What started out as a personal search for a fragrance that would encapsulate the carefree life of Coco Chanel, became one of the most defining women’s scents in history
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Chanel N°5, which many considered as the first modern perfume. Bearing the name of Coco Chanel, the French designer and society figure, it was said to have been revolutionary, creating a new category and mindset for women’s fragrances.
By the 1920s, Chanel was already a few years into running her rue Cambon boutique in Paris as well as other shops in Biarritz and Deauville. She was then on the lookout for a fragrance that would reflect her carefree flapper lifestyle.
At the time, perfumes only came in two kinds: “reputable” ladies of society favored a light, single-flower scent while the “disreputable” went with heavier, muskier fragrances. Neither appealed to Chanel as she was something unique, a tangent in the middle of stodgy and scandalous.
While on a holiday at the Cote d’Azur, she found it through Ernest Beaux, a Russian perfumer who lived in the French fragrance capital of Grasse. Beaux presented her 10 formulations in 10 vials, eventually going with number five.
Chanel said this scent was what she was waiting for, describing it as “a woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” The scent smelled of soap, which might have reminded the designer of her mother Jeanne, who was a laundrywoman.
The number five also was some sort of obsession for Chanel, starting from her days at the convent orphanage Aubazine. She believed that the number embodies someone or something’s pureness.
After introducing the scent to the public, it became a rousing success. Chanel eventually met the brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who would bring the perfume to global acclaim through a new corporate identity, Parfum Chanel.
Later on, it was said that the designer became unsatisfied of the terms of her original agreement with the Wertheimer brothers. The two parties spent years battling for control for Chanel N°5, with the struggle even persisting through World War 2. Eventually, both settled on a new agreement.
This fight for ownership thankfully did not dampen the rise of the perfume, which has since shifted to different parts of the world. Sold at first through fragrance counters at luxury department stores, it became popular gift for women in its early years. It is arguably still the most top-of-mind feminine scent in the world.
The design of the bottle also adds to the scent’s icon status, as even it silhouette has become recognizable worldwide. Mimicking a whisky decanter, the container is transparent, showing of the amber liquid inside it clearly. This hasn’t changed significantly over the decades.
There have been various reinterpretations of Chanel N°5 brought about by the fashion house’s successive perfumers. At present, five variations of the scent exist, including the original parfum.
Many celebrities, too, have been connected to the perfume. Perhaps the most famous example is Marilyn Monroe, who, when asked [creepily] by Marie Claire editor-in-chief Georges Belmont what she wore to bed, answered “five drops of Chanel N°5 and nothing else.”
Big name actresses have also been associated over the decades with the perfume, including Ali MacGraw, Lauren Hutton, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet and Nicole Kidman.
They were shot in classic campaigns and advertisements by equally revered photographers like Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, and Dominique Issermann, and guided by directors like Helmut Newton, Ridley Scott, and Baz Luhrmann.
Chanel once said that “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” And seeing as how it has stood the test of time, its confident otherness still persist.
For more information, visit Chanel.com.