Sarah Halliwell on Chanel’s Gabrielle Essence perfume and its heart of glass …
Luxury tends to tip the scales: we’ve always associated weightiness with being reassuringly expensive, from a hefty leather handbag to make-up compacts that feel heavy in your hand. Weights are added to lipstick bullets to make them more substantial. But now we’re seeing a new lightness take hold, for both aesthetic and environmental reasons.
Leading the charge in subverting this idea of weightiness is Chanel. In September 2017, its first entirely new fragrance in 15 years, Gabrielle Chanel eau de parfum, celebrated the most essential, stripped-back and purest elements of perfume – and that includes the bottle, a delicate object created with the thinnest glass ever used for a perfume bottle. In 2019, the bottle was filled with a new interpretation of the fragrance, Gabrielle Chanel Essence, a quartet of white flowers also composed by Chanel’s perfumer Olivier Polge together with the Chanel Laboratory of Fragrance Creation and Development.
The bottle’s designer, Sylvie Legastelois, is head of packaging and graphic design creation, and has worked for Chanel for more than 35 years. She is the company’s secret weapon – the creative powerhouse behind the endless procession of design innovations. Everything we’ve admired over the years, from the click-up Rouge Allure lipsticks (much copied, never bettered), twist-up travel sprays and that exquisite black Coco Noir bottle – they’re all down to Legastelois and her team.
The designer’s insistence on the finest possible glass for the Gabrielle bottle helps explain why the project took several years to complete. “Simplicity is a new form of luxury – a beautiful object can be simple. I wanted something simple, to give prominence to the fragrance. But simple does not always mean easy. It’s challenging: you have to guarantee the robustness of the product and also make it luxurious, a precious object.”
The bottle looks deceptively effortless, with its square label and cap, and bevels that converge in the centre to catch the play of light. Yet no other perfume bottle looks like this: when a bottle is made, the marloquette – the curved part of the glass at the bottom – is an intrinsic part of the process. “With the glassmaker, we found a way to push the glass out, so that the marloquette is outside. It became my obsession, to have something flat.” This was followed by endless tests to check the robustness of the delicate bottle. Legastelois is a perfectionist: “It’s always a question of details … tiny details.”
Going light brings new challenges, and ignites new ideas. In every perfume box you’ve ever opened, the interior sleeve is entirely throwaway and functional, but for Chanel, it’s beautiful as well as protective: the Gabrielle bottles (and No 5 L’Eau) are encased in an embossed sleeve. “Gabrielle Chanel said that elegance is when the inside it as beautiful as the outside – and also that luxury is as much about what you don’t see,” notes Legastelois, who was inspired by a box in Chanel’s apartment, given to Gabrielle by the Duke of Westminster: it’s silver on the outside, gold on the inside. “This sleeve helps emphasise the preciousness of the bottle inside.”
Even the colour of the perfume was considered from a design perspective. “Gabrielle’s solar quality was my inspiration for the colour of the scent – I wanted something simple and luminous, not a flashy gold. I was also inspired by haute couture embroidery and jewellery. It’s neither gold nor silver. At Chanel there is a strong link between the content and the container – I work in close collaboration with Olivier [Polge] and we feed off one another.”
For the original Gabrielle scent, Polge focused on two key flowers, orange and jasmine, to create an “imaginary flower” full of sunlight and freshness. “The orange flower is very sparkling, along with mandarin, bergamot and touch of blackcurrant,” the perfumer told us, “and then you go into the feminine side which has more depth, to discover the body of the fragrance, the jasmine. Everything that is around the flower is to enhance and hold the flowers; nothing is added as a contrast.” The result? Utterly pure and warmly feminine – a modern classic. Meanwhile, the more recent Gabrielle Chanel Essence, featuring Margot Robbie in its campaign, is even more opulent, with a focus on radiant tuberose from Grasse (from €99, at counters nationwide). “With Gabrielle Chanel Essence, I wanted to cut to the essentials, to the heart of the fragrance, and reaffirm it with a more voluptuous trail,” says Olivier Polge.
Even Chanel’s classic perfume bottles, including No5, are regularly reinvented, tweaked and modernised, in such a subtle way you notice only subliminally. “We’re constantly updating,” she says. “We don’t stop. Mademoiselle Chanel was always ahead and so we always want to surprise, and come up with unexpected things. I always look to see something new, things that are not obvious at first. You have to be a little bit curious.”
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