There are few, if any other fragrances that are as iconic as Chanel No.5. It has remained a global bestseller since it launched in 1921. It was also the first scent to be created by a fashion house and provided an entry into the luxurious world of designer goods. While Chanel has had plenty of other successful fragrance launches since then, including Coco Mademoiselle and Chance, nothing has quite topped the first.
Chanel fragrances are composed by the in-house perfumer, of which there have only ever been three and they’ve been men. Four years ago, Olivier Polge took over the reins from his father, Jacques, and this autumn he created his first fragrance for the house, Gabrielle, which many have speculated could be the new No.5.
Admittedly, it’s not his first launch as Polge was the nose behind Chance Eau Vive, Misia and last year’s hit No.5 L’Eau. But Gabrielle is the first scent he has created entirely from scratch that wasn’t part of an existing collection.
“Working on No.5 was very critical because at Chanel, we wouldn’t do anything the way we do if there was no No.5. That is why I started with L’Eau,” Polge told The Telegraph exclusively. “With No.5, it grounds our vocabulary and identity and our spirit. It was more or less my starting point with this fragrance.”
At first glance, there are similarities between No.5 and Gabrielle, most notably with the boxy bottles. The two scents are also floral and share key ingredients grown in Chanel’s flower fields in Grasse. “Whenever we speak about Chanel fragrance we always end up mentioning flowers and not all flowers, but jasmine and its siblings ylang ylang and orange flower,” explains Polge, who used all three notes in Gabrielle.
Despite sharing ingredients, there is a stark difference between the pair. They’re from the same family, but more like distant cousins than close sisters. Some have even gone as far as to say Gabrielle is everything you’ve always wanted No.5 to be. It is a gentler fragrance, but it still has that femininity and complexity that you expect from a Chanel scent. No doubt the addition of tuberose has helped with this.
“Tuberose is a very important raw material in the fragrance world, but at Chanel it never has been. There is a small amount in No.22 and in Gardenia, but that is all,” says Polge. “A few years ago, the last person who was growing tuberose in the South of France came to us as he was retiring and he asked if my father would like to buy the bulbs. At the time, my father was slightly reluctant as tuberose is not an important note for Chanel, but he decided to take them so that we could think about a new way of extracting the scent.”
Over the years, the brand has experimented with extracting the note and has created a way to capture the purity of the flower, which usually appears as more of an earthy scent. The fresher take on the note plays a pivotal role in the scent. In a bid to engage with customers and showcase the difference between a traditional tuberose note and a Chanel one, the fashion house has opened a experiential exhibit, Espace Gabrielle Chanel on Old Bond Street in London. There you are transported through the journey of Gabrielle and it provides an insight into the mind of Polge.
While it is focused on Chanel, it is the latter that will intrigue real fragrance connoisseurs, who want to understand more about perfume creation. After all, he is the man behind Viktor and Rolf’s famous Flowerbomb and Balenciaga’s timely Florabotanica and Rosabotanica.
“It is a balance of science and creativity,” says Polge. “I start by designing the fragrance in my head. My first job is to write down the formula. You have to imagine that the combination of those three-to-four ingredients are matching well together in a very precise proportion. Then I have a lab assistant who mixes them together and we smell. Sometimes I am wrong, but we see.” Over the coming days, weeks and months, Polge lives with the scent on paper blotters and his own skin. Gabrielle took several years and hundreds of attempts.
When asked if his father smelt Gabrielle before its big unveiling, Polge laughed and said, “Of course. He still comes into the office regularly.” And, while Gabrielle is clearly Chanel’s biggest fragrance launch in a long time and the brand is keen for it to have its moment, Polge is already working on something else. “It’s always good to work on two fragrances at one time as it allows you to rest your mind and see it with a new look. The problem is that scent is very subjective, so working on two allows you to approach it with a fresh mind.”