Monday, October 26, 2015

Variations on perfume classics, part 4 (Chanel No. 5)

This is Part 4 of a series of five posts in which I'll recommend variations on a classic. Today it's Chanel No. 5. The idea is to explore perfumes which feel like modern-day versions of Chanel No 5, or perfumes with similarities.

(In Part 1 I explored Shalimar,  in Part 2, Joy, Part 3 was Femme, and in the next post I'll explore Chanel No. 19.

Chanel No. 5, of all perfumes, needs little introduction. The name was chosen simply because it was number 5 in a series of test batches.

Gabrielle Chanel was superstitious about the number 5 because of the influence this number had on her as a girl while attending a convent orphanage. She decided to launch No 5 on the 5th day of the 5th month in 1921.

By 1921 Coco, as she became known, was already a successful clothes designer and an extremely astute, even ruthless business woman. There's evidence that she may have supported the Nazi regime, and it's known she was a lifelongfriend of General Walter Schellenberg (chief of SS intelligence).

Coco Chanel's political allegiances are particularly contemptible from our modern persepctive, as were the allegiances of many high profile, powerful figures at the time. (Allegedly Winston Churchill exonerated her during the later trials, at which time she was questioned, because her evidence would have implicated so many British officials and VIPs.)

Coco Chanel was the daughter of an unmarried laundry woman, she had no inheritance, no privilege, no connections and to look at her early life, some might have said no chance.

Her mother died at age 32 and Coco was sent to a religious orphanage where she experienced harsh discipline and little affection. So viewed from this perspective her sheer determination to succeed, as well as her hard-nosed attitude is perhaps understandable.

She was a strong believer in women's liberation, it was Chanel who wanted to 'free' women from their corsets! Her designs were truly mold-breaking. Similarly to Patou (who I wrote about in Part 2 on Joy by Patou) she popularised sportswear and casual clothing.

She favoured a paired down minimal luxury that was highly influential, and she's probably one of the most quoted women in fashion and famously said:  

a woman who does not wear perfume has no future.
(a bit unfair to people with allergies!)

Her perfumes reflected this paired down, elegant yet casual aesthetic. At the time, most European women favoured clean floral simple scents, musky scents were seen as vulgar perfumes for  prostitutes or courtesans, so with No 5 Coco wanted  in-house perfumer for Chanel, Ernest Beaux, to create a perfume that would 'smell like a woman', yet have the Chanel minimalist signature.

Like Shalimar, No. 5 was a truly innovative perfume. During its creation Ernest Beaux introduced a new perfume synthetic - aldehyde. Aldehydes are still used in perfumery, albeit more sparingly, because we associate the aldehydic effect with classic, or if you like, slightly old fashioned and ladylike perfumes. (Which is why Chanel now offer a range of flankers that are less aldehydic).

I'd describe its effect as slightly metallic and soapy, it also 'opens' out a perfume, making it project more. When paired with high quality jasmine, rose, ylang and natural musk (civet) this is what gives No. 5 its ladylike yet sensual quality, what I'd describe as a cool/warm juxtaposition. To this day it's perceived as a classy, if perhaps slightly safe, perfume choice.

For women of any age who enjoy ladylike yet womanly florals, it has great appeal. The musk, paired with a truly pretty floral bouquet, is subtle and completely different from the abundant floral muskiness of Patou's Joy, for example, making Chanel No 5 suitable for any occasion. Few would find it offensive or over-bearing.

Coco Chanel understood her target market very well indeed - No 5 could be worn at work, in the evening, or as Marilyn Monroe (the 'face' of No 5 advertisements in the 50's) would famously attest - in bed while wearing nothing at all!

Contemporary perfumes similar in style to No. 5...

As with the other classic in this series, there are a range of flankers that riff on the original No. 5: Eau Premiere for example -  a more fresh modern take, with less aldehydes while retaining the classic aura, or Chanel No 5 Elixir Sensuel, which again retains the feel of the original yet with more warmth thanks to the addition of amber and woods. No 5 comes in EDT, EDP and pure parfum, each with subtly varying character, though the parfum as would be expected has a richer more lasting (slightly more musky) dry down. It's worth also trying Chanel No 22, which has the floral aldehydes of No 5, but with notes of incense rather than musk. Similar aldehydic florals from other houses include Hermes Caleche and the lovely Arpege by Lanvin (more woody/warm than No 5), possibly Diorissimo by Dior would be appealing as a subtly animalic lily of the valley

No 5 is unique and the reason it has iconic status in perfumery (apart from clever marketing!) is because it is a truly beautifully balanced perfume (and I say that as someone who as a rule doesn't wear floral aldehydes), however, there are some contemporary perfumes which may appeal to the lover of No 5 who seeks a change now and then...

If it's that aldehydic soapy ladylike buzz of classic perfumery that you seek, try Frederic Malles Iris Poudre - an elegantly woody iris floral that's more powdery than No 5, or Byredo's Blanche again, elegant, but more airy than Iris Poudre and more soapy than No 5. Aria di Capri by Carthusia is like a summer's breeze, warmer in tone than No 5, but still with that cool/warm feel thanks to aldehydes alongside sunny citrus and soft mimosa.

If its No 5's floral prettiness without aldehydes that interests you, for a more contemporary feel, try these mainstream and slightly conventional but ladylike perfumes which share No 5's floral prettiness - J'Adore L'Absolue by Christian Dior, Bulgari Pour Femme, Love by Chloe or Idylle by Guerlain. Possibly Donna Karan's Cashmere Mist, a light musky floral with hints of suede

Or, for a more niche, less mainstream feel, pretty, elegant floral perfumes with hints of musk that might suit the lover of No 5, are Claire de Musc by Serge Lutens, which focuses on clean floral musk, or Olene by Diptyque - a slightly animalic jasmine/lilac

Veering away from florals, Eau des Merveilles by Hermes is not similar note-wise to Chanel No 5, but I do think it has a similar elegance that suits evening, formal or daytime wearing, or try Eau Claire des Merveiles

Another out-of-the-box choice might be Lumiere Noire by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, which is far warmer and earthier than No 5, yet has classic balance while retaining an uplifting quality thanks to narcissus and rose.

There are many, many elegant green florals that those who enjoy No 5 might like, but I see them as a category in themselves, so I'm saving them for my next post - Chanel No.19, or as I call her the queen of green!

Chanel on the shoulders of Ballets Russes dancer Serge Lifar

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