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 Makeup.com.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
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.