Chanel Coco Noir (2012): Understated Complexity vs. Restraint & Elegance {Perfume Review & Musings}

1936 Chanel in Venice.jpg

Coco Noir is the latest feminine release by Chanel constituting a new chapter in the franchise which includes so far Coco (1984) and Coco Mademoiselle (2001). In-house nose Jacques Polge stressed that the perfume belongs to what he calls the "Coromandel culture" of Gabrielle Chanel's personal aesthetics, a concept he has been underlying since he visually isolated the complicated, Byzantine and heavily ornate taste of Chanel standing in stark contrast with her other predilection for pure, and even austere lines. You can read a fascinating chapter on Coco in Michael Edwards Perfume Legends explaning this more in detail. 

Her upbringing in a convent at Aubazine is generally credited as the source of her purest ideas of line and color, including her CC logo which has been compared to a sculptural motif carved out in the church at Aubazine as researchers have been scrutinizing that period of the fashion couturier's life more closely. Yet, at the other end, there are also her lacquered Chinese coromandel screens whose richness is obvious and profuse (yet still call attention to a neutral taste for color).

For Coco Noir, references are the Byzantine and Baroque arts of Venice, which Chanel visited at a key turning point in her life, following the accidental death of Boy Capel, the great love of her life. Perfumers Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake have thus attempted to weave the story and the composition of a perfume out of several threads found in Coco Chanel's biography, a device resorted to when the founder of  fashion house is no more and in order to perpetuate her or his legacy with renewed life... 


Jacques Polge notes also that the new interpretation for him is essentially characterized by its woody and musky base, in contrast with Coco which was defined by its spices and Coco Mademoiselle, by jasmine (even more so now than in the past, it seems). Each person can bring a measure of interpretative freedom to a fragrance. Coco was indeed a story of spices but also of balsams for us, to the point of feeling sticky-sweet. 

Coco Noir while containing the signature of the original Coco like a slightly faded photograph in the background can be seen to be a reaffirmation of the tradition of abstraction that is characteristic of the house since the birth of No.5, more so than about sensual textural variations.

You can tell from the beginnings that this is a composition designed to smell very good, in that indefinite way that eludes all clear real-world referencing. The feel is blended, abstract, worked and re-worked almost like a stretched guimauve to convey the sense of a light floral stole, airier than fur, yet rather substantial.

Perfumer Jacques Polge was, as it turns out, inspired by the idea of a Venetian textile and the technique of dyeing it in black describing"...the black velvet of a famous Venetian craftsman who dyed his cloth in successive layers to bring radiance out of the darkness..." The opposition of light and darkness is a guiding element in this composition although it is not really perceived. 

A single figurative note of narcissus dominates throughout the sensation of abstraction. The original accord of Coco can be felt in filigree  but it is sweeter and fruitier. Sharp white musks have been added to the mix as a youth accord and mainstream acceptance as they do not feel particularly inventive, but rather there like a note of the Zeitgeist. 

Knowing that perfumer Christopher Sheldrake worked on the composition together with perfumer Jacques Polge, you can cast some remaining doubt aside and assert more positively, that yes, indeed, there seems to be a link to Serge Lutens Bas de Soie in the treatment of the iris and hyacinth/narcissus accord, but it also reminds you of the slightly incongruous fruity tonality found in Jersey in Les Exclusifs series. The minerality of the patchouli note strikes you with its dusty, graphite-like connotations which would be enhanced by an incense note of Frankincense. 

As the perfume progresses in its development, the fruity facet becomes almost acidic and provokes a mouthwatering reflex  in you. Fleeting thoughts go in the direction of Acqua di Gioia. Top notes which attempt to capture the Venetian Tiepolo pink seems to rest on the more vivacious grapefruit and bergamot notes underscoring the pink of the rose essence and absolute. 

Coco Noir, before feeling noir, feels like a glorified cosmetics accord. The perfume smells of all things powdery and feminine like lipstick, face powder, traces of perfume on a handkerchief and, well, items of sophisticated femininity concealed in the bottom of a leather bag. One could almost hear the sound that a compact mirror makes when you shut it close. 

The darkness foretold by Chanel is not in the end so much black as dusky. It is more about that hour made famous in the history of perfumery by L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain, an in-between state of sensorial perception whose ambiguity is condusive to rêverie and has been fertile soil for the imagination of perfumers. It appeared in Bleu de Chanel as well. 

Slowly but surely, Coco Noir continues to be intent on smelling fabulous, like a woman can smell fabulous, rather than a perfume standing on its own as an oeuvre and detached from the woman who wears it. Purists will probably cringe at this type of composition which is mere pedestal to the allure of a woman. Coco Noir hints at the affinity of perfume with skin with enhanced apricoty nuances on a bed of amber. We meet again with the original Coco in this stickiness of the balsams and ambers, this near-syrupy sensation of a thick, spicy potion. The warm stewed-peach accord of J'Adore by Dior seems to come alive here too. 

But a new dewiness and lightness have been introduced, a watery sensation in the midst of Oriental languor. You are then reminded of Venice more figuratively at this precise point. But then, the inspiration here seems also to be the apricoty, ambery and powdery rose of Trésor. 

Coco Noir is at best a reaffirmation of the tradition of abstraction maintained at Chanel since the birth of No.5 and at worst, sins by an excess of self-effacement in what is supposed to be the lasting impression of a perfume: the drydown.

As Polge makes much of the drydown which he describes as extremely layered, one would have wished it felt the same as in Sycomore  from the Les Exclusifs collection - the higher-end library of perfumes at Chanel - which is masterful and endlessly surprising in this regard. While understated complexity is undeniable in the case of Coco Noir, it does not translate automatically into a lasting sillage, which one may regret that a leading house like Chanel is sort of feeling timid about.

Leading perfume houses ought to sense the influence they can have on sensibilities, and instead of folllowing mainstream, safe criteria, be bold, however discreetly. When you use the word "Baroque" to characterize a scent - and in reference to art history - you expect more unmitigated opulence and engagement with the materials instead of such restraint in the end that it may come across as shyness and self-effacement.

A difference with the supreme sense of restraint, as a sign of elegance, exercised in the Prada fragrances by perfumer Daniela Andrier is that there the thread is never let go of, however tenuous it becomes conveying an idea of relentless layering and precision, while in Coco Noir, one smells the sudden interruption of a complex evolution, like a vanishing. It is this important nuance which has to be kept in mind when evaluating the pair of values, restraint and elegance. You want to persist in your being, not dematerialize at one point. Coco Noir is characteristic enough and noticeable for some time and indeed very layered, but it does not imprint itself on your psyche. It is not either one of those miraculous perfumes that are so much present yet at times almost forgotten and yet always haunting. With Coco Noir, you will get an element of the signature of Chanel, the abstraction credo, but also perhaps an unnecessary impression of fleetingness where understated complexity felt so promising.

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