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Coco’s Last Head-turner

The bottle is iconic. Square with slightly curved shoulders, it is the embodiment of elegance and simplicity. The label is unfussy, with the perfume’s name laid out in black type. The lid sits raised off the shoulders – a glass rectangle resting on a neck around which, like a bow tie, is a band with the most coveted logo in the world in the centre: the two interlocking C’s. This could be a description of the world’s most famous perfume bottle, that of Chanel No.5, but it’s also a description of the bottle of one of the world’s most cultish fragrances – Chanel No.19.

Everyone knows Chanel No.5. It was the first fragrance launched by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, back in 1921 – and it became famous the world over as her signature perfume. Most people don’t know Chanel No.19, however. It was the last fragrance she created, and probably the last one she wore. Launched 40 years ago – half a century after No.5 – No.19 is about to become a whole lot better known now, thanks to the creation of No.19 Poudre (Powdered), a new and softer variation on its fresh, green, floral theme.

With Coco Chanel still a source of fascination as well as inspiration 40 years after her death, it’s surprising that her final fragrance – the last Chanel perfume made with her involvement, the last perfume she loved and the perfume which sums up the second half  of her career (complementing No.5 as the fragrance of the first half) – is still a such cultish phenomenon.

Like many of the great classical perfumes, it makes a statement. It’s not a fragrance that everyone “gets” or can pull off – and it’s certainly not the easiest fragrance to love, unless you have a fairly sophisticated palette. In the acclaimed book Perfume – The Guide, Tania Sanchez describes it as a “cruel” fragrance, “angular, unkind, tough and cold”, adding that: “For a fragrance with so many spring-time references, all white blossoms and leafy greenery, No.19 never lands you in any Sound of Music meadows. It keeps you in the boardroom, in three-inch stilettos and a pencil-skirt suit.”

Apart from the three-inch stilettos, the description could easily apply to Mademoiselle Chanel herself – in the two decades running up to the launch of No.19. Or, at least, the public’s perception of her. She certainly appeared to be a tough old bird, quite ruthless – and arguably cruel – in her brutally expressed opinions, and physically she was wiry and angular. She’s immediately recognisable in the minimalist sketches drawn by Karl Lagerfeld for Justine Picardie’s recent biography: you only need to draw the jawline, the cheek bones, the sharp elbows at 45 degrees to her body – and the Chanel form is identifiable.

So how did No.19 come about? Well, the story of No.19 is interwoven with the story of Coco Chanel’s miraculous comeback in the last 17 years of her life. She had quit Paris during the Occupation, her reputation damaged by her affair with a Nazi officer, and had taken up a sort of self-imposed exile in Switzerland. Her 1954 comeback collection was her first since she shut up her couture shop in 1939. What triggered her comeback was her rage at the New Look that was sweeping Paris and beyond: Christian Dior’s landmark 1947 collection, with its new silhouette of the tight bodice, nipped-in waist and full skirt, was the antithesis of the aesthetic with which Chanel had revolutionised fashion a quarter of a century earlier. She had done away with the restrictive corsets and given women the freedom of movement thanks to her loose-fitting, comfortable clothes. She was incensed by the New Look – and, especially, by the fact that a man had dared to put women back in corsets, that a man was undoing what she had done for women.

Opening with a navy blue and white collarless jersey suit, Chanel’s 1954 collection harked back to her 1920s successes – fluid lines, comfortable fabrics, and all modelled by girls with the gamine figures that had been in vogue in the days when flappers flattened their breasts, and hid their hips and waists. The French and British press hated it, dismissing it as backwards-looking, a pathetic attempt by an old lady (Chanel was by now 71) to relive her earlier successes. Le Combat newspaper said: “From the first dress, we knew that the Chanel style belonged the past.” The Daily Express labelled the collection “a fiasco”.

Support came from an unlikely source: the United States. The Americans loved the collection. Vogue and Life magazine both ran big features on Chanel and her comeback, with no mention of the war or her personal errors of judgement. Orders flooded in from across the Atlantic from women who appreciated what Life called “evening dresses that have plenty of elegant dash, and easy-fitting suits that are refreshing after the ‘poured-on’ look of some styles.”

It took five years for the French to cotton on to what the Americans appreciated about the born-again Chanel style. And in the interim, Chanel had devised all the elements of what remains the quintessential Chanel look – to the collarless tweed jacket she added the quilted, chain-strapped bag (the “2.55”, launched in February 1955) and the two-tone slingback pumps (1957).

Finally, in 1959, French Vogue proclaimed: “The heady idea that a woman should be more important than her clothes, and that it takes superb design to keep her looking that way – this idea, which has been for almost 40 years the fuel for the Chanel engine, has now permeated the fashion world.”

Riding on a cloud of success again, Coco Chanel – although she no longer owned shares in Parfums Chanel, but did receive 2% royalties on perfume sales – wanted to launch a new perfume to accompany this new chapter in her career and celebrate her triumphant return. The women’s perfumes in the Chanel portfolio had all been created during her initial run of success: Chanel No.5, launched in 1921, had been followed by No.22 (1922), Cuir de Russie (1924), Gardenia (1925), Bois des Iles (1926) and Sycomore (1930) – all of which were recently relaunched as part of Les Exclusifs collection – then Une Idee, Le 1940 Bleu, Le 1940 Rouge and Le 1940 Beige (all 1930) and Ivoire (1931).

Chanel now wanted a perfume to reflect her new success in the second half of the 20th century. Throughout the early 1960s, she nagged Parfums Chanel about it but – according to Michael Edwards’s book Perfume Legends, the fragrance company wasn’t keen – and nor were the distributors. Edwards quotes Chanel’s legal advisor, Robert Chaillet, who said: “They feared it might torpedo No.5.” Chanel persisted with her request for a new perfume and as time went by, the request became a demand. Finally, in 1965, when Pierre Wertheimer – one of the owners of Parfums Chanel – died, Chanel got her way and began work on what would become No.19.

Coco Chanel was involved in every step of the evolution of No.19, which was created by the revered “nose” Henri Robert. Chaillet later said: “Every week for over a year I brought her three different perfume bottles marked one, two, three. She sprayed herself with them from head to toe and then wandered around the fashion house waiting for reactions. If the salesgirls said: ‘Oh! Mademoiselle smells good!’ she was delighted. If nothing was said to her she would telephone me, furious. ‘This perfume is awful. I don’t want any. It stinks! Nobody noticed it!’ “

Determined that the new perfume be a head-turner, Chanel settled on a daring formula which, says the internationally renowned perfume expert Roja Dove, “revolutionised” perfume. He says: “The thing that  made it such a revolution in its time was the overdose of orris [the root of the iris plant], which is the main classic powder note of perfumery, nestling in the base. You only notice it once the scent dries down.”

Both Dove and Jacques Polge, Chanel’s current “nose” and the guardian of all the Chanel fragrances, agree that No.19 is truly a connoisseur’s perfume. Polge explains: “In the industry, it’s always been very highly regarded – I don’t know of any nose who doesn’t rate 19 –  and those women who are faithful to No.19 usually come from a culture of perfume.”

Dove adds: “The so-called green note of perfumery – which is generally based around galbanum – is a polarising material. People either love it or really can’t stand it. And if you look at all the great classical perfumes that use it – perfumes like Miss Dior, or Guerlain Vol de Nuit, they are scents that you really love or you just can’t stand. What’s interesting is that No.19 has two hugely polarising materials – it has the note of galbanum, that so-called fresh note, and then underneath it, it has orris, the powder note.

“In my opinion, the powder note generally suggests somebody who is a little retrospective in their view on life; the so-called green note generally appeals to people who are forward thinking. So maybe the rather beautiful schizophrenia of this perfectly formed creation makes it polarising and therefore if you love it, nothing else will quite do, because nothing gives you this sort of duality – I can’t think of another scent that exists which combines freshness on a powdered note in that way.”

Certainly the simultaneously backward and forward-looking description seems to fit Coco Chanel. She always drew – whether subconsciously or not – on her past for inspiration. The distinctive chains of her bags were inspired, it is said, by the belts worn by the nuns who had educated her, for example. Yet she invariably moved fashion and fragrance forward with her bold choices.

With No.19 (so named after the date of her birth – August 19), she was soon vindicated in her choice. Jacques Polge cites the story of how, just a few months before her death, the 87-year-old
Coco Chanel was wearing the fragrance when she was stopped in the street by a young man. As she told it: “Coming out of the Ritz, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder and I turned around to see an unknown face. I was just about to tell him off in no uncertain terms, when he said to me, with an American accent: ‘Excuse me, I am with two friends who want to know the name of your perfume.’ To be stopped in the street by a man at my age, that’s not bad, is it?”

Whether Chanel switched completely from No.5 to No.19 as her signature perfume during her final days nobody knows for sure, but Roja Dove says: “I wouldn’t be surprised –  I’m sure that any woman who received a compliment from a handsome man might end up having a proclivity towards the liquid that brought that comment her way!”

Chanel No.19 quickly established a loyal following, but never – Dove points out – became “a blockbuster” like No.5. Its influence is evident in various highly successful fragrances, including Estee Lauder’s Beautiful, Cartier’s So Pretty and, most recently, Prada’s Infusion d’Iris. And it was partly to “reclaim Chanel’s territory” as the perfume company which constructed the original iris masterpiece, says Jacques Polge, that he decided to create the new variation, No.19 Poudre, which is softer and makes use of the new musks that have become available since the original No.19 was formulated.

Roja Dove is thrilled with the arrival of a baby sister for the original No.19. “The beauty of a launch like this is it means that a whole new generation will suddenly look at one of the great classical perfumes and whilst they may be drawn to it through the new version, they might be tempted to try the old one. It would have been a great tragedy if No.19 had faded into oblivion.”

* Chanel No.19 Poudre (from £61) goes on sale on July 15. For stockists, call 020-7493 3836.

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Unravelling the Fabric of Chanel

 

The inscrutable Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, 1936, (c) Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet

 

Journalist and author Justine Picardie was in Edinburgh last week to launch Coco Chanel – The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins), and to discuss the iconic French designer’s secret love affair with Scotland. I caught up with her for a chat about her elegant expose of the first lady of fashion.

AK: Why did you feel the time was right for a new biography of Coco Chanel?

JP: Well, I suppose there hasn’t been a proper full-scale biography with new material since Edmonde Charles-Roux’s  and that was written in the early 1970s, pretty soon after Chanel died. At that point, a lot of archival material wasn’t even available .. I was given greater access to the Chanel archives than previous biographers, and certainly nobody had looked in the British archives for anything Chanel-related before.

AK: You must have been thrilled to turn up so much British material.

JP: It was amazing finding out stuff about her time in Britain – in London, Cheshire (where her lover, the Duke of Westminster’s mansion was), and in Sutherland in Scotland – where Westminster had an estate, Lochmore.  I knew that there would be a Scottish connection because of Chanel’s use of Scottish tweed. From the 1920s on you see Scottish wool and Scottish tweed in her collections but no-one had ever worked out where that began. I just had a hunch that if I started with the Duke of Westminster it might lead me to interesting places – and it certainly did! It was through her relationship with the Duke of Westminster that she came to Scotland in the first place.

I went to the place where she fished and to the fishing lodge where she stayed with the Duke and Winston Churchill, and when I found those fishing records which listed their names –  you see Mademoiselle Chanel, the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill all listed – that was one of the most exciting moments in the book, because it proved how much time she’d been spending in Scotland. And it confirmed the closeness of the relationship with the Duke and also with Winston Churchill.

AK: How well had her friendship with Churchill been known before you turned up these records?

JP: It wasn’t at all known – it was purely speculative. And by looking at those fishing records you could see that she was spending several months at a time in Scotland in the summer and that coincided with her introducing Scottish tweed and so on.

AK: The men in her life really did furnish her with what turned out to be significant sources of inspiration, didn’t they?

JP: They really did!  You can see from those old photographs which I’ve used in the book, and found in private archives here, that she’s using Scottish tweed – these are the Duke of Westminster’s jackets that she’s wearing to begin with.

AK: Boyfriend jackets, then?!

JP: Yes, literally boyfriend jackets. Then you start seeing tweed in her collection. And that, again,  that to me, was the most exciting discovery  – those pictures alone, among them a fantastic picture, which is one of my favourite pictures in the book,  of her with this big salmon that she’s caught …. You know, this was the summer of the little black dress, the Jazz Age, and the story told thus far is that Chanel was shimmying around Paris and the Riviera, which she undoubtedly did, but, as it turns out, she was also spending a lot of time in Scotland – with a fishing rod, playing cards with her boyfriend and his friend, Churchill. And then of course Churchill – that relationship was to prove so important during the Second World War …

 

Chanel & the Duke of Westminster on his yacht, 1928, (c) Chanel - Collection Denise Tual

 

AK: So, after doing all this research, do you like Chanel – I ask because I didn’t much like her as a woman, after seeing the recent films about her ..

JP: What I felt at the end of it was that I did like her and I felt there was a kind of heroism about her, that there was just something really, really brave and independent, and she just never gave up, she never stopped. I ended up feeling this emotional attachment – partly because I felt that she had somehow kept me going during a difficult time …

She was an icon to me before I started. I was fascinated, I was an admirer. What changed over the course of the book was that I began to feel much more sympathy for her. I went to the convent where she was abandoned by her father. To have endured that, to have escaped that and then to have made it in Paris where she would have had to be so strong to keep going against the ins and outs of fashion. You know, one minute you’re a success, and the next, you’re out of fashion. But she kept going.

AK: You almost have to check your sums when you work out what age she was when she launched some of her most famous creations, don’t you?

JP: I know! She was designing her last collection when she died. She was 87. That’s just extraordinary – and what’s even more extraordinary is the fact that she went into business in 1910, in a world where women were so dismissed, and had no autonomy.

AK: In terms of her personality, what did you find to empathise with?

JP: I spent time with two women who were really close to her – her great-niece, also called Gabrielle (who, as you’ll see in the book, is possibly her grand-daughter), and one of her friends, Claude Delay, who was reasonably young when she met Chanel in the 1960s. They were incredibly warm, instantly sympathetic  women and they spoke with such tenderness and warmth about her that I thought if they really loved her, then she must have had something that could form a very powerful connection.

 

Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel by Horst, 1937, (c) Conde Nast/Corbis

 

AK: From the films Coco Avant Chanel and Coco & Igor, I got the impression that she was one of those women who gets on better with men than with other women – did you sense this?

JP: Yes, from the films you’d think she hated other women but that is not the impression that I had having talked to Gabrielle and Claude. I mean, yeah, you probably wouldn’t want Chanel to fall in love with your husband – as happened in Coco & Igor – but that’s such a tiny, specific chapter.

AK: Being able to write in Chanel’s own apartment and to spend the night in her room at the Ritz must have helped you to feel a connection ..

JP: Oh my God, yes. Sitting and writing at her desk, that desk with the leather top where you can see the score marks from her pen, was amazing. Her pen was so firm that it went through the paper into the leather. I was allowed to work there late at night when there was nobody there, just a security guard down on the street, that was it – the rest of the house of Chanel had emptied out. Working there definitely helped me feel a connection: her presence is so powerful in the house that it’s impossible not to feel it … you’d be made of wood if you didn’t feel a ghostly but also very potent and inspiring presence. And then when I spent the night in her room at the Ritz, the lights kept going on and off – which was a bit spooky!

AK: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

JP: You know, the first time I went to the apartment and interviewed Karl Lagerfeld was 1997, the end of 1997, and it was then that I thought:  “I wish I could write a book about Chanel”. So I started doing research then but it took quite a long time for me, as British writer, to feel that I had amassed enough new material to take to a publisher … All the previous biographies have been written by French writers. There have been picture books by American writers but they didn’t have new stuff. I’ve done archival research in the past for my previous book about Daphne du Maurier, and I started out as an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times, so I felt I had to know that I had amassed a body of new material.

AK: Some of the other books are really superficial, aren’t they?

JP: They do skim the surface… Also, the same pictures have been circulated over and over again so it was also imp0rtant to me that I find some new ones – which I did.

AK: And of course your book features some beautiful illustrations by Karl Lagerfeld ..

JP: Yes, they were done specially for the book.  that was interesting because Chanel have no editorial control over the book – I mean, I couldn’t have written it if they did have editorial control. I needed access to the archives but I said from the start – as did they – that without independence, the book wouldn’t stand as a serious work. As I went on I did uncover some fairly dark things, especially about the Second World War, but, actually, the truth is not as bad as the rumours.

AK: Did you think it might turn out to be worse?

JP: Well, I did think, having seen the stuff in the Churchill archives, that this isn’t as it’s been told before. But yes, I’m half-Jewish – I’ve got a Jewish father – and I wanted to know the truth and tell the truth. I certainly wasn’t going to give her any sort of leeway. In any case, some of the most interesting creative characters of the 20th Century had very bad wars, and I think that the two are not mutually exclusive: you can be a kind of creative genius and a pretty terrible person at the same time. But if she was a pretty terrible person I would have told that. She did make some serious errors of judgment. This plot she got involved in was always doomed but nevertheless it was to try to bring the war to an end.

AK: Has your Chanel research thrown up any other subjects whom you’d like to investigate?

JP: Well, there are  some fascinating characters. Misia Sert, Chanel’s closest female friend, was a fascinating character but I don’t think that her story would have such broad appeal .. And Hardy Amies I got really interested in – he was a special agent during the war as well. The other incredibly fascinating character of course is Karl Lagerfeld but that book will only be written after his death. The story of Chanel couldn’t be told while she was alive because she made up so many different stories.

AK: Do you have a theory about why she did that?

JP: I think she felt intense shame and humiliation about her childhood and her youth. She was born illegitimate so there was the stigma of illegitimacy, the stigma of poverty and then the stigma of being in this orphanage. And then ,of course, her being not only a seamstress but also a demi-mondaine was further stigma. Actually,  where the Audrey Tautou movie worked was in capturing that milieu, that terrible humiliation of being a kept woman and not knowing what your status was. Where that movie is historically inaccurate, I think,  is that Boy Capel [Chanel's lover] is presented as rather honourable – he’s already engaged to an English girl and if it wasn’t for that he would have married Chanel. In fact, he’d been with Chanel for eight years when he decided to consolidate his social standing within the British upper classes by marrying the daughter of a lord.

AK: So, what’s next now that you’ve finished this labour of love?

JP: I’ve got to clear up my house. It’s piled high with archival papers and photocopies.  I finished writing in February but then I did endless, endless corrections on final drafts.  I managed to see inside La Pausa, her house in the South of France, and I found more stuff in Scotland in May, so I had to go back to the publishers and say:  “I have to add these bits..”.

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