The Enduring Allure Of Chanel No. 5 Chanel No. 5 has been a best-seller for 90 years. But this famous luxury perfume had its roots in an odd place: Creator Coco Chanel spent her childhood in an austere medieval convent in southwestern France.
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The Enduring Allure Of Chanel No. 5

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The Enduring Allure Of Chanel No. 5

The Enduring Allure Of Chanel No. 5

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The Chanel boutique at 31 Rue Cambon in the heart of Paris is a glittering shrine to fashion and fragrance. And the most famous fragrance there is number cinq: Chanel No. 5.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Ms. CATHERINE DENEUVE (Actress): A woman is not all the time the same. Sometimes, we are very cooperating, but sometimes, we are very difficult. But being difficult is possibly being cooperating, no? So let's have a pact, just you and Catherine Deneuve. Don't ever change anything. Chanel No. 5 never has. There are no words for this mystery. We know what it is, Chanel.

LYDEN: Thanks to the lure of ads like that, someone buys a bottle of Chanel No. 5 every 30 seconds. It's been a bestseller for almost 90 years.

That lure also hooked author Tilar Mazzeo, whose new book is called "The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume."

While powerful women have always regarded Coco Chanel's creations as the embodiment of style, to understand her signature scent, Mazzeo says you have to look back to her childhood at an austere medieval convent.

Ms. TILAR MAZZEO (Author, "The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume"): She was essentially abandoned by her father after her mother's death, and raised in a convent in the southwest of France. And there are two things, I think, about the convent that are very, very important for her.

One is that because it's Cistercian - and the Cistercians believed in the symbolism of numbers - the number five in particular was all around her.


Ms. MAZZEO: So I think that's the origin of her interest in the number five, which...

LYDEN: She believed that that was her lucky number, her sacred number?

Ms. MAZZEO: Her lucky number. Well, even her fetishistic number was what one of her other early biographers who knew her said. So that was part of it.

And then the other part of it is because it was a convent where the focus was on cleanliness and on the scent of soap and linens and fresh-scrubbed skin, I think that also was a register of cleanliness that really influenced her interest in scent.

LYDEN: So later on when she started to think about perfume, in the first decade of the 20th century, there were real class lines about who wore what kind of scent. Would you tell us about that?

Ms. MAZZEO: Yeah. It was really a large distinction between them. If you wore jasmine, you were a racy lady. That was really associated with actresses and prostitutes and ladies of the night.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAZZEO: What a respectable young lady would wear would be rose or violet. So there was a really clear demarcation between the two kinds of perfumes.

And one of the things that's interesting then about when she goes on to create Chanel No. 5 is that she was a kept woman by a series of different people, and there was one of the other courtesans that she really admired because she always smelled clean. And that was what she didn't like about the other kept women that she knew is that they always smelled somehow to her dirty, you know, too much musk and too heavy perfumes.

And so what happens in Chanel No. 5 is it takes the heavier scents of musks and jasmine and rose, and then it balances them with adding this scent of clean and that, you know, that thing that makes your nose tingle.

LYDEN: It's also in its own way a marketing sensation. She creates buzz for it - well, today, we call it buzz. How does that happen?

Ms. MAZZEO: Yeah. She - so the perfume is invented in 1920.

LYDEN: Around Grasse, the famous French...

Ms. MAZZEO: That's right.

LYDEN: ...perfume capital.

Ms. MAZZEO: Right. In the south of France.

And then what she does is she begins a whisper campaign to launch it. She's very, very clever as an entrepreneur. And so she takes it and sells it only in her boutiques in the beginning, and plans to give it as a Christmas gift to her best clients at the end of the year.

And when they love it, can, you know, they say, we love the perfume, can we get more? She says, oh, I never had the idea that I was going to sell this. This was just a little gift. Do you really think I should sell this perfume?

LYDEN: Meanwhile, she's wiring to Grasse, make more.

Ms. MAZZEO: Right. Make more. I need to sell the perfume. And so it becomes very, very successful immediately in her boutiques, and she's already at this point at the height of her celebrity.

LYDEN: So she signs away her rights to this. She has such a tangled relationship with the perfume after that. Why does she sign away her rights to the perfume?

Ms. MAZZEO: Yeah. For me, that's actually one of the most interesting things about the entire story is that - because she ends up having a love-hate relationship with the perfume afterwards.

So she, in 1924, decides that in order to distribute it, she will give away the rights to a group of investors who are perfume distributors and manufacturers. And her concern seems to have been that she didn't want anybody to have any control over the fashion house. And so basically what she said is, it's your perfume, you deal with it.

LYDEN: And, of course, she couldn't possibly have known that it would be as successful as it was.

Let's talk about what happens in World War II to her, the perfume. There, the story becomes like a spy thriller.

Ms. MAZZEO: It really does. So the investors who buy the...

LYDEN: The Wertheimers. They are...

Ms. MAZZEO: Right. And the Meyers and the Heilbruns(ph).

LYDEN: French Jews.

Ms. MAZZEO: Right. So they're French Jews, and so they end up of course, when the war begins, having to flee. The Wertheimers in particular flee to New York and produce Chanel No. 5 here.

LYDEN: In Hoboken.

Ms. MAZZEO: In Hoboken, yes. Which Chanel's comment was, it's monstrous. They produced it in Hoboken. And she didn't know about this. So they begin producing Chanel No. 5 during the war here. And actually, what happens that turns Chanel No. 5 into - and changes it from being just a really famous perfume into being an icon, is the intuition that the investors have to sell the perfume through the U.S. Army in the commissary. It's really that decision more than anything that transformed Chanel No. 5 into this international icon during the Second World War.

But in order to make the perfume in the United States, they still make it with ingredients from France. So there's this great - there's a quote where someone says, it's a real James Bond story, and it is. They have to smuggle jasmine out of the south of France and bring it back to New Jersey in order to be able to produce the perfume.

LYDEN: But it's almost like having bars of gold during the war and just after. And you have photos in your book of GIs lined up, and of course the Nazis wanted it too.

Ms. MAZZEO: Yeah. That's for me one of the most interesting things about the perfume is that you think about the ways in which it encapsulates the history of the last century, right? It's - because Coco Chanel is pretty clearly anti-Semitic. I mean, there's not any getting around that.

I mean, not only does she have a German lover and live in the Ritz during the Second World War, but she'd had two lovers before that, both of whom had pretty proto-fascist politics.

And you think, well, you know, you've got a perfume created under the name of an anti-Semitic fashion designer. You have a perfume house that is in fact run by a family of French Jews. You have a product that American GIs line up in those photos in the book to get, and then that the Nazi officers also line up to get. I mean, it just cut completely across all of the boundaries of that war.

LYDEN: Like almost nothing else, except maybe smoking a cigarette.

Ms. MAZZEO: Cigarettes, whiskey, and Chanel No. 5, that was pretty much it.

LYDEN: Yeah. Tilar Mazzeo is the author of the new book "The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume."

Thanks again for joining me.

Ms. MAZZEO: My pleasure.

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