The Secret of Chanel No.5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume
Tilar J. Mazzeo
Some pages into Tilar J. Mazzeo’s riveting history of the world’s bestselling perfume, I began to feel disadvantaged. It’s hard to read about a fragrance when you can’t smell it to see if you fully understand or agree with the descriptors. I am sure that the people who saw me generously spritzing myself and every paper sample I could find with Chanel No. 5 at my local Long Island Sephora thought I was nuts. But, I left the store with enough paper wicks to sniff as I finished the book.
For more than 90 years, the legendary Coco Chanel’s signature scent has been the “monstre” of the fragrance world. No perfume is more popular. Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Cliquot, unravels the complex personal and business relationships that went into creating this revolutionary perfume as she reveals the secret of its success:
. . . the secret at the heart of Chanel No. 5 and its continued success is us and our relationship to it. . . .Think of that number: a bottle sold every thirty seconds. It is an astounding economy of desire.
From the start, Coco Chanel believed that a woman “should smell like a woman and not a flower.” One of the first couturieres to use fragrance to complement her fashions, she was determined that hers would be utterly unique and modern. Coco herself famously said:
I want to give women an artificial perfume. Yes, I do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made. I don’t want a rose or lily of the valley. I want a perfume that is a composition.
That’s not all.
She wanted to invent a scent that would utterly confound those lines between the fragrance worn by a nice, respectable girl and one worn by a seductress. She wanted a perfume that would be sexy and provocative and utterly clean.
The Secret of Chanel No. 5 tells the fascinating story of how the great designer succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. It tells how she relinquished control of her scent, and how the heads of the company that produced it fled to New York City to escape the Nazis, and managed continue to produce it during World War II in Hoboken, New Jersey with critical ingredients that had been smuggled from France. It tells how it became “most coveted consumer luxury product of the twentieth — and twenty-first — centuries” with surprisingly little or no marketing until the latter part of the 1900s. It reminds us that it was the scent of choice for Hollywood stars, socialites, and first ladies — and remains so for women the world over who covet it as a status symbol but adore it for the unmistakable beauty of its big, bold and frankly sexy fragrance.
If, like me, you’re interested in fashion, in luxury, in Coco Chanel, and in the history of perfume, there is much to delight, entertain, and inform in this carefully researched bouquet of a book.
The Secret of Chanel is just out in paperback and is available at amazon.com and your favorite New York bookstores.