Olivier Polge is sitting in his glass-walled office in the penthouse of Chanel’s fragrance and beauty headquarters in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly. Before him, his father, Jacques, worked in this exact same place – he was head of Parfums Chanel for more than three decades and started here when his son was just four years of age. “I feel a lot of pressure,” Olivier Polge says, not surprisingly, but still smiling. Father Jacques (known as “le nez”) Polge was responsible for the creation of Egoiste, Coco and Coco Mademoiselle, Allure and Chance in all their incarnations not to mention the launch of the magnificent Les Exclusifs series. The list goes on and, given the often very short lifespan of so many of today’s fragrances, it says something of his unprecedented talent that all of these remain hugely successful. For his part, Olivier Polge is the perfumer behind Chance Eau Vive, Misia and Boy Les Exclusifs de Chanel, No5 L’Eau and now – and the reason for our meeting – Gabrielle Chanel, the first all-new worldwide fragrance launch courtesy of this storied house in 15 years.
“I don’t know how I became a perfumer,” Olivier Polge says now. His passions as a young man were for art history and classical music. “I grew up with my father, of course, then went through the age where you didn’t want to do what your parents do. And he didn’t want me to either.” Still, Olivier interned at Chanel Parfums during the summer holidays. “Then one night, I told him I would like to pursue it and asked him for his help.”
Jacques Polge was supportive of course. “But he was very wise. He didn’t teach me himself,” Olivier Polge says. “Instead, he sent me to other people to learn about the raw materials, to learn the first accords, the first rules. I studied for four years in Grasse and also for a short time in Switzerland. And then I worked for an American company for 16 years, first in New York and then back in Paris.”
His understatement belies his position as in-house perfumer at the most famous fashion, fragrance and beauty house in the world: the people who inhabit this magical place feel no need to shout about it. “Chanel is very special,” Olivier Polge will say, however. “And that goes beyond fragrance. When we create something we ensure all the craftsmanship and the know-how is behind us.”
Chanel is indeed unusual. The company began building up its fragrance business when Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel met Russian-born Ernest Beaux, perfumer to the nobility in that country, who, one summer evening in 1920, presented her with No5. She gave it to her most important clients for Christmas the following year and the rest is history. Chanel has created its own fragrances ever since.
“The flowers are never precise. They’re abstract” – Olivier Polge
Elsewhere, the vast majority of fashion houses look to maybe four or five companies that specialise in fragrance production and create their scents for them. International Flavors and Fragrances, the aforementioned American company where Olivier Polge cut his teeth, is one such (Givaudan and Firmenich are two more). The fragrance that started Olivier Polge’s career rolling there was Dior Homme but he was also responsible for the money-spinning phenomenon that is Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb. He has, therefore, quite a pedigree.
On his desk in front of him are the principle components that have gone into his latest work – probably his most important to date, Chanel’s new fragrance, Gabrielle Chanel, is inspired, as its name suggests, by the elegance, modernity and independent spirit of the woman who founded this fashion behemoth and who, long after her death in 1971, remains at its heart. “It’s a very floral fragrance,” Olivier Polge says. “The idea came from the fact that, in their diversity, in the end when you speak about Chanel fragrances, you always end up speaking about flowers. I don’t know if it’s correct to speak about codes but we have a very strong association with flowers, with No5, of course, and with all the other fragrances, they have that thread in common. That said, we didn’t really have a floral fragrance.”
For all of that, there is nothing literal about Gabrielle Chanel the fragrance. “The flowers are never precise. They’re abstract. And that’s true of this one as well,” Polge says. “It’s jasmine-like but it’s not only jasmine. It’s white flowers: jasmine, ylang ylang, orange flower and this time – because it’s not in our DNA – a little bit of tuberose.”
Olivier Polge is particularly motivated talking about the latter, the biggest and most blousy of the white flower family: there is a small amount of it in Chanel Les Exclusifs No22 and Gardenia but it does not have the delicacy of jasmine, say, or the sparkling quality of ylang ylang both of which are doubtless more readily associated with this name. “A few years ago, a supplier at Grasse talked to my father and wanted to sell us some tuberose bulbs. He hesitated [Jacques Polge himself once told me he wasn’t overly fond of tuberose] but in the end thought it was a pity to let such know-how come to nothing. Not all the ingredients we use are nice ingredients on their own. Tuberose is known in the garden for its scent but the tuberose most perfumers use is not that flower. It’s very green, waxy, almost leathery. Our goal, with these bulbs from Grasse, was to capture the actual flower.” And so they have. “It holds the creaminess of the jasmine, it brings a certain richness to the back.”
Just as Chanel’s fashion arm supports the artisans responsible for some of the most fêted handcraftsmanship in the world – it is well-known that the company owns Lesage, Lemarié, Goosens and many more specialist ateliers – so it works with its own flower fields in Grasse. “In the early 80s, the flower fields were becoming more and more sparse,” Olivier Polge explains. “So we made a partnership with a family in Grasse with whom we still work.” That family’s name is Mul. Joseph Mul inherited the land in question from his great grandfather. Chanel also sources raw materials in Italy “and a little bit in Egypt and now even India and China,” Polge says. Part of the skills of being a master perfumer is telling the origins of the materials in question. “I can tell the difference very easily,” Polge confirms. “This is my vocabulary. We all have our little tricks. For example, there is a slightly tea-like aspect to the jasmine from Grasse.” It is nothing if not romantic that, for No5, Ernest Beaux used that very flower. As indeed does Parfum Gabrielle Chanel.
The bottle in which the juice for the new fragrance is contained echoes the pioneering design for No5 also but it is softer somehow, just as the scent itself is lighter: blush over and above amber.
To surmise and in the words of its creator Parfum Gabrielle Chanel “is very fresh, very feminine. I would describe it as luminous, solar – radiant,” Olivier Polge says.
This article originally appeared in AnOther Magazine A/W17.