One of the biggest thrills of my career as a beauty journalist was being invited to Paris to meet Chanel’s fragrance creator, Jacques Polge, back in 2006. I met him twice that year – once at his lab in Neuilly where he introduced me to the latest Chanel fragrance, Allure Sensuelle, and then a few months later when the subject for discussion was a new collection of fragrances, Les Exclusifs de Chanel, which were a sort of olfactory evocation of Coco Chanel’s colourful life and inspiring tastes.
Not only was I granted a leisurely interview with Polge, who has created every new Chanel fragrance since 1978 and is the custodian of its fragrance heritage, but we had our chat in the apartment which is essentially the epicentre of the Chanel universe – Coco Chanel’s private quarters above her original Paris boutique at 31 rue Cambon.
Jacques Polge, the creator of Chanel fragrances, in the fine jewellery boutique at 18 place Vendome
Sitting on Coco Chanel’s sand-coloured settee, surrounded by her personal possessions which have all been left as they were when the great couturiere died in 1971, I heard all about the about-to-be-launched Les Exclusifs collection; ten fragrances which drew inspiration from every aspect of the legendary designer’s life – including many items and motifs which were in evidence in front of me, in her apartment.
Four of the fragrances had made their debut in the early years of Chanel’s career, and had been revived by Polge for this collection, while the other six – among them my personal favourite, 31 rue Cambon, a complex, elegant yet sensual, chypre – had been specially created, and were the result of Polge immersing himself in “Mademoiselle’s” personal effects and biography.
Les Exclusifs were launched in 2007. Since 2009, Polge has added a further three fragrances to the collection: Beige (2009), Jersey (2011) and 1932 (2012). The inspiration for Beige, a warm, honey-floral equivalent of one of the couturiere’s signature colours, and Jersey, Polge’s reimagining (and rehabilitation) of lavender in tribute to the fabric which symbolises Chanel’s modernity and revolutionary spirit, is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the Chanel story and the history of fashion, but the background to 1932 is maybe not as self-evident.
“Comete” necklace from Chanel’s 1932 Bijoux de Diamants collection, photographed by Robert Bresson
It was in 1932 that Coco Chanel presented her first collection of fine jewellery, and Polge took inspiration from the Comete necklace and brooch which she designed for that initial collection to create a sparkling white fragrance structured around the most star-studded flower in perfumery – jasmine.
Les Exclusifs – to which customers can be introduced by an expert at one of the handful of Chanel olfactive bars around the country – are only available in Chanel boutiques and Espaces Parfums, and were launched without any fanfare because, as Polge explained to me back in 2007, they were only going to be available to buy in places where they could be presented properly; where their stories could be told and where their presentation could be appreciated and admired. Their launch was a reaction against what he called “the banalisation” of fragrance, particularly the way perfumes were being routinely sold in supermarkets and often being chosen solely on the basis of their packaging and ad campaigns.
Now, in 2014, as Polge prepares to hand over the reins of the Chanel fragrance empire to his son (his retirement was announced last year, but no date given), he has introduced pure perfume variations of Beige, Jersey and 1932 to the collection – Les Exclusifs de Chanel Extraits – and these have slightly different accents to their parent scents; they are, in fact, new interpretations of them.
I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that Monsieur Polge produces an extrait of 31 rue Cambon before he starts drawing his perfumeur’s pension …
* Les Exclusifs de Chanel Extraits (£155 each) are available exclusively in Chanel at Covent Garden, Chanel Boutiques, Frasers in Glasgow, Fenwicks in Newcastle, Selfridges in Manchester and Selfridges W1. For further stockist information, call 0207-493 3836.