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Le Monstre: Let’s talk about Chanel No. 5

chanelno5I wanted to understand Chanel No. 5 for the same reason I wanted to understand Shalimar. Maybe it’s intellectual curiosity, maybe it’s a desire to fit in, maybe it’s just bullheaded competitiveness, but if everyone else loves something, I want to understand why – even if I don’t love it too.

Just like with Shalimar, once I “got it”, I fell in love too. I didn’t need to, but I did.

Chanel No. 5 isn’t difficult to wear. (I do think Shalimar can be, and so many people get “vomit” from that roller coaster switchover from lemon and bergamot to vanilla.) Chanel No. 5 has no tough spots, and I suspect that’s part of the reason for its success.

Because Chanel No. 5 also isn’t boring. Just like books for people who read for fun but don’t want to wade through boring ones, Chanel No. 5 offers enough gentle twists and turns to keep you involved, but doesn’t demand all your attention.

Its claim to fame is the aldehydes – aldehydes, aldehydes – and that was its original originalness, of course. Let’s overdose the top of the perfume with aldehydes, those bubbly bright champagne molecules that read as “clean” or “effervescent” to so many people, and lead into a floral blend, rather than a soliflore, from there.

The aldehydes aren’t the part I love, though. I have nothing against aldehydes; I just don’t adore them. And I’m not sure any perfume can live for a hundred years on the reputation of its top notes.

That opening is what made people for the first time enjoy the smell of “clean and fresh”. If you’ve read The Secret History of Chanel No. 5, you know that author attributes the passion for fresh cleanness to Coco’s time in an orphanage, where the nuns kept things and people clean with a firm nun hand. That was indeed a big change in 1921, when frankly most clothes didn’t get washed that often (and perhaps many people didn’t either).

So let’s start laying blame for the modern passion for “clean” smells at Coco’s feet where it belongs.

But that’s not the reason I love to wear Chanel No. 5. I love the heart of perfectly intertwined rose and jasmine. That’s what I mostly smell when I wear it, and it is to me the epitome of what a floral perfume should be: as if you had a bouquet of gorgeous fresh flowers near you, but not suffocating you; as if a waft of spring air had brought you the scent of something real.

They’re not photorealistic flowers – at least they shouldn’t be. This is a scent that isn’t made with chemical molecule isolation, even when it isn’t loaded with natural ingredients. I do like the natural ingredient versions, though. I came to terms with Chanel No. 5, like I did with Shalimar, by smelling the vintage versions, and my all-time favorite is vintage parfum.

Fortunately it’s one of the easiest things in the world to get, as countless women over the decades have bought but not worn their Chanel No. 5, as if the having was the enjoyment (sad, to me, but if it made them happy, so be it!). Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to get in perfect condition, as those damn aldehydes tend to go off. In fact I think Chanel No. 5’s reputation has been sullied a bit over the decades as thousands if not millions of women have smelled their mother’s No. 5 and found it sour and a bit musty, and have decided to wear something else.

I think this is one of the reasons people sometimes feel that Chanel No. 5’s reputation is overblown, or that their mothers and grandmothers had radically different tastes in perfume than they themselves have. Old bottles of No. 5 are everywhere, and many of them are not good. If you purely hate Chanel No. 5 but like the idea of Chanel No. 5, I’d encourage you to keep sniffing.

If you’re interested in the vintage, here’s my recipe for finding bottles that I, at least, love: they must be absolutely sealed and protected from light. Ideally, the juice should have the faaaaaaaaintest green tint. You see it in fresher bottles, even today. That green tint is what goes away first, especially with exposure to light. And the browner your No. 5 is, the less it is going to be delectable. If it is any darker than the lightest golden brown maple syrup, I suspect you won’t have a super-great experience with it either.

Fortunately there are some solutions for this. Find the vintage parfum – or wear Eau Première.

This is one of those cases where I feel the reformulation, forthrightly labeled and sold as such (it is Eau Première, not the classic itself), has done a great service to the brand. I love wearing Chanel No. 5 Eau Première. It’s light, it’s beautiful, it’s always appropriate, and it is enough like classic No. 5 to make me happy without any of the downsides of most bottles of vintage No. 5.

(You can of course also still buy Chanel No. 5, in EDT, EDP, and parfum strength. Let me know how you find them! EDTs are usually too light for me; I just don’t find the deep floral heart in the modern EDP or parfum, though paradoxically for me the Eau Premiere scratches that itch. I should try these again…)

chanelVintageAdAnd then this is the thing that makes Le Monstre great; after that beautiful, tender, understated and yet unshy floral heart, there is a touch of vanilla to the drydown, which is composed of a woody base that is far lighter and drier than any other classical perfume.

I think its gorgeous essence is this base, which is so seldom written about. There is creamy sandalwood in it, but also dry-as-air vetiver, and the gossamer touch of a vanilla that is giving its unique floral-delicious scent without ever feeling like a food ingredient. At least this is what I smell. The drydown of Chanel No. 5 is not cuddly, never sweet, and the farthest thing from heavy; yet it is somehow elegant and comforting. It is the exact olfactory equivalent of a cashmere wrap, and I love it for being itself.

In the vintage ad, the woman is looking at No. 5 floating in the air over her. It’s not heavy enough to be affected by gravity. It’s not a mythical image of something unattainable, though. It’s really right there; if you reach for it, you can have it.


Images are promotional images of Chanel No. 5, new and old.

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2 comments to Le Monstre: Let’s talk about Chanel No. 5

  • I keep coming back to No 5 – I tried it in all possible versions, including vintage ones – but still No. I do not mind smelling it on others (and it smells much better for my nose than Shalimar or Mitsouko) but as of now I’m still not sure I would wear it even if it were the last perfume available in the World… Ok, maybe if it were the last one with no hope for anything else ever, I would.

What do you think?