All of the Exclusives are named after some aspect of Coco Chanel’s story. Speaking about Jersey, Jacques Polge explained that the olfactory concept had come first: it was matched with a facet of the Chanel saga later[i]. Were things done in the same order for Misia? The PR team did say that for his first Chanel fragrance, Olivier Polge started by seeking out an accord that had never been explored by the brand. Once he had found it, the scent was christened after the woman who introduced Chanel to the artistic avant-gardes of her time.
As a muse, Misia Sert is almost too rich a source of inspiration: musing was her raison d’être. Known in her heyday as “The Queen of Paris”, she was trained as a pianist by the composer Gabriel Fauré, who considered her a prodigy, but after getting married she played only for her friends, admirers and protégés – i.e., most of the great writers, composers and painters from the Belle Époque to the Jazz Age. Renoir, Vuillard, Vallotton, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec painted her; Marcel Proust based his Mme Verdurin on her. She inspired, nurtured or sponsored Mallarmé, Cocteau, Ravel, Stravinsky, Picasso, Satie…
But it is her patronage of the Ballets Russes, to which she introduced her friend Gabrielle Chanel, which justifies the use of her name for the fragrance. Olivier Polge states he had no intention of composing an olfactory portrait of the lady: the scent is meant to evoke the heady blend rising from both the dress circle and wings of the Palais Garnier on the opening night of a Ballets Russes production.
The scent Polge the Younger decided to work on is built around the classic violet/rose accord that came to be associated with lipstick in the early 20th century. Introduced in fine fragrance by Coty’s 1904 La Rose Jacqueminot, its contemporary version was coined for Yves Saint Laurent by Sophia Grojsman in Paris: at this stage, it had already acquired its retro connotation, and stood for the glamorous, old-school type of femininity YSL wanted to project (when you call your fragrance “Paris”, you’re setting yourself up as an institution). Frédéric Malle’s 2003 Lipstick Rose was the first to use the accord ironically, between quote marks. Since then, it has been featured as such in a number of scents such as Prada’s discontinued Rosetto or the more recent Guerlain French Kiss. When Nathalie Feisthauer developed Putain des Palaces for État Libre d’Orange[ii], it was the “lipstick accord” she picked to evoke the “luxury hotel hooker” in the Gainsbourg song that inspired the scent (given the brand and brief, the result is predictably raunchier and rougher-edged than Misia).
It’s interesting to note that when Olivier Polge came up with his own interpretation of the lipstick accord, Chanel named it after a woman: a first for the Exclusives. And what’s more, after a woman not Coco: a first for the house. In perfumery, the lipstick accord may well function as a metonymy of feminine artifice and seduction, those of the muse or courtesan Gabrielle Chanel might have become, but didn’t.
Judging from her pictures, Misia Sert’s ripe-peach beauty was better suited to Renoir than to her friend’s petite robe noire. Though her namesake fragrance is not meant as her portrait, it does reflect some of that lushness. Misia is all flushed cheeks and heated, powdered skin under swishing furs, with an undertow of leather. The more you wear the fragrance, the more you feel that the lipstick accord, bolstered by magisterial materials such as the rare Grasse rose grown exclusively for Chanel, somehow burst through its quote marks to turn into a stranger, richer blend. The violet, wine-dark. The rose, petals crushed with raspberries. The balsamic base (tonka, benzoin), a sable-trimmed velvet wrap. Misia may well be the most erotic of all Chanels, perhaps because it is a scent that bears the name of another woman. It is also a masterful reinterpretation of the lipstick accord, as reinvented by Sophia Grojsman (an IFF perfumer, Olivier Polge’s alma mater), that manages to be both keenly contemporary and almost archaic -- much like the Ballets Russes. In picking its new in-house perfumer, Chanel seems to have been right on the nose.
Misia will be commercially available as of February 28th. You can already find it at www.chanel.com.
[i] In this particular case: the scent focuses on lavender, which is historically an English fragrance note; hence, “jersey”, since the knit fabric Coco Chanel made fashionable comes from the Channel Islands.