A&E talks exclusively to Olivier Polge, Chanel’s In House Perfume Creator, on how the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel resonates in his latest fragrance, 1957.
As Chanel’s In House Perfumer Creator, Olivier Polge is tasked with preserving and developing the legacy of the iconic brand as a perfume house. A house that is centered around creating beauty and using timeless formulas to celebrate the legacy of its heritage and its founder Gabrielle Chanel.
For Polge this comes easily. He was just four years old when his father Jacques took over the role he now holds today, so fragrance has been in his life since he was a young boy growing up in the South of France.
But Polge had not originally planned to follow in his father’s footsteps. While studying art history he dreamt of creating with his hands. He was passionate about classical music and played the piano every day.
Polge decided to enrol on a course in creative arts, but during the summer before, he took on a placement at the Chanel Laboratory. Here he began assisting the teams behind Chanel’s iconic fragrances, weighing ingredients and studying the molecules that composed the formulas. He became fascinated by the ingredients and began to wonder if this was what he really wanted to do.
Soon after, Polge began training at Charabot in Grasse. He spent two years at the factory learning the basics of fragrance composition before he moved to New York with the International Flavors & Fragrances. He started to create his first fragrances and experienced great success.
Soon, Olivier decided it was time to go back to Paris where he was approached by Chanel who wanted to bring him back to the laboratories where it all began. Of course, he knew the house inside out and had the passion to try new formulas and compositions that hadn’t been done before. It was from here the journey began.
Olivier Polge is the nose behind some of Chanel’s most recent iconic fragrances, including Gabrielle Chanel which launched in 2017, Boy Chanel, Les Exclusifs De Chanel, No.5 L’Eau, and Misia – Les Exclusifs De Chanel Chance Eau Vive.
As we meet in Paris at the beginning of this year, Polge is preparing for the launch of his latest creation; 1957, a scent that represents the relationship between Gabrielle Chanel and America. It was a relationship that began with fashion in 1912 when a young Gabrielle Chanel’s hats were first distributed in New York department stores.
The relationship soon began to incorporate fragrance when Chanel No.5 launched in 1921, followed by the first make-up collection. “Americans buy all things luxurious, and the greatest luxury is fragrance,” said Gabrielle Chanel.
But why 1957? This was the year Gabrielle Chanel was hailed as the most influential designer of the 20th century. This was the year when America embraced her new designs when Paris did not. One magazine said: “At 71, Gabrielle Chanel is creating more than fashion: a revolution”.
The scent 1957 is the third of the Les Exclusifs De Chanel creations. It is designed to illustrate the mystery of simple Chanel style with a balance between creamy softness, enveloping comfort and light perfused with discreet power. “For each fragrance in Les Exclusifs collection we explore a path that has never been taken” explains Polge. This fragrance is composed from white musk and is, therefore, more unique than other scents to each individual’s skin.
This is perhaps why, when we meet Olivier Polge, he is so keen for me to try the fragrance on my skin before we begin to talk. “I like to show people the fragrance directly on the skin because it’s it differs from one skin to another and on top of that it is mostly made of musk and I think there is a very important interaction between this ingredient and the skin,” he says. So with 1957 filling the air of the room, we begin our interview to find out the true meaning and thought behind this new fragrance.
How were you able to interpret the story in a fragrance?
For me it had to be understood in a broad way. It started off with the interaction between Gabrielle Chanel and America. I think what caught my attention was an interesting link in America between cleanness and sensuality. There is a special taste for clean scents which for them is a sign of sensuality. This is a special point of view that really interests me. Today musks are very important in fragrance. They are often just one facet among others, and this was something that we didn’t have in our portfolio of exclusive fragrances already.
How do you set this fragrance apart from others?
The key notes are exclusively musks, which is different from all of our exclusive fragrances.
What is one ingredient that you love to work with?
There are many! I always say that I like iris. It is a beautiful ingredient. In perfume we use the root of iris which doesn’t smell when you bring it out of the soil, it has to dry for three years and it develops a very interesting scent which is floral, slightly woody and somehow powdery as well – it’s beautiful.
What do you think as a perfumer is your biggest challenge today?
I think there are many different challenges. The most important is to create beautiful scents. We are in the world of always thinking about something beautiful and different, as well as thinking about the environment.
What is your favourite scent?
One of my favourite scents is Chanel N˚19 – which is made from iris mostly.
What in your opinion, is the formula to creating a fragrance that has universal appeal?
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a universal scent. I like to think that there are different types of tastes. You can find Chanel everywhere in the world, but we always see that there are certain scents that have a better audiences in different regions.
How do you think the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel is translated through the fragrances today?
The legacy is huge. She is the person who brought together this world of perfume and fashion more than anyone else. Before her it was two very separate worlds and today we cannot differentiate them. I think that she is the one that understood that both worlds could participate from the same principal. The way you dress, the way you arrange yourself – fragrance is part of it and that’s because of her.
What does Chanel mean to you?
I think that there is no better perfumer than Chanel. I think it’s the best place to be in the world of perfume because we own our material completely.
What inspires you when you are developing a scent and the story that goes with it?
Perfume speaks directly to emotions and it creates emotion. What I like is that with a fragrance everyone can tell herself or himself a story. My sources of inspiration are of course the legacy of Chanel. Sometimes there are stories that evoke certain scents. Working for Chanel I think I will always have to think about flowers.
What makes a fragrance timeless?
A timeless fragrance has to be a fragrance that you never completely understand and in which you always find something new.
Is there an ingredient that you haven’t worked with yet or would love to explore more?
There are certain ingredients from which we have never been able to extract. Like Lily of the Valley, Gardenia, Freesia, and I think it’s a pity because they have incredible scents.
In one word how would you describe the fragrance 1957?
One word is not much! I would say enveloping. Or maybe soft – there is something soft about it that I like. I think this is a very intimate type of scent due to the musk, but also the other notes. There are contrasting spices that are dry and counter balance the more enveloping and soft part of the musk. Going with it are the woody notes.
What is a scent that you still aim to develop?
I like to work with leathery scents, they are interesting to build.
Tell me about your childhood with fragrance.
It was somehow always part of my home as my father was a perfumer. I think there were scents that I remember like the scent of my holiday when I went to South of France where my family was from. Those dry nature scents, I like very much.
What do you think of layering fragrances?
It’s such a debate. It’s a huge tradition but I don’t think I can advise as you never know how a scent will be worn. There are certain fragrances that are easier to layer than others, but there are some that are not meant to be layered at all as they are so complex on their own.
Where do you go when you want to clear your mind and get inspired?
I like cities. I like cultural things like art galleries, museums and concerts.
What are the most important things or the prerequisites when telling the story of this fragrance?
In this case I didn’t have many prerequisites. Chanel was renovating its main store in New York on 57th Street. This was a very important store to us and we had a fashion show there and I was asked to develop a fragrance.
How did the city of New York inspire you?
I was more inspired by this taste for clean scents of the Americans rather than the city itself.
What do you say ‘no’ to?
I say no to short term things and things that will not fit Chanel. I would say no to repeating myself all the time, I think that we should always do something new.
What do you think is your greatest achievement so far?
For me, the most important thing is to be able to continue my job and be passionate about it.
What was the last book you read?
I like music very much and I’m reading the biography of a French pianist.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Take your time. I started working very early and I think that you shouldn’t rush too much.
How does travel inspire you?
Very much so. You have to enrich yourself and see other beauties to help you realise the chance you have to be you are.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
Describe Chanel in one word.
How would you like the world to remember you?
With a good scent!
By Lara Mansour Sawaya