A perfume born out of the spirit of liberation
Vanessa Craft explores the legacy and magic behind Chanel's new Gabrielle Eau de Parfum Spray.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel believed that “people’s lives are an enigma,” and she certainly lived true to that statement. Although her name is synonymous with iconography and an unparalleled fashion history, the narrative of Chanel’s past changed as frequently as the threads in her sewing machine. In recounting her story, the revolutionary designer often altered details about her past, such as her date of birth or the years she spent in an orphanage as a child. In early adulthood, she started using the name Coco—there are a variety of different stories out there as to why. What really mattered to Chanel, it seemed, was living in a way she had designed. “I have chosen the woman I want to be and am,” she said.
This kind of self-aware rebellion is a compelling facet in a jewel of a life. Justine Picardie, author of Chanel: Her Life, says that Chanel was capable of “remaking history like she remade the sleeves of a jacket, unfastening its seams and cutting its threads and then sewing it back together again.” Indeed, Chanel reimagined not just her destiny but the way women could dress.
There’s magic to be mined here, so it’s no surprise that the venerable House of Chanel is launching a perfume this fall that was inspired by such a headstrong and passionate woman. Called Gabrielle Chanel Eau de Parfum, it’s essentially a fragrance for the woman who chooses her own path.
The face of Gabrielle Eau de Parfum, actress Kristen Stewart.
Chanel changed the rules of how women should look. She borrowed from men’s attire and urged women to seek freedom with their clothing and to dress for themselves first. From collarless tweed jackets to the legendary little black dress, her business—and legacy—grew, expanding over the years into handbags, jewellery and fragrances.
Having a vision for the latter is what made her so special, says Olivier Polge, the brand’s in-house perfumer creator, who crafted the new scent. “Those two worlds—perfume and fashion—were completely disconnected,” he explains from a well-appointed suite above the Chanel Boutique on Place Vendôme. “She, more than anyone [in the industry], is the one who connected the two.” Her visionary prowess is at the core of what the Gabrielle fragrance is about: a refusal to be boxed in. “She crafted her own identity in her life and in her fashion,” he adds.
Polge knows of what he speaks. In 2013, the charming, circumspect nose took over the role of making fragrances for Chanel from his father, master perfumer Jacques Polge. Born in Grasse, the world’s (unofficial) perfume capital, the younger Polge has a loose link to Chanel herself in the form of a small streak of rebellion in his own past. Going against expectations that he would follow in his father’s storied footsteps, he rejected perfume and instead pursued music and art before finally submitting to the call of fate. It’s a good job he did; his work for Chanel includes No 5. L’Eau, Boy and Misia Exclusif, and prior to that he created the bestsellers Balenciaga Florabotanica, Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb and Dior Homme.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
What does Gabrielle smell like? “I would describe it as a floral, very luminous, very feminine fragrance,” says Polge. He imagined an “ideal white flower” and set his sights on constructing one from a mix of jasmine, orange blossom and a creamy tuberose. To ylang-ylang, typically known for its green, almost fruity freshness, Polge added musk notes to give it a velvety feel. He finished with a touch of grapefruit and blackcurrant for sparkle. The result is like sunshine in a bottle—in fact, Polge has dubbed it “a solar fragrance.” It’s bright and airy and beautiful.
The vessel to carry this precious juice is just as considered—it challenges the perception that a luxury perfume must come in a weighty object. Made of super-fine glass, the square-shaped Gabrielle bottle is deceptively and appealingly uncomplicated. “Simplicity does not mean it is easy!” says Sylvie Legastelois, head of packaging and graphic design creation. The bottle took five years to create, and keeping the design light and delicate but as robust as any other in the Chanel stable was a major challenge. Legastelois, a thoughtful and passionate inventor, is responsible for the design of all Chanel’s beauty products, from lipsticks to fragrances, and it’s obvious when she talks about Gabrielle that this project was a true labour of love. For the matte-lamé stopper, she paid homage to Chanel’s Rue Cambon apartment by pulling colour details from a gold-and-silver box Chanel was given by the Duke of Westminster and historic metallic haute-couture fabrics. Sleek bevels draw down from each corner and converge in the centre of the bottle, bouncing light around the honey-hued juice. This was, she explains, to draw the eye within. “I wanted to give prominence to the precious fragrance inside.”
The glass bottle in production.
Of course, Gabrielle wouldn’t be a true Chanel perfume if it didn’t make an emotional connection with the woman wearing it, says Legastelois. “I wanted something very intimate and lighter. The idea is that the centre of the bottle is like being inside your heart. The more I got to know the story of the fragrance, the more important it became to [make this connection for a woman]: What’s important is what is inside.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ELLE Canada.