On the eve of the LA launch of Chanel No.5 L’Eau, its creator talks to Violet Grey about updating an icon.
Written by JACK SUNNUCKS
Photography by ANTHONY GOBLÉ
Name: Olivier Polge
Where to Find Him: Paris
Years in the Industry: 20+
First Fragrance Memory: His grandparents’ garden in southeastern France
Scent Essential: Iris: “It’s a strange scent, slightly violet-y and powdery”
Olivier Polge has always lived in a world where scent is of the utmost importance. Growing up in Grasse, the perfume capital of France, he watched his father, Jacques Polge, come home from work with vials of fragrance rather than a briefcase full of papers. “I always understood, it seemed normal to me,” he says. “But I realized later that it was quite a peculiar job.” The elder Polge occupied the position of head of perfume at Chanel for thirty years, creating such now-iconic fragrances as Egoiste, Coco, and Chance. In 2015, Olivier was appointed to the role, cementing the Polge family as perfume’s premier dynasty, the thought of which makes the immaculately suited Frenchman laugh quite a bit. “I’m glad to know that after two generations we’re already a dynasty—that’s pretty fast!”
Polge, as perhaps evidenced by this comment, has a shy, humorous demeanor—quick to smile and even quicker to laugh—that belies a very serious talent. As a teen he was intent on working in any field except fragrance, until an internship at Chanel changed his mind and he became fascinated with the library of scents at his father’s desk. “The first thing to learn is to differentiate between the different oils—bergamot, lemon, orange, vetiver, patchouli,” he says, reeling off the many notes he was set to memorize on his first day. “By going back every day to the scents and smelling them on little paper sticks, we try to create a map of different identities of scent.”
If as a young perfumer he created a map, Polge has now very much sailed off the edge of it, and to great acclaim. Before alighting at his current role, he was responsible for Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb and Balenciaga Florabotanica, both great commercial and critical successes. His start at Chanel was a little more muted, creating the subtle fragrance Misia for the House’s Les Exclusifs collection. Surprisingly, his next move was to give the iconic No.5 fragrance a refresh with Chanel No.5 L’Eau. “You have to tell new things; you have to keep things alive in a smart way,” he says of his desire to create a new play on the scent, which launched on the Chanel website this month. “L’Eau comes from this need. It’s important that once in a while you say something anchored in its time.” One would think it might be a scandale to tinker with the definitive fragrance, but Polge learned the 95-year-old scent had gone through many iterations since its creation in 1921, each differing ever so slightly in concentration. “When Ernest Beaux [Chanel’s first perfumer] created the different No.5 scents, some were more spicy, some more woody, but staying in the No.5 philosophy,” he notes. “It wasn’t until 1986 that my father did the Eau de Parfum, which is surprising,” as this has become a top seller for Chanel.
The key for Polge in creating his version was the spirit with which Coco had wanted her eponymous scent imbued. “Artificial,” is the word Polge uses, a surprise when you think of the excess of natural oils—jasmine, rose, and ylang-ylang—the fragrance comprises. “Her explanation was that when you make a dress, it’s artificial. She wanted to have a fragrance that wasn’t ‘natural,’ like those of the time; she wanted a bouquet. All the fragrances that we created afterward try to follow those rules. They’re always composed.”
Chanel No.5 L’Eau, then, is the latest addition to the House’s bouquet of fragrances. “I had in mind an Haute Cologne effect, all those citrus notes,” Polge says. “I stretched the floralcy, I tried to make it breathe more.” One of his innovations was distilling ylang-ylang, the flower not dissimilar to jasmine that sits at the heart of the scent, to bring out its green, fruity notes. The result, to paraphrase the language of Coco, is like a leafy bouquet that’s been thrown into a calm sea. Fresh green scents are interspersed with the richness of flowers and sharp, teasing citrus, and with a new, dryer cedarwood backnote. Says Polge simply: “It’s something alive.”
The Violet Files goes behind the scenes with Phoebe Tonkin as the actress gets ready for a night out with No.5 L’Eau.