Design Moment: Chanel No 5, 1921

When Coco Chanel was creating her iconic fragrance, five was the magic number

Coco Chanel: At a time when perfume bottles were ornate and art deco-inspired, hers was pared back and simple. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Coco Chanel: At a time when perfume bottles were ornate and art deco-inspired, hers was pared back and simple. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Modern marketers would call the design of the Chanel No 5 bottle “on brand”, so closely does it reflect the designer’s aesthetic. In 1921 when Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel asked Ernest Beaux to design a fragrance for her, she was already a famous fashion designer, known for simple, liberating modern shapes and fabrics. Beaux presented her with a choice of fragrances, numbered from one to five and 20 to 24. She picked No 5 and the first bottles were made of crystal, to be replaced in the mid-1920s by thicker glass so the fragrance could be transported abroad.

At a time when perfume bottles were ornate and art deco-inspired, hers was pared back and simple: glass with a square profile, faceted corners and an oversized wedge stopper with a minimalist black-and-white label. The bottle’s “invisibility” – a very modernist approach to design – let the amber liquid inside be on full view. With little documentary evidence, myths have grown up as to its inspiration, ranging from a whiskey flask owned by one of her lovers to a laboratory bottle or even the austere surroundings of her upbringing as an orphan in the Cistercian convent at Aubazine. While it is the world’s most famous, most successful perfume, its bottle – always the centre of its movie-quality advertisements – is easier to recall and more instantly recognisable than its scent.

Chanel
Chanel No 5