Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Secret of Chanel No. 5

Perhaps no other perfume has penetrated the global psyche in the same way as Gabrielle Chanel's Chanel No. 5. Since its launch 94 years ago, this iconic scent has sold more than any other known, and it's minimalist packaging and clean-cut square-shouldered flacon are instantly recognisable in every part of the world. In her fascinating book "The Secret of Chanel No. 5 - The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous perfume", author and cultural historian Tilar Mazzeo casts a shining light on the No. 5 story from birth until today. Not only an absorbing read for perfume nerds like yours truly, this book will appeal to Francophiles and history buffs for it's exceptional research and intelligent writing. But I'm not here to review the book... rather, to pull from it's pages something of great interest to me.

I was shocked to learn that Gabrielle Chanel signed over 90% of the rights to her legendary perfume in 1924, just a few years after it was cast onto the world stage. With the remaining stakes split between Theophile Bader, then-owner of the prestigious Galleries Lafayette (20%) and Paul and Pierre Wertheimer, brothers and proprietors of the perfume giant Bourjois in the US (70%) Gabrielle later spent the rest of her days living with a pang of regret. In this engrossing account of what transpired thereafter, the solicitous management and marketing of Chanel No. 5 largely impacted our cultural cognisance of it today, almost 100 years later.

Here is where I wish to indulge myself and place a bookmark in the sweeping No. 5 timeline, if I may. One thing I found interesting about the marketing of Chanel No. 5 is how for almost 2 decades, it was regarded by many as completely inaccessible... a luxury item which, right up until the second world war, could only be afforded by the well-heeled. However, in the throes of WWII when resources were scant and little money remained to spend on lavish goods, the Wertheimer brothers made a risky decision to expand the perfume's distribution, offering smaller presentations at a lower price point so that it might appeal to a middle-class customer. A decision was made to extend availability to the hundreds of U.S Army Post Exchanges in the US and abroad; giving service men and women the opportunity to purchase Chanel No. 5 tax-free. At the time Gabrielle Chanel though it a preposterous idea and an erosion of it's exclusivity, but the sales it generated - and the new wave of No. 5 admirers it garnered - shot into the stratosphere.

It is rare to discover an example of a wartime U.S Army issue of Chanel No. 5.
Here is such an example from the author's personal collection.

The back of the paper label reads:

I can't help but be charmed by such sweet keepsakes from a time of war. Perhaps it was purchased by a G.I, intended as a gift for his sweetheart?

Such is the romance and classicism of Gabrielle Chanel's celebrated perfume. For as long as we draw breath, the world may never again see such an iconic name nor iconic scent weave its way into the tapestry of mankind. Chanel No. 5 charms us today, just as she did the heroes of yesterday.

For a look at Chanel's illustrious history, visit the illustrated timeline presented on "Inside Chanel".