How Chanel n ° 5 kept its cult status for 100 years

“There is a richness and a mystery that you will never fully understand about Chanel # 5 that keeps it relevant,” said Olivier Polge, Chanel chief perfumer since 2015, explaining why the fragrance has remained iconic for 100 year. Created by Gabrielle Chanel in 1921 with the aim of redefining feminine scents – like the way her clothes reinvented style – she asked her perfumer, Ernest Beaux, to concoct something different from the floral aromas to unique note that were on the market at the time. The result was a blend of natural and artificial fragrances (“synthetic molecules called aldehydes,” the brand explained) that captured and embodied Chanel’s style and presence. Since then, there have been five iterations of the scent. More recently, Polge developed L’Eau ($ 108) in 2016 as a “laid back” interpretation.

In Miami during Art Basel to celebrate the perfume’s centenary, Polge sits by the ocean in a suite at the Faena Hotel on South Beach. Dressed in yellow-khaki pants, a white buttonhole and a navy blue sports jacket, he is only the fourth “nose” to lead the perfumes of the luxury fashion house. His predecessor was his father, Jacques Polge, but junior Polge’s interest in perfume only manifested itself after a summer internship during “college” at Polge’s Chanel perfume lab.

“It was a turning point,” said Polge, who discovered a love for sandalwood and bergamot. “Something touched my sensitivity.” That’s what makes a great perfumer, he adds – not necessarily the sense of smell, but rather the emotional response and connection to the scent. “You have to build this link with your memory and then organize your family of smell, which is quite subjective.”

Subjective, yes, but Chanel perfumes are revered around the world for their luxurious packaging and complex aromas. Polge oversaw more than 15 fragrances during his six-year tenure as head of the brand’s fragrance creation and development lab, including Boy ($ 350) and Misia ($ 350), both from the high-end line Les Exclusifs, and the aforementioned Chanel. N ° 5 Water.

For the anniversary, the brand commissioned a multi-level, sculptural and labyrinthine installation, or labyrinth, by artist and set designer Es Devlin, titled Five Echoes. Located in Jungle Plaza in Miami’s Design District and surrounded by an artificial forest, the synaesthetic or multisensory experience plays with audio, light and scent to recreate the essence of perfume. The greenery that surrounds it is an ode to the brand’s respect and use of nature. In fact, once the exhibit is over (it is open to the public from November 30 to December 21), more than 1,000 plants, shrubs and trees surrounding the maze will be replanted throughout Miami-Dade County as part of the commitment of the luxury house in favor of sustainable development. and the fight against climate change.

“We’ll never be as good as nature, but we can express it in our own style.”

“Nature is very important to us,” said Polge. He shares that with his scents, they like to extract what they can from nature and interpret it in a meaningful way to show their deference to the natural elements. “We’ll never be as good as nature, but we can express it in our own style.”

Image Source: Sam Frost / Chanel

Polge spoke with Devlin a few times during her creation of Five Echoes and commented on how impressed he was with her attention to detail, particularly how she incorporated the geometric shapes found in the stained glass window at the childhood home. of Chanel all along the paths of the labyrinth. He had just seen the exhibit for the first time that morning and was delighted to see it the next evening in a new light, predicting it would give a new impression. Indeed, the following evening, illuminated during a starred dinner to further celebrate the 100 years of Chanel n ° 5, Polge left with a new appreciation of space. “Everything is enhanced – the architecture, the smells, the sounds,” he said.

It’s that same “new feel” that the brand hopes to recreate by releasing new versions of Chanel # 5, but not because they’re not happy with the original. “Quite the opposite,” Polge said. “We’re just trying to capture a new aspect of # 5. It’s the backbone and the reason we make perfume at Chanel.” To stay fresh, the brand is recruiting new faces, from Marilyn Monroe to, more recently, Marion Cotillard. “We invent new interpretations, but always keep the original.” (Fun fact, Chanel # 5’s original face was Gabrielle Chanel herself.)

It all, of course, goes back to Polge’s remarks about what makes a great perfume: its connection to memory. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a mother, aunt, or grandmother who has stored one of the famous square glass bottles on their vanities or sprayed the flower elixir on their wrists. “There is an intimate relationship between someone and their scent,” Polge said. It is this relationship – to people, places, days, decades – that makes Chanel n ° 5 timeless.

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