This story was originally published in 2011. It has been updated.
Next week, Chanel No. 5, one of the most iconic fragrances in the world, turns 90. A superstitious person, Coco Chanel planned for the new fragrance to be released on 5.5.1921. She believed “5” was her lucky number and she was proven right. It has been said that a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every thirty seconds somewhere in the world.
You may remember I am a huge fan of “Mademoiselle” and her remarkable career. Last December, while in Paris, I wrote a story about her.
This week, I had to work on an assignment for a travel writing class I am taking. Students were required to write a 250-word description of a location, an object, or a person. They were instructed to “avoid mundane adjectives, and [to] favor hyphenated adjectives, metaphors, analogies and anecdotes.” In addition, the piece was to include “plenty of sense information (not just visual).”
Well, mes amis, this is easier said than done.
Two days ago, as I was going through my desk drawer looking for a paper clip, I found an old picture of Coco Chanel. As soon as I looked at it, I knew I was going to write about “Mademoiselle.” For over two hours, I struggled over the short description, fine-tuning every word. When I was finished, I emailed it to my instructor. She replied that afternoon. I looked for her editorial comments in the margin where she often writes liberally. This time, I did not find corrections or suggestions. Instead, I read this paragraph, typed at the end of the story:
Nice choice of details to share and nice use of some authorial analysis of things like her pose in the photo. Great photo too, of course. This could easily be the placard to go with this photo in a museum.”
I confess this student felt very proud. If the piece was good enough for my demanding writing instructor, it will make a fitting tribute to Chanel No. 5. I hope you enjoy reading it. Madame Chanel, merci, once again, for inspiring another good story.
Joyeux Anniversaire, Chanel No 5!
In this old sepia picture taken by Richard Avedon at the end of her life, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) stands next to one of her models. Mademoiselle is well into her seventies, and in the later years of her impressive career, but she appears as elegant, determined and daring as ever. Defiant, the dark-haired, slender woman looks straight into the camera lens, the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from the corner of her thin mouth. In a casual pose, her left hand is perched on the young model’s shoulder, while her right hand is nonchalantly tucked into her skirt pocket. This is a manly pose, a sharp contrast with her chic and feminine outfit. She is wearing Chanel garb: Monochromatic palette, signature tweed suit, hat, pearls, and a few carefully selected accessories. Unusual and exceptional, as always, she carries herself with aplomb. This is Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, French icon, designer, business woman, rebel, trend-setter and survivor doing what she does best: Impersonating a tough cookie. She is savoring the moment. Is this a smile peeking on her perfectly made up lips? While looking at the faded picture, one can almost detect a whiff of Chanel No. 5, her eponymous best selling fragrance. The legend says she had instructed her associates to spray the perfume around her Paris office every morning before she arrived. What Mademoiselle wanted, Mademoiselle got. She once said: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” Mission accomplished, Madame Chanel.