Chanel No. 5

Chanel No. 5

While Coco Chanel might seem part of the old guard, she made many cultural contributions during her heyday that were reflective of social change for women of the day.

Having been raised in a convent school, Coco - born Gabrielle Chanel - was well trained in sewing and needle craft at a young age.  After leaving the convent school, she made a brief and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a stage career but eventually made her way into fashion design.

Her early work was quite revolutionary for its time, removing the corsets, shoulder pads and layered shirts of late Victorian and Edwardian fashion.  Getting her start shortly after WWI, her designs reflected the new necessity of practicality in women's designs as more women were entering the workforce and expressing the increased social freedom that came in the years after the war.

Coco Chanel circa 1920

Starting out as a milliner, or hat designer, Chanel parlayed an initial investment from her long time romantic liaison, Arthur Capel,  Within several years, she had not only repaid the investment, but had the means to purchase a property on the fashionable Rue Cambon.  Within a few years, she would amass 5 properties on the street.

Her specific contributions to fashion are most notable the elevation of trousers as a fashion statement, the popularity of sun tans, the little black dress, the introduction of jersey fabrics into womens' wear and of course Chanel No. 5.  It's this groundbreaking fragrance that most inspires in the perfume world.

One of the first perfumes to have been created for market using only synthetics, No. 5 was also revolutionary in the way that it challenged stereotypes about women's fragrances.  In contemporary Europe, there was a distinct class divide regarding personal scents - blends that were musky or contained jasmine or similar florals were considered the domain of the lower class while the more affluent wore blends that were singularly floral.  No. 5 bridged that divide by creating a more complex blend that was marketed towards a more upscale customer than such blends had been before.

The formula was developed by Ernest Beaux, a well known perfumer of the time.  It was initially intended to be a Christmas gift for her top clients, but the reception was so positive that she decided to offer it on a permanent basis.  The blend was selected specifically for it's name, the sample was labeled No. 5 and that happened to be Chanel's lucky number - her collections were always released on the 5th of May.  Not only was the fragrance a departure for the times, the bottle itself established a new trend in perfumery - the usage of a sturdier, less ornate bottle that was inspired by the cologne bottles of her lover Capel.  This bottle was favored as it did not detract from the perfume itself due to it's simplicity.

Ernest Beaux

In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the perfume house Bourjois, creating a new corporate entity, Parfums Chanel. The Wertheimers agreed to manage production, marketing, and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive a 70 percent share of the company, and Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette, would receive 20 percent. Bader had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at the Longchamps races in 1922.  For 10 percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Later, unhappy with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel. She said that Pierre Wertheimer was "the bandit who screwed me".

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