Perfume

Chanel's signature fragrance: the sweet smell of success 100 years on

An antique bottle of Chanel N ° 5 perfume on display at the "Gabrielle Chanel, Manifesto of Fashion" exhibition at the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris on September 25, 2020
An antique bottle of Chanel N ° 5 perfume on display at the "Gabrielle Chanel, Manifesto of Fashion" exhibition at the Palais Galliera fashion museum in Paris on September 25, 2020 Stéphane de Sakutin AFP/Archivos

The 5th of May will mark one hundred years since the iconic French perfume Chanel N°5 went on sale. Promoted by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Deneuve and Nicole Kidman, the fragrance has kept its status as the modern woman’s classic accessory.

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In 1921, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel had already built a considerable reputation as a fashion designer, but she knew instinctively that she needed a distinctive fragrance, one with her own name on it.

On holiday in the south of France with one of her lovers, the exiled Russian Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Chanel was introduced to Franco-Russian chemist Ernest Beaux.

Chanel insisted that the fragrance must capture the ‘spirit of a woman’ – and it couldn’t be limited to only one scent. That’s how the magical concoction came about.

After testing different combinations, the number 5 sample caught Chanel’s attention.

This became Chanel N°5, packaged in a rectangular, medicinal shaped bottle, with sharp masculine lines, and a stark black and white label. It has hardly changed since its release.

Bottle of Chanel no°5 perfume, first sold in France on 5 May 1921.
Bottle of Chanel no°5 perfume, first sold in France on 5 May 1921. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Edith de Belleville, a tour guide in Paris, knows Chanel’s story inside out.

For her, the word that comes to mind in relation to Chanel is “timeless”. How else could a woman and her brand sail through one hundred years of history and still be a famous luxury fashion house recognised the world over?

“She was the first woman, and first fashion designer, to create a perfume with her name. Before her, you have (Paul) Poiret but the name of the perfume was not Poiret,” Edith de Belleville told RFI, pointing out how ahead of her time Chanel was.

The French designer was also the perfume's first ‘face’, appearing in Harper’s Bazaar in 1937, a concept which helped give the brand further notoriety.

At the time, fragrances were based on only one scent, one flower, like jasmin or violet, Edith de Belleville explains, and again Chanel set out to break the mould, choosing a fragrance made up of some 80 scents.

Chanel was seeking to represent the complexity of ‘woman’ with this scent, hard to pinpoint exactly, allowing the wearer to keep a sense of mystery.

Coco Chanel in 1930.
Coco Chanel in 1930. © Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / André Kertész

Much like herself really – a chameleon able to wear delicate evening dresses or switch to tweed trousers for horse-riding and driving fast cars.

Rumour has it five was Chanel’s lucky number and she often released her twice-yearly collections on the 5th of the month.

The official launch of Chanel N°5 took place in her rue Cambon boutique in Paris on 5 May, 1921.

It appears that her superstition paid off - her fragrance continues to be the best-selling perfume in the world today.

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