We don’t know each other that well, you and I, but I wish to make amends. Hopefully by the end of this letter we will become better acquainted.
I know this may come out of the blue to you, Bleu, but I am an insufferable snob. I guess I just don’t want to smell like all the other guys, because I’m not like all of the other guys, which has left you in a position of being overlooked, unfairly.
You tell men that they should ‘be extraordinary’, but on the surface I felt that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about you, in fact ‘ordinary’ would have summed up my feelings about you. I don’t mean to be harsh or cutting, you understand, but my apology would not be meaningful if I didn’t explain, in full, how we got here.
A bottle of CHANEL Nº5 is sold every thirty seconds – just digest that fact for a second – that means by the end of this sentence, someone, somewhere around the world has bought themselves, or someone they love, a bottle of a fragrance that is as iconic as the Volkswagen Beetle, as timeless as Cartier diamonds and as beautiful as Paris at night. Nº5 has been a consistent bestseller since its launch in the 1920s putting it in the unique position of being the scent of many generations – it is our scent, the scent of our mothers and grandmothers – the smell of first dates, goodnight kisses and heart wrenching goodbyes. Nº5 is so much more than a perfume, it’s a friend that has accompanied us on life’s many journeys and it is someone we all know oh so very well.
Writing about CHANEL Nº5 is like photographing the Eiffel Tower – others have been there, done that and said all that can be said, snapped all that can be snapped, sniffed all that can be sniffed, even, but still there is a yearning to experience it for oneself and to speak of that experience. CHANEL Nº5 is a legend of the perfume world. Scrap that, Nº5 is the most famous perfume in the world and when most people think of perfume they think of Nº5. So it’s a daunting fragrance to approach as a writer because how could one ever do it justice? For me, Nº5 is the elephant in the room – it simply has to be written about. In this piece I’ll be celebrating CHANEL’s flagship fragrance by taking a look back at its history as well as sniffing its five incarnations, guiding you, Dear Reader, through the fabric of a perfume that can only be called a legend, and even then the description doesn’t quite do it justice. This is Nº5 to the power of five.
I didn’t originally have a post scheduled for today, but I simply had to tell you about something brand new and exciting from CHANEL. I mean, it would be rude of me not to spread some CHANEL-scented joy now, wouldn’t it? Indeed! Seeing as it’s nearly Christmas (only 71 more sleeps, people) and the holiday season is the domain of CHANEL Nº5, it makes sense that Paris’ biggest fashion house is treating us to a delightfully scented treat just in time for gifting season – a treat that is certainly getting me very excited: Nº5 Body Oil.
“Nº5 THE BODY OIL offers an exceptional moment of supreme refinement. The extremely gentle scented oil brings a promise of relaxation in the soothing atmosphere of Nº5. It subtly emits the iconic fragrance like a beckoning path to sensual delight. Bathed in a delicate scent, the skin is left soft, moisturised and dry to the touch.”
The district of Peckham in south-east London isn’t the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of the house CHANEL, but that’s exactly where the world’s most famous couturier decided to host a five-day pop-up scent installation inspired by their fragrances. The location was chosen because it is home to the studio of Es Devlin, the Stage Designer picked by CHANEL for their first collaboration with i-D under their ‘The Fifth Sense’ partnership.
Es Devlin creates “kinetic sculptures meshed with light” and is famous for piecing together elements of the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, Béyonce’s Formation World Tour (having created a gigantic “monolith” of a video screen for the tour), Adele’s BRIT Awards performance of “When We Were Young”and pretty much all of Kanye West’s performances in recent years. With such an illustrious and frankly fascinating body of work, it’s no surprise that Es was the perfect artist to work with for CHANEL’s very first pop-up scent installation.
Entitled ‘Mirror Maze’ this installation takes themes of navigation, gravity and memory, and links them to fragrance. The physical aspect sees a mirrored maze reminiscent of Coco Chanel’s famous mirrored staircase intertwined with video installations and soundscapes. Fragrance comes into play in the form of a specially-created scent crafted by CHANEL in-house Perfumer, Olivier Polge – a fragrance that scents a special space within the installation. The fragrance and installation (which closed yesterday) will last for five days, after which they will only exist as memory.
“I began to think about scent as a means of finding my way and measuring myself – not in space but through time. I thought about the smells that take me back – burning street tar, Vicks inhaler, Christmas tree resin, freshly cleaned school corridors, printer ink, chlorine, sunscreen, baby milk, mosquito coils, Indian jasmine mixed with street cooking, diesel – and I began to see them as landmarks for who I was when I first and last smelled it.”
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!
If last year’s Misia was anything to go by, perfumer Olivier Polge is definitely finding his feet at CHANEL, having taken over the position of perfumer-in-residence from his father, Jacques Polge, the man behind the likes of Antaeus, Coco, Coco Mademoiselle, Égoïste – need I go on? Big boots to fill, most certainly, but M. Polge Jnr certainly has a fair few hits under his own belt, scents such as Dior Homme, which, lets face it is already a modern classic, so perhaps those shoes aren’t quite so big after all?
For his second outing in CHANEL’s niche line, ‘Les Exclusifs’, Olivier Polge pays homage to Arthur Capel, Gabrielle Chanel’s patron and lover. ‘Boy’, as he was called, lends his name to the fragrance, which is a feminine take on the typically masculine fougère inspired by Chanel’s clothing, couture that borrowed heavily from the codes of menswear and tailoring. BOY the fragrance has been created to capture Capel’s “irresistible elegance” and “virile strength” and is a gender-bending scent that borrows from the olfactory codes of men and women. As CHANEL describe it, BOY is the “mark of a man on the skin of a woman”.
Super Scent is back, again! As you may or may not know, the idea of this series is for Basenotes, Persolaise and I to pick a perfume house and list our top five (or a few more if the house has an extensive catalogue). We are not allowed to discuss or show each other our lists before we publish and we must pick fragrances currently available and in their most recent formulations. We encourage you to share your top fives too and it’s always fascinating to see both the similarities and differences in our lists. So please do join in!
So far we’ve looked at Lauder, debated about Dior and edited the catalogue of Etat Libre d’Orange to pick our favourites, which takes us up to today and our latest subject: Chanel. Chanel is the house responsible for popularising the link between fragrance and fashion, cementing themselves as not only one of the world’s greatest couturiers, but also placing themselves at the forefront of fragrance. They are an illustrious brand with a fascinating eye for detail and a never-ending thirst for quality. Let’s take a look at my top five!