Fear and clothing: Channeling the blithe spirit of Chanel No 5
A weekly reverie on the vagaries and charms of fashion
Today I feel like a little history lesson. Bear with me. I promise I will not bore you. In 1920 as the modern movement flowered a young woman at the height of her creative powers was reinventing how we dress.
She embodied modernity, her craft was her metier. Her signature style is now second nature for women around the world. Sports chic originated with her clever fabrication. The little black dress semaphored sexual freedom, independence, vibrant glamour and an ease of being that women have aspired to with mixed success ever since.
It was not that she was just a medium for a new way of expressing womanhood, she was a damn smart business woman who came up with the idea that has paradoxically sustained the economics of the fashion industry ever since.
For Christmas 1920 Coco Chanel wanted to give her 100 best customers a present. The idea was to bottle a perfume that represented her house and everything she understood “a woman’s perfume, with a woman’s scent” to be. She approached a talented young chemist and perfumier, Ernest Beaux. He was already famous for his work at Alphonse Rallet & Co, the foremost Russian perfume house that was sold at the turn of the century to the French perfume house Chiris of La Bocca. At the time they employed 1,500 people and made 675 products – one of which was Bouquet de Napoleon – a sellout success across the world, made by Beaux.
In 1920 the classic single note fragrances still prevailed – such as rose or iris. But Beaux created 80 versions of something quite revolutionary. A modernist art piece for the modern woman – a mixture of vetiver, ylang ylang, orange blossom, sandalwood, essence of neroli, tonka bean, Mai rose and jasmine (Mademoiselle’s favourite).
But the secret ingredient was something completely new: he added an aldehyde. As a chemist he realised that this synthetic would make the scent sparkle, exaggerate the notes and add depth and complexity. Chanel chose the fifth sample because she was superstitious like that: “I always launch my collection on the fifth day of the fifth month so the number five seems to bring me luck – therefore I will name it No 5.”
By 1922 she launched No 5 in her shops – because the demand was so high. It led to the creation of an independent business for its exclusive sale by the owners of Galeries Lafayette-Bader and Wertheimer, who bought the rights to No 5 in 1924. They then launched Parfums Chanel and hired Beaux as the chief perfumer. Chanel realised her mistake pretty soon – I mean, one bottle still sells every 30 seconds. Think about that.
She eventually reached a compromise after they sued her. They gave her 40% of the company and after World War 2 financed the second wind of the house of Chanel. The Wertheimers still own the company. The model was created and the global fashion industry is now driven by sales of perfume. Ernest Beaux said creating a perfume “is like writing music. Each component has a definite tonal value … I can compose a waltz or a funeral march.”
With Chanel No 5 he composed the scent of an era. His formula is carefully guarded and has been curated by Chanel for almost 100 years. Perfumes Chanel hired Jean Helley to design the now iconic No 5 bottle, which still closely resembles Coco Chanel’s original sketches. The iconic modernist deco bottle was immortalised at the Museum of Modern Art and in a series of Warhol prints. No 5 is one of the most counterfeited cosmetic products in the world. I read that there is a new fake industry that uses the brand value and desirability of highly popular perfumes, and claims they are just giving the consumer what they want by cutting out the frippery – the bottles and the marketing. This is disingenuous as there wouldn’t be a market for their products if there was no desire for the perfumes they are copying.
When you buy a “smell alike” fragrance at your local grocery store, you are still aspiring to the art and artistry that created this mysterious scent confection you desire. You may believe that you are getting the same thing and that you are spitting in the eye of the man who is taking you for a ride by charging you for the bottle and the marketing and the packaging. But a “smell alike” formula is never the real thing. You are still buying a fake, whatever the makers of the “smell alike” fragrances tell you. Perhaps it feels okay or smart, but let’s face it – you are cheating. Just because this art is highly commercialised and the artistry is accessible does not make it fair game. A fake Picasso is still a fake.