"Before me no one would have dared dress in black," Coco Chanel, who was nothing if not master of the grand sound bite, once said.
While the sweeping statement in question is not strictly speaking true, as Queen Victoria, not to mention the grandees of the 17th-century Spanish court, might have argued, it is certainly impressive and they were long gone by the time she laid claim to it. Luckily, Chanel is referring specifically, of course, to the little black dress, launched in 1926 and designed to be worn at times other than during a period of mourning or indeed when swanning around Barcelona circa 1620. The couturier, who favoured neutrals throughout her career personally and professionally, did make black the fashionable colour to see and be seen in at all times – from day to evening and dressed up or down, depending on the taste of its wearer.
Black is also the starting point of the company's new fragrance, Coco Noir. It is integral to the spectacular success of this, the mother of all French status labels, that all elements – from perfume to nail polish and, of course, any clothes – spring from the biography of the founder, however laterally. Coco Noir comes in a signature perfectly simple square bottle with rounded, faceted edges – only jet and opaque as opposed to crystal clear like the iconic design for Chanel No 5, known not only for its beauty but also its radical simplicity. The gold details discreetly in evidence on the Coco Noir bottle, meanwhile, refers to Mademoiselle's fascination with the Byzantine and the Baroque and, specifically, her love of Venice: she first visited the city in 1920 to promote her beach pyjamas and generally soak up inspiration. That city was then still the principal gateway between East and West and the experience of going there lent her aesthetic a darker, richer and more elaborate style. Chanel met many of the people with whom she would collaborate in Venice, including Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, and the illustrator Christian Bérard. If every fragrance begins with a story, then this is both a precious and romantic one.
The juice itself, created by Jacques Polge, the Chanel master perfumer since 1979, is rooted in similar concerns. As individual as a fragrance may be, Polge argues, it can "only exist because of those that came before it". Coco – debatably Coco Noir's exotic predecessor – was launched at the haute couture collections in July 1984 at the Paris Opera, where the scent of it filled the air. At its heart are spices, evocative of the Orient and the Coromandel screens that filled Chanel's Paris apartment. The original Coco is also distinguished by its floral-amber accord. Coco Mademoiselle followed in 2001, a fresher and lighter fragrance further infused with jasmine and rose. For its part, Coco Noir is based around sandalwood, vetiver, frankincense, patchouli, vanilla, tonka bean and white musk. It is a rich and complicated scent described by its maker as "a great nocturnal Baroque", poetically enough. Nonetheless – and this perhaps is key to all Polge's work – a lightness prevails thanks maybe to top notes of grapefruit and Calabrian bergamot, rose absolute, narcissus, jasmine, pink peppercorns and rose geranium leaf.
It is not every day that Chanel launches a new fragrance. Unlike many of fashion's big names that may now produce upwards of four new scents a year, the company affords Polge the luxury of time. Then there is the not-so-small matter of the unparalleled creative freedom he enjoys. And it shows: Coco Noir is the latest in a long line of olfactory endeavours that will serve to cement the reputation of French fashion's most spectacularly successful and magical name.
More Scents of Success
Created by Ernest Beaux in 1921 and with Chanel's star in the ascendant, it is said that, almost a century on, a bottle is still sold somewhere in the world every minute. It is the most successful and enduring fragrance in history. Essentially a rose-jasmine accord, it was revolutionary in the first instance for its inclusion of aldehydes, powerful-but-unstable synthetic molecules that enhance aromatic scents. At the time, the fragrance industry was characterised by one-note floral perfumes. No 5 is a far more complex creature and one that changed the face of fragrance for all time. In fact, No 22 was introduced at the same time. Then Beaux came up with Bois des Iles, a woody chypre and Cuir de Russie, a precursor to androgynous fragrances.
Beaux was succeeded in 1954 by Henri Robert, whose first launch was Pour Monsieur, the only men's fragrance introduced during Chanel's lifetime. It wasn't until 1970 that No 19 was born, commemorating Chanel's birthday – 19 August. It is a powerful rose-iris that is as beautiful as it is daringly confrontational. Last year, Jacques Polge reinterpreted the scent with the launch of 19 Poudre, a softer variation but unmistakeably an elegant and acquired taste nonetheless.
In 1974, Robert also created Cristalle, a summery scent that is very much a reflection of sparkling times. This time, citrus-based – Sicilian lemon and Calabrian mandarin to be precise – Cristalle was also created with Coco Chanel's life in mind and her life on the beach in Deauville, Biarritz, in particular. A newer version of the scent, Eau Verte, was issued in 2009.
Jacques Polge took over Chanel's fragrance division in 1979 both to create new fragrances and add new formulas to existing classics, in particular to develop Chanel's eaux de parfum – headier than eau de toilette but lighter than pure perfume. His first new launch was a men's fragrance, Antaeus, created in 1981. This is a woody, leathery scent and one this time inspired by the love of Coco Chanel's life, Boy Capel.
In 2003 Polge came up with Chanel's most youthful fragrance, which is a floral oriental following in the footsteps of Coco Mademoiselle, Chance. Its difference is immediately apparent from the sobriety of the brand's perfumes in general: the juice is a pretty pink and the bottle round.
In 2007, Polge excelled himself with Les Exclusifs. Initially released as a series of 10 new fragrances, but still growing, they are more expensive than the company's other perfumes and available only from Chanel's boutiques and website. Karl Lagerfeld favours the Eau de Cologne from this range. No 22 is the brilliantly abstract reworking of the original. Since the launch, Polge has added new perfumes to Les Exclusifs, most recently, Jersey – inspired by Coco Chanel's use of that fabric, once the preserve of men's underwear but famously incorporated into her designs.