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.