by Janet Spencer

Who knew there could be so much behind a perfume? Come along with Tidbits as we learn the story behind one of history’s most famous perfumes, and the name behind it.


Coco Chanel is the name behind Chanel N°5. She was a dress designer long before the perfume came along. In a time when women wore corsets, maintained hourglass figures, and donned excessively ornamental dresses, Chanel designed clothing with elegantly simple lines. She shortened skirts, added pockets, and created her own empire in a business dominated by men. “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

• Coco Chanel lived the quintessential rags-to-riches tale. Born in a poor house in France in 1883, she was the daughter of a laundrywoman and a street vendor. Her given name of Gabrielle Chanel was misspelled on the birth certificate as Chasnel; she never corrected it because she didn’t want people snooping into her impoverished past.    She and her five siblings lived in a one-room tenement.

• When she was 11, her mother died. Her father sent her brothers to work as farm laborers, while she and her sisters went to an orphanage run by a convent. This is where she learned to sew and embroider.

When she turned 18, she lived in a boarding house for Catholic girls. She worked as a seamstress during the day and sang in a club at night. She picked up her nickname of Coco, possibly because of a song she sang “Ko Ko Ri Ko” or possibly because it’s short for “cocotte” which is French for a kept woman.

• Coco Chanel learned quickly that as a young, attractive woman, she could get ahead by being a kept woman. Her list of lovers made headlines on a regular basis.

• One of her first male admirers was a textile heir. While living with him, she began designing hats as a hobby. Through him, she met many high-society women who loved her hats. With financial help from her English polo player boyfriend, she opened a hat shop in 1910. She was forbidden from selling dresses there because there was already a dress shop in the building. She got a lucky break when a famous French actress wore her hats both in a play and in photo shoots.

• In 1918, she opened a dress shop at 31 Rue Cambon in the most fashionable neighborhood in Paris, which remains today. Chanel hired her sister and aunt to model her designs, parading through town.  Wealthy women, tired of confining clothing, flocked to her shop. Soon she had more than 300 employees and her line of Haute Couture swept Paris. By 1927 Chanel owned five buildings on this street.

• In 1920, at the outset of the Flapper era, Coco Chanel introduced “the little black dress” to prove that black could be so much more than funeral attire. She had another big hit in 1925 with a three-piece tweed suit for women, dubbed “the Chanel suit.” Women had never worn tweed before. She dressed women in traditionally male colors of grey, blue, and brown. She also popularized costume jewelry.

• By the late 1920s, she was worth millions and employed over 2,000 people.

Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov, cousin of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II, assisted in the assassination of Rasputin and was subsequently banished from Russia. Ending up in Paris, he became the latest of Coco Chanel’s paramours.

• He was friends with Ernest Beaux, the official perfumer to the Russian imperial family. Coco Chanel had been considering developing her own signature scent and felt it would make an appropriate thank-you gift to the ladies purchasing her dresses. When Beaux gave her ten sample scents to choose from, she chose the fifth one. The number five had always been her lucky number. Chanel N°5 was born.

• At the time, perfumes were generally a single scent. Ladies either smelled like lilacs, roses, or violets.    Chanel challenged Beaux to create a perfume that “smelled like a woman, and not like a rose.” Beaux’s creation contained no less than 80 ingredients, including rose, jasmine, sandalwood, and vanilla. Chanel N°5 was introduced on the 5th day of the 5th month in 1921. It quickly became the most popular perfume in the world.

• When it was first released, a deal was struck where investors Pierre and Paul Wertheimer would do the production and marketing; Théophile Bader, the owner of a chain of upscale department stores, would provide the sales outlets; and Coco Chanel would lend her name. The Wertheimer brothers got a 70% cut; Bader got 20%; and Chanel got 10% of all sales made in France.

• Coco Chanel spent the next 40 years regretting this business decision, while doing everything she could to get a better cut.    Lawsuit followed upon lawsuit, all ending in failure for her. She slandered their name, came up with a competing perfume, and was unceremoniously kicked off the board of directors.

When World War II began, Coco shut down her fashion industry, but perfume sales continued to increase. The perfume factory was in the hands of the Wertheimer brothers, who were Jewish. German law at the time forbade Jews from owning any business. Coco tried to use that against them to wrest control of the company. However, they secretly transferred the company’s ownership to a Christian man in America. When the war ended, the company was transferred back to them. Coco’s contract was renegotiated in 1947, with Coco receiving 2% of worldwide sales. This made her one of the richest women in the world.

• At the beginning of the war, Coco fell in love with a Nazi officer. He granted her permission to continue to live in her Ritz apartment while the German army set up headquarters in the Ritz Hotel. At the end of the war, Coco Chanel was accused of being a Nazi collaborator. Following her arrest, Winston Churchill intervened to secure her release.

• To win favor, she offered a free bottle of Chanel N°5 to any American soldier to take home to their wives. The lines stretched for blocks. The net result was thousands of American women clamoring for the perfume. However, Coco and her German boyfriend fled to Switzerland to escape accusations and harassment. She did not return to Paris to reopen her fashion industry until 1954.

• In 1971 Coco Chanel died of a heart attack in her Ritz apartment where she’d lived for 30 years. She was 87 and designed until she died.

• She never married. Her estate was willed to her nephew. Some speculate that this nephew was secretly her son, raised by her sister.

• Her suite at the Ritz is kept as a memorial to her, and can be rented for about $20,000 per night. The Wertheimer family still maintains control of the Chanel empire.