How to wear perfume the Chanel way
And the story behind its iconic fragrance No 5
Legend has it that when Gabrielle Chanel commissioned Ernest Beaux to create her first fragrance, she imagined a juice that didn’t smell like flowers—something that broke social conventions. The fragrance that launched in 1921, as No5, became the first to have synthetic molecules (aka aldehydes) in its composition. Apart from that it also features a complex bouquet of flowers at its heart. And it was in Grasse, France, where Beaux chanced upon the May Rose—one of the main ingredients for his juice.
It’s here on a discreet six hectare field in Pégomas (a small commune in Grasse), where the Mul family continues the tradition by growing the May rose and jasmine exclusively for Chanel. We meet Olivier Polge, the French fashion house’s fourth perfumer (you’ll know him from his previous creations for Chanel: Misia, Boy, Gabrielle, No5 L’Eau) at the bastide overlooking the field to understand what the classic Chanel No5 means today and how he reinterpreted it.
ELLE: Do you remember the first time you smelled the may rose?
Olivier Polge: As a perfumer, it was probably when I was studying perfumery. I must have been 20 years old and Chanel was the only one using this particular rose back then. I had to ask my father (Jacques Polge, Chanel’s former perfumer) to show it to me. I remember it feeling velvety and voluptuous—its tones are very interesting for a perfumer.
ELLE: How would you describe No5
OP: It reminds of Gabrielle Chanel and all the stories that surround her. There is one about how she sprayed No5 in the air when she was expecting someone at her studio. That said, each version of No5–the parfum and eau de toilette—have different characters, but overall it’s luxurious and elegant. We must remember that No5 is almost 100 years old, and while perceptions have changed it’s still very relevant to our times. It’s a true original.
ELLE: What inspired you to reinterpret No5 to create Chanel No5 L’eau?
OP: No5 is the grammar of our style at Chanel. People often think this legacy is a weight, but these elements give me new ideas. It’s a guide that’s not linked to flowers, but to a manner, a style. I love the fragrance and I wanted to reinstate that No5 still has something new to tell us, that its playful, casual and modern. I achieved this by stripping down the fragrance to its bare minimum, while still being true to its core.
ELLE: What are your favourite notes from Chanel’s olfactory library?
OP: We have a special bond with our raw materials. Depending on the type of fragrance I have in mind, I like iris, fresh citrus notes like Italian bergamot and mandarin lemon are great. Their sparkling quality is reminiscent of the aldehydes used in No5. Sometimes I may use an ingredient that I don’t like or may not smell pleasant, but used in small amounts they bring out the beauty of the final perfume. Like I work with sunflower root, which does not smell good, but it develops an interesting scent as it dries. We usually dry it out for three years before extracting from it.
ELLE: How long does a perfume last in its bottle before it starts losing its essence?
OP: There’s no precise timeline that can be applied to all fragrances–certain oils are fragile and can change very quickly. We recommend you use fragrances within three years; colognes fade much faster.
ELLE: What’s your advice to choosing a perfume?
OP: The fragrance doesn’t choose a woman; the woman chooses a fragrance. Different people can find different things that interest them—this is part of No5s success.
ELLE: How should we apply perfume?
OP: Just like Coco Chanel used to say ‘use it wherever you want to be kissed’.