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Excerpt: 'The Secret Of Chanel No. 5'

The Secret of Chanel No. 5

One: Aubazine And The Secret Code Of Scent

For the better part a century, the scent of Chanel No. 5 has been a sultry whisper that says we are in the presence of something rich and sensuous. It's the quiet rustle of elegant self-indulgence, the scent of a world that is splendidly and beautifully opulent. And, at nearly four hundred dollars an ounce, it's no wonder Chanel No. 5 suggests nothing in our minds so much as the idea of luxury.

It's a powerful association. Chanel No. 5 is sumptuous. In fact, the story of this famous scent is the tale of how a singular perfume captured precisely the fast-living and carefree spirit of the young and the rich in the Roaring Twenties -- and of how it went on to capture the world's imagination and desires. Chanel No. 5, from the moment of its first great heyday, was the scent of beautiful extravagance.

The originas of the perfume and its creator, however, could no have been more different from all of this. Indeed, part of the complexity of telling Chanel No. 5's history is the great divide between how we think of this iconic perfume and the place where it began. Chanel No. 5 calls to mind all that is rich and lovely. It's surprising to think that it started in a place that was the antithesis of what would later come to define it. The truth is that the fragrance that epitomizes all those worldly pleasures began with miserable impoverishment and amid the most staggering kinds of losses.

Gabrielle Chanel's peasant roots went deep into the earth of provincial southwestern France, and, in 1895, her mother, Jeanne Chanel -- worn out by work and childbirth -- succumbed to the tuberculosis that had slowly destroyed her. The disease spread quickly in the wet and cold conditions of the rural provinces, and in the nineteenth century it was called "consumption" for a reason. It ate away at the health of its victems from the inside, corrupting the lungs hopelessly and painfully. Gabrielle -- named after the nun who delivered her -- and her four surviving brothers and sisters had watched it all. She was just twelve years old at the time of her mother's death.

Her father, Albert, was an itinerant peddler, and perhaps he simply had no idea how to care for five yound children. Perhaps he didn't particularly care. He had about him a rakish charm and a lifelong knack for dodging responsibility. Whatever the case, in the span of only a few weeks, the young Gabrielle would also lose her second parent. The boys were sent out to work and to make their way in the world as best they could. Albert loaded his three daughters into a wagon without explanation and abandoned them at an orphanage in a rural hillside town in Correze, at a convent abbey known as Aubazine.

It was there that the girl who would become known around the world simply as Coco grew up a charity-case orphan. It was a profound desertion, and the wounds of loss and abandonment were themes that would become as entwined in the story of Chanel No. 5 as they were in Coco's. They formed an emotional register that would shape the history of the world's most famous perfume and Coco Chanel's often complicated relationship to it.

Today, the abbey at Aubazine remains much as it was during her hard and lonely girlhood. Indeed, it remains much as it was during the twelfth century, when the saint Etienne d'Obazine -- as his name was rendered in the original Latin -- founded it. During their time at the orphanage, Coco Chanel and the other girls were assigned to read and reread the story of his exemplary life, and the unrelenting dullness of his good deeds is crushing.

The saintly Etienne, however, had a keen sense of aesthetics at a moment when Western culture's ideas about beauty and proportion were in radical transition. He and the monks who followed him to this wilderness in a remote corner of southwestern France were members of a new and rapidly growing Cistercian clerical order, which prized nothing no much as a life and an art of elemental simplicity. Etienne's isolated retreat from the world at Aubazine was -- and remains -- a space of echoing austere grandeur.

The road from the valley that winds up to Aubazine is steep and narrow, and the forests slant down sharply into long ravines. At the summit, there is nothing more than a small village, with a cluster of low stone buildings, a few shops, and quiet houses overshadowed by the looming presence of one of France's great medieval abbeys. By middle of the nineteenth century, it had been transformed from a monastery into a convent orphanage for girls. For the children who lived there, it was a youth of hard work and strict discipline and, fortunately for the future prospects of the young Gabrielle, much of it focused on clothing. There was nothing luxurious about it, however. Days were spent washing laundry and mending, and it was here that she learned, of course, to sew.

Coco Chanel once later said that fashion was architecture, and the architecture she meant was based on this convent home, with its brutally clean lines and the stark beauty of simple contrasts. The connection has never been fully explored in any of the books have been written on Coco Chanel's revolutionary fashions. Perhaps the first person to recognize Aubazine's profound importance was Coco Chanel's biographer, Edmonde Charles-Roux, who was one of the few people to know the story of this lonely childhood. She mentions it in passing. Thinking of Aubazine and Gabrielle's longing for a certain kind of starkness, Charles-Roux always believed that:

Whenever [Coco] began yearning for austerity, for the ultimate in cleanliness, for faces scrubbed with yellow soap; or waxed nostalgic for all things white, simple and clear, for linen piled high in cupboards, whitewashed walls … one had to understand that she was speaking in a secret code, and that every work she uttered meant only one word. Aubazine.

It was at the heart of Coco Chanel's aesthetics -- her obsession with purity and minimalism. It would shape the dresses she designed and the way she lived. It would shape Chanel No. 5, her great olfactory creation, no less profoundly.

Excerpted from The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume by Tilar Mazzeo. Copyright 2010 by Tilar Mazzeo. Excerpted by permission of Harper.

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Tilar Mazzeo