Number 5

We’re off! Brad Pitt’s campaign as the new Face of Chanel began last month. It’s quite a cute choice on many levels : the Legend and the Heart-throb teamed at last, though why a perfume should need a “Face” at all is beyond me. At this high level of classic perfumery, every fragrance already has its own very well-developed and assertive personality. No 5 of all scents already has an unmistakable and unforgettable face: Mlle Coco’s black-eyed little marmoset features, cigarette glued to lower lip beneath a broad-brimmed hat, seem to grin beguilingly from every bottle – the true look of genius, tinkering around in her labs with Ernest Beaux and selecting her formula by instinct and superstition.
What could be more fascinating, appealing and sellable? Anything else seems redundant; it’s almost the equivalent in art terms of choosing a PR look for a painter – the Face of Tracy Emin or Francis Bacon.

I guess the modern axiom insists the youth market must be enticed with an allure of great big blazing star: a former Face, Nicole Kidman, despite a massively expensive publicity campaign and that seemingly endless tv ad never seemed to me quite right for Chanel: rather too nervy and wired. Maybe Brad’s somewhat laconic and laid-back glamour will be more effective as he becomes a projection for every man who ever courts with No 5, and more to the point, the guy from whom every girl would like to receive a flacon.

Endless “scientific” surveys and tests, we keep being reassured by the popular press, show that men of Brad’s type with soft, big-eyed rounded features – somewhat baby-faced, something of the child still about them – appeal most to modern women as reliable safe lovers and putative fathers. Maybe Chanel are following the tabloids’ cut- out- and- keep advice. A wilder, less cosier masculinity might conjure up a more exciting image but that seems not to be generally desired, by the opposite sex at least. 21st century men have been so demonised, ridiculed and rendered so drippy and in their advertising image that the Richard Burton/Maxim de Winter/Errol Flynn type seems to have gone for good. Brad’s iconic screen Achilles image – all bronzed muscle and flowing blond hair – appeared ostensibly virile but there was also something of a parodic tribute to Marilyn Monroe about it. It teetered on the verge of doll-like, suggesting the sex roles reversed: a passive man to be bossed about by his lady friend, a chunky nugget of eye candy with a gift wrapped bottle of Chanel the size of a chocolate box.

But there’s also an interesting ambiguity about choosing a male Face: maybe Brad should encourage his brothers in arms to have a try at wearing No 5 themselves… How subversive would that be – yet eminently practical and creative. The musky base notes tend to be brought to the fore on a man’s skin and smell darkly, richly wonderful; and not at all feminine – if you’re worried about that sort of thing. The male hormones generally burn through the rose + jasmine to reveal the vetiver and sandalwood beneath. A perfumer can do no more than propose that a scent be male or female: the publicity campaign is what anchors its gender in the public mind, that and a certain association of ingredients. Flowers for girls, woods for boys: a dull old cliche neatly inverted by Vita Sackville West in “The Land”:

“Every flower her son
And every tree her daughter.”

The British at least are far too constricted by ideas of what they are “allowed” to do with scent. May I wear it at the office? In the morning? On holiday? On my hair? For many people perfume is still the boss. Listen: you can do anything you like with it: bend it to your will and pleasure. It may be a genie in a bottle, but like Aladdin its you who are in command. Chanel No 5, a best-seller since 1921, is of the era when scent was still a huge luxury and far more the preserve of the wealthy artist, socialite and aristocrat who felt far less constrained by social mores and wore perfume as they pleased. Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, the Duke of Kent and Diaghelev are all said to have sported Jicky, Arpege, Mitsouko, and No 5 con brio, to memorable effect. Luckily these new Perfume Faces are usually contractually obliged to wear the product: what a chance to double sales of the world’s most famous scent. Ball in your court, Mr Pitt.