The Australian - Wish Magazine
SCENTURY OF AN ICON
The enduring appeal of Chanel’s timeless fragrance lies in the way it reinvented the way women were supposed to smell
May 5, 1921.
Inside her rue Cambon boutique in Paris, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel debuted what some might say has defined the Chanel brand possibly even more than the famous little black dress: her landmark perfume, Chanel No. 5.
It was a groundbreaking moment in the world of perfumery, marking Chanel as the first couturier to launch a fragrance under their own name. It consisted of a complex structure of more than 80 ingredients at a time when soliflores, or onenote perfumes such as rose or violet, were the accepted norm for respectable ladies (animalic musks and indolic notes of jasmine were considered too risqué and worn only by courtesans or ladies of the night). Then of course there was the bottle – a simple, almost masculine flask-style vial rumoured to be inspired by a whisky decanter. Its minimalist silhouette is instantly recognisable and in 1959 the design was honoured by New York’s MOMA as an icon of the 20th century.
Today, as Chanel celebrates 100 years of the legendary fragrance, the impact of No. 5 is as potent as ever. Since it was created, it has remained one of the top five biggest-selling perfumes across the world, with one allegedly sold every 30 seconds. It is an icon of aromatic design, constantly referenced as one of the greatest perfumes ever made, and owning a bottle is almost a rite of passage. No. 5 was the perfume I purchased for my mother when I got my first job in high
school. I remember the thrill as I held it, walking out of David Jones (I had wagged school to buy it without her knowing). In my teenage mind, what I had bought wasn’t just some incredible fragrance but chic luxury in a bottle as well as a piece of history.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of No. 5 is that even 100 years after it was introduced, it feels as though it could have been made today.
Perfume has, like fashion, always followed trends and fads. Ingredients or notes come in and out of favour and perfumers, who are as much artists as fashion designers, attempt to bottle cultural moods – or even to counter them. (The fact that the biggest fragrance trend in the ’90s was to smell like soap when the key fashion movement was grunge is one of the great ironies of the industry.) But No. 5 has remained timeless. True, there are currently five facets, or personas, of the original scent, allowing for some individualisation or nuance( the original parfum or extrait, the eau de parfum, the eau de toilette, Premiere and most recently, L’Eau), but No. 5 is still a perfume that reflects the modern woman of 2021 as much as it did the woman of 1921.
“I’m not sure Ernest Beaux or Gabrielle Chanel were able to imagine what it would become,” muses Chanel’s current house perfumer, Olivier Polge. Polge, who stepped into the role after his predecessor (and father) Jacques Polge retired in 2015, says that when Chanel first sought out the French-Russian chemist Ernest Beaux to create a perfume that would be an accessory to her clothing, she wanted something entirely different from what women were accustomed to wearing.
“Chanel was looking for an artificial fragrance, meaning a constructed scent,” says Polge. “Where you would not identify clearly jasmine, muguet or rose, but a composed fragrance. And within this idea, I think, it allowed people to have very different ways to experience No. 5 and not understand it completely. Within the fragrance there is something very interesting in its complexity, in its richness, that makes No .5 very diverse .”
As the story goes, Chanel tasked Beaux (who had been introduced to her by his fellow Russian and Chanel’s then paramour, the Great Duke Dimitri Pavlovitch, also cousin to Britain’s Prince Phillip) to create a perfume for women that would smell like a woman. She was then presented with several bottles, marked one to five and 20 to 24. Chanel, who was known for her superstitious attachment to the number five since childhood – she even presented her collections on May 5 – immediately picked the fifth formulation in Beaux’s line-up, declaring it would bring good luck. And so Chanel No. 5 was born, in possibly one of the few times fifth was the winning position.
The richness Polge describes as distinguishing No. 5 from its then contemporaries and that remains its olfactory hallmark is built on a long list of classic perfumery notes, but moulded together so tightly it is almost impossible to smell them separately. What you get instead are abstract impressions of a floral made from the most luxurious essences in perfumery. A melange of jasmine, the May rose (which only blooms once a year, for three weeks in May), ylang ylang and lily of the valley, cushioned by precious Mysore sandalwood and buttery iris – to name just a few pieces of the puzzle.
However Chanel No. 5’ s distinctive brightness, that diamond-like detail that makes the entire structure so radiant and fresh, was achieved by applying never-beforeused quantities of the organic compound aldehydes. Beaux, while serving in the Russian army, had been stationed at an Arctic outpost and desired to recreate the chilled smell of the winter air he had experienced there. By drenching the scent with aldehydes, he achieved this fresh, arctic note with the bonus of boosting the already present florals to an exquisite degree. This over-saturation of aldehydes, says Polge, is what has made No. 5 such a potent mystery.
“I think that the aldehyde s help with the blur ring effect of the top notes,” he tells WISH. “They have this fresh and abstract impression on the top notes, and also from a technical point of view they help to lift the floral bouquet as well. Somehow, strangely enough, those technical materials enhance the natural raw materials. There is an interesting interaction.”
What it also succeeded in doing was to create a perfume of contradiction, one that contained both the rich sensuality of indolic and animalic notes while all the while projecting snowy-white purity. It was a perfume that would perfectly follow the wearer from the morning to the evening and embody the juxtapositions of modern femininity – a fresh scent that was at the same time opulent and seductive.
This chiaroscuro that lies at the heart of No. 5 has been something the brand has enhanced via the several famous faces associated with it, both officially and unofficially. The first was Gabrielle Chanel herself, who appeared in an ad for the perfume in Harpers Bazaar in 1937. It was the arrival of artistic director Jacques Helleu in 1965, however, that defined Chan el’ s marketing power. In a brilliant moment of prescience, Helleu tapped into the nascent power of celebrity, starting with French actress Catherine Deneuve.S hot by Richard Ave don, this campaign started an entire oeuvre that would become a Chanel No. 5 trademark and would eventually include Australian actress Nicole Kidman. Presented as a twominute short film and directed by fellow Australian Baz Luhrm ann with a budget of$ US 33 million, the campaign has gone down in history as the most expensive ever.
Most recently, in 2020, just ahead of the fragrance’s 100-year anniversary, French actress Marion Cotillard was named as the latest personality to join the No. 5 dynasty. Her campaign, directed by Johan Renck, is an homage to the history of No. 5, right down to the gold dress Cotillard wears, a reinterpretation of one worn by Gabrielle Chanel herself.
In 2012, however, the company broke with tradition and drew on the star power of Brad Pitt, the first ever male ambassador for the perfume.
“I think the idea was incredible,” remarks Polge. “Of course there is obviously an interaction between the person who wear sit. Do you wear a fragrance for yourself, or do you wear it for the people who surround you? I think it’s very interesting to also hear the other gender speaking about someone wearing this perfume. I like to think fragrance is like a language and it expresses something about you. This is why a man speaking about a woman’s perfume... I’m surprised we didn’t do it earlier.”
While this was potentially not the original intention of the campaign, placing Pitt as the face of the fragrance posed the possibility of No. 5 being worn by men. In a twist of fate, that same year Belgian fashion designer and then-artistic director for Dior Homme, Kris Van Assche, said in an interview with GQ that Chanel No. 5 had been his perfume “since forever”.
But perhaps the most memorable promotion of the fragrance occurred outside of the company’s press room. In 1952, while at the height of her stardom, Marilyn Monroe was asked what she wore to bed. Her reply was simple: Chanel No. 5. “The beauty of this quote is that it was not organised by Chanel,” says Polge “[This is what I mean about] how No .5 is more than a perfume. It became a myth because its history is not completely in the hands of Chan el. You have other personalities like Marilyn who brought their part of the history to the perfume.”