It is quiet inside the Chanel building in Paris. There is a feeling of space and hygiene. On the ground floor, or perhaps just below ground, is a Japanese or Buddhist garden you can observe from high glass windows. There is a little bridge, some stone or gravel raked, I think, to suggest the sea or the universe.
Chanel perfumer Olivier Polge works from the top of the building. He has a view of the city’s rooftops and beyond them the horizon and the world. There is a huge painting opposite his desk: a clean abstract by Joan Mitchell. “She used to live in France,” says Polge. “It’s called La Barque.”
Weeks later I realise that perfumes are abstracts. There are perfumes that copy nature, but perhaps the best are fictions. And of Chanel’s latest perfumes, the three Les Eaux, it would be impossible to sample one and say, “Oh yes, this is a rose.” You would be more likely to say, of Paris-Deauville, for example, “Warm lemon, almost narcotic. A sensuality that is private, stolen from the lily. Sensation of sea spray – one drop suggests the ocean.”
Polge is recently installed as Chanel’s perfumer. His father, Jacques Polge, held the post before him. When I interviewed his father, discussing Égoïste, he said some perfumes were for men. Some for women. The three Eaux are not sold as “masculine” or “feminine”. “Today,” says the younger Polge, “we decide not to specify the gender. And maybe with these type of scents it’s harder to de ne, to a certain extent. But I like to say the gender of the scents is given by the person who wears them.”
The three new fragrances are Paris-Deauville, Paris-Biarritz and Paris-Venise. Deauville is the chic seaside town where Gabrielle Chanel opened her first boutique, Biarritz her first couture house, and Venise is Venice, which Chanel visited in 1920 after the death of her lover Arthur “Boy” Capel. The rich Byzantine style of Venice inspired her jewellery, says Polge. “I like the fact that each fragrance is a combination of Paris and another city, from the point of view of Chanel. I like to deal with the imagination. They are not the result of research I have done, but more about the impression I have.”
Venise owes much to Chanel’s journey to the city by Orient Express. The perfume is Venice through glass, the city’s heat and exoticism filtered. For Deauville he wanted to suggest a city-dweller’s dream of the countryside. The perfume is so green it made me think of Eden. Deauville, I suggest, is nature without dirt. Or soil. “For me,” says Polge, “soil is clean.”
There are patchouli perfumes, says Polge, and non-patchouli perfumes. Deauville is the former. And there is a sensation of sun in the fragrance, a warm red drawn from flowers that does not speak of flowers. But I bought patchouli oil to study. I enjoyed its dryness and feeling of “nature” but other notes I disliked. These notes are not present in Deauville. A writer would edit his raw material until it pleases him. Is it the same for a perfumer? “Yes,” says Polge. “This is what we do.” You phone a lab and ask them to change the patchouli? “It is longer than a phone call. It is a constant task that I do. If there is some aspect I want in a citrus oil, then I will exchange ideas with the growers. If I decide something this Friday morning, I will have nothing until next December when the citrus crop starts. When my father made Coco Mademoiselle he had this idea of
removing the top notes from the patchouli and just keeping the back notes that are cleaner and specific to patchouli. And since then, for more than 15 years, we have had this special grade of patchouli. It is a special shade on our palette. One of our signature ingredients.”
The Eaux have a relation to traditional eau de cologne – they are refreshing perfumes, they use citrus oils and there are herbaceous notes. The basil in Deauville is almost an homage to Chanel’s Cristalle. The green aspect of Deauville owes something to the oils drawn from orange peel, twigs and leaves. This orange in Deauville is a “special grade”, says Polge, specific to Chanel. “It is more concentrated. It makes the scents more nervous, more hopeful.”
All perfumes are symbolic. Polge is pleased when I tell him Venise is so mysterious that I cannot easily say, “Oh this is grapefruit”, or “This is vanilla.” Instead, there are impressions of luxury, glass, distant petals and a feeling of comfort that is more sensual than sexual. Explaining the notes that end the perfume I am half- certain Polge whispered something about a feeling of almond, but there is no actual almond in the perfume, it is a mirage. “There is something in the Eaux that sets deep impressions,” says Polge, “something more elaborate in terms of complexity. And notes that last longer than traditional eau de cologne. Traditional colognes were very fresh, but you had to pour out half the bottle before you were refreshing yourself. The freshness in these bottles will last longer.”
Biarritz is a seaside town. Polge said he wanted the ingredients to feel as if they had been “soaked with water”. When the perfume reached its dry down (on my skin) it reminded me of the feeling after swimming in the sea. “There is something about Biarritz that is about movement,” says Polge, “almost ‘sporty’. I don’t like to speak about scents being ‘sporty’ but I had this picture of Gabrielle Chanel on the beaches with a surf- board. The citrus notes have an almost bitter aspect that I like, from the grapefruit and mandarin. And there is lily of the valley, which is one of those flowers from which we are not able to extract any oil but we can create certain effects by combining rose and jasmine and a particular molecule that is very fresh and smells like air.”
Polge’s lab is a glassy room, ultra-shiny and scientific. There are floor-to-ceiling cupboards that hold shelves of bottles – his unfinished or unresolved works. Most perfume ingredients are clear liquids in small bottles, but some are lumps of grass, dark beans or wet roots. Polge picks ingredients from Les Eaux. A small bottle… Very smooth. “Lemon,” says Polge. Next… oh… sparkling. “Mandarin. Citrus oils are tricky. They are very fragile when they are in contact with the air.” Something sweet. Makes me think “vanilla”. “This is not vanilla. This is benzoin.” Next. Smells like orange. “Petitgrain” (the dry orange in Deauville). And then some version of citrus… “This is an aldehyde complex,” he says. It smells clear. Like orange seen through glass. It is beautiful and strange. “It is fresh,” he says. “If you smell.”
A great quantity of aldehydes are part of the formula of Chanel No 5. And there are moments in Les Eaux when I could sense a shadow of No 5, like nectar in hazy light. “I am glad you say that,” says Polge. “In Chanel No 5 we speak about the flower aldehydes. It is something that is particular to No 5 and particular to citrus oils. Part of the identity of the citrus oil is made of aldehydes.”
It is a loop. Aldehydes occur naturally in citrus oils – aldehydes were used in No 5 – Les Eaux use citrus oils. And it seems too obvious to ask if he has a good sense of smell. But I did. “I think more than being able to recognise everything, it is more a play with the
nose and our memory than the accuracy of the nose. Smell is a sense that we don’t build up too much. A lot of our sense of smell is unconscious. In our culture.”
In this lab I am learning it is difficult to be “conscious”. To concentrate on one ingredient you must have no other thoughts in your mind while you smell, otherwise you can- not focus. A perfumer will need a mind that can narrow to a tight, hard lock.
Next. Vetiver. Smoky. I thought it was meant to be “grassy”. “We remove the smoke but keep something that is very true to the vetiver. When I joined Chanel one of the most important things, my father explained, is that through constant work we have raw materials that we design ourselves. The creations start at the raw-material level. You cannot create the same fragrance if you do not have
this made-to-measure material.”
I ask if he can show the technology that removes smoke. But this happens elsewhere. “Basically they all play with the same idea – that within the complexities of one raw material you have certain components with different molecular weights. And you can remove the lightest or the heaviest and you can separate them. And then if you make 10 different fractions you can recompose with just the aspects you are interested in.”
It is a science for collage. In Venise I sensed a hint of a flower. It was just a slice or “fraction”. Demonstrating the white musk of Deauville, he offers a bottle that carries a delicate strawberry. But it is ever so faint; this makes it beautiful. He works, he says, with “shades”. He studied art history at university – I should have asked what held his attention in art. Was it personality or technique – pigment, even? But he never planned to enter perfume.
“As a teenager you don’t want to do the same as your parents. But when I was 18 to 20 and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I had a few internships over the summer and among them I came to this lab and I discovered this is something that my sensibility really liked. I really wanted to do something with my hands, but I like perfumes. They are immaterial and you cannot see the scents, but I like this curtain between material and immaterial. There is a craftsmanship to it. A pure craftsmanship to it.”
I asked if there was anything he is “working on”. He says iris and invites me to smell the root, which sits in a jar like a soggy turnip. “It’s a strange scent,” says Polge. “How would you describe it?” Like dough. Wet. Earthy and wet. And you? “I would describe it as maybe… grassy, oily, violet. Powdery. Woody.”
He uses iris at the close of Venise, where it works with benzoin, labdanum, tonka (and whatever else is here) to create an “ambery” effect. And perhaps because he has given me the words, I am certain
there is almond, an almond more beautiful than any in nature. And violet, like a shadow. “There are certain raw materials or combinations that I have always been working on. Iris is one of those ingredients. I don’t know if there is a goal at the end I am trying to reach, but these are my scented references. My aesthetic.”
Every good perfume holds a dream of another perfume. Perhaps behind them all is one immortal perfume trying to be born. Con ned to Chanel alone, we have reflections of No 5, Cristalle and Coco Mademoiselle. And Gabrielle Chanel herself, as the Eaux are inspired by her life and career. A woman who dreamed of perfume is herself woven into fragrance. For a while I thought of Chanel as a woman who gave birth to a corporation, and perhaps that it is a little cold. Polge has given us a more sensitive image, her distant summers returning as attractive, sophisticated scents. And while it would be very arch to wear Venise in Venice and Deauville in Deauville, I am certain it will happen.
Text by Tony Marcus
Illustration by Stephen Doherty
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine Australia, out now.