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Culture Re-View: How Chanel No. 5 got its number

A bottle of Chanel No. 5
A bottle of Chanel No. 5 Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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5 May 1921: Coco Chanel launches her signature perfume


Ask any sample of the population to name a perfume, there’s one that will come to mind. Chanel No. 5. Unless you happen to be in a room of teenage boys, in which case they’ll probably say something like Lynx Africa.

For those lucky enough to not be in rooms with teenage boys, Chanel No. 5 is the perfume. Launched 102 years ago today, its iconic square bottle and citrusy floral notes are synonymous with a certain brand of high-class and seductive women.

The first perfume launched by Coco Chanel, its name might seem confusing. This wasn’t the fifth in line of Chanel’s first perfumes. Instead, the French couturier had always been drawn to the number five, including from the design of the paths in the orphanage she grew up in.

Supposedly, when Chanel was offered multiple prototypes for the debut scent, she picked the fifth vial. It was then only fitting that Chanel should release the new perfume on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year. And so it was, on this day in 1921, the first bottles of Chanel No. 5 were released to the public.

Still to this day, the Chanel fashion house will only ever debut collections on the fifth day of a month, in honour of its founder’s favourite number.

Part of what made No. 5 such a famous face in the perfume game was exactly that, it had a face. From Chanel herself appearing with it in Harper’s Bazaar in 1937, the scent has had many famous associates both in official adverts and through personal recommendation. Marilyn Monroe famously answered Life magazine’s question of “What do you wear to bed?” with just the name of the perfume. Celebrity ambassadors of the brand have included Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, and the current face, Marion Cotillard.

Nicole Kidman in an advert for No. 5-/AFP

While No. 5 is iconic, it’s also linked to the darker side of Chanel’s life. In 1924, she made a deal with two Jewish brothers, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer to create Parfums Chanel with the brothers handling production. This meant the brother had 70 per cent of the shares of the perfume.

Unhappy with such a limited share of the profits, when the Nazis rose to power, Chanel petitioned the Germans to seize the Wertheimers' business and pass it on to her. The Wertheimers survived the war and it was placed back in their control and although Chanel started legal action, it was eventually settled when she realised the bad publicity she could get from her wartime position.

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