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