Hubert Burda Media

Scent of a Chanel Woman

As Chanel introduces its first new fragrance in 15 years, we meet with the power duo responsible: Olivier Polge and Sylvie Legastelois.

2017 is the year of Gabrielle Chanel. Though the great Coco died in her apartment at the Hôtel Ritz Paris 46 years ago, her spirit is alive, now more than ever – and not just in Paris, but around the world.

For its spring/summer 2017 ready-to-wear show, Chanel’s creative genius, Karl Lagerfeld, designed multiple versions of the Gabrielle handbag as a tribute. Since its arrival at Chanel boutiques, the must-have bag has been seen on the arms or shoulders of the fashion pack, and is carried by stylish It girls and guys.

Next month, Chanel launches a new fragrance, its first in 15 years. Named Gabrielle Chanel, its key ingredients include jasmine, tuberose, ylang ylang and orange blossom. The scent has been created by renowned perfumer and the creator of Chanel fragrances, Olivier Polge, and its packaging designed by Sylvie Legastelois, the label’s head of packaging and graphic design.

Polge and Legastelois have long connections with the luxury house. From a young age, Polge worked at the Chanel Fragrance Laboratory each summer, and eventually took up the reins from his father, Jacques Polge, who was employed at Chanel from 1978 until 2015. “It runs in my family, but I really decided to get involved when I was 20 years old,” Polge says. “Growing up – maybe because my father was involved in it – I wanted to do everything but that. But I did an internship [at Chanel] in the summers, and little by little it helped me discover that it was a craft that I liked.”

Legastelois, who runs a team of 30 graphic designers and artists at Chanel, joined the house in 1984 after graduating top-of-the-class from a prestigious design school and receiving a gold medal from the Van der Kelen Logelain institute in Brussels, a school of decorative painting. “I do all the packaging and the graphics for Chanel fragrance, skincare, make-up, watches and fine jewellery,” she says. “Not only for the products with actual packaging, but I also do the brochures, shopping bags, ribbons and Christmas cards, as well as advertising layouts.”

Gabrielle Chanel Perfume Packaging

Gabrielle Chanel Perfume Packaging

Walk into any beauty store and you’ll be bombarded with hundreds of choices of perfumes. Ever since the launch of its first perfume – the world-renowned No.5, in 1921 – Chanel has remained a leading name, and today the maison offers a wide selection of irresistible scents, including the new eau de parfum. That doesn’t, however, explain the secret of its appeal and longevity. 

“My favourite quote – because it tells a lot about my work – is more or less what [Gabrielle] said about Chanel No.5: that she wanted an ‘artificial’ fragrance,” says Polge. “By artificial she meant a constructed fragrance, in the same way that she felt she was a craftswoman for fashion – like the way she would construct a dress. She thought that fragrances also needed to be constructed. I think it tells a lot about the way we create fragrances at Chanel. We take the time and we have to craft, to design our own raw materials. What is more important than trends in my position at Chanel is always to play with what makes a perfume a Chanel perfume.”

If you’ve had the pleasure of luxuriating in a whiff of a Chanel fragrance, you’ll likely agree that the house’s scents are as lush and exquisite as its beautiful haute couture ensembles and ready-to-wear outfits. Much like Gabrielle Chanel herself, the packaging of the new fragrance reflects the scent: elegant, innovative and delicate, and fashioned from ingredients that evoke fresh flowers. 

“I chose those ingredients because they are part of our vocabulary,” Polge explains. “I think these ingredients must express something very true to her taste and her personality. Gabrielle is a very floral scent. It’s floral, solar, luminous and it’s also very feminine. When I created the fragrance, I didn’t know how it would be used. I like to think that people are going to make something very personal out of it.”

Gabrielle Chanel Perfume Hot Stamp

Loyal Chanel customers will know that certain core colours, such as black, white, beige, gold and red are often associated with Coco and her maison. For a fragrance that bears the founder’s name, Legastelois was looking for equally impactful use of colour, and yet at the same time something different and subtler. Serendipitously, she discovered that the colour chosen for the packaging had previously been used on everything from exquisite jewellery pieces to the stitching on haute couture ensembles, and even on some dresses designed by Mademoiselle Chanel.

“I wanted something simple but not shiny gold,” says Legastelois. “It’s luminous but not too flashy. I like the idea of lamé, because it has a metallic effect. All of our colours at Chanel are specific. I like [lamé] because it’s subtle, and I like the idea that it’s indefinable.”

Take a closer look at the sleek, square bottle and you’ll see that it’s anything but ordinary – in fact, it’s something to marvel at. Features of the cutting-edge design, which took more than five years of research to perfect, include the use of fine transparent glass (to allow the light of Polge’s creation to shine through) and an almost invisible pump made from a unique new material. To make the scent the centre of attention, even the company’s copyright information and other small print has been subtly placed at the back of the bottle, as opposed to the bottom.

“The design is simple,” says Legastelois. “This use of fine glass takes a completely different direction from other bottles that you see in the market, because heavy glass and the weight of the bottle is often associated with luxury. I wanted something really light. So you can imagine we at Chanel took the time to test it and to be sure that it’s solid.

“My dream was to create a bottle that would fade away, to give prominence to the fragrance. I put all my heart and passion into this product, and I would love women to feel that.”