Scent of a woman

Venice was a refuge for Coco Chanel when she lost the love of her life. Now the city has inspired her fashion house’s sensual new fragrance.

WE THINK of her as a rebel, a trailblazer. The designer who liberated women from corsets, daring to dress them in trousers for the first time. She made suntans fashionable, urged women to crop their hair.

And Coco Chanel was every bit as fearless in her private life. She turned her back on the social mores of the time, refusing to marry. Nothing would come in the way of her independence.

Not that she was lonely. There were lovers, many of them.

But just one love.

Boy Capel.

As a child, Gabrielle Chanel was raised in an orphanage, taught to sew by the nuns who raised her. But she had ambitions to be a singer.

She changed her name to Coco, discovered the decadent world of the Belle Époque — and the wealthy Capel. He financed her first shop — her success saw her repay him within a year — and their love affair survived his infidelities and even his marriage.

Chanel was devoted to him. His unexpected death, nine years after they first met, plunged her into despair. He was killed in a car accident in December 1919, en route to a Christmas rendezvous with his lover.

Just as Boy Capel had revealed her heart, now he laid bare her vulnerability. Her friends rallied. José Maria Sert took her to Venice in 1920. And Chanel would never be the same again.

She discovered Byzantine gold, treasures in the city’s churches and museums — and sculptures of lions, the emblem of the city and Coco’s own birth sign. To Chanel it was a sign. She believed deeply in symbolism.

As one of her biographers wrote: “She seldom extolled the virtues of any city — New York she mocked, Madrid was a provincial backwater. Venice alone was a foreign capital.”

It became a frequent destination and one of her favourite playgrounds — this was the Venice of the 1920s and 1930s, when the iconic Harry’s Bar had opened its doors for the first time.

In her grief she found inspiration, she discovered the Orient and the east. It would inform many aspects of her collections from that point on. It created a taste for opulent colours, and broke with her stark black and whites.

And Venice made its presence felt even in her apartment on Rue Cambon in Paris, still untouched since her death. I saw first-hand the exquisite lacquered screens, gilt mirrors, and treasures she had brought back from Venice during a visit to the apartment in 2009 for The Irish Examiner. The apartment is closed to the public. It’s not a museum; it is used predominately for haute couture clients and journalists. And of course it works as inspiration for designers such as Karl Lagerfeld.

The apartment also acts as muse for Jacques Polge. His name or face may not be instantly recognisable in a Lagerfeld kind of way, but it is thanks to him the high street woman can savour — and afford — the luxury brand too. We may not be able to buy the iconic suit, the little black dress, the 2.55 bag — but we can pick up the perfume.

The story goes that a bottle of No 5 is sold every 55 seconds in the world. No wonder when it was all that Marilyn Monroe claimed to wear in bed, and with some of the world’s most beautiful women, Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, chosen — and honoured — to be the faces of the fragrance.

Jacques Polge is a perfumer, or, as he is known in the business, a “nose”. For more than 30 years now he has been responsible for creating new scents and ensuring the quality of all Chanel perfumes.

He is only the third nose in Chanel’s history, one of the last few perfume houses to have its own in-house perfumer.

His was not an easy task — Polge was the first to operate entirely by himself, with no input from Chanel, who had died in 1971. He had to ensure that her fragrances continued to be made exactly as she had wanted them.

For Coco, Polge’s first fragrance for women, launched in 1984, he immersed himself in Chanel’s Parisian apartment, to create a scent that truly reflected her.

And now, nearly three decades later, he has turned to her years in Venice for inspiration for a new fragrance, to bring another little piece of Mademoiselle to life.

The result is Chanel’s brand new perfume, Coco Noir. It isn’t there to replace Coco – this is an Oriental reworked for the modern woman.

New perfume launches are few and far between at Chanel — this is a big deal for the luxury house.

So we find ourselves in Venice on a warm March afternoon, a handful of Irish and British press — from Grazia to Elle — to be amongst the first to experience this brand new scent.

We emerge from the water taxi to a private palazzo where Jacques Polge and his number two, Christopher Sheldrake, are waiting. It is a whirlwind week for them, five days of interviews with international media, flown to Venice from every corner of the globe. The August launch is shrouded in secrecy and we sign confidentiality agreements. The perfume is even codenamed Coco Gold to ensure no information is leaked.

We see the bottle first — the iconic, instantly recognisable silhouette, but in the darkest black. We know this will be something very, very different.

The ingredients are introduced, one by one. Sandalwood, vanilla, incense, tonka bean, bergamot, narcissus, frankincense.

We sit around a black, lacquered table (with its echoes of Noir), Polge and Sheldrake at the helm. We extend our wrists, prepare to inhale.The nose watches in anticipation. He is visibly delighted by the gushing response. This is a very different Jacques Polge to the man I met two years earlier in Grasse, where the jasmine is picked for No 5. There he was confident, almost aloof.

There is the slightest hint of vulnerability today.

Later we learn the final version Noir was never publicly tested — outside of the lab, outside of the cocoon of Chanel, we were among the first to give feedback.

Polge and Sheldrake begin to talk, revealing how they created the fragrance.

“I would say the bottle came first,” Polge says. “Black brings night — at night things are more mysterious so that bottle pushed us to add as much mystery to the fragrance as we could.

“Then we decided to do a fragrance in the Coco range because it recalls the culture of Chanel. It’s Oriental — for Chanel you remain in Europe but Venice is the door to the Orient...

“Usually Orientals may be on the heavy side but we’ve tried to make it as light and fresh as possible. For that we have used the usual oriental oils but blended in a very different way.”

It took just a year to make, a short time by Chanel’s usual standards.

There is no big name, no famous face behind Noir. The perfume will speak for itself.

“You don’t create a fragrance to be a failure. We’re hoping it’ll be a success. We’re not expecting it to be a top ten,” says a refreshingly candid Sheldrake. “It’s a mission for us to have that fragrance in our flock. We want basically to create something new, the trick is to create a fragrance that women don’t know that they want, that when they smell it, they say ‘wow, that’s just what I wanted’. And something that doesn’t take away from anything else we’ve created.

“We know we’ll have sufficient success to suit our needs. If it becomes number one we’d be delighted but we don’t need it. As Jacques says, we are a luxury house and our responsibility is to use luxury ingredients to keep these precious ingredients on the map...

“Some people complain that Chanel fragrances have become very commercial, what they mean by that is they sell well. And I would say what’s important in a fragrance is it should be recognisable.

“That normally means it has character, some people like it and some not. When you have a fragrance that is recognisable and it’s a success that is better than anything.”

The name Noir, he admits, was a bone of contention.

“With a fragrance there must be a coherence between the name, the smell, the packaging and the story. It must make sense. We’re not terribly happy with Noir because we feel it’s a bit weak in a way — but it’s obvious and being obvious, it works,” says Sheldrake.

Name aside, has it made Polge’s list of favourites?

“My favourite is always the next one,” he laughs. “I love the bottle, black is a colour which is so important to Chanel.

“But this is too new …I have to make some distance.”

How do the men behind some of the most famous fragrances in the world explain our obsession with perfume? Sheldrake breaks into a smile.

“When we wear a fragrance we really like, it gives us confidence. It’s amazing how ready for the world you can be,” he says.

“You’ve had a shower and you’ve put on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans which may be quite simple but you put on a perfume and then you can go out and be chic somewhere.

“It’s like an armour, or it’s like a friend, a guardian angel, almost. Of course we wear a fragrance to express something in us or something we want to project and for this reason we can also have different fragrances for different occasions.

“And when we get up in the morning and have our shower, depending on what we’re going to do we might put on, dare I say it, the more functional fragrance, something fresh and clean, but if you’re going out in the evening or with friends you might wear a completely different type of fragrance.

In the evening you can commit yourself to something sensual, sexy.”

And Sheldrake’s scent of choice? “I wear several fragrances. We don’t wear fragrances during the week because of our work but in the evenings, I might wear Bleu de Chanel.”

And finally. Who is the Noir woman? Sheldrake pauses for a moment. “It’s very sexy, very comfortable. It doesn’t really have an age for me. There’s an innocence about it but at the same time it’s very sexy…

“It’s not a pretty floral scent, it’s velvety. A cocoon.”

A cocoon. Just as Venice was to Chanel as she mourned the death of Boy Capel.

¦ Coco Noir costs €92 for 50ml and €132 for 100ml.


Holidays are on hold, but we can still see the world from our homes.  Tom Breathnach presents his guide to armchair tourismA virtual tour of the world: Visit iconic landmarks from the comfort of your armchair

More From The Irish Examiner