It’s been three years now since Chanel launched its Les Exclusifs collection, a line dedicated both to preserving the house’s heritage – with four Ernest Beaux from the 1920s – and to pulling it into a contemporary style of perfumery which I think of as “materials-driven”. Thus, 28 La Pausa was a study of the iris that has infused classic Chanels, from Cuir de Russie to N°19, with its haughty elegance. Bel Respiro softened N°19’s resinous galbanum glint with grassy notes. Coromandel pared down and smoothed Coco’s opulent patchouli. The startlingly original N°18 teased out the crystalline glints of ambrette buried in Bois des Iles’s mouthwatering richness…
A tribute to aldehydic florals was considered and abandoned: Jacques Polge told me he could find no way to bring something new to a line that already featured N°22. The Eau de Cologne, he felt, was a nice addition – at the time, he asked me whether I thought he’d taken the right decision, which I did: it’s really one of the very loveliest colognes on the market, and I would swim in it in summertime.
31 rue Cambon is a little harder to peg in a collection that reprises and modernizes the Chanel codes, much like Karl Lagerfeld did by playing on the scale and shape of the double C, the quilted bag, the black-tipped shoes, the camellias, the chains and faux-pearl necklaces or the black braids on off-white tweed; by fractalizing Chanelitude until every one of his collections was imprinted with its signs.
Though two of the three launches that occurred during in-house perfumer Henri Robert’s tenure were chypres – Pour Monsieur and Cristalle, N°19 being perhaps a borderline case – it seems Gabrielle Chanel herself didn’t particularly like the genre. And 31 rue Cambon plays odd games with it. The scent is designated as a chypre despite the absence of oak moss; arguably, with its bergamot top note, delicate jasmine and amber heart and patchouli base, it does reprise the chypre structure, interpreted in what you could call Jacques Polge’s signature peachiness. Not peach as a note, but as a form: the soft fuzziness of the skin, the melting delicate fragrant flesh, and then a tough little kernel rasping against the teeth.
In 31 rue Cambon, iris and pepper act out that inner toughness that is part of the DNA of chypre, and certainly a trait of the Chanel character. The combination of the two notes conjures the smell of leather. The pepper itself – which Henri Robert, according to his nephew Guy Robert, classified with patchouli amongst the musty notes rather than as a spice – shoots the composition through with acrid, gunpowder facets. Hooked up on top with the pepper aspects of bergamot – pepper also has lemony facets – and at the base with patchouli through its camphoraceous and terpenic facets, the pepper note darkens the mellow blend, summoning the ghosts of bygone chypres…
In fact, it’s as though that ghost of a chypre were teasing my memory: when I wear 31 rue Cambon, I keep smelling hints of what cannot possibly be on my skin – a flash of Aromatics Elixir, a memory of Bandit, a quote of Mitsouko. 31 rue Cambon resembles none of these – its closest relative in the chypre family could possibly be the defunct and much meatier Que Sais-je? by Jean Patou.
This chypre haunting has set me thinking about the way we perceive fragrances. Suppose we smell bergamot in a fresh composition: bergamot summons Earl Grey tea, and hence, our brain summons the idea of a “tea” note from its olfactory library. This happened to me recently when I was smelling Déclaration Cologne with Mathilde Laurent. I thought it smelled like tea. Mathilde answered that I wasn’t the first to make the comment, but that there was no tea note in the blend, or anything that could create a tea accord. My brain, registering the bergamot, had simply conjured a tea illusion. Of course, it did help that the original formula – to which Mathilde essentially just added ginger – was Jean-Claude Ellena’s: olfactory illusionism is at the core of his method.
Similarly, by alluding to the codes of chypre without actually being one, 31 rue Cambon manages to wind its way into the family much more evocatively than any of the Narciso Rodriguez For Her type neo-chypres, and to add another chapter to the story.
Illustration: Coco Chanel in 1913 as seen by Karl Lagerfeld in the Paris-Moscou short feature.