Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Chronicles of a Destiny Foretold: Why Olivier Polge Was Set to Become Head Perfumer at Chanel Since Forever; a 3 Person Drama

No exaggeration to flat out suggest that Olivier Polge was set to claim head position at Chanel perfumes since birth. France is a conservative, traditionalist country. This is what most Americans lacking a connection to the European establishment fail to grasp, mentally conflating sophistication with progressiveness; it's all right having a country as soft as putty to mould as you wish in your hands, this is a luxury given to few. Coming from an equally traditionalist culture -to the point of ridiculous excess- I can realize that the news of Olivier Polge getting officially employed at Chanel parfums effective September 2013 (as a deputy, not head) has created a stir (and rendered me fatally bored of this meaningful head shot of Olivier reproduced everywhere), but I don't quite "get" it, to be honest! The gossip, the false statements ("Jacques Polge, father of Olivier, to relinquish his position as head perfumer at Chanel in favor of son" ~he denies it), the accusations of nepotism and the hush hush of connections or regionalism surpassing proven, already employed talent (Chris Sheldrake) are -to my mind- stemming mainly from this basic incomprehension. To me, Olivier Polge getting employed at Chanel were -to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez- chronicles of a destiny foretold. A fact just waiting to happen! The man was practically born with a Chanel spoon in his mouth, taking in mind Polge's tenure at Chanel dates back from1978!

Let's consider the following facts.

Gosses de stars, roughly translating as "stars' kids", is a widespread phenomenon in France. From Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kate Birkin-Barry to Philippe Zitron, Marie Trintignant, Cloclo Junior and countless others, Olivier Polge doesn't feel like a fish out of water in a society where the kids given a head-start thanks to their well-known parents do not feel clumped down as a rule (there are exceptions to that of course, see the Depardieus).

Come to think of it (influenced by our own ridiculously nepotistic society, shame on me), kids follow in the footsteps of parents and elders all the time. Especially when it comes to profession choices.

"My father was very encouraging when I decided to attend perfumery school because I started out studying art. I believe somewhere in his heart he hoped I would follow in his footsteps, as most parents do. He taught me to follow my dreams and passions in life. He also taught me that instinct is important in creating a fragrance" claims Olivier Polge in a 2012 interview on
Olivier has been working at IFF since 1998. He even won awards. And with artistic triumphs like Dior Homme or Spicebomb and best-sellers like Flowerbomb, Alien or Balenciaga Paris under his belt (we can allow Lancome's La Vie est Belle languish a bit and I will trash his Repetto eau de toilette tomorrow...), who can blame him? Jacques Helleu, iconic artistic director of Chanel, now singing with the angels in heaven, was also the son of someone within the company: his father Jean Helleu, also artistic director for parfums Chanel.  More specifically perfumery is wrought with families passing the baton on and on and on and on....the Guichards, the Roudnitskas, the Ellenas, the Roberts (Guy Robert and clan) and countless others.

Jacques Polge is revealing another facet of the son's progress and the timeline is most intriguing:

'Despite Polge's pessimism about the future, however, he has been unable to deter his 23 year old [ed.note:at the time] son Olivier from wanting to follow in his father's (how should one put it?) - footsteps. "I tried to talk him out of it", Polge confesses. "But then I thought about it and concluded that I didn't have the right to do any such thing. I can't say that I will be able to make a great nose out of him. That's impossible. But of course I hope that one day he too will become the nose of Chanel. Because for someone passionate about perfumes, there really is no better position in the world." [the quote comes from a 2004 interview on Art of Smell]

It would be interesting to wonder whether Jacques, whose son is a fellow art history major, considered this with a typical middle-class Gallic shiver and eventually came to view that perfumery would be the lesser of two evils, art history being almost a guarantee of being jobless and penniless. (Part of traditionalism is the appreciation of a spending income). This would nicely coincide with the timing of Jacques's statements.

Last but not least, in every business, but even more so at Chanel, the transition from one status quo to another takes time. In the words of Christine Dagousset, the new Chanel Global President for Fragrance and Beauté, this could be called "Chanel time". Usually this takes 2 years (Maureen Chiquet has had 2 years to Global CEO, Christine Dagousset is also given a comparable time and Jacques Polge will also have 2 years before giving the baton, I bet, so his denial of retirement come September 2013 is certainly not inaccurate!)
The official blurb stated "Jacques Polge will continue to exercise until Olivier Polge takes his place as Chanel Perfumes Creator. Olivier Polge will officially start working with Chanel next September."[Chanel press release]

But consider this for a minute: "why now?" 

Monsieur Jacques Polge has technically reached an arc in his tenure, having completed most -if not all- foreseeably major long-term projects: the reinterpretations of No. 5 (Eau Premiere), Cristalle (Cristalle Eau Verte), Chanel No. 19 (No.19 Poudre), Coco (Coco Noir and of course Coco Mademoiselle), the celebration of the 80th anniversary of Chanel Haute Joaillerie with "1932" fragrance (Les Exclusifs), and with Chanel les Exclusifs being an established collection by now. The last new fragrance pillar for ladies, Chance, was launched in 2002! There would have been a pressure now to define the women of this decade as the next long-term project, and I very much doubt, after that lost Chanel fragrance, the Chanel owners would settle. The timing was also very well calculated: Madame Dagousset wouldn't formally take over until January 2015, the perfect time in the meanwhile to train Olivier further and formally integrate him into the brand.

And where does this leave deputy perfumer Chris Sheldrake? The perfumes created ever since the call back on Chris a few years ago (his alma mater had been Chanel in the 1980s before being snitched for a stint chez Serge Lutens) have all been solely credited to Jacques Polge, as head perfumer. Additionally Polge, as attested by Christopher himself in an interview, personally phoned Chris Sheldrake after LVMH poached Francois Demachy. Hiring an Australian a British [edit: I'm not 100% sure, a reader corrected me and evidence so far indicates so] as deputy instead of a Frenchman was a move that superficially negated regionalism but more deeply foreshadowed other developments, perhaps in the works for several years.

 I will leave you with a Parthian shot: The supposition whether the newer perfumes' "communicability" (to put a more gentle mantle on their commercialized appeal) was a deliberate aesthetic choice not only imposed by the marketing and business development departments but stemming from people working within the perfume development to facilitate the transitory route from older to younger (and into the gourmand, sweet notes that Olivier is especially fond of, as he admits) is better left for the no doubt fertile imagination of my readers...I welcome your wise commentary.


  1. Zazie13:55

    I *am* European, and still am quite a bit bothered by the legacy of a job position from father to son.

    I am sure Polge Jr. is very talented and worthy of its new role, but am also sure that many many other perfumers are just as entitled.

    I find this inheritance lacking of elegance: he is a succesful enough professional to carve his own path without following so literally his father's footsteps. Nothing prevents him of course, and nothing prevents me to find his move a bit cheap.

    Nepotism is so un-chic.
    And so global.

    On another note, I still have to figure out what Mr. Sheldarke's role is exactly at Chanel.

    Some of the exclusives sort of bore his "patte".

  2. Zazie,

    ah, but now we're discussing this as an enigma: was it his connection paving the way and waiting for him to probe his worth before appointing him or was the work produced what finally cinched the deal and had papa's dream come true finally? :-)

    I think he is talented enough. Whether there are people more talented waiting in the wings and getting crashed while he's advancing, I do not know.

    As to CS, I don't think he would land the head job, otherwise it would have happened long ago. You're referring to Coromandel? It does smell like a Sheldrake, true enough. Maybe others too (which ones, do you think?)

  3. Zazie14:36

    Coromandel, as you point out, but also 31 RC...
    It's the dense honey there that nods (in my mind at least!) at some of CS's work for Monsieur Lutens.
    Though of course 31 RC cannot in any case be mistaken as a Serge Lutens, there are elements there that feel loosely related.
    Just a personal impression, of course!

  4. Anonymous15:48

    I have always liked the idea of passing trades from parent to progeny, hereditary talent doesn't seem unbelievable when you've been brought up in a particular way, with all the workings surrounding you it could easily be "taught by osmosis." If CHANEL is looking to continue its current magic run but with fresh eyes, probably best that it be fresh eyes who understand the culture. I would want that kind of continuity for my business if it were running as successfully as CHANEL.
    We don't get so much nepotism here in Australia but it does happen. Not in the drag industry at all, he he he.
    Portia xx

  5. as an (unemployed in the field) american with an art history degree and a love of perfume, i find myself having a flash or sympathy with and envy of monsieur polge the younger for his ability to practice perfumery as a second career choice...(the only place worse than recession EU to be an art historian? recession america...)

    more seriously, i wonder if i like the foreshadowed direction for the house of chanel. i have been underwhelmed by the majority of their newer offerings, and would hate to see a trajectory toward sweet and "accessible"...

  6. Chanel has been a bit of Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, masterpieces and shameless, uninspiring money makers (I'll leave everybody to decide which is which). Plus it has been hit by IFRA as well.

    It will be interesting to see where Olivier Polge fits here. He can presumably do the money makers. But will he be able to preserve the masterpieces? We shall see.


  7. Hello there! I've been reading your blog for a while now, and although this comment isn't about the subject at hand, I always wanted to ask you why you haven't reviewed Bois des Iles! :-) (At least it's about Chanel)

  8. annemariec22:54

    Sheldrake is not Australian is he? Your link is to an Australian source but by his accent (when he speaks English) I assume CS is an Englishman.

    When the Olivier Polge announcement was made a few days ago I was tempted to make a narky comment about nepotism, until I remembered having read that perfumery is often a family thing and that in Europe, appointments like this are probably quite common. It was presumably only that Guerlain finally ran out of Guerlains that led to Thierry Wasser's appointment. (That and having LVMH looking over its shoulder by then, and demanding change, perhaps.)

  9. Miss Heliotrope01:55

    Chanel herself didn't get there through family connections...

    It happens everywhere to some extent - everyone helps their family members & one is more likely to know about the work one's parents do but not other things (my husband & I have have a very long list of jobs noone ever told us about & damn it, why can't we be the groundsmen at the Melbourne Cricket Ground or incredibly highly paid globe-trotting stylists or the one who drives that HUGE mining truck...). It just happens that some have access to more privilege than others, which is not good, but can one blame children for what their parents do or parents for wanting the best for their children?

    That being said, as an Australian, it happens here to some extent, and I am uncomfortable with it being inevitable in many situations in my own as well as other societies.

  10. Anonymous07:16

    Fascinating insight into the workings and machinery of the perfume world’s elite!

    I've experienced nepotism in the workplace - most damaging. Also, I agree with Miss Heliotrope, above, who mentions the fact that Coco herself got there on her own steam, and of course she was the genuine innovator.

    I suppose it would be a strange parent who didn’t want to make their offspring’s future a little less rocky. But I think it can also be a poisoned chalice. I watched a doc recently about the Great Grandson of the Johnson and Johnson fortune in America. He was an aware and intelligent young man with a strong conscience, who felt uncomfortable with the fortune he'd inherit through no merit of his own, while the majority of society had to get on the hard way. He wanted to pursue a career as a documentary maker but his parents discouraged him because it courted controversy – in the end though he won their grudging respect

    Some would say 'why not just enjoy the easy money?', but by the end of the documentary I could see that many young people who inherit privilege also inherit predictability, and even worse, feel somehow neutered or child-like - because they've never had to prove their worth - and where's the self respect in that?! Having said that, real poverty is far, far worse. So much for the ‘trickle down economy’!

    Can't say I'm excited by the prospect of yet more sweet gourmands! The perfume world is still so conservative - it reminds me of the artworld 5oo years ago! It’s only now perfumers are starting to be credited – Duchaufour seems to get to be a free spirit, hopefully more noses will follow that trend

  11. Ha! I was afraid the Repetto perfume was destined not to live up to its blurb.
    Can't wait to read your thoughts on it. :)

    I will refrain from speaking about nepotism, coming from Croatia, I'm sure we share many similarities in our respective countries.

  12. Zazie,

    that's very interesting. But if it's only Coromandel (and much less so 31RC) then his "patte" isn't too pronounced...hmmm?

    I believe we're making a disservice to CS by coupling him only with the work for SL: he did many other things and in a very different style (see Tocadilly, reviewed in these pages). I therefore wonder how much the art direction pays a more decisive role than that of a perfumer in the finished work.

    To be honest, I'm beginning to form this theory that art direction accounts for great scents more than perfumers' talent or experience in fact!

  13. Portia,

    hi there honey!

    Yes, there is something about being brought up in an environment which is a certain way. Osmosis works. That much I know is true. And Olivier is plenty talented on his own. I'm sure that if he didn't have enough worth proven he wouldn't have been appointed, or there would be some sort of scandal.

    As I mentioned above, to my previous reply to commentary, I wonder how much art direction accounts for the finished product, rather than a perfumer's decision to give this or that twist. Surely Chanel has a specific plan to venture into today's market and since they're not shaping the market, but rather gauging and subtly conforming to the degree that that is not class-less, maybe what Olivier is allowed to do is different than what Coco herself had the leeway to do with a newly founded company! Let's think of it that way. ;-)

  14. NFS,

    thanks, this is exactly the kind of pat on the back I need (I feel pretty low about the recession in Europe) :-)

    Well, I have been pretty underwhelmed ever since Sycomore (and Eau Premiere), so that makes it, what, 5 years?? I think there is a most definite swift in how Chanel propels itself to the world of fragrances. I don't see this changing no matter who they employ! These decisions are taken in other places of power, not in the office adjoining the lab.

  15. M,

    as I said to NFS, I don't believe it's the perfumer's place to decide what they will issue next. ;-)

    Whether he will be able to preserve the masterpieces, that has to do with other considerations and I have no doubt that if given free rein, the necessary budget and the leeway to be inventive, Olivier will do a good job.

  16. Sibilum,

    thank you for coming aboard and on the open, hope you enjoy it around here (we welcome questions, dissent, discourse etc)

    Well, probably because everyone and their mother had reviewed Bois des Iles. But that is no fault of the perfume and maybe I should sit down and do a proper review & history one of these days. I do love it. :-)

  17. AMC,

    great point! I don't know. I assumed he had an Australian passport? I am not sure. I should probably ask someone and see. I may be wrong.

    The perfumery world is full of relatives, see the Guichards, the Roudnitskas, the Ellenas, the, the, the...It does not matter in the end. If by being brought up a certain way you learn things more easily and adopt a superior criterion, then it's all good. I just thought it kinda of pretentious(?), surprising (?) that people were so struct by how Olivier was appointed.

    As to Guerlain, there had been talk that since 1990 and a famous "modern classic" they had been employing outside forces, so I can't really comment on that. It's all too gossipy anyway.

  18. MH,

    haha, trust you to make a pithy and incisive comment! Very true!

    You know, you said it best: can you blame it on children having it good (what were they supposed to do, cut off an arm or something?) or parents for wanting to make it good for them? No. So...

    In the end, as I said above many times, it doesn't really matter. It's just that it's not so shocking as all that!

  19. Rosestrang,

    very wisely said. I suppose the matter of famous parent and their children is a difficult one, because there are so many nuances and not all parents nor children end up the same: some like the challenge and rise above or do something indie, others are weighted down, others still live on easy money and do nothing. It takes all kinds.

    I am very much afraid that what we have seen with Bleu and Chance flankers and the "white musk" infused greens is the future; I don't think there is much disruption in that direction, it wouldn't make sense in today's market (I'm all right with the white musk infused greens as long as the originals are thus helped to be kept afloat). Whether the Exclusifs will have something more pioneering (or beautiful) than Jersey or Beige remains to be seen. But really, they have more or less exhausted the genres within that "line" and the things left are few and far between (a spicy carnation is an anachronism, a suede leather might be tucked in there and in fact should be in the cards for next year or so)...

  20. Ines,

    when you hear too much delicate prose, one should hold a small basket. ;-)

    Do you have the same surnames running the country for 70-80 years? We take the cake!! (Though, yes, point taken)

  21. Not so much (but it's happened) but we do have a lot of communists becoming Catholic Democrats. ;)

  22. Ines,

    that is an epiphany worthy of the Saul on the way to Damascus! (my, how people bend with the willows in the wind)

    Repetto review uploading shortly! ;-)

  23. Astrid12:30

    Kind of underscores the contention that perfumery is a skill rather than an art: i.e. with proper training anybody can achieve mastery. Which falls in line with Europe's (often nepotist) guild tradition.

  24. Astrid,

    perfumery is a craft in my eyes, not an art, but the reasons for that are on a different plane. Art has a theoretical background and its appreciation makes use of it. Whereas perfume relies on subjectiveness and money churned...

    But there is a point about honing a skill through exposure to an experienced craftsman and learning from them and then exploring yourself etc.
    The European guilds began as expanded families protecting their interests, after all.

  25. I would expect culture and emotional development and curiosity play a large role, and being present and appreciating people and their opinions - surely his life has helped him develop along those lines.
    While not really a nepotism thing, I remember a polo playing family, I loved watching the youngers join in and they could play well immediately from having watched and attended the field. From that you come to love well made tack and saddles, and the smells of the barn and the skill of the blacksmith. Surely perfume has much of that love of the barnyard about it.

  26. N,

    very well said.

    I do believe that our background shapes us. More than can be explained and more than can be intellectually analyzed.

    Good parable with the polo thing!

  27. Mimi Gardenia19:56

    Elena issue with O Polge taking over is that the direction of Chanel perfumery will move into a sweeter territory .


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