The Ruffian

Chanel No. 5, New York Times.

Posted in Uncategorized by The Ruffian on March 14, 2009
Chanel No. 5

Chanel No. 5

“There’s a scene directed by Luchino Visconti in the 1962 movie ‘‘Boccaccio ’70’’ in which a beautiful young woman, played by Romy Schneider, sprawls on the floor of a sumptuous room. Dotted around her are expensive trinkets — a gold pen, gold compact, crystal ashtray, fluffy kitten and bottle of perfume. The bottle has its back to the camera so you can’t see the label, but it’s still obvious that it’s Chanel No. 5.
Chanel’s competitors have spent millions of dollars in (mostly) ill-fated attempts to produce perfume bottles as memorable as No. 5’s. Very few packages are as well known as, if not better known than, their contents: the Coca-Cola bottle is one, the Tiffany box is another. How has Chanel done it?”
“Let’s go back to the beginning, to No. 5’s introduction in 1921. The perfumes of the day were floral scents like rose or jasmine, made from natural ingredients whose smells faded quickly. The names were tweely traditional — like Spray of Happiness and Evening Revery — and so was the packaging, typically intricately carved cut-glass bottles in the shape of classical flasks.  Gabrielle Chanel, then in her late 30s and famous for modernizing women’s clothes, wanted her perfume to be different. It was to smell distinctive, and to last. Luckily for Chanel, technology was turning in her favor. A brilliant chemist, Ernest Beaux, was developing longer-lasting synthetic perfumes that could smell however you wished. Chanel chose one and gave it a modern, scientific-sounding name that included her lucky number: Chanel No. 5. The packaging was to be modern, too. Chanel lobbied for a plain glass bottle, rectangular in shape. The label was another rectangle in plain white with black lettering in the sans-serif style. Beneath the stopper was a black circle containing a white sans-serif C.”
“The bottle looked dramatically different from conventional ones and echoed the work of Chanel’s favorite artists and designers. Its geometric shape evoked the ‘‘purist villas’’ that pioneering Modernist architects like Le Corbusier were building for fashionable clients in and around Paris. The sans-serif lettering was similar to the radical typefaces being developed by avant-garde designers like Jan Tschichold and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in Germany.”
“Critically, Chanel softened these influences in her bottle. The glass edges were gently rounded, making it seem less radical and more welcoming. She achieved a similar effect with the lettering. Whereas Tschichold and Moholy-Nagy were experimenting with sans-serif typefaces in lower-case letters and ditching old-fashioned capitals (on the grounds that they were not only undemocratic but, like decorative squiggles, unnecessarily distracting in the frenzy of modern life), Chanel did the opposite. By using nothing but capitals, she made her label seem more authoritative and less subversive.”
“These subtleties endeared No. 5’s modern, but not too modern, bottle to Chanel’s wealthy clients and prolonged its appeal. An undiluted interpretation of a 1920s aesthetic would have remained rooted in interpretation of a 1920s aesthetic would have remained rooted in that period, but Chanel’s design seems timeless. You can spot a similar effect in the 1920s furniture of the Irish designer Eileen Gray. She took stylistic cues from progressive designers, like Marcel Breuer and Charlotte Perriand, but refined them by expressing their geometric forms and industrial materials in soft curves and sumptuous finishes. The result is unmistakably modern yet quietly ambiguous, and looks equally appropriate in any period.”
“The No. 5 bottle has also benefited from smart management. Even after Chanel’s death, the company resisted the temptation to change it, other than very subtly. Another boon has been the dearth of competition. A few intriguingly designed perfume bottles have surfaced since 1921. Chanel’s archrival, Elsa Schiaparelli, kicked it off in 1937 with her surrealist-inspired Shocking bottle, shaped like Mae West’s torso. Jean Paul Gaultier produced a witty parody of it for his first perfume in 1993, while Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons sealed her scents in plastic sheeting. (Ripping it open is always a thrill.) My latest favorite — for looks, though not eco-points — is the stainless-steel aerosol spray can containing Wode, the fragrance of the London fashion house Boudicca. Most other perfume bottles have been forgettable at best.”
“If you’re still not convinced that packaging makes a difference, just think of L’Aimant, a perfume introduced by Coty in 1927. Its packaging was as traditional as its name, but it smelled very much like No. 5, so much so that one rumor suggested Beaux had invented the original scent for Coty but, at the end, sold it to Chanel. Whatethink of L’Aimant, a perfume introduced by Coty in 1927. Its packaging was as traditional as its name, but it smelled very much like No. 5, so much so that one rumor suggested Beaux had invented the original scent for Coty but, at the end, sold it to Chanel. Whatever the truth, how many have heard of L’Aimant?”

http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2009/02/22/style/t/index.html#pagewanted=0&pageName=22rawsthorn&

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