Scent of a woman: How does Chanel stay top dog in the perfume world?

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There are "muses" and then there are "faces". The differences between the two are subtle but manifold. A muse is principally a cost-free affair, based on friendship more often than not. A face, on the other hand, is a high-earner, likely to secure many millions for any services required.

Although the figure was never disclosed – it's simply bad manners in circles like these to talk about such things – it is estimated that Nicole Kidman was paid upwards of $4 million (and some put the figure as high as $12) when she agreed to become the face of the world's most famous fragrance, Chanel No 5.

This month, and after no less than five years, she will be replaced by French-born Audrey Tautou. The fruits of this most recent signing, a short film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who cast Tautou as the lead in both Amelie and A Very Long Engagement, goes online this Tuesday.

The date of the campaign's release is a symbolic one: 5 May 2009 is 88 years to the day since No 5 was introduced. Chanel is big on symbolism, as anyone who follows the fortunes of the iconic French brand will be quick to testify. Whatever, No 5 went on to become the world's bestselling fragrance – the powers that be at Chanel claim that a product bearing its name (be it in the form of scent, soap or bath oil) is sold every six seconds.

The forthcoming film depicts the beautiful, doe-eyed – and quintessentially Gallic – Tautou en route from Paris to Istanbul aboard the Orient Express, tantalisingly crossing paths with the model Travis Davenport. In its complete form, it runs for around two-and-a-half minutes but, as with the preceding campaign – in that instance, Ms Kidman directed by Baz Luhrmann – there will also be a shorter, televised version. Expect any home worth its TV licence to be positively bombarded where these are concerned, particularly in the run-up to Christmas when, for obvious reasons, sales of fragrance reach their peak.

The new commercial couldn't be more different from Luhrmann's all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza and that is nothing if not a sign of the times. The high-camp nostalgia and movie-star glamour that its predecessor depicted would seem rather too ostentatious – and too obviously escapist, perhaps – in the current climate.

Despite the apparently intimate nature of Jeunet's offering, however, it remains what might not unreasonably be described as a mega-production. A crew of 25 people reportedly worked on it for three weeks last May, filming everywhere from Paris to Limoges and, of course, Turkey. "Even in the world of advertising, it can be said that the house of Chanel works in an unparalleled level of comfort," Jeunet told a fashion trade paper earlier this year.

It is safe to assume, given the status of the brand in question, that the company's motives are far from altruistic. It's no secret that it is the fragrance division of any fashion house that makes it a globally successful phenomenon. And there are few more globally successful phenomenons in history than Chanel No 5.

Neither is the choice of Tautou as Kidman's successor in any way random. Coco avant Chanel, the long-awaited biopic of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's life, directed by Anne Fontaine, and starring the gamine French actress, has just been released in France. It will follow worldwide later on in the year.

For her part, Tautou, who claims to have turned down other potentially lucrative campaigns, has said: "I needed to have a connection with the product."

The powers that be at Chanel, however, insist that, whether the film is the hit it is expected to be or not, that is not the reason behind Tautou's employment. "There's no marketing move behind it," Chanel's president of fragrance and beauty, Andrea d'Avack, claims, pointing out that another movie, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, this time directed by Jan Kounen and to be released in the autumn, is also in the pipeline. "I personally believe there are things in l'air du temps. There is a general interest for Coco Chanel."

Whichever way one chooses to look at it, this is a brand which has always had its finger firmly on the pulse where selecting the woman who might best represent its product is concerned. From Ali MacGraw – pre-Love Story – to Catherine Deneuve and, more recently, from Kate Moss to Keira Knightley, Chanel has consistently selected its faces extremely carefully, safe in the knowledge that the right woman – or indeed man – will prove to be worth far more than their weight in gold.

A lot of bottle: The many faces of Chanel

1. COCO CHANEL, 1921

The first ever commercial for Chanel No 5 was an illustration depicting the couturier herself. Compared to today's big-budget campaigns, it may seem almost whimsical. It was executed by the Parisian caricaturist of his age, Sem, and showed Mademoiselle in all her slim-hipped, pioneeringly androgynous glory gazing up to the heavens in apparent rapture at a bottle of Chanel No 5.

2. COCO CHANEL, 1937 – Gabrielle Chanel

By this time the golden age of photography had dawned. This picture was shot by Francois Kollar, famed for his often surrealistic style, as seen most prolifically in the pages of 'Harper's Bazaar' magazine. Again, Gabrielle Chanel herself is the subject, now at the height of her fame and photographed in all her new-found grandeur in a suite at the Paris Ritz.

3. MARILYN MONROE, 1960

When asked by an interviewer in 1954 what she wore in bed, Marilyn Monroe answered "a few drops of Chanel No 5". Though with this one sentence she probably cemented its reputation as the most desirable fragrance in the world, she was paid not a penny for the endorsement and was never officially the face of the scent.

4. ALI MACGRAW, 1966

While the power of celebrity endorsement was by this time a recognised commodity, this picture of the young actress Ali MacGraw was in fact taken a good four years before she attained superstar status for her role in 'Love Story'. This campaign was a departure because MacGraw is American, reflecting No 5's by now global appeal, but also because her childlike beauty was nothing if not testimony to the thinking of the age.

5. CATHERINE DENEUVE, 1972

Although the great French actress might seem like the most obvious choice in the world, her employment as the face of Chanel No 5 was actually considered a risk at the time. She was best known for the 1968 Luis Bunuel art film, 'Belle de Jour', for which she was dressed not by Chanel but by Yves Saint Laurent, and she was still barely known outside France. Even so, her icy and highly sophisticated beauty was the perfect fit with the scent.

6. CAROLE BOUQUET, 1986

Bunuel also captured the extraordinary beauty of Carole Bouquet, this time in 'That Obscure Object Of Desire'. Unlike Deneuve, however, five years prior to signing with Chanel, Bouquet had shot to international fame as the Bond girl, playing alongside Roger Moore in the 1981 film, 'For Your Eyes Only'. The former wife of Gerard Depardieu, Bouquet is perhaps the ultimate ultra-chic Parisian beauty. What more, then, could an ultra-chic Parisian brand wish for?

7. VANESSA PARADIS, 1991

Hardly the most emancipated image of womanhood, this campaign for the not quite so classic (at the time) fragrance, Coco, featured Vanessa Paradis shot by Jean-Paul Goude dressed in almost nothing but feathers and twittering merrily in a gilded cage – apparently inspired by one Mlle Chanel had in her own apartment.

8. INSPIRED BY ANDY WARHOL, 1997

It is nothing if not testimony to Chanel No 5's iconic status that, in the 1950s, the transparent beauty of its bottle was immortalised by Andy Warhol. Never a company to miss a trick, almost half a century later Chanel bought the rights to use the work to advertise the scent. In this instance, the focus is on the product itself rather than a woman.

9. KATE MOSS, 2003

Perhaps the most mainstream choice of them all, Kate Moss was the perfect face to represent the younger fragrance, Coco Mademoiselle, giving it a London-girl edge that no other actress or model could rival. In 2005 and following the infamous 'Mirror' exposé of her drug-taking habits, Moss's contract wasn't renewed, although Chanel always insisted there was no link between the two events.

10. NICOLE KIDMAN, 2004

The face of No 5 for half a decade, Kidman is rumoured to have received between $4m and $12m for her services. As well as shooting a film with the 'Moulin Rouge' director Baz Luhrmann, plus a print campaign, she went so far as to make an appearance on the Chanel catwalk in the very black velvet gown she's photographed in here.

11. KEIRA KNIGHTLEY, 2007

Speculation was rife as to whether this image of the boyish Ms Knightley had been enhanced – she is not, after all, famous for her curves, here proudly on display with only a bowler hat to hide her modesty. The current face of Coco Mademoiselle, hers is a rather more fresh-faced image than Ms Moss's.

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