Call to Arms: The Chanel Problem (In Reference to Gabrielle by Chanel)

Some food for thought. I call this the Chanel problem.

They’ve done this to themselves.

The initial reaction to Gabrielle hasn’t been overly enthusiastic, to say the least. In fact, it has called for a retreat into perspective. What perspective? The general consensus has been drawn: “It’s perfectly fine for a mainstream fragrance.” What does that even mean? I believe a retreat into the mainstream is ridiculous and in no way an excuse for a substandard fragrance. I refuse to adhere to that mindset.

Indeed, Gabrielle is perfectly fine for a mainstream fragrance, but that carries the implication that mainstream is immediately lacking in the creative department and is absolutely unable to produce works that ping on the radar and beg for investigation. Gabrielle is imminently forgettable: a fizzy pop and a slow plunge straight into flatness by the way of a clichéd ‘meat and potato’ romance between white florals and white musks.

Let’s not even get started on the marketing. I’ll save that for a proper review.

Photo by Chanel

In conversation, Luca Turin has described Gabrielle as a “blot on the brand”, and I believe that puts my view of the fragrance in simple terms. I believe Chanel has put themselves in a curious position, a corner, so to speak. In light of their other works, especially the Les Exclusifs, Gabrielle is indeed a “blot”; a stain on their intricate tapestry. This venerable tapestry is the result of two things: Chanel’s persistence towards luxury status – the preciousness of their Grasse produce, their staggering economic capital, the focus on quality ingredients, Yoda-like well-trained nose(s), and things to that effect. Secondly, an impressive history and track record – Chanel rightly deserves quivering, knee-wobbling status. Take for instance the crisp symphony of No.22, in which each movement of the scent is like watching fragile things pushed to the absolute limit of their sublime tension. No.5, which pads this idea and adds a fullness in the heart. Or perhaps Pour Monsieur, the intelligent Chypre; Coco – an act of overt chinoiserie; No.18 and its demure elegant grey. Or more recently Misia, which features blushing hues carved in powder, or Jersey – the ultimate in texturally intriguing lavender. Alas, Chanel is not free from sin, and I must, unfortunately, remind you that Boy exists, as does Chance, Platinum Égoïste, Beige, No. 19 Eau Verte, and …

And when these two features are considered together, the Chanel problem arises. If Chanel is going to base their brand image around being the absolute authority of timeless taste and ageless style, in which they certainly do, and continue to do so in light of the cacophony that has come to be the indiscriminate sea of fragrances, then there is no room within the Chanel canon for mediocre fragrances. That includes Gabrielle for its insipidness. What’s even worse is that this insipid fragrance has been done before, time and time again. It is unoriginal. Gabrielle is a loaf of bleached white bread occupying the same shelf as No.5 (the timeless croissant), Cuir de Russie, Antaeus and Sycomore (dark rye bread), and No.18 (sourdough) – pretty on the outside, functional, albeit nutritionally sparse and texturally lacking.

Is a dichotomy between mainstream and not-mainstream or niche and not-niche useful? Do we put ourselves into a different mindset when we encounter something deemed mainstream?  We cannot do that to ourselves. Eliminate the sharp and distinct categories of high and low, and praise the endeavour of creativity in the infinitude of its forms, regardless of whether the work is from the ghetto or Grasse; IFF or out of somebody’s basement. For groundbreaking is groundbreaking irrespective of anything other than its inherent qualities of novelty, creativity, and how it fits into a context and a narrative.

So demand nothing other than groundbreaking, anywhere, for anything other than that is plainly unacceptable.

If you were looking for a considered review of the fragrance, in which Gabrielle is ruthlessly measured against the principles that I explicate, it will come. I am working on it. In the meantime – the brilliant JTD of Scenthurdle has got the idea and echoes my thoughts: here. Further, for someone far more diplomatic than I am, check out Rosalind: here.

9 thoughts on “Call to Arms: The Chanel Problem (In Reference to Gabrielle by Chanel)

  1. Very good post! It’s not as if Chanel hasn’t recently been able to produce an excellent “mainstream” fragrance — I like L’Eau and Eau Premiere very much. I don’t dislike Gabrielle, it’s quite pretty, but it’s not the more original creation many had anticipated. It is clearly a “gateway” Chanel, designed to introduce the brand to new purchasers of fragrance. But L’Eau is also a “gateway” introduction to Chanel and does it better, IMO. Also, L’Eau is a flanker, not a pillar fragrance, although it’s a flanker of one of the world’s most legendary perfumes. OTOH, if Gabrielle is a hit with younger buyers, it may support the development of more interesting fragrances in the more expensive lines, or more interesting flankers of itself. Fingers crossed …

  2. Oh my poor Gabrielle, I’m beginning to worry for her mental health after all this bad press! I maintain my position that a critic enamoured with the legend of No5 is going to read the intentional austerity of Gabrielle as a failure and I think this is a little unfair. I resent this “Chanel should do better” narrative. Says who? When Les Exclusifs allows the development of more “complex” releases that satisfy the noses of the fragrance elite, I’m truly confused that a huge international luxury goods house described as “absolute authority of timeless taste and ageless style”, is criticised for producing a perfume that is restrained. I think Polge is responding to a market that desires this light-handed approach, that will appreciate that they don’t need to be “challenged” by wearing Gabrielle. For perhaps the first time, this would have been a release that demanded acceptance from an international market – that is an interesting discussion, is it not? I don’t think we can delude ourselves that Polge was phoning this in, that Gabrielle for him was an “oops”, a blot. So why aren’t more people discussing the actual composition? I found analysis by Pickenhagen and Kraft on their Facebook page for Scent and Chemistry fascinating. They isolate the microdoses of ‘masculine’ notes in Gabrielle and break down the construction of this white flower that everyone seems to find too generic. It is intentionally composed as such so what does that say? Why aren’t we talking about that instead of making snide insinuations about the size of Chanel’s tuberose fields?

    Maybe I’ll forever be that perfume blogger that likes insipid scents and yes, because I write for mainstream titles I sniff a lot of very, very “mainstream” scents (Girl of Now, my god). So maybe my nose is less sophisticated. But I still think this Gabrielle bashing is a bit elitist and misses what is enjoyable, captivating even, in the fragrance.


  3. Brilliant piece, Liam. While there’s nothing wrong with new mainstream scents—I drown myself nightly in Muse by Mugler—Chanel’s newest tentpole reeks of disregard and desperation. Alas, Gabrielle might be Chanel’s Sauvage.

  4. Liam, I’m taken by your framing of the Chanel problem. I follow each of your points and agree with them but come to the exact opposite conclusion, though I’m willing to admit that my approach is concession. Your answer to your own question of whether or not to apply lower standards to mainstream perfumery (paraphrasing) is a defiant no. Mine is a resigned but assured yes.

    For me to see Gabrielle as part of a lineage of perfumes including 5, 22, 19 and Pour Monsieur takes more imagination than I have. To see it as the result of a long process of product design that guarantees mediocrity is fairly easy. Medium/message, garbage in/garbage out. There are plenty of ways to characterize why Gabrielle fails and why ‘mainstream’ perfume (I’m still chewing though what I even mean by the word) must be viewed with modulated expectations. Chanel’s vision of luxury has more to do with exclusively than opulence and Gabrielle, poor dear, is caught in the dissonance of the message: ‘Exclusivity, sold to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.’

    Thanks for referring to my piece on Gabrielle. I’m looking forward to your review of the perfume itself. Ruthless measurement? You’ve got my attention.

  5. Although this isn’t the point of your post, I like the Gabrielle ad. Maybe you have to like Kristen Stewart to be able to, but the themes of becoming real, stripped down, and innocent feel very relevant to our times, both generally and for women in particular. Kirsten’s bare feet flat on the ground make me want to earth my own – very different Chanel marketing to, say, a beautiful girl in a bird cage performing femininity. I am pretty sure I would be dissatisfied with the fragrance itself based on the notes though. I wonder what perfume they should have made instead , to convey all the values and feelings that the video conjures. It probably exists already, under another house.

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