From poverty to shopgirl. From cafe singer to international fashion mogul. The life of Gabrielle "Coco" Bonheur Chanel was one of so many facets, that it can make one dizzy to think about. She is a true rags-to-riches story, spending periods in her life in a convent, as a socialite, a spy, and the queen of a fashion empire that has reigned for over a century.
Coco Chanel, 1960
While there are many iconic styles and fashion staples associated with Coco Chanel, from the "little black dress" to costume jewelry, one of the most well-known across the world is the Chanel No. 5 fragrance. Oddly enough, this global icon also debuted on May 5th of 1921. So, while you're celebrating Cinco de Mayo, indulging in some Mexican-American culture, don't forget to spare a thought for the Europeans.
The legend of No. 5
On May 5th, 1921, Coco Chanel's boutique on the Rue Cambon in Paris debuted a perfume that would become a legend. The scent revolutionized the perfume industry overnight, and has been one of the most popular in the world for over a century. But where did it come from? The truth, as we'll see, may forever be lost in the legend, though some facts are known.
Known as well for her romances as her brand, Coco Chanel and an exiled Russian nobleman are the lynchpins of the Chanel No. 5 story. While vacationing in Southern France with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who was living in exile from Russia, Chanel chanced to meet the perfumer Ernest Beaux. It was through this meeting that she began work on the fragrance that would bear her name through history.
According to legend, Chanel challenged the perfumer to create a scent that would "smell like a woman, not like a rose." Here the details become murky, as the exact mixture of the perfume is a carefully kept secret. It is believed, though, that either Beaux or his assistant accidentally added an excess of aldehyes - chemicals that helped a scent last longer, but were used sparingly at the time - to one of the samples prepared for Chanel.
It's unclear why this particular scent went on to become the iconic fragrance, but many suppositions have been put forth. The aldehydes reminded her of soap, like her mother's laundry. She picked the fifth sample due to her obsession with the number five. Regardless of the real reason, Chanel later stated that it "was what I was waiting for...a woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman."
The concoction would debut as Chanel No. 5 on the 5th day of the 5th month of 1921. The rest, as they say, is history.