes, Paris-Deauville, is an eau de toi­lette with top notes of orange rind, pe­tit­grain and aro­matic basil leaf, but there’s also a flo­ral in­flu­ence with rose and jas­mine run­ning through it.

“I wasn’t striv­ing to cap­ture the Nor­mandy coun­try­side as it stands to­day, but rather the prom­ise of a stroll through the tall grasses. “There are cer­tain green aro­matic notes,” says Polge. “It’s woody, it’s na­ture.”

Paris-Biar­ritz, the sec­ond scent, re­calls Chanel’s con­nec­tion with the coastal re­sort town in south­ern

France. In 1915, only two years af­ter she launched her first cloth­ing de­signs in Deauville, the de­signer opened a store in the Villa de Lar­ralde, next to the town’s lux­ury ho­tels, casino and the fa­mous beach where Napoleon Bon­a­parte took a dip decades be­fore her ar­rival.

Biar­ritz was a play­ground for wealthy aris­to­crats and ex­iles who were mes­merised by the At­lantic or spent their idle time golf­ing or par­ty­ing. Queen Vic­to­ria Eu­ge­nie of Spain was among Chanel’s mon­eyed clients and the de­signer is said to have had a ro­mance with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, one of the aris­to­crats who had flocked there af­ter the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion.

Now pop­u­lar with surfers and other sport en­thu­si­asts, Biar­ritz has evolved over the decades but re­tains its rep­u­ta­tion for at­tract­ing wealthy French and for­eign holidaymakers. Polge wanted to cap­ture the en­ergy of the town in his Paris-Biar­ritz scent. “This is the one where the ocean is the most im­por­tant,” he says. “I wanted to cre­ate a sen­sa­tion on the skin as if each in­gre­di­ent were soaked with wa­ter. It is light, fluid.”

Tak­ing a sniff, Polge says this scent merges cit­rus and man­darin as the key in­gre­di­ents but also adds lilyof-the-val­ley, orange blos­som and white musk, which give it a re­fresh­ing feel. “It’s en­er­getic – there’s this over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion of air,” he says.

The third per­fume, Paris-Venise, is a throw­back to Chanel’s dis­cov­ery of Venice. When Capel was killed in a car ac­ci­dent in 1919, Chanel was in­con­solable and sought so­lace in the lagoon city with her friends Misia and Josep Maria Sert. “The cre­ation of Paris-Venice draws in­spi­ra­tion as much from the long jour­ney on the Ori­ent Ex­press from the French cap­i­tal as from the desti­na­tion it­self,” says Polge.

Polge wants to con­jure up im­ages of Chanel bask­ing on the Lido or strolling past the golden mo­saics of St Mark’s Basil­ica. This soft, am­bery scent has a mys­te­ri­ous Far East feel as it fea­tures neroli and red berry, with el­e­ments of iris and gera­nium as well as cedar, vanilla and tonka bean. “This is where Chanel got a taste for Baroque and Byzan­tine art. I wanted peo­ple to smell that gate­way to the Ori­ent,” he says.

The cre­ation of a per­fume is a pain­stak­ing process for Polge and his team, in­volv­ing months of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, in a city where per­fume is con­sid­ered part of a woman’s daily toi­lette and there’s a per­fumery around ev­ery cor­ner. The per­fumer says he draws on his own child­hood mem­o­ries by the sea in south­ern France as well as his imag­i­na­tion to cre­ate po­tions. “My work is not only to smell but to en­vi­sion a scent,” he says. “When I think about cer­tain raw ma­te­ri­als I can mix to­gether, I don’t spend that time re­ally smelling but imag­in­ing.”

Polge was born to be a per­fumer. As an art his­tory stu­dent, he had looked at study­ing ap­plied and cre­ative arts at a Paris de­sign school. But a sum­mer job at Chanel’s in-house lab­o­ra­tory sparked his in­ter­est in scents and he headed south to Charabot in France’s fra­grance cap­i­tal, Grasse, where so many other per­fumers learned the art of com­po­si­tion. At the fac­tory, he used to grind vanilla beans and wa­ter the dry moss, which deep­ened his un­der­stand­ing of fra­grances.

“Most of the work for a young per­son who wants to be­come a per­fumer is to find that link between your nose and your mem­ory,” Polge says. “Then the more you smell, the more pre­cise you be­come and af­ter that you learn how to build a fra­grance, the same way that a car­pen­ter learns how to build a ta­ble.”

Be­fore Polge joined Chanel he spent years devel­op­ing fra­grances for lux­ury brands that in­cluded Dolce & Gab­bana and Jimmy Choo, and was be­hind Vik­tor & Rolf’s suc­cess­ful Flower­bomb fra­grance and Ba­len­ci­aga’s Florab­otan­ica.

“When you cre­ate a fra­grance and you mix it in your lab, you have to wait a cou­ple of days to re­ally have the cor­rect ef­fect. There is some­thing organic about the raw ma­te­ri­als that you can­not force and there is some­thing in­stinc­tive about it so you have to ex­pe­ri­ence it,” he says.

Pas­sion­ate about clas­si­cal mu­sic, he says this is an­other source of in­spi­ra­tion since the ex­pe­ri­ence of per­fume and mu­sic ex­ists in the realm of the senses. “Fra­grance and mu­sic are im­ma­te­rial. They van­ish very quickly, they are hard to grasp. I think they are the two senses that have the most evoca­tive power.”

Polge has al­ready pro­duced sev­eral fra­grances for Chanel, in­clud­ing Gabrielle Chanel, re­leased last year with a stun­ning ad­ver­tis­ing film fea­tur­ing ac­tress Kris­ten Ste­wart, the lat­est face of the brand.

But he is less con­cerned with cater­ing to the de­mands of dif­fer­ent mar­kets or the tastes of mil­len­ni­als than pro­duc­ing the best scent, and that seems to work for his cre­ativ­ity and peace of mind. And, yes, he still val­ues his fa­ther’s ad­vice. “I think it would be a pity if I did not ask him,” he says. “He still comes in to the of­fice; he is aware of ev­ery­thing that hap­pens.”

Pack­aged in sleek curved bot­tles cre­ated by Chanel’s Sylvie Le­gastelois, the new trio of fra­grances will be re­leased world­wide in June – and there’s al­ready plenty of spec­u­la­tion about how they will be re­ceived.

“Olivier Polge is con­tin­u­ing that beau­ti­ful and clas­sic Chanel ap­proach to per­fumery, hav­ing learned from his fa­ther, Jac­ques,” says Nick Gil­bert, a Bri­tish fra­grance con­sul­tant at Ol­fic­tion. “It was easy to think of that style as inim­itable, re­fin­ing clas­sic struc­tures with beau­ti­ful raw ma­te­ri­als and a del­i­cate, sparse touch, but ev­i­dently Olivier is able to do it with ease.”

The lat­est Chanel fra­grances won’t be splashed about in a big campaign with big names such as Ni­cole Kid­man, who ap­peared in Baz Luhrmann’s lav­ish $US33 mil­lion film ad­vert for No.5 in 2004 or Keira Knight­ley, who was in the sexy Coco Made­moi­selle video set on the streets of Paris three years later. This time Chanel will be re­ly­ing on the proud her­itage of its founder, its net­work of stores around the world and its loyal so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers – more than 46 mil­lion on Face­book and In­sta­gram alone – to spread the word.

Ac­cord­ing to Gil­bert, that is a recipe for suc­cess. “Chanel’s suc­cess lies in their com­mit­ment to qual­ity and con­sis­tency,” says the con­sul­tant, who has not yet had a chance to sam­ple the new scents. “They have their own fields and they tweak their fra­grances to en­sure each batch is con­sis­tent, which can be dif­fi­cult when re­ly­ing upon na­ture to pro­vide your raw ma­te­ri­als. Ev­ery fra­grance Chanel puts out feels ef­fort­lessly lux­u­ri­ous – some­thing to which the other fash­ion brands as­pire.” And if that’s Coco Chanel’s legacy, it’s some­thing she would be thrilled to hear to­day.

“When I think about raw ma­te­ri­als I can mix to­gether, I don’t spend that time re­ally smelling but imag­in­ing.”

W

Olivier Polge was an art his­tory stu­dent when a sum­mer job at the Chanel lab­o­ra­tory con­vinced him to be­come a per­fumer.

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