The year was 1920 and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was sampling the possible scents for her new perfume. She decided on the fifth vial from all the samples put before her by chemist Earnest Beaux. Her affinity for the number 5 was not a secret considering that she presented her dress collections on May 5th each year (fifth day of the fifth month). She also felt that, since the number 5 had brought her such good luck in business and in life so far, the scent should keep its number as its name. So was the birth of the famous women’s perfume, Chanel No. 5.
The aesthetic inspiration and affinity for the perfume by the developers was a combination of Chanel’s childhood affiliation w/ the number 5 from when she lived @ Aubazine and was inspired by the pattern of 5 in art and the religious upbringing she received there and Beaux’s memories of the icy crisp winter smell of the air when he was fighting in WWI. It was also inspired by the Russian royal court as it was a premiere place for fashionable perfumes and scents.
The original design for the bottle was small with rounded edges, clear, and looked much like a chic whiskey decanter with a small glass plug stopper. The design went through a series of modifications over the years between the sharp edges that replaced the rounded ones and the size of the stopper before becoming the one we know today. The bottle itself was so recognizable and iconic that Andy Warhol used it in his art which became a famous ad for the perfume. (Fun Fact: Marilyn Monroe once said, “What do I wear to bed? Why Chanel No. 5, of course.”)
In 1934 a pocket design was introduced to reach out to a wider consumer base and towards the end of WWII it was released for purchase in military post exchanges and became the hottest gift from a GI to his girl back home. This was a publicity campaign aimed at countering the bad press Chanel was receiving from her past business dealing with the Wertheimer brothers. In Europe during WWII, Jewish business owners were losing their businesses left and right. Chanel and the Wertheimers were in the midst of contract struggles during this time. This is not to suggest that Coco Chanel was a Nazi; she was in fact a business woman looking to protect her product. Still it made for some raised eyebrows, so when the time came she took a risk and put her perfume in the posts and it turned into a win/win for both her and the consumers. The Wertheimers and Chanel ultimately settled their contractual issues and moved forward.
Marketing wise, Chanel No. 5 was not overly publicized in the beginning. It was meant to be exclusive and unique and it’s popularity spread mainly from word of mouth, particularly in the States (New York City). In the late 30s marketing picked up. When the 40s rolled around the trend was to up the amount of ads but Chanel did the opposite, feeling perhaps that the extra costs weren’t needed, and in reality, this was true. Word of mouth and appropriate placement of the perfume in stores had it selling so well with very little effort. To this day, Chanel No. 5 practically sells itself. There have been times when it was in jeopardy of becoming passe or even less exclusive, but these were solved by more careful selection of where to sell the perfume.
So in the spirit of Chanel No. 5’s legacy, I did a brief poll amongst my friends and family and here is what I found out: My generation seems to really love Chanel No. 5. It’s either their particular favorite or they save it for special occasions. My one friend, Kodi, uses it when she feels in an Elizabeth Taylor sort of mood. Some of my older friends are less fans because it smells like an “old lady perfume.” Go figure… I feel like that happens a lot, fashions skips generations sometimes.
Logo photo by Justine Impressions http://www.justineimpressions.com/