When women were wearing tightly bound corsets at the beginning of the 20th century, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was sporting her boyfriend’s trousers. When luxurious textiles like silk and satin were the fabrics du jour, she was crafting garments out of jersey, then usually reserved for men’s underwear. And in 1954 – when she was a grand 71 years old – she introduced her now signature buckled tweed jacket that broke away from the era’s cinched waists and hourglass forms.
Coco Chanel. Fashion vanguard. Always shifting the boundaries of fashion. Those who follow her brand or are into fragrances, however, would know that her revolutionary ways extended beyond women’s wardrobes when she launched Chanel No. 5.
How it revolutionised the fragrance industry
Meant to capture the essence of the multifaceted woman the designer herself championed, this now iconic scent debuted in 1921 – the first to come from a couturier. While most perfumes of the time consisted of a single note (usually a heavy-scented flower), perfumer Ernest Beaux used a medley of ingredients – May Rose, jasmine, vetiver, ylang-ylang, bergamot, lemon, sandalwood and vanilla – but that wasn’t the only thing that set it apart.
To accentuate the notes and add layers of complexity, he added aldehydes or synthetic components – another first. The result meant it would be near impossible to sniff out the individual notes; a beguiling enigma – not unlike Chanel herself.
Drawing on the same simplicity as her clothes, the clean, masculine lines of its flacon – apparently inspired by a whisky bottle – also challenged the overly romantic perfume bottles of the day. And in true Chanel logic, its name stems from it being the fifth sample in the set of 10 Beaux presented to her. In other words, plain logic. Today, the same words have become a catchphrase for sophistication; the scent, a bestseller for decades.
Part of its early success boiled down to Chanel’s own cutting-edge marketing strategy. At its onset, she tapped onto “influencers”, inviting tastemakers to dinners and spritzing them with the fragrance. In 1937, she pulled something few designers dare to today, featuring herself in its inaugural campaign. More recently in 2012, that left-field ambassador would come in the form of Brad Pitt, rambling on in a 30-second-long commercial that got spoofed mercilessly after on Saturday Night Live. Say what you will about it, but hey, it sticks, no?
Perhaps, because of such esteemed history, the most underrated fact about Chanel No. 5 is that there’s been three other expressions following the original. The first offshoot, a lighter Eau de Toilette, came in 1923, while the Eau de Parfum (1986) and Eau de Premiere (2008) were each more modern interpretations of the one before. The fifth iteration is said to be the freshest, cleanest-smelling yet, and dubbed Chanel No. 5 L’Eau EDT ($165).
So how does a fragrance that’s taken up so much space in our collective memory appeal to Gen Y, while retaining its legacy? Perfumer Olivier Polge (his father Jacques was behind the Eau de Parfum) is quick to point out that while “l’eau” is French for “water”, it’s not a more diluted version of Chanel No. 5. Neither is it an overhaul. Instead, it’s a more natural-smelling take that took three years to perfect.
Elements of the original floral pillar, the May Rose – specially harvested in Grasse since 1921 – remain, made greener and crisper. Using aldehydes with the scent of orange rind, Polge also increased the vibrancy of the zesty notes, while removing the powder from the base, leaving it radiating citrus. At the centre: a hint of rose melding with jasmine and ylang-ylang, and – completely new to the base – the soft, cottony musk of cedarwood that lends an unexpectedly down-to-earth air. For all of the scent’s storied past, the last – in itself – is truly fresh.
An adapted version first appeared in Female’s September 2016 issue.