There’s always a sense of unease amongst the perfume-appreciating public when a brand announces that they are tinkering with a classic and presenting it in a new guise. Teeth are clenched, short breaths are inhaled and noses are on guard, all held in hope that whatever this new fragrance child turns out to be, it lives up to the high standards set by its forbearer. Personally, I’m not so precious about the classics and I view these remixes as being similar to the remake of an iconic film. Just because something is being remade, doesn’t mean that every single copy of the original will be deleted. The classic will still be there so if the new version doesn’t resonate, that’s fine, one still has their classic to enjoy. So yes, brands can remix and remake as much as they like because you know what? The results can often be quite interesting indeed (case in point: Shalimar Parfum Initial).
I say all of this because CHANEL are just about to launch Nº5 L’EAU, an entirely new interpretation of none other than Nº5, arguably the most famous perfume in the world. L’EAU comes as the first rehash of Nº5 under the penmanship of Olivier Polge, CHANEL’s latest in-house perfumer, who took the reigns in 2015. This however, is not the first rebirth of Nº5, which has seen a number of incarnations in its time, starting as an Extrait composed in 1921 by Ernest Beaux before the perfumer revisited the composition to create an Eau de Toilette just two years late in 1924. Under perfumer Jacques Polge’s tenure, we saw an Eau de Parfum concentration composed in 1986 in addition to an ‘Eau Première’ version which followed in 2007 as an introductory scent for a younger audience. Now we have L’EAU, a fragrance that is being billed by CHANEL as the Nº5 of today.
“A fragrance for here, now and always” – that’s how CHANEL describe Nº5 L’EAU. The fragrance is a “complete reinvention” of the original but at the same time, the brand is quick to point out that Olivier Polge has been respectful of Nº5’s history whilst he has dissected the formula to see just how it ticks, and rightly so. Nº5 L’EAU looks to the future to create a new Nº5 – a Nº5 for the modern generation. The trick here is to create something new from something so instantly recognisable, to make the known surprising and to not lose the spirit of the composition along the way. So how successful has the exercise in modernising and lightening an olfactory icon been? Well, you’ll just have to read on to find out!
Top: Lemon, Mandarin, Orange and Aldehydes
Heart: Rose, Oxygenated Jasmine and Ylang Ylang
Base: Vetiver, Cedar and Musk
How Does it Smell?
The initial spritz of Nº5 L’EAU is most certainly familiar. Straight away, the fizzy, champagne-like whoosh of aldehydes that makes the original so distinct are present and correct, but in a much more paired-back manner. L’EAU does away with the overdose of these aldehydes to go for something more balanced instead, where the shimmer of citrus takes the lead and the fizz of aldehydes simply add some underlying lift. The top notes are bright and lemony, with the juiciness of mandarin orange in the background to make the mouth water, whilst the supple aldehydes add a glittering bitterness to contrast. So far so good.
Nº5 was always about the clash of aldehydes and flowers and L’EAU certainly maintains the legendary abstract bouquet. Rose and jasmine collide with the heated tropical tones of ylang ylang, forging a floral that is a mixture of tones, including; fleshy white blooms, dewy petals, bitter greenery and crisp moss. Strangely, the floral notes have a touch of an old-school ’80s vibe, presenting something that is biting and sharp, giving shades of another CHANEL classic: Nº19. There isn’t any identifiable flower at play here, which stays faithful to the abstruse nature of the original. To put it another way, Nº5 L’EAU’s heart is a delicate floral print in shades of white and pastel green, rather than a rich tapestry of imaginary blooms.
Being an eau de toilette, Nº5 L’EAU is much softer and more subtle than the other incarnations in this classic family. Where Nº5 is an operatic rendition of an aldehydic floral aria, L’EAU demands less attention (it feels more like a quiet folk song), content with glistening on the skin like a fine dusting of light. The base has much less oomph and consists mainly of laundry-like musks with a touch of cedar for dryness. I get a strong iris impression as the fragrance dries down, allowing L’EAU to feel plush for a few moments – cushioning those florals with a dusting of mineral powder. It is little inflections like this that show L’EAU’s lineage, giving respectful nods to the legend of 1921 and providing an important reminder that, whilst different, this fragrance still carries strong strains of the Nº5 DNA. Perhaps we should call it the double-helix dry down?
Nº5 L’EAU is made with complete and utter respect to its grandmother. It is composed with the structural integrity of Nº5 fully intact however, the whole presentation is entirely more modern. To me, L’EAU feels silky and sleek, taking a much more minimal approach to Nº5’s carefully constructed composition. Like Nº5, it is an architectural fragrance but instead of being draped over the dress form as a jersey gown in auburn colours, L’EAU has more clarity, taking the shape of a silk white shirt that never creases.
L’EAU strikes me as a Nº5 for people that don’t like Nº5. It’s modern, youthful and surprisingly new, making for a quieter and more stealthy experience all round. Most importantly however, it is respectful of CHANEL’s inimitable icon and serves a purpose as a more luminous and ethereal take on the world’s most legendary floral. Whether you love Nº5 or loathe it, or even if you’re simply a passing fancier who is in neither camp, I’d recommend that you sniff L’EAU – it’s a perfect example of how a nearly century old fragrance can be brought bang up to date and it has achieved this in true CHANEL style.
Nº5 L’EAU launches on 01 September 2016. It will be available in 50ml (£68) and 100ml (£96) Eau de Toilette.
Sample, notes and quotes via CHANEL. Images are my own.