Before There Was Coco Chanel, There Was Gabrielle

The “Coco” that Chanel mythologized is sophisticated, elegant, and a paragon of sartorial elegance. But the woman behind the legend, née Gabrielle Chanel, was free-spirited, rebellious, and determined to rise from her station in pursuit of the life she wanted. “I have chosen the person I have wanted to be and am,” she once proclaimed. If Gabrielle was the woman she was, Coco is the woman she became.

Her real name may not be synonymous with Chanel, but that’s all changed this year. The brand has been celebrating the fashion designer’s remarkable past by christening 2017 the “Year of Gabrielle.” In addition to introducing a collection of handbags bearing her name this past spring, the French fashion house launched Gabrielle Chanel Eau de Parfum this fall, its first fragrance pillar in 15 years since the debut of Chance in 2002.

The brand’s goal was to create an olfactive success that could go head-to-head with one of the most iconic fragrances in the world, which happens to be its very own Chanel No. 5. In-house master perfumer Olivier Polge—whose blood type may as well be interlocking Cs given that his father, Jacques Polge, was Chanel’s lead perfumer for 37 years—was tasked with the ambitious endeavor and given full creative reign.

Polge chose white flowers as the starting point for the scent. “I wanted to focus on what I felt was most important: this imaginary white flower, which is essentially a bouquet composed of four flowers: orange blossom, ylang-ylang, jasmine, and tuberose.” White florals weren’t just an homage to the brand, they were also a nod to Gabrielle’s rebellious spirit (having a strong and determined personality is something Polge has always associated with white flowers). “I dare hope she would have liked it,” he adds.

The perfumer took something old and added something new: “The fragrance is composed of flowers that are recurrent in Chanel fragrances, but their arrangement is new and makes room for more luminous tones.” The luminosity comes courtesy of mandarin peel, blackcurrant, and grapefruit notes.

Like all Chanel fragrances, the bottle is as important as the juice it holds. This is where head of packaging and graphic design, Sylvie Legastelois, comes in. While Legastelois didn’t receive a brief, she knew, having worked on Coco Noir and L’Eau No. 5, that Chanel would launch a new women’s fragrance one day.  “It was a part of my dream to create [a] new shape for this story,” shares Legastelois, who began working on this passion project in 2009, four years before Polge joined. Shortly after, the two worked in tandem so that their creations “could feed off of one another,” says Polge.

Legastelois wanted to capture the essence of the designer in the bottle. “That is why the design of the bottle is simple. It’s a square in a square: the label and the bottle. It’s very simple, but sophisticated at the same time.”

Giving the classic Chanel bottle a modern touch, she opted for a thin, lightweight glass instead of the weighted bottles prestige fragrances traditionally use to connote luxury. After all, the designer too was no stranger to breaking the rules. “Gabrielle Chanel always chose who she wanted to be. She worked free from the convention of her time,” she says. As for the colour of the bottle, Legastelois wanted to expand on the perfume’s story. “The colour of the juice was my inspiration for the colour of the cap, the label, and the sleeve,” she explains.

The end result is fragrance that faithfully represents the brand’s rich past and serves as an emblem for the present. It’s not unlike the face of the campaign, Chanel muse Kristen Stewart. The story of Coco Chanel may have been told countless times, but the story of Gabrielle is just beginning to unfold.

Gabrielle Chanel Eau de Parfum, $183 (100 ml).