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Chanel No.5: Story of Everlasting Love

Thursday, 17 September 2009

chanel no 5Nearly 600 new perfumes hit the beauty counters each year. However, only few of them enjoy a long history. For example, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche is emblematic of the 1970s; Obsession, by Calvin Klein, the 1980s. But no fragrance engenders total recall like Chanel No 5. We know the box. We know the bottle. We know the scent. Chanel No 5. has been a hit for several decades - a bottle of it is sold every 55 seconds somewhere in the world.

The perfumers claim that the scent is impossible to summarise in a note: «powdery» and «vanilla» are as close as most get to a description. And the reason this is so hard to do is that No. 5 is the world's first abstract scent: before it women wore single-note florals (rose, violet and gardenia), traditional smells in whimsical bottles that Coco Chanel felt did nothing to promote the fragrance inside. In fact she was skeptical about perfume altogether, believing it to be nothing more than a slightly repugnant mask for body odour. Then she met the famous nose Ernest Beaux and changed her mind. They were introduced by her intimate friend, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov. Beaux had been a perfumer to the Russian court, but at the time he already left Russia and lived in exile in Biarritz. His love for experiments captivated Coco. Inspired by this, Mademoiselle Chanel commissioned him to create a scent for her fashion house, recognising his potential to reinvent scent, just as she had women's fashion.

Her perfume was to be the scent of a true woman; it was to be a synthetic composition that was not like anything else. Beaux acknowledged that any scent that represented the couturier should be pioneering - Chanel had, after all, changed the face of fashion with her simple alternative to the decorative Edwardian wardrobe; so she would expect a scent that broke boundaries.

Having experimented with aldehydes, synthetic floral notes, Beaux knew they would make a perfect top note, as they give an abstract impression of flowers. When you smell No 5 you don't just get a hit of rose or another exact aroma, you smell a figurative floral composition; but the genius of it is you know that rose is in there somewhere. It is this «mysterious sensation», as Christopher Sheldrake, Chanel's director of research and development, describes it, that is part of No 5's allure.

Beaux was the first to stabilise the aldehydic molecules in scent; and, as he found, as well as giving perfume an elusive quality they brought the real notes alive and made them sing. He said the impact they had on No. 5 was like «lemon juice on strawberries» - the «strawberries» being principally the perfume's heart notes May rose and jasmine. To the aldehydic top note Beaux also added ylang ylang from the Comoro Islands and neroli, and No.5's base notes sandalwood and Bourbon vanilla.

The name which is said to have been chosen because it was the fifth f 24 samples Beaux presented to Chanel, and which she knew would be timeless because a number needs no translation, and the simple bottle, a brilliant foil to the fanciful ones around it and tweaked only slightly since it was first designed, are recognisable parts of contemporary culture. Andy Warhol made No. 5 a subject for one of his screen prints, which Chanel reproduced as a limited-edition box in 1982.

Great pains have been taken to ensure that No. 5 smells the same now as it did when it launched in 1921. While Chanel has created new interpretations of No. 5 to meet changes in fashion and habits, no adjustments have been made to the original. The rose extract is still harvested by the same family farm that Chanel bought to maintain aroma continuity.

Initially, No. 5 was presented by Coco herself, but throughout the history of the legendary scent it was advertised by the glamorous celebrities, including Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman and Carol Bouquet who had been «the face» of No.5 for fifteen years. After her contract with Chanel was over in 2001, Bouquet confessed that this «love story» had been the longest and most memorable love story of her life.

Recently, on May 5, the day the legendary fragrance debuted in 1921, the latest inventive campaign - a romantic film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou was released online (Tautou is also starring as Coco Chanel in the forthcoming film of Chanel's life «Coco Avant Chanel».

Smart, but not surprising, given how No. 5 has always led the way, reinventing itself through the world. It is quite a performance, and the show gets better and better.

Inessa Hyder

 

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