It sounds like a pretty familiar proposition. Anonymity can be a powerful thing, come to think of it, and that’s why in contrast to the speaking perfume which I wrote about previously, you also need to have the silent one.
Chanel was the first company really to foster the conceptual in scent. Whether this was the choice originally of Ernest Beaux, Chanel’s Russian émigré perfumer, or her own preference, we shall never know. No. 5 is famously at once specific and general, flowers and aldehydes, a snow covered landscape, an empty urban space. It was probably the variant of a perfume Beaux had already created in Russia, but its most salient characteristic was its abstraction. It was like Malevich’s painting White on White, something new, something which defied category, something which referred only to itself.
There had been new perfumes before: Francois Coty’s Chypre, Paul Parquet’s Fougere Royale. The difference though was that where both perfumes created new categories of scent, both seemed to reference something natural. This was an important distinction because it recognized the fact that while consumers would accept innovation, they still wanted their scents to smell like something recognizable. You could sell the public new combinations and chemicals but you had to suggest a natural model, an island say, or a fern.
But No. 5 was unprecedented because it was indefinite and unidentifiable. Chanel, in giving it a number rather than a name, stressed this quality, and she caught a profound change in public taste at exactly the right juncture for success.
Just as Cubism was introduced in the visual arts, or atonal music inaugurated by Stravinsky, so the world bought what it had never before dreamed of: a perfume that was about nothing at all. This was a scent which could suit every climate and every woman because it had no previous known associates. It was a number and a faultlessly modern faceted bottle design and a blast of jasmine modified molecules which defied description. The wearer brought identity to the perfume and not the other way around.
Over the decades, No 5 has held on to this remarkable innominate character. If today, people were polled as to what qualities the wearer of No 5 exhibited, I’ll bet they couldn’t come up with much. It remains the elegant trench coat scent, the one that says the very least about you.
That somehow remains remarkably desirable, perhaps especially in a world in which personal privacy may be going the way of the dodo.