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When Gabrielle Chanel created N°5 exactly one hundred years ago, the fragrance world was fat, mostly filled with one-note perfumes. Women smelled like either a fresh daisy or a delicate peony, but not both. So, in 1921, when the fashion designer decided to dream up an intoxicatingly feminine fragrance that swirled with many mysteries, she broke barriers— and not just in olfactory production, but in object design, marketing, and more.
As the first designer to launch a fragrance under her own name, Mademoiselle Chanel was multidimensional. For N°5, she decided to mirror her dynamic personality and shock the world with a fragrance that was impossible to associate with any one flower. Instead, she intended to liberate femininity from fragrance constraints and deliver an avant-garde composition from her first perfumer, Ernest Beaux.
Together, they pioneered a new concoction of both natural ingredients and synthetic molecules called aldehydes, which were new at the time. The perfumers who have succeeded Beaux—Henri Robert, Jacques Polge, and now Olivier Polge—inherited the duty of protecting the iconic fragrance and the quality of its materials. Over the years, the revolutionary fragrance has only undergone five olfactory interpretations: its first in 1921, and in 1924, 1986, 2008, and 2016.
At the height of her celebrity, in 1937, Gabrielle Chanel also became the first woman to star as the face of her own fragrance through a portrait captured by François Kollar, first appearing in Harper’s Bazaar. The unforgettable image of her leaning against a fireplace in a suite at the Ritz Paris, next to her iconic folding screens and adorned in black lace and dainty accessories, showcased her exactly as she was—an icon of femininity.
Other famous faces that have appeared in following campaigns exemplified the timeless, multidimensional spirit of N°5, including Marilyn Monroe, photographed by Bob Beerman in 1953; Ali MacGraw, shot by Jérôme Ducrot in 1966; Lauren Hutton in 1968 and Catherine Deneuve in 1972, both captured by Richard Avedon; Carole Bouquet, snapped in 1987 by Michel Comte; Nicole Kidman, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier in 2006; and Marion Cotillard, shot by Steven Meisel in 2020.
In the past century, Chanel has expanded to a multi-department maison, specializing in couture fashion, accessories, jewelry, watches, beauty goods, and more. This year, to symbolize one hundred years of N°5 expertise, the brand has released new items and limited-edition renditions of past products. Over the summer, Chanel Factory 5 came first, releasing 17 new limited-edition items that brought packaging back to factory designs. Playful workstations online and several across the globe gave patrons a peek at what a modern-day factory would look like, immersing them in a luxurious setting of fragrance and unstoppable creativity. Body creams, bath tablets, body oils, shower gels, and body lotion all are contained in simple white exteriors, returning to their very first packaging.
“By taking popular consumer items out of their context and dressing them up in the aesthetics of N°5, we return to Chanel’s first creative gesture: that of transforming a functional object into a desirable luxury item,” Thomas du Pré de Saint-Maur, Chanel’s head of global creative resources fragrance and beauty, said of the unveiling. “That’s what Chanel Factory 5 is all about: offering the experience of luxury in everyday life.”
In September and October, the house unveiled several more holiday items and collections to coincide with the centennial, including the N°5 Calendar, the N°5 Eau de Parfum and Eau de Toilette Collector’s Edition, the N°5 Parfum Baccarat Grand Extrait, and the N°5 Holiday Makeup Collection. And this winter, as N°5’s limitless spirit continues to embody freedom, sophistication, and the ability to reinvent oneself, the world will be waiting for what’s next.