There is something about an eternal rebel that has always enchanted me. I suppose we all dream about breaking the rules at some stage, and it is in learning about others who have followed their hearts, that we believe we may one day be brave enough to do so ourselves.
History is peppered with remarkable women whose independent spirits are impossibly enchanting.
George Sand got me first: France’s most famous 19th century novelist led a scandalous life of androgynous style, colourful personal relationships, and prolific writings.
The English writer and traveller Gertrude Bell drove her family crazy by decamping to the Middle East in the 1800s, where she learnt to speak Arabic and was most influential in policies affecting that region.
I’ve also always loved the stories of Sara Murphy, who with her husband Gerald, left her comfortable life as an American heiress in 1921 to set up a home in the south of France and hang out with some of the greatest artists and writers of the 20th century.
And then there is Coco Chanel. Coco Chanel, whose real name was Gabrielle, and who determined at a young age that she was going to do things her way.
From her early struggles growing up in a French orphanage, to her luxurious life in the Ritz Hotel suite where she lived as a designer, Chanel’s story is neither a short nor a simple one. But when it comes to fashion, her glorious rebellion and influence is well documented: Chanel’s short, curly bob is one of the most copied haircuts in history. Her fashion freed women from the restrictions of the corset, and, for the first time, soft jersey knits, trousers, and sailor stripes became part of the feminine wardrobe.
The little black dress, the two-tone ballet flats, strings of pearls, and quilted leather bags on gold chains are style staples that we all associate with ultimate elegance — but at the time had the world agog at Chanel’s revolt against the fashion rules of the era.
Then there was the fragrance: Chanel was the first fashion designer to create a fragrance of her own — Chanel No 5 in 1920. It remains one of the best-selling fragrances in the world, and her floral fragrances have always been a strong ingredient of the Chanel signature.
Luxury is not what you see. Luxury is when you wear it: it feels perfect
This year sees the launch of a new Chanel fragrance, Gabrielle, during couture week in Paris. This is the first new fragrance from the luxury maison in 15 years, and has been many, many years in the making.
Chanel nose Olivier Polge followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming the fragrance creator for Chanel four years ago. In creating Gabrielle, he says he was honouring that young girl who first discovered her survival skills in the French orphanage where she grew up.
Gabrielle, the fragrance, has been referred to as an “abstract floral”. Chanel herself loved white flowers and always had fresh white flowers in the Rue Cambon salon where she worked and entertained across the road from the Ritz Hotel.
In creating Gabrielle, the fragrance, Polge has drawn on all the white blooms that inspired Chanel, and almost created the ultimate white flower, re-engineering the jasmine fragrance on a molecular level. “Nature can only give us so much. If we want to go further, we have to break down the molecules and rebuild the fragrance, amplifying it. I have amplified the creamy aspect of the jasmine,” he says.
Other white flower scents in Gabrielle are ylang-ylang, orange blossom, and a touch of tuberose. Musk notes add velvetiness, and milky sandalwood accentuates the tuberose. Polge boosted the freshness of orange blossom with mandarin peel, grapefruit, and a hint of blackcurrant.
The result: A luminous, imaginary flower that is going to be viewed as something of a fragrance revolution. Mademoiselle Chanel would have approved.
LUXURY IS WHAT YOU DON'T SEE
Almost as much thought goes into designing the bottle of a new Chanel fragrance, as goes into the creation of the unforgettable liquid itself.
Sylvie Legastelois has been a part of the Chanel packaging team, which she now heads up, for 32 years.
“My inspiration is in Chanel. It’s inside me every day,” she says.
In designing a bottle to reflect the values of Gabrielle Chanel, the young rebel before she became Coco, Legastelois chose an understated look that would be the perfect tension between simplicity and luxury.
“Luxury is not what you see. Luxury is when you wear it: it feels perfect.”
The final design of the Gabrielle fragrance is a simple square bottle with an elegant square of silvery gold in the centre of the bottle, on the lid, and on the box.
The luxury is reflected in the fact that it took the House of Chanel five years to be happy with a suitably fine-glassed bottle that has never been made before. An almost imperceptible bevel converges in the centre of the bottle, creating a light refraction with the luminous liquid inside.
The metallic label is neither gold, nor silver — it’s a colour without a name, and an indefinable manifestation of light and white flowers, Legastelois says.