Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Pop History Moment: The World Caught Its First Whiff of Chanel No. 5

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel was an innovator in many different aspects of the fashion industry; as a couturiere, for instance, she was the first to do away with corseting, and she is also credited with the creation of women's sportswear*. As a businesswoman, though, she realized the importance of ancillary lines such as jewellery and cosmetics in the creation of a brand's ethos, and arguably her most enduring innovation was in one such enterprise, namely that of luxe perfumery.

PhotobucketNowadays, it seems, no fashion house can do without its range of scents; these proliferate**, and don't just emanate from the ateliers of Paris either but from the egos of celebrities and pseudo-celebrities alike too numerous to mention. Yet for all the work and money that goes into them, the vast majority come and go like (and smell little better than) something one might blame on the dog. All of which makes the longevity of Chanel No.5 the more amazing...

It was on this day in 1921 that Chanel unveiled her first perfume for a select group of friends. The legend has it she had perfumer Ernest Beaux create six scents for her, and out of them she chose her favourite, which happened to be the fifth one. Chanel's lucky number was also 5, which accounts for the day of its debut as well; it also demonstrates that for all her savvy, there was superstition in her method too.

The scent itself was innovative in many ways: it was the first to utilize synthetic aldehydes as opposed to entirely natural floral and plant ingredients, and it was also the first to use civet musk as a fixative, which made it last longer than its competitors. In both instances Chanel was being consistent in her adherence to modernism as it applied to the kind of woman to whom she was marketing; the perfume she offered was 'artificial' - which, in an age when plastic was still a novelty, was considered a good thing - and by lasting longer it was meant to appeal to women who were working, and therefore too busy to re-apply scent every half hour. Even its packaging - as elegant as it was utilitarian, and reminiscent of a medicine bottle - was a reaction against the fussiness and fripperies commonly associated with traditional femininity.

Although she initially gave bottles of the scent away free with purchase, it soon became so popular that it was offered for sale; in 1924 Chanel partnered with Pierre Wertheimer, keeping just 10% of the proceeds in exchange for total control over the product - an entirely lucrative arrangement with the Wertheimer family which persists until this day. Today it is estimated that a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every 55 seconds, making it one of the most enduring (and profitable, which is why it's enduring) brands in what is an almost entirely ephemeral and transitory industry.

*A logical progression... Women who exercise don't need whalebone, they have muscle tone.
**Especially at Christmastime - and not by accident either!
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1 comment:

TheQuestionMan said...

Working the Emergency room at the hospital one night the police brought in a man who had drank an entire liter of Channel number 5.

He smelled great and the nurses treated him really well. I guess smell does play a large part after all.