For the Queen, it is said that the world is perfumed by the acrid scent of freshly painted columns. For Coco Chanel, the iconic French couturier, her environment had a far more intimate and exotic odour. Each morning as Mademoiselle Chanel set off from her apartment in the Ritz Hotel to her office on the Rue Cambon, the hotel porter would alert a member of her staff to her imminent arrival and an assistant would be despatched to spray the entrance with a fine mist of Chanel No 5.
Every morning as she breezed through that lobby of perfumed air she was transported back to 1920 when Ernest Beaux, the former perfumer of the Russian tsar proffered ten vials numbered 1-5 and 20-24 for her critique. Sadly there shall be no Chanel clutch offered as a prize for guessing which one she favoured. Last week a new exhibition opened at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris entitled Culture Chanel which celebrates the iconic perfume and seeks to place that pristinely clear bottle right at the centre of art, fashion and social revolution during the 20th century. Are they right? Oui ou Non?
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel wanted to change the world just as much as her friends Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and the priapic Pablo Picasso. She wanted a new scent for the new modern woman. A century ago perfumes came in two distinctive styles, a sweet floral scent for a refined lady and the heavy musk of the courtesan but what Coco wanted was something in between, a sharp scent for the women who did as she pleased and that quest led her nose first towards the future. To achieve this, Ernest Beaux used for one of the first times what has become a standard feature in the perfume industry, namely synthetic aldehydes, artificial chemicals, that were perceived as possessing a fizzier odour, described as being like the perlage of champagne on the skin, as Chanel was fascinated by the number five, she took the favoured vial as a good omen and said: “I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck.”
At the time perfume bottles were rococo and flamboyant creations but Chanel favoured the simplicity found in Cubism and appropriated the distinctive lettering from the leaflets, known as “papillons dada” (dada butterflies) put out by the dadaists. When in 1924 a company was set up to license and distribute the perfume internationally the brochure declared: “the perfection of the product forbids dressing it in the customary artifices. Why rely on the art of the glassmaker… Mademoiselle is proud to present simple bottles adorned only by… precious teardrops of perfume of incomparable quality, unique in composition, revealing the artistic personality of their creator.”
Curiously the exhibition turns its nose up and walks quickly away from the foul aroma that still lingers over Chanel’s attempts in 1941 to wrestle back control of the company from her Jewish partners by exploiting the Nazis’ new racial laws, introduced after the occupation of France which made it illegal for Jewish people to own businesses.
Today the most powerful note in the perfume world is that of the sweet smell of success, for not even the whiff of recession has forced consumers to wrinkle their nose and put the stopper back in the bottle. Their manicured fingernails may hover momentarily over the 50ml bottle before a memory of their flashing neon bank balance will stay their hand and nudge it towards the smaller 30ml flacon but the global market as a whole is buoyant and valued at £18 billion with British consumers spritzing over a £1bn a year on toilet water.
Whilst the classic fragrances from the top fashion houses continue to dominate the market, celebrity scents, vanity exercises in branding by the likes of Lady GaGa are also hugely successful. In 2009 one of the biggest sellers in Britain was “Unconditional” by that renowned perfumer, Peter Andre.
Sadly, I’ve long turned up my nose at scents and so belong to the 17 per cent of the female population who don’t purchase perfumes, the reason for doing so I put down to my over-developed olfactory senses which I share with bloodhounds, to judge by my ability to tell by a single sniff of my caramel macchiato which barista is wearing Shalimar. In fact our sense of smell is more acute than we have been led to believe, for when scientists at Berkeley tested humans by applying blindfolds, earplugs and thick gloves then asked them to go on their hands and knees and follow a trail of chocolate essence oil drizzled across a field, two-thirds were successful, though as scientists later discovered, each required both nostrils to accurately follow the scent.
The potency of perfume, and what makes it such a successful consumer product, is the ability of a single drop of scented water to instantly transport us to a particular time and place, mood and emotion. The sense of scent is an olfactory magic carpet ride, for it is the most ancient of our five senses and is processed in the hippocampus and an area of the brain, known as the amygdala, linked to emotion and memory. When we smell a scent for the first time our brain fuses it to the current event and mood and then, like an efficient secretary rummaging through an infinite filing cabinet, hauls it out each time the scent reoccurs.
If one is to believe the claims of the new exhibition, Chanel No 5 perfumed the 20th century, lingering over Marilyn Monroe who famously wore only five drops to bed and continues to drift in a blended miasma of Jasmine, Iris, Rose and 77 other ingredients, over the 21st (despite the best efforts of Brad Pitt, the first male to “promote” the product).
As Jean-Louis Froment said: “For me, No 5 is not a perfume, it’s a cultural object. It’s sustained by a profoundly inward adventure, which is the prerogative of great creators, and its also a modern creation that totally relies on an artistic adventure that’s historic.”
Coco may be long gone, but her scent lingers on.