"Before me no one would have dared dress in black," Coco Chanel, who was nothing if not master of the grand soundbite, once said. Though the sweeping statement in question is not strictly speaking true, as Queen Victoria, not to mention the grandees of the 17th century Spanish court, might have argued, it is certainly impressive and they were long gone by the time she laid claim to it. Luckily, Chanel is referring specifically, of course, to the little black dress, launched in 1926.
The couturier, who favoured neutrals throughout her career, personally and professionally, did make black the fashionable colour to see and be seen in at all times.
Black is also the starting point of the company's new fragrance, Coco Noir. It is integral to the spectacular success of this, the mother of all French status labels, that all elements - from perfume to nail polish and, of course, any clothes - spring from the biography of the founder, however laterally. Coco Noir comes in a signature perfectly simple square bottle with rounded, faceted edges - only jet, and opaque as opposed to crystal clear like the iconic design of Chanel No 5, known not only for its beauty but also its radical simplicity. The gold details discreetly in evidence on the Coco Noir bottle, meanwhile, refer to Mademoiselle's fascination with the Byzantine and the Baroque and, specifically, her love of Venice: she first visited the city in 1920 to promote her beach pyjamas and generally soak up inspiration. That city was then still the principal gateway between East and West and the experience of going there lent her aesthetic a darker, richer and more elaborate style.
In Venice, Chanel met many of the people with whom she would collaborate, including Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, and the illustrator Christian Berard. If every fragrance begins with a story, then this is both a precious and romantic one.
The juice itself, created by Jacques Polge, Chanel's master perfumer since 1979, is rooted in similar concerns. As individual as a fragrance may be, Polge argues, it can "only exist because of those that came before it". Coco - debatably Coco Noir's exotic predecessor - was launched at the haute couture collections in July 1984 at the Paris Opera, where the scent of it filled the air.
At its heart are spices, evocative of the Orient and the coromandel screens that filled Chanel's Paris apartment. The original Coco is also distinguished by its floral-amber accord. Coco Mademoiselle followed in 2001, a fresher and lighter fragrance further infused with jasmine and rose. Coco Noir is based around sandalwood, vetiver, frankincense, patchouli, vanilla, tonka bean and white musk. It is a rich and complicated scent described by its maker as "a great nocturnal Baroque". Nonetheless - and this perhaps is key to all Polge's work - a lightness prevails thanks maybe to top notes of grapefruit and Calabrian bergamot, rose absolute, narcissus, jasmine, pink peppercorns and rose geranium leaf.
It is not every day that Chanel launches a new fragrance. Unlike many of fashion's big names that may now produce upwards of four new scents a year, the company affords Polge the luxury of time.
Coco Noir is the latest in a long line of olfactory endeavours that will serve to cement the reputation of French fashion's most spectacularly successful and magical name.
* Chanel Coco Noir Eau de Parfum spray $187-$280. To find your nearest stockist, ph 0800 957 352.
- The Independent