There are long queues outside the Chanel store on the Rue Cambon in Paris. At the Galleries Lafayette department store, the story is the same. Crowds of shoppers line up to enter the in-store Chanel boutique. Ditto at the Chanel concession at Printemps, another Paris department store. And indeed, as the summer begins, so do the queues outside Chanel stores all over the world: London, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere.
Chanel is not the only brand to attract these crowds. Sometimes the lines outside Louis Vuitton are longer. But those queues are more easily explained. They comprise tourists from the Far East, Japan, and increasingly, mainland China, who want to buy bags with the easily recognisable LV monogram. For many of the Chinese who stand in line on the Champs Élysées, the product is not important. They will buy anything as long as it has the monogram.
Chanel No. 5, Coco Chanel’s most famous creation
But Chanel is more difficult to explain. Yes, one or two of the handbags are iconic (the 2.55 for instance) and therefore, easily recognisable. But the bulk of the goods on sale have nothing like the ubiquitous monogrammed canvas that makes Louis Vuitton so attractive to Chinese people and bootleggers alike. Much of it is not easily identifiable as Chanel unless you know where to look (a clasp here, a chain there) and bag for bag, Chanel is far more expensive than Vuitton. Plus, there are the clothes. At Vuitton, even at rush hour, the rooms that stock the garments are thinly populated. But at Chanel, the clothes are often the point.
So what accounts for the power of the brand? Why do people pay so much for Chanel clothes and accessories? And why, despite the lines outside the stores, does Chanel, unlike say, Vuitton, preserve its image as a quality brand for discerning people who like to buy clothes and accessories that seem elegant and timeless?
Ask anybody at Chanel the secret of the brand’s success and they will give you answers that, while accurate, do not tell the full story: Chanel products are made to high standards; they tend to last; they involve a degree of craftsmanship; Karl Lagerfeld who does the women’s clothes is a genius and there is a heritage dating back to Coco Chanel herself.
Ah yes, the heritage. No fashion house perpetuates the cult of its founder as assiduously as Chanel does. Most people who buy Dior these days don’t know that Christian Dior was a real person. The present day Vuitton company’s link to the original Louis Vuitton is increasingly tenuous and the publicity for Gucci edits out the passionate, battling Gucci family whose members were involved in plots to kill each other before going bust and being bought out by Arabs. (At present, the house is French-owned and no Italians have any major stake in it – certainly not the Gucci family).
I was reminded of the heritage of Chanel when I went to the new Culture Chanel Exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last week. The exhibition divides itself into two parts. The first consists of paintings, letters and artefacts that have to do with the life of Coco Chanel. Jean-Louis Froment, the art exhibition expert who curated the show (Chanel gave him full control), makes the case that Coco Chanel’s life provided the inspiration for her creativity. Her love of wealthy (often British or German) men, her friendships with such artists as Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso and her love of European history contributed to the look we identify with Chanel today. This may well have been true and certainly, it helps the brand that it comes steeped in such a rich tradition of art and culture.
But I sensed a disconnect between the first half of the exhibition with its memories of the young Coco and the second half which was dedicated to Chanel No. 5, her most famous creation and still the best known perfume in the world (as well as a huge global bestseller with an ad campaign that is now fronted by Brad Pitt). We are expected to believe that No. 5 was the distillation of all of Coco Chanel’s experiences, and that its fragrance emerged out of her own life.
It is a line that the public buys and one that helps Chanel rise above the Vuittons, Diors, Guccis and other fashion brands. (Only Hermès is generally regarded as its equal in the hierarchy of fashion). Except that it is not that simple. For a start, Coco Chanel did not design or create Chanel No. 5. After she had opened her boutique, she asked a perfumer called Ernest Beaux to invent a fragrance for her. Beaux came up with many samples and the story goes that Coco chose the fifth sample, hence the name No. 5.
Nor did Coco Chanel own the fragrance. It was always produced for her by the Wertheimer family who were already in the fragrance business and who gave her a share of the profits. When the Nazis occupied France during World War II, the Wertheimers, who were Jewish, fled to America where they continued to make No. 5 (In New Jersey!). Coco turned against them, took up with a Nazi lover and tried to have their property confiscated because they were Jewish.
When the war ended with the defeat of the Nazis, Chanel fled to Switzerland to escape the stigma of being a collaborator and the Wertheimers made No. 5 without any involvement from her. Finally, in the mid-Fifties, the Wertheimers made Coco a relatively generous offer: she could come back to France and resume making clothes under the Chanel brand-name. But they would own the company. Coco would only get an annual payment. Since that day, the Wertheimers have owned all of Chanel, but have remained obsessively low-profile.
The icon: One or two of the handbags from Chanel are iconic and therefore, easily recognisable
In the Sixties, when haute couture was dying (when Yves Saint-Laurent launched designer ready-to-wear), Chanel’s fortunes took a dip and it ceased to be much more than a fragrance company. Its bottomline was entirely dependant on the scent of No. 5. When Coco died in 1971, her reputation as a couturier did not outlive her and the clothes business continued the slide that had begun during her last years.
The House of Chanel revived and moved beyond fragrance only in the 1980s after the Wertheimers hired Karl Lagerfeld to design the clothes. Since then, Lagerfeld has done a masterly job of updating the basics of Coco’s style and turning out brilliant clothes year after year, offering change that reflects each season’s inspiration while preserving the continuity of the Coco Chanel look.
Chanel is still privately owned by the Wertheimers so we have no way of knowing how much of the turnover comes from clothes and accessories and how much from fragrance. But I’m willing to bet that the perfumes contribute hugely to the profitability. Unlike many other houses which use large corporations to create fragrances for them, Chanel has always designed its own scents. Its current perfumer Jacques Polge is a legend in the trade and all the new Chanel fragrances you are likely to see are his work: Coco, Chance, Allure, Bleu, Egoiste and the various extensions of each (Allure Sensuelle, Platinum Egoiste, Coco Noir etc.). Polge’s collaborator is the immensely talented Chris Sheldrake, whose background includes niche fragrances (including many for the Serge Lutens line).
The Exclusifs, a niche line of sublime perfumes
You have probably never heard of Sheldrake or Polge or Ernest Beaux or the Wertheimers, for that matter. This is not Chanel’s fault. The House does a lot to give credit to Polge and Sheldrake and all references to No. 5 usually include a reference to Beaux’s role as creator. (The refusal to provide any information about the Wertheimers, however, is entirely deliberate).
The point is that while Polge is quite happy to discuss say, the creation of Bleu or Coco Noir, he is happiest submerging himself in the legacy of Coco Chanel. Even the Exclusifs, a niche line of sublime perfumes created by Polge and Sheldrake over the last few years, all take their names from references to Coco’s life: La Pausa after her villa, Coromandel after the screens she had in her apartment and so on. And the Wertheimers, extraordinarily enough, seem to bear Coco no ill-will for the way she treated them. Nor are they even willing to accept the credit for bringing her back from exile in the 1950s or for reinventing the House of Chanel in the 1980s. They prefer to remain faceless.
It is, at one level, a magnanimous strategy. For all her faults as a human being, Coco was a remarkable woman and her legacy deserves to live on, as it does in Lagerfeld’s riffs on her look and in the continued success of No. 5. But, at another level, it is also a shrewd strategy. Nearly everybody who goes to Chanel buys into the cult of Coco and into the suggestion that the House is a seamless extension of her original 1920s work. The combination of that historical branding and the excellence of Chanel’s products works brilliantly. That’s why the shoppers line up outside Chanel stores. And that’s why Chanel retains its position at the top of the fashion totem.
It is an amazing story. And at its root is that legendary fragrance which has continued to sell solidly for nearly a century. Some houses survive on the basis of their monograms. Chanel has flourished because of a divine scent: the most perfect combination of jasmine, rose, sandalwood, citrus and aldehydes ever devised. The Culture Chanel exhibition is open till 5th June at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris From HT Brunch, May 19
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