There is something sclerotic about the house of Chanel, perhaps part and parcel of the business, since it is all predicated upon the talent, business acumen (some might say rapacity), tenacity, and remarkable personal style of a dead woman. The phenomenal sales of No. 5 may also have affected the slow evolution of the company in the late twentieth century, since success if it breeds anything, breeds caution.
In Dana Thomas’ book Deluxe, Jacques Polge, the Chanel in-house perfumer, is quoted about composing new perfumes for the firm. Initially, management were not very encouraging, “For a long time (Chanel executives) didn’t want to do any perfumes because they were afraid that it would cannibalize No.5.”
Fortunately for Polge’s career, the head of the company, Alain Wertheimer who had become CEO in 1974, wanted new perfumes so long as Polge maintained the quality of the existing ones.
Polge, trying to draw on some of the iconic Chanel inspiration, went to Coco’s flat in the Rue Cambon. “She had died in 1971, and this was 1979, and no one had touched anything.” The apartment was full of silent luxury- beige upholstery, leather backed books, black and mother of pearl coromandel screens, and dust motes drifting on the indoor air. Polge thought he could reproduce this atmosphere of richness, of muffled ultra-refinement, by fusing three existing Chanel formulas to come up with a correspondingly intricate and Byzantine mixture to reflect the subdued baroque richness of the late Mademoiselle’s decor, so he combined Bois des Isles, Cuir de Russie, and Sycomore. Et voila, the resinous, slightly sweet woody oriental that everyone now associates with the successful excesses of the eighties.
Of course, that raises the question of how conscious Polge actually was of what his competition were doing at the time.
And what were they doing? Heavy Hitter Orientals, like YSL’s Opium, or for that matter Estee Lauder’s Cinnabar, or Lancome’s Magie Noir. The perfume world is well ventilated, and ideas do seem to drift between companies. They are in the air, circulating, so to speak.
The more likely scenario, is that the firm knew they needed an oriental to take some of the market share of Opium, and that Coco was their answer, but it is a good answer, and is a bit lighter to wear than Opium, although Opium itself is now quite a bit thinner than in its hey day. Also although I do not smell too much similarity to Sycomore or Cuir de Russie, I can smell a kinship to Bois des Isles.
Opium is the real parent though. Just look at the notes: Coco selects fruit notes, mandarin, pimento, aldehyde and coriander for its trip. Opium- a chronic over packer-crams aldehydes, orange, pimento, and bay leaf into the head-notes while Coco tucks a little rose, carnation, ylang-ylang, cinnamon, orris, patchouli, vetiver, sandal wood, and tuberose into its hand bag. Opium shoves carnation, rose ylang-ylang, cinnamon, peach, jasmine, orris, and bounces on top of the suitcase. Coco picks up a small tote with incense, amber , benzoin, vanilla, musk, honey and civet daintily arranged inside it, while Opium, having maxed out its carry on, lumbers through Security burdened with the extra baggage of benzoin, tolu, vanilla, sandalwood, patchouli, incense, amber musk.
You never can accuse Opium of traveling light; it always comes prepared.
Coco has to conform to the curious immortality of Chanels. But the perfume is tarred by association with an era. Although Chanels typically are the Abstract Impressionists of the perfume world, designed to be discreet about their wearers, to give out little information, like the clothes. Perhaps the perfumes do have back stories, but if they do, they should be sublimated as Mademoiselle Chanel’s was, closed up in a silent static world of luxury, covered in tooled leather, upholstered in beige velvet and shielded behind coromandel screens from the history’s overly intrusive gaze. Coco is just a little too forthcoming to be a classic Chanel.