When you discover the much awaited new fragrance for women by Chanel, Gabrielle Chanel, inhaling it first from the bottle's nozzle, you know its personality is going to play out in the nuances of the composition as a clear linkage to Coco Mademoiselle can be detected.
Chanel has made the choice of launching a standalone scent rather than advertizing it as a flanker. We'll try to understand why...
Let's step back for a moment. Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel turns out to be the most mainstream composition for women by the luxury brand, so much so that hard-discount German supermarket chain store Lidl zeroed in on it to copy it under the name Suddenly Madame Glamour in 2011.
The No.5 might still be the most legendary of Chanel fragrances, yet Lidl knows its practical-minded customer base and opted for a perfume of-and-in-the-city. Once upon a time, No.5 used to be distributed by vending machines, in squirts. It is however more natural today to turn to a Coco Mademoiselle redux for Lidl because it benefits from the bland and blending effect of smelling it on the working force. It is a Chanel perfume which has learned to leave pretense at the doors of the Parisian métro system, from a certain vantage point.
Now a Suddenly Madame Glamour by Lidl, the olfactive signature leaves the mainstream to go all out mass-market. What's more, blind consumer panels have expressed a definite preference for the Lidl version of the perfume over the Chanel one.
This is not the first time that this kind of blind test has proven detrimental to a luxury label. For instance, Old Spice has been highly rated in blind sniff tests. I myself once submitted a mass-market cologne for men composed by master-perfumer Olivier Cresp vs. a niche Tom Ford fragrance (they don't release perfumer names), and the first one won.
One could go on about the quality of mass-market perfumes benefiting from the economy of scale, but here is not the place. Besides, and let's now focus on that, Chanel is visibly trying to do the reverse with Gabrielle Chanel: reclaim the aura of luxury that should unambiguously emanate from a Chanel scent over a Lidl copy-cat.
To do so, they have turned to a time-tested method applied originally to the No.5 in the 1920s, i.e., source and include expensive natural ingredients, which competitors cannot afford as easily or not at all to purchase, as the fashion juggernaut, then hope and pray that the difference will be like a lesson in good manners and taste, which will be perceived by the discerning ones.
There is something inherently conventional about this approach. But luxury is not necessarily innovative. In fact, here at TSS, we tend to categorize so-called "luxury fragrances" as expensive yet classical, ideal versions of well-known formulae. Luxury is sometimes just about being better, not creative.
You are invited to know what a better Coco Mademoiselle smells like with Gabrielle, with the more indirect proposition implicitly included that you are actually invited to smell a better Suddenly Madame Glamour - because the latter was actually considered better-smelling than Coco Mademoiselle in blind tests.
Suddenly Madame Glamour is a faithful reproduction of Coco Mademoiselle, with a simplified signature, available for a fraction of the price of the original. Perfume prices are usually inflated by the costs of advertizing and packaging. This is why if you suppress these two aspects, which aim to glamorize the perfume, while sticking the word "Glamour" on a simple box and perfume bottle, you can still produce something which smells good, perhaps even better than a designer fragrance.
Where the move serves the mythological narrative of the house is that the "new" - or rather "transformed" - perfume is an opportunity to recount the rags-to-riches success story of Gabrielle. Take the hint.
The Chanel + Lidl PR snaffu is now not a fall into the abyss of the mass-market, but rather a way out of it to get to the top of the market, the luxury segment. A 100 ml flacon of Gabrielle Chanel is priced at 137€. The Lidl juice around 4€. Gabrielle Chanel always aimed for the best - and the best in the luxury world is expensive. In nature, air, water are the most precious of substances for human life and are not commodified to reflect that fact, fortunately. Yes, some people do sell air and even more people, water, or clean those elements, but snobbery is kept at low levels. Not so for perfume. You are taught to think that expensive means good. Good in fact cannot be cheap. But actually, yes, even in perfume land, a good scent can be cheap - and a bad scent expensive.
To go back to Gabrielle Chanel eau de parfum, this is a Coco Mademoiselle wearing a finer attire and sporting more selective floral essences to compose its floral bouquet of white flowers: jasmine, tuberose, orange blossom and ylang-ylang. The opening has a natural lychee-like, fruity facet. The deep end of the perfume lets out some precious powdery tones.
The composition by Olivier Polge has been designed to make an effect in the air around you rather than be bold and arresting. It is the more qualitative version of a familiar scent which has been furthermore studied to feel a bit indefinite so as to let your own skin express itself. Per Chanel's rhetorics, it is about not fitting in, being rebellious, unruly, that is, being yourself, like the brand founder. But here again, we are treated to a mass-market code: vagueness. This indefinite quality is sought after in this line of business because you want to reach out to most people.
Gabrielle Chanel eau de parfum smells of a luxury version of a popular designer fragrance while having learned a thing or two from its mass-market appeal identified by Lidl. Where we feel it's not a completely interesting socio-artistic experiment is in the fact that the upper-crust drydown is not substantive enough to claim real qualitative jump. Stepping back also from the perceived perfume logic of this launch, it feels that Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel deserved a more innovative jus under her maiden name. It is however a feel-good perfume.