Fashion: Perfect skin? I should Coco

Next week, Chanel launches a new range of beauty products which it hopes will revolutionise the market. But can this sophisticated Parisian interloper really take on the heavyweight marketing muscle of the skincare megabrands?
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Do you smoke?" barks the immaculately groomed and intimidatingly glamorous, head of press for Chanel beauty, clearly with menacing intent. "I can tell that you do, actually. And how about your alcohol consumption?"

It's not yet 10am on a blisteringly hot Friday morning after a particularly rowdy big night out and this, as they say in the trade, is not a good look. But is it really necessary for me to share my bad habits with this perfect person, all huge, pale eyes, sleek chestnut hair and chiselled bone structure? Lying, or at least bending the truth, might be an option, like at the doctor's. But Chanel HQ, in London's super-swanky Old Bond Street, doesn't look much like the local health centre.

The Chanel logo - those famous interlocking Cs - dotted, albeit discreetly, here, there and everywhere, screams status and enviable amounts of Parisian chic. Mirrored walls bounce my none-too-lively reflection at me from every angle. Sleek black-leather upholstery squeaks each time I wriggle evasively. Acres of cool beige carpet underfoot makes me feel plain messy just walking on it.

"Do you have spots?" my merciless inquisitor continues. "Erm... no, I don't think so," I venture.

"What? Never!" roars she.

All of this, of course, is not entirely gratuitous. Next week, Chanel unveils its long-anticipated Precision range of skincare products in this country.

"We've always had skincare, but we've never tried to be top," says the aforementioned spokeswoman. "Up until now, it has all been about beautiful creams in beautiful pots." Sounds all right to me. In fact, I have to confess to having been a Chanel skincare junkie from an embarrassingly early age. I can't get enough of those reassuringly heavy, reassuringly expensive frosted glass containers, with what is still the most modern of black and white logos gracing their shiny tops. But even this isn't good enough for Chanel which, in association with Ceries (Centre de Recherches et Investigations Epidermiques et Sensorielles, if you please), one of the world's top dermatological research institutes, has come up with an entirely new product, still packaged in Chanel's simple but effective way, only in light plastic and (more good news) at a more reasonable price than its elder sister.

In the case of Precision, I'm duly informed, the first step to great skin is honesty. Chanel prides itself in particular on the fact that the range is entirely interactive. What the customer can expect then when they approach a Chanel beauty counter from now on is something not unlike a sophisticated version of the ubiquitous Clinique abacus. A trained member of staff will ask about everything from dehydration to sun sensitivity, breakout tendency, loss of firmness and/or (the horror!) wrinkles. Once all the answers are programmed into the Precision "computer" - to be broadcast the world over, or, perhaps, held against you for posterity? - the Precision pie chart lights up, like the direction boards on the Paris Metro, in a pleasingly stylish and, well, French kind of way.

It's these which point to the product needed to suit each, individual skin type. "I'm giving you a much harder time than the Chanel customer should expect," says the spokeswoman. That's a relief then.

Chanel's marketing approach is never heavy-handed enough to suggest that each customer that approaches its counters will buy every product indicated. Instead, product will be prioritised (moisturiser is most important) and free samples - up until now a rarity - are promised to make up the entire regime.

In a world where the megabrands rule - the Calvin Kleins, Tommy Hilfigers, Ralph Laurens, Givenchys and Christian Diors - it's not without significance that the mighty Coco Chanel herself, a huge innovator in more ways than one, could not unfairly be credited with introducing the whole concept in the first place.

It's not news that very few people buy designer clothes, and that it is the lucrative accessory, skincare and fragrance lines that pay for more indulgent twice-yearly ready-to-wear and haute couture collections. Way back in the Sixties, Coco Chanel was the first person to work in conjunction with a mainstream retailer. Geoffrey Wallis of the Wallis chain of stores made his name selling copies of Chanel suits. But these were copies with a difference. Not only did Wallis purchase his patterns directly from the Chanel haute couture atelier, Coco also took the trouble to travel to London and oversee the project personally, safe in the knowledge that it was much better to have thousands of people wearing her signature style and wearing it well than it being a mish- mash put together by unenlightened copyists. Today, such link ups are common currency.

Long before that, Chanel introduced the first mass-market perfume. Other designers had sensed that fashion and perfume had enough points in common to make for profitable pairings, but nobody before Chanel had dared to move away from floral scents. Until 1920, a woman's only choice was to adopt the smell of a flower or a few easily identified flowers in combination. Luxury meant the scent of gardenia, jasmine or rose which, though highly concentrated, evaporated very quickly: put simply, women, and indeed men, either positively reeked of the stuff or smelt of nothing in particular.

Chanel was to change all that. By creating a stable formula, she made it possible to use smaller amounts of the stuff. Not only that, she replaced perfumes with identifiable scents with one that was entirely abstract. There are some 80 ingredients in Chanel No 5 - called No 5, by all accounts because Ernest Beaux, the perfumier with whom Chanel worked and a celebrated "nose" of the period, came up with five alternatives for the designer to choose from. It was launched in 1921 and remains the world's best-selling fragrance to this day.

And, with Chanel No 5, the famous Chanel packaging, entirely graphic, thoroughly contemporary, was born. Prior to the by-now-iconic crystal cube that the fragrance came in, perfume bottles were all elaborate swirls: specially designed by Coco, the Chanel No 5 bottle screamed modernity from the rooftops.

By 1924, Chanel had added skincare and cosmetics to the its stable, including lip colour (Chanel favoured true red), pressed powders, soaps and talc. The earliest preserved catalogue of beauty products, meanwhile, dates back to 1 May 1929. The products carried the name of Mademoiselle Chanel and were formulated to her specifications. They included "evening foundation" in six shades, lipsticks in black enamelled cases, not entirely dissimilar from those sold today, and, for Chanel elegance "right to the very fingertips" a manicure kit including polishes, files and a buffer.

For skincare, there was a firming toner "recommended as a friction for the face and body", a "lotion glaciale", an anti-wrinkle cream, and a "Chanel paste for the hands".

To say that the Chanel beauty arm has come an awfully long way since then would be an understatement. The new Precision range alone includes a spellbinding array of products to suit all possible skin types and tastes. It is, debatably, the most high-tech of ranges. "One of our aims is to develop the existing classification of skin - at present limited to notions of dry, oily and combination skin - by using a methodology involving the clinical observation of the skin of thousands of women." What remains, however, is Coco Chanel's own unmistakable and passionately modern sense of style and pioneering grasp of the future. The high priestess of 20th- century fashion would have approved.

Chanel Precision is available at Chanel boutiques and department stores nationwide from Monday, priced from pounds 11.50