There are two versions of the Coco Chanel story. The first is the version we know so well since it represents the official history of the fashion house, has became the subject of movies and is the way the story is told in most articles about the house, or about the lady herself.
According to this version, Coco Chanel was a great designer who changed the way that women dressed, who invented Chanel No. 5, which has been, for several decades, the world’s best selling and most famous fragrance, and whose house continues to the present day, selling the sort of clothes it has always sold, even though Karl Lagerfeld took over as designer after Coco died.
Elements of this version are accurate. Coco was an amazingly influential designer. Chanel No. 5 is a great fragrance. And everything Chanel does today – from clothes to accessories to fragrances – is done to the highest standards of quality and creativity.
But there are gaps in this version. And the second version – the real, unexpurgated story – is actually far more thrilling than anything a company’s official history can come up with.
First of all, the house of Chanel was not built on the foundation of Coco’s clothes – for many years in the middle, there were no Chanel fashions at all. It was built on a single fragrance: No. 5. And secondly, Coco did not create the fragrance and did not even own the rights to it for most of her life.
What is true is that Coco did have a colourful youth (as the movies tell us) and that she was a successful designer with a boutique that catered to rich women on the Rue Cambon in Paris. By 1919, couturiers (there was no ready-to-wear in that era) were launching their own fragrances. The trend had been set by Paul Poiret who launched a line called Parfums de Rosine in 1911. And such perfume houses as Bourjois (whose Evening In Paris was big in India as late as the Seventies) and Coty were selling fragrances and making billions.
Sensing the gap in the market, Coco commissioned Ernest Beaux, a top perfumer of that age, to design a fragrance for her. Beaux drew on successful perfumes (especially one called Rallet No. 1) to create ten variations on a theme that he presented to Coco. She chose the fifth sample, which she thought was especially significant because the number five had a Theosophical connection. (Oddly enough, she was into Theosophy at that stage of her life.)
She named the fragrance No. 5 and sold it at her boutique from 1921 to 1924. It was successful but production was small. That’s when Coco sold away her rights to the fragrance – yes, that’s right: from 1924 onwards, Chanel No. 5 has been owned by somebody else, and never by Coco Chanel or her descendants.
That somebody was the Wertheimer family, the owners of Bourjois, then among France’s most successful fragrance companies. The Wertheimers gave Coco a 10 per cent stake in Parfums Chanel, the company they created to make No. 5. She could keep her boutiques and her couture business and she could sell fragrances from her shops (even sourcing them from outside Parfums Chanel.) But when it came to No. 5, that was 90 per cent owned by other people.
Today, that arrangement would not be so unusual. Most fragrances are created by a handful of ‘Big Boy’ fragrance companies and owned by such multinationals as P&G or Unilever. The designer whose name is on the bottle usually gets no more than a licence fee. But the arrangement between the Wertheimers and Chanel created that precedent way back in 1924 when such deals were unknown.
It also made explicit a fundamental difference between couture and fragrance. The couture business would always be small because of its high prices. (Even today, how many women can afford Chanel couture?) But fragrance, though upmarket, could be a mass business. So, the money was in perfume not in couture.
The Wertheimers took No. 5 to the US market and turned it into a craze. In the years between the World Wars, it became among the best known scents in the States, a little slice of French high fashion glamour that the American middle classes could afford. Chanel’s clothing business, in contrast, remained small. Even with just 10 per cent of Parfums Chanel, Coco made much more money from fragrance than from her clothes.
Not surprisingly, she began to feel that she had struck a bad deal. Relations between the Wertheimers and Coco had reached an all-time low when the Second World War broke out.
You don’t see much reference to the role of Chanel during World War II in company-sponsored histories and that’s with good reason. The Wertheimers, who were Jewish, had to flee France after the German occupation or risk being shipped off to concentration camps. Coco, on the other hand, happily slept with the enemy – literally.
As the Wertheimers fled for their lives, Coco took a German officer as a lover, moved into the Ritz Hotel and tried to take over Parfums Chanel, claiming that it had been abandoned by Jews. She continued to make Chanel No. 5 and sold it throughout Germany and Axis areas.
The Wertheimers, on the other hand, found production facilities in Hoboken, New Jersey and started manufacturing No. 5 in the US. To Coco’s annoyance, the perfume continued to sell well in the US – where the real money was.
Then, the war ended. The Germans lost and surrendered. And the Wertheimers were back in France. They regained control of Parfums Chanel while Coco, her reputation in tatters, went into exile in Switzerland (in which country’s banks, she had stashed away some of her wartime profits from selling No. 5 in Axis countries.) The Chanel clothing house closed down and Chanel No. 5 became the sole Chanel product in the world. (Though Coco did try and sell Red Label fragrances briefly from exile in Switzerland).
For some reason, the Wertheimers forgave her. In 1953, she came back to France, her wartime collaboration having receded from memory. She tried to make up with the Wertheimers who, in a rare show of generosity, proposed a new deal.
Now, they wouldn’t just own Parfums Chanel. They would own the Chanel name itself. Coco could come back to Paris and re-open her clothing business but the Wertheimers would own it. In return, they would take care of all her expenses (including a suite at the Ritz) and pay her around a million dollars a year (around $ 25 million in today’s money). It was an astonishing deal and it endured till Coco died in 1971.
Even then, Chanel remained largely the house that No. 5 built. It was not till the 1980s that Karl Lagerfeld joined and boosted the sales of the house’s ready-to-wear, thus helping create the Chanel we know today. And Jacques Polge who took over as head perfumer in 1978, launched such mega-successful fragrances as Coco and Allure which account for the perfume division’s vast profits, though of course, No. 5 is still the best-seller.
Given this background and given that the Wertheimers now own all of Chanel (it is privately owned), they could bear a grudge against Coco for the appalling way she treated them. Instead, the House of Chanel worships Coco. Visitors are taken on reverential tours of her flat at Rue Cambon (above her original shop), marketers search for Chanel references for not just the clothes but also the fragrances, most of which have names with links to Coco. Nothing negative or even mildly critical about the lady is ever officially tolerated.
Contrast this with say, Dior, where nobody ever mentions Christian Dior himself or Givenchy where even though Hubert de Givenchy is alive, he is airbrushed out of the picture. You could say it is a marketing ploy but given that burying the memory of the founders has not hurt Dior and many other houses, I always wonder why the Wertheimers insist on worshipping Coco’s memory.
To their credit, they also honour the inventor of No. 5. To this day, they will include laudatory references to Ernest Beaux and praise the genius of his vision. (No other house does this. Eau Sauvage, Diorella and Diorissimo were all created by the great Edmond Roudnitska but he is hardly ever mentioned by Dior).
I asked Christopher Sheldrake, who is now second-in-command to Jacques Polge at Chanel’s perfume division, why No. 5 has remained such a huge success for so many decades. Sheldrake’s view is that apart from the fact that it is a great fragrance, part of the reason for its success is that Chanel treats its ingredients with so much respect.
At the heart of Chanel No. 5 is French jasmine. This is a jasmine that grows in Grasse in the south of France and is quite different from our Indian jasmine. When the Wertheimers fled to America during World War II, they sent a man to smuggle out the jasmine from Grasse because they knew they could not make No. 5 without it. More recently, when a flood of cheap jasmine from elsewhere put the Grasse version in peril, Chanel did a deal with jasmine growers promising to buy their entire production. Today 99 per cent of all the jasmine grown in Grasse goes into just one scent: No. 5.
On the other hand, most fragrances these days smell so little like the originals (tried smelling Miss Dior lately?) that you wonder if the accountants have made perfumers cut costs and throw in cheap ingredients. At Chanel, says Sheldrake, the cost of making the fragrance has actually gone up (affecting profit margins) but the management will not compromise on ingredients.
I won’t spend too much time trying to describe the smell of No. 5 because I find it hard to put smells into words. You have probably smelt it already. If not, it is easy to find at perfume counters. You may have heard that it was the first fragrance to use synthetic aldehydes but this is an over simplification and I’ll deal with aldehydes some other time. But you should be able to smell the rose and the jasmine in your first whiff of No. 5.
While there is only one No. 5, there are variations of the fragrance, all sold under the same name. The original, as invented by Ernest Beaux, was a perfume (ie. one of those small, concentrated thingies). Chanel prides itself on making the perfume pretty much as it was made in 1924.
But the smell most of us think of when No. 5 is mentioned is not the perfume. It could be the Eau de Toilette, which came out soon after the perfume (an Eau de Toilette is the stuff you spray from the bottle – around 10 per cent concentration of perfume oil) and is the classic smell of No. 5, at least in the public imagination. To the untrained nose, it smells a lot like the perfume but anybody with fragrance experience can tell that it is subtly different.
In the 1980s, when there was a fashion for big in-your-face fragrances, Chanel decided to update No. 5. Nothing Jacques Polge does is ever in-your-face but the Eau de Parfum (another spray – 15 per cent perfume oil) has more sandalwood and may, I, daresay appeal to Indian sensibilities more.
The Eau Premiere, which is the most recent version, is also a Jacques Polge creation. In the 1920s, Beaux did not have access to many of the ingredients and molecules that are now available. Polge sat down and asked himself, “what would Beaux have done with his original idea if he had access to today’s ingredients?”
Eau Premiere is the result of that thought. It is still recognisably No. 5 but is – to my nose at least – a little crisper. It does not have the sandalwood heaviness of the 1980s reformulation and it smells less old-fashionedly flowery to me. There is a citrusy edginess to it (perhaps from all the modern molecules) and it smells most like the modern fragrances Polge and Sheldrake have created for the Exclusifs range.
If you want classic No. 5, go for the EDT. If you want people to ask what you are wearing, use the EDP. And if you want to smell modern and (dreadful word!) slightly fresh, try the Eau Premiere.
But if you wear fragrance, then you must own at least one bottle of No. 5. It is the greatest perfume ever invented (though not necessarily the best) and it deserves your respect.
- From HT Brunch, May 29
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