The bestselling author of The Widow Clicquot (2008) turns her attention to the world’s most iconic perfume and the fascinating woman behind it.
Much has already been written about Coco Chanel, and with good reason—not only because of her undeniable legacy, but also because of a life story usually viewed through the lens of 19th-century bildungsroman novels. Abandoned by her parents to a convent, she was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, a mistress to the French aristocracy and an acquaintance of ruined Russian royalty—all while building the greatest fashion empire in the world. Chanel No. 5, her signature fragrance, was only a tiny part of this remarkable life. However, in the skilled hands of cultural historian Mazzeo (English/Colby Coll.), it becomes a magnificent window through which to understand her and her milieu. The author argues that the scent was the crown of Chanel’s career and that it weaves together many of the obscure pieces of her life in an intriguing way—from the passion for cleanliness that she inherited from the nuns that raised her to the seductive musks she picked up in the dressing rooms as a burlesque dancer to the almost forgotten Moscow perfumer that she learned about from a lover exiled on the Riviera. Chanel No. 5, “the scent of beautiful extravagance,” is also a perfect example of Chanel’s remarkable business sense. In explaining how decisions like using a simple apothecary bottle in place of a more ornate design or giving out samples to friends at a pre-launch party paved the road for the perfume’s market dominance, Mazzeo illuminates the greater success of the Chanel line as a whole.
Impeccable research and crafting make a seemingly narrow topic feel infinitely important.