Chanel No 5 100th anniversary Factory 5 collection

The Chanel Factory

Tom D Morgan / Courtesy of Chanel

Isabella blow would clean her desk with it. Marilyn Monroe famously wore it – and nothing else – in bed. And Andy Warhol created nine screenprints of it that hung in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But what is it about Chanel No5 that transcends fragrance and fashion?

The instantly recognisable No5 bottle

Gabrielle Chanel (or Coco, as she was known) was a disrupter, and much like the boundary-pushing Dadaist and Surrealist movements of her day, her first perfume, which was launched a century ago this year, burst onto the scene and shook up the status quo. At that point in her career, Gabrielle was already a revered couturière and owned several boutiques in France. But it was No5’s golden elixir, crystalline bottle and minimalist logo that catalysed a cultural phenomenon and made her a global star.

The shower gel

Courtesy of Chanel

According to Justine Picardie in her biography Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, Gabrielle was introduced to perfumer Ernest Beaux by her Russian lover, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Beaux had been born in Russia and was a perfumer to the tsars; he had recently relocated to Grasse, the world centre of perfumery, in the South of France.

The body cream

Courtesy of Chanel

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Soliflores, a fragrance made up of a single floral note, was then the scent du jour, but Gabrielle wanted something more. As she once said: ‘In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.’ To that end, Gabrielle asked Beaux for ‘an artificial fragrance. I don’t want rose or lily-of-the-valley, I want a composed fragrance.’

The bath tablets

Courtesy of Chanel

The finished blend is ‘particularly rich and voluptuous, with a certain complexity’, says Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in-house perfumer, the fourth nose in the company’s history, who took over from his father, Jacques, in 2015. Chanel’s world-famous perfume is made up of 80 different scents, including Grasse jasmine, May rose, ylang ylang and neroli, but as no single note is identifiable, the blend is considered abstract. This abstraction comes partly from the addition of aldehydes, a chemical compound that Jacques Polge described as ‘a bit like putting lemon juice on strawberries’ in order to enhance their flavour. It’s also responsible for giving the perfume a sparkling, champagne-like fizz. And while aldehydes had been used before in fragrance, they’d never featured in such large quantities. It was this unconventional formula that gave the floral bouquet its modern edge – which it retains today.

The body oil

Courtesy of Chanel

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Mystery is another vital component of No5: there are so many stories surrounding its enigmatic inception. Some say that the use of aldehydes in such large amounts came about by a fateful accident – that Beaux (or his assistant) tipped too much of the aldehyde formula into the mixture by mistake. It has also been reported that Gabrielle concocted the fragrance herself in a lab when visiting Grasse to grieve the death of her lover Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel in 1919. Perhaps these tales are integral to the mystique and allure of the scent – a deliberate part of Gabrielle’s strategy. She was, after all, a gifted marketeer.

Gabrielle Chanel with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich


Some years later, Beaux gave his version of events: ‘Mademoiselle Chanel, who had a very fashionable couture house, asked me for some perfumes for it. I came to present my creations, two series: numbers 1-5 and 20-24. She chose a few, one of which was No5. “What should it be called?” I asked. Mademoiselle Chanel replied, “I’m presenting my dress collection on the fifth of May – fifth month of the year; let’s leave the name No5.” This number would bring her luck.’

The body lotion

Courtesy of Chanel

Choosing a number as the fragrance name was a break from tradition – as was the angular, flask-like bottle. It was typical then for perfume flacons to be highly ornate and for the name to be something poetic. But the move paid off in spades, as the simple numerical logo and minimalist bottle became a beacon of luxury, instantly recognisable in many cultures, and a status symbol to be proudly displayed on vanity tables all over the world.

The shower gel

Courtesy of Chanel

Coco Chanel’s other life

Part of the perfume’s aura of luxury stems from the richness of the ingredients. ‘In one little bottle of No5 parfum, there are over 1,000 flowers, which shows its opulence,’ explains Olivier. To be exact, one 30ml bottle of No5 contains 1,000 Grasse jasmine flowers and 12 May roses. These blooms are grown by Joseph Mul, the largest producer of flowers in Grasse; his family has supplied aromatic flowers to Chanel since the birth of No5. Now the Muls’ irises, jasmine, roses, tuberose and geraniums are exclusively grown for Chanel.

A giant robotic bottle of No5 appeared at Paris Fashion Week in 2013

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff / Getty Images

The Mul family have a stellar reputation in Grasse for the quality and fragrance of their flowers. They have farmed sustainably for generations, long before it was in vogue – no chemical fertiliser has ever been used to grow their crops. ‘We continue to improve our techniques to get the best out of our plants, without ever taking the risk of exhausting our land,’ explains Fabrice Bianchi, Joseph Mul’s son-in-law and protégé. ‘We aim to produce the most fragrant flowers and ensure the same quality in the future.’

The mystery box

Courtesy of Chanel

It is the combination of these thoughtfully grown flowers, the scent’s innovative debut and its glamorous, celebrity-filled history that has, over the past 100 years, cemented its position in pop culture and as a global symbol of prosperity. More simply, it’s also a beloved scent worn by generations of sophisticated women. ‘It is the fragrance of the emancipated woman,’ says Olivier, one of ‘femininity, elegance, refinement, a certain richness, and that element of mystery’.

Chanel No5 inspired the AW 2001 collection


For more about the 17-piece limited edition Factory 5 collection, visit

This is an edited version of an article originally published in the July issue

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