How would you define iconic?

We went down a rabbit hole on a quest to understand how this praise title is earned. Learning from the master seemed to be the way to shed light on the subject. Above all the iconic things we could think about, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel's prestigious N°5 came to mind right away. After more than a hundred years, it's still amongst the most famous fragrance. And reading this will make you want to wear it too.

Coco Chanel has made a career out of going against the grain, not following trends or being influenced by anyone. She's built a career around designing iconic pieces repeatedly—the little black dress, anyone?—and maintaining an aura of myth and mystery around herself and her creations, allowing spectators to fill in the blanks with their own self. Her career has been built on so many first times in history. If anyone can teach us a thing or two about being "iconic", it’s her. Everything about Chanel N°5 reveals the creator and the woman behind it: its elusiveness, timelessness, elegance, and simplicity. But also, a lucky number, some childhood memories, and a trace of her true love. All of it bottled up into Chanel’s truest legacy.

 "A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future." – Coco Chanel

Femininity Unveiled: The Iconic Creation of Chanel N°5.

Without a doubt, every detail that went into this perfume played a role in ultimately creating the perfect formula that would earn the precious title of “iconic”. The first spark ignited when Coco Chanel met perfumer Ernest Beaux and tasked him with creating a scent that would "smell like a woman, not a rose." At that time, the trend was about soliflores—fragrances mimicking the scent of a single flower. These scents were categorized for what was believed to be the two archetypes of women; delicate garden flowers like rose and lavender were reserved for women of high status, while stronger essences like musk and jasmine were used by courtesans and prostitutes to attract men.

It's no secret that Coco Chanel herself belonged to both spheres, which gave her a clarity of womanhood that wasn’t accessible for most. In everything she did, she never pretended to define femininity or confine it to categories of good or bad, knowing that femininity has as many facets as there are women. Throughout her work, she always left space for interpretation. When it came to her perfume, Chanel knew that the essence of a woman had to represent all of them so that they can recognize themselves. Chanel N°5 blends both rose and jasmine among over 80 other fragrances, all balanced harmoniously to make every note indistinctive from another. Finally allowing women to be sexy and pure at the same time. For the first time, a perfume emerged that unified women rather than defining them.

It was in 1920 that Ernest Beaux presented her with 10 samples.

Samples numbered from 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. She chose vial number 5, her lucky number. Legends, myth, and mystery have always been at the heart of Coco Chanel’s life and career, so perhaps her choice stopped at the fifth vial, or maybe the one she selected was simply named after her favorite number. Five represents the pure embodiment of a thing, it’s spirit and mysticism. She would present all her collections on the fifth day of the month and launched her perfume on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year, on May 5th, 1921.

The legend says that a high concentration of aldehyde fell, by mistake, into the sample she chose, truly making it stand out. Aldehydes are a chemical that, when added to a perfume composition, can enhance the overall scent profile, lift other fragrance notes, and contribute to the longevity of the scent. They also smell like soap and freshness. Coco Chanel was very strict about her cleanliness, ever since her years in a convent when she was growing up. This nostalgic scent bound to her past made her pick it. The extreme amount of aldehydes, unusual for that time, marked the second innovation of Chanel N°5.

"In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different." – Coco Chanel

Simplicity in Elegance: The Timeless Appeal of Chanel N°5.

During this era, everything about perfumes was extravagant, with provocative and defined names like "My Sin", "Dans la Nuit (In the Night)," or "Moment Supreme." The bottles themselves were closer to works of art, adorning vanities rather than mere vials. In this excessiveness, Chanel N°5 stood out. The simple name was so elusive that anyone could impose its own mood on it.

Coco Chanel was already known for changing fashion.

By allowing women to blend masculine trends, embrace their own power, and at that time, find a place in a man’s world. The design of her bottle was stripped down of all embellishments and unnecessary distractions. The clean lines and simplistic, colorless glass resembled more of a whisky flask. Legend has it that it was inspired by an object owned by Boy Capel, her one true love. Some say it looked like his Charvet toiletry bottles, while others say it was reminiscent of his whisky decanter. In either case, the memory of her late lover was infused, allowing the perfume and its wearer to embrace their own masculine traits.

Of course, Chanel’s brilliant marketing played a role in the success of the perfume. She made no public launch but rather sprayed her perfume around a table before some influential guests filled the room. When they asked her about the smell, she knew she had something special. While it was first sold almost secretly in her stores, it found its way into pop culture almost inadvertently. Marilyn Monroe famously said that she wore "just a few drops of N°5" in bed. Andy Warhol followed by making a series of screen prints of the bottle. Eventually, stars would lend their image to the perfume in campaigns. Catherine Deneuve, Lily-Rose Depp, Marion Cotillard, and Nicole Kidman all shared their beauty with N°5, and eventually, Brad Pitt became the first man to represent the vial.

Catherine Deneuve in one of her ad for Chanel N°5 in the 70’s.
"Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." – Coco Chanel

Timeless Evolution of an Icon.

Finally, it is the minor changes adopted that let this perfume float at such a high for so long. To be truly iconic, one must be both timeless and of the time. To achieve this, minimalism and simplicity are necessary so that the essence can be shifted through the perception of others while also allowing for minor tweaks to take place without affecting the core. Number five has seen its bottle change minimally five times through its history to keep in touch with the era, while its fragrance has seen adjustments for the same reasons. Tastes evolved, and refusing to change would have had Chanel N°5 quickly forgotten and outdated. Of course, the changes never strayed too far from the original.

What we can take away from Chanel N°5 is a better understanding of what makes an icon; it's now clearer. The distinctiveness, innovation, cultural impact, timelessness, and universality of her fragrance, bottle, and name are all elements that build an icon. Apart from this, we would also say that the myth of No. 5’s story played a role in building a reputation for the perfume. Coco Chanel delved more than ever into wrapping mysteries and elusiveness into her art, which would ultimately transform with everyone trying to unwrap it.

The approach of Coco Chanel remind us of the vision of creative director Alessandro Michele for the rebranding of Gucci.


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