THE CREATIVE CHALLENGE OF CHANEL. Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur is head of Global Creative Resources for Chanel Fragrance, Beauty, Watches and Jewelry. In 2021 the world’s most famous perfume, CHANEL N°5, is 100 years old.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, how did Chanel Factory 5 come about?
We had to decide how to celebrate the 100 year history of the great success of CHANEL N°5, a product that is still fresh, desirable and of its time so I did not want to do a historical celebration. We got inspiration from the original creative gesture of N°5. The origin of the CHANEL N°5 bottle was a lab sample bottle. “Coco” Chanel never had a project of doing something hyper luxury with the scent container; it was a commodity container that became a luxury product. Warhol went outside of art to create art, and CHANEL N°5 crossed Warhol’s path a few times, so in a very organic way we came up with the idea for Factory 5.
What is Factory 5?
It is a collection of 17 products that come from mass market or commodity packaging design but dressed in CHANEL N°5 graphic codes. Inside they contain CHANEL N°5 body product formulas. We wanted to see if, by taking a very simple product and mixing that with the CHANEL N°5 graphic vocabulary you come to something that has design relevance, is contemporary and accessible. Any product can become famous when you cross the path of CHANEL N°5, even the most unexpected.
Why has CHANEL N°5 been the most famous perfume in the world for 100 years?
My job is asking that question every day. Chanel has a vision for women, that everything that diverts them from their thoughts and desires is detrimental. The product was born by taking away any narrative or conceptual idea. This was unique, because at that time all fragrances had very chichi names and complicated bottles. It was just a number and a simple square bottle. The only thing that counts is the way you actually experience it.
“I say without any pretension that for me, Chanel is the most modern luxury brand.”
An Exhibition on N°5 in Shanghai, created in France yet inspiring all over the world.
Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, one of the most famous users of CHANEL N°5 was Marilyn Monroe. How is the fragrance special?
“Coco” Chanel would have hated you to tell her “you smell of rose or you smell of jasmine”, because she hated the idea that a woman would just be the display of social expediency or of a fantasied image of femininity, such as for instance, women are poetic and fragile so their fragrance should reflect it…. CHANEL N°5 is a rose and flower fragrance, but her genius was to make the fragrance totally abstract. There’s no way you can tell what it smells of. She took everything out that could become the beginning of a narrative story. That’s her genius. She did it in a way that nobody had done. That’s part of the magic CHANEL N°5. The other magic is that it crossed the path of incredible celebrities like Marilyn, who said, “I only wear 5 drops of Chanel N°5 and nothing else when I sleep.” I guess because it smells good, but also because in a way she felt dressed wearing Number 5.
Once women find their own scent do they keep on using it?
I think loyalty is a big fantasy that we would like for commercial reasons, and for the vanity of thinking that once a woman or a man has found their fragrance, that’s the epiphany. The reality is that they keep one, but also can’t help looking for other fragrances.
What is the relationship between accessories and perfumes and fashion? Which is driving which?
Even if we are a global luxury brand in fashion, beauty, watches and jewelry, our creative powerhouse is fashion. Fashion drives everything. What is different for us is that we don’t consider fragrance as a derivative product, even if the central part is fashion in terms of lead. The vision of Chanel is strong enough to infuse every category of product without having one derived from another. Our fragrances are not derived from fashion, they’re derived from Chanel.
What is the spirit of Chanel today, why is it still so successful?
One thing unique to Chanel is the story of Gabrielle Chanel. Her destiny, if I can say. An orphan, abandoned when she was still a kid, a woman that took a grip of her life and became autonomous, free, a business woman. That story of emancipation is super attractive today for all generations.
What is l’esprit français?
A free order, a formal structure, and a great spontaneity. There is always that idea about accepting the rule to find your own freedom. This is very true, and you find it in a lot of fields that express this esprit français. For instance, in gastronomy, in classic dramaturgy, in architecture, in fashion.
“It’s necessary to be highly coded to be recognized by a large and increasingly international audience”
Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, when did you launch Factory 5?
It was supposed to be May 5th because the legend is that CHANEL N°5 was chosen on May 5th. We believe the legend, but we did it just at the end of June because it was pretty much the first moment when we could do it. It was a challenge to do a celebration in 2021.
How long does it take to prepare something like Factory 5?
Factory 5 took nearly two years. The product design was a long process, because we always reach for great luxury design but it’s also an industrial design. When we did Factory 5 we knew we would have to produce large quantities of products, not just a few edited pieces. That makes the creative process complicated and stimulating. We have to accept the industrial constraints of a commodity product while still trying to push the envelope. I find that remarkably exciting.
How did the launch go?
Extraordinarily well. We launched it everywhere and the great thing about social media is that it allows you to contact millions of people almost simultaneously. Then, of course, it gives a voice to millions of people. In the first few hours we had a few really surprised loyal on-line followers that found the collection horrible. I read a comment on Instagram of somebody recommending firing the creative director of this initiative!! At the end it was a great success because people did not expect it.
Chanel packaging is always black and white with the two Cs and this has existed since ever. Have you changed anything?
We certainly evolve. There is always cosmetic work on packaging, changing the size of the bottle stopper, the type font changes a bit, but yes the black and white has always been there. The CC has been there from 1924. Part of the magic of Chanel is that we created codes. A lot of brands have, but the idea that it’s necessary to be highly coded to be recognized by a large and increasingly international audience is something that Chanel really was the first to master and hammer.
Are there men who wear N°5?
When we did the Brad Pitt campaign I went to a restaurant and somebody told me Oh my God, you launched N°5 for men. But even if they saw Brad Pitt it was an ad for women, for N°5. Some men do wear it, because it’s not flowery. It’s actually quite sexy on men.
What is your job?
I’m the head of the Art Direction for Chanel fragrances, beauty, watches and jewelry. So advertising campaigns, social media content, digital platforms, print editions, events, visual merchandising. And specifically for Fragrance and Beauty product design and store design.
You lead all that?
Yes, which is fun. It’s like being an orchestra conductor. My job is always to think about who is the right talent for telling the story of CHANEL N°5 today or for the scenography of an event. It’s always about trying to reach out and understand who will translate what I want to do in the best way. I also make sure that all these instruments of music play in time globally – because we always have several initiatives at the same time, a launch of this, of that – it has to sound like a symphony and make sense.
Gabrielle Chanel in a campaign for CHANEL N°5, by François Kollar, Harper’s Bazaar, USA, 1937.
Marilyn, Bob Beerman, 1953, Los Angeles, USA.
Carole Bouquet photographed by Michel Comte for CHANEL N°5 advertising campaign of 1987.
Chanel Factory 5 collection
Chanel Factory 5 collection
“Any product can become famous when you cross the path of CHANEL N°5, even the most unexpected.”
Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, how do you inform yourself of new trends and ideas?
Stories, universes and also images come to me mostly from literature. I’ve always felt that books are more stimulating than anything else because you have to fill up what you read in your own imagination. For “trends”, although I don’t like that word, because “trends” are just the step before banality, you have many ways of detecting them. Keeping your eyes and ears open in the physical and digital world. Just being curious of what is happening there.
Despite a lot of progress and a lot of new technology, ultimately there’s no age. You’re not going to change your black and white packaging to green, are you?
People turn towards brands that are of durability and resilience. The only tricky thing I need to make sure of is that we don’t become the safe and boring choice. There’s always a moment in dealing and managing a classical brand about making sure that you keep yourself surprising and unexpected.
Are your clients now young people and women, who have a lot more money these days, whereas before it was rich older men and collectors?
Globalization and society evolution have changed a lot of things. I find it very rewarding that women just go and buy for themselves, with their own money. The woman being just the physical display of her husband’s bank account certainly still exists, but we see the new generation dealing more on their own terms, making their own choices. For younger generations, at some point pivoting to a brand like Chanel is a moment of self-assumed maturity, which is important when you become an adult. Buying your first Chanel lipstick is you entering into a different world that you deserve and fought for, and it becomes a reward or a message you send to the world about the density of your personality or your maturity.
Was it a big challenge for you to ensure that Chanel Factory 5 would be a great success?
It was an ephemeris. It was only in July, and we have wrapped it up and finished it. What we were supposed to sell in months was sold in a few days. It was a gigantic success. To me the challenge is more “what is next?” The more your success, the more complicated and demanding it is just to keep on doing it. What do you do to make sure that you’re surprising, but not just for the sake of being surprised? There’s so much put on the table by the competition, and in the meantime social media forces us to produce so much, there are so many things created by so many brands. At the end of the day, the danger is it can become banal and uninteresting.
You have long experience, do you think you know more as time goes on or is it always a challenge?
With experience I know more what I dislike, and I know more the areas of failure. It doesn’t mean I know what the areas of success are, but I’m more alert and wiser in knowing when it’s not going to work. That doesn’t mean that I know faster where to go, but I have more detectors about something that’s not going to work. It’s reassuring because you feel more confident about navigating in either shallow or complicated water, but it’s still an adventure.
What I hear you say is that you still love your job because it’s a constant challenge?
It’s a constant challenge of reaching out, to find ideas and people that can give flesh and life to your ideas, and the company allows you to do it with no restriction in terms of who you want to work with and how you want to work with them. The exciting challenge is that we now have access to many more talents all over the world. I also love my job just because I consider it an incredible chance to work for Chanel. I say without any pretension that for me, Chanel is the most modern luxury brand. The original vision of femininity and creative impulse is incredible and remains absolutely stimulating but very demanding. I sometimes say that Chanel is my “dream opponent”. Its radicality, boldness and constantly reinvented modernity is very challenging for creation. But would there be good creation without challenges?
Thank you very much for your time.
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