31, Rue Cambon is one of the six latest perfume creations by Chanel and part of Les Exclusifs collection comprising ten scents in all, including the re-editions (merely a change of packaging it seems) of the four classic Chanel boutique scents, namely Bois des Îles, Cuir de Russie, Gardénia, and no 22.
The Style of the Collection Les Exclusifs de Chanel
The six new additions, that is, Bel Respiro, 28 La Pausa, No 18, Coromandel, Eau de Cologne, and 31, Rue Cambon one can intuitively sub-divide into three groups within the more general minimalist aesthetic orientation of the line: Coromandel and 31, Rue Cambon are voluntarily, it seems, sketchier versions of classic complex perfumes whose charm rely in part on the attractive warmth of their jus. 28 La Pausa and No 18 are more temperate scents with modernistic accents and center on the particular showcasing of one main rare ingredient, iris and ambrette seed respectively. Finally, Bel Respiro and Eau de Cologne develop the theme of fresh perfumes.....
It is fitting that a Chanel collection of fragrances would take the concept of a "wardrobe of scents" quite literally by indirectly suggesting the passing of the seasons and the adaptability of Les Exclusifs to it like a wardrobe of clothes would. The style of the perfumes - because there is indeed a common style - is also very much indexed upon an olfactory interpretation of what Chanel couture means.
Each scent develops a different personal idea, albeit a bit intellectualized I find, while paying respectful homage to the house and to its history.What I mean by "intellectualized" is that one understands the intent, the conceptual idea behind the perfume better than one ends up being wowed by the result, in my case at least. One should not expect complete independent creativity in this case (that is the exception rather than the rule in perfumery anyway) as it is clearly the in-house perfumer's job also to prolong the house's brand image into its perfumes. Jacques Polge has revealed in different interviews that he absolutely looks for clues in the history of the house. For example, he stressed in a recent article in Le Figaro that there was added meaning to his use of ambrette seed in No 18 as it is an ingredient that is found in both Bois des Iles and Egoïste, except that in No 18, the dosage was amplified.
The stories behind the perfumes also revolve around the personality of Coco Chanel and the different places in which she lived so that Jacques Polge looked for different biographical clues to aid his inspiration. Given these constraints, Les Exclusifs reflect how perfumery can be an exercise in humility and good listening. Therefore, one should not make the initial mistake I made which was to think that the perfumes were created with regard to the history of perfumery and the place of these new concoctions in it (the hype went in that direction). The project is far less ambitious than that. It has more to do with the history of a particular house and its relationship with other houses.
The element of competitivity with Hermès is quite palpable, I think. The niche-within-a-luxury-brand approach has paid off very well for Hermès with its Hermessences line bringing a new dynamic to the design line as well as can be seen with Terre d'Hermès and Un Jardin Sur Le Nil.
The relative minimalism of the Chanel line seems doubly justified by both the Chanel credo of elegant simplicity (allied with contrasting baroque accessories) and the cue taken from Jean-Claude Elléna's examplary definition of the niche-within-luxury-brand approach and his second-period "épuré" style in general.
31, Rue Cambon
The perfume is named after Chanel's main boutique and the day-time appartment above it that Gabrielle Chanel used (she really lived at the Ritz) and which is currently preserved like a shrine to the grande mademoiselle famously decorated in brown hues and showing the couturier's contrasting taste for baroque forms. Jacques Polge according to Perfume Legends by Michael Edwards already created the perfume Coco by seeking inspiration in that appartment. The result with 31, Rue Cambon is more intellectualized as I already said, than with Coco and more clearly shows Polge's perception of a contrast between Chanel's taste for pure lines influenced by her education in a convent which ultimately gave us the little black dress inspired by the nuns' robes, and her more bourgeois taste for rich baroque textures and forms. Similarly, 31, Rue Cambon offers a seemingly rich amberey content and classic chypre/oriental orientation, yet the way it is composed evokes a simplification of that idea.
The perfume is now noted for being an attempt at creating an alternative chypre like Chypre Rouge by Serge Lutens. Critic Luca Turin reported in NZZ Folio that the classic oakmoss base was replaced by an iris-pepper accord. The iris is perceptible, more so than the patchouli to my nose, but Polge himself recently explained in an article in Le Figaro that he used a variety of patchouli to substitute for the oakmoss whose aroma he dislikes as being overly bitter in his view.
The result is a light to medium-bodied amberey and woodsy concoction with a marked bergamot projection for the chypre effect and a paler more muted undercurrent of iris running through it. At the beginning there is a soft sweetish herbaceous note. The amberey base is sweet and lightly aromatic and spicy. The piquancy suggests cinnamon, pepper and sandalwood. There might be some sweet fresh lavender and orange in it. It reminds me of the typical quality of the sweet spicy amber accord one finds in Parfum Sacré by Caron and in Maharanih by Parfums de Nicolaï. The drydown reveals more of the patchouli and reminds me of the Hermit perfume from the Thierry Mugler coffret. Narcissus is also perceptible in the longer drydown like in 28 La Pausa which reinforces my previous impression that a common amberey base, with some alterations, was used in several of the perfumes. It ends up smelling good and "tasteful" with all the possible inherent conservatism that the term implies.
The perfume is elegant but does not have a very marked personality. I think of it as a sophisticated toilet water that is a bit indefinite, a bit subservient to its function. If anything at all, it reminds me of the pleasant mix of aromas one experiences at the end of a good French meal accompanied by wines and good (perfumed) company. It feels more like a fashion accessory than a full-fledged creation. Perhaps in the end it is a bit too conservative and moderate for my taste aside from the fact that 31, Rue Cambon like the other perfumes in the line are less original than one could have expected after having read Jacques Polge's description of his perfumes in WWD: "Above all, we tried to do fragrances which are very different from one another and very different from what is currently offered in the market."
Added: I have noticed that the scents smell better when covered by clothing, which would make sense if one uses them as real toilet waters to be quite lavishly applied onto the body.
You can read my initial overview of Les Exclusifs here
Photo by The Scented Salamander