Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Image of actress Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel, reclining on the beige sofa in the sitting room of her apartment at 31 Rue Cambon.  Coco Chanel used the apartment for work and entertaining only (it did not have a bedroom) as she lived in a suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

CHANEL 31 Rue Cambon: A Scent of Gorgeous Dichotomy

June 19, 2009:

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“Her style was a synthesis of feminine softness and masculine ease, the gossamer and the tweedy."
--Judith Thurman, writing of Coco Chanel, in an article from The New Yorker

Chanel 31 Rue Cambon, launched in 2007 as part of Chanel’s les exclusifs series of fragrances, was reportedly inspired by the opulently decorated third-floor apartment that Coco Chanel maintained above her Paris boutique. To a degree, I understand how the apartment’s trappings—its quilted beige sofa, leather-bound books and glittering chandeliers—shaped the nature of this fragrance, as there’s definitely a whiff of “We’ll take our drinks in the library, Jeeves” (or in Mademoiselle Chanel’s case, her sitting room) inherent in the scent. The combination of leathery iris, resinous labdanum, and a gentlemanly-elegant patchouli is the olfactory evocation of books you’d find in the handsome library of a mansion or a men’s club (and how apropos, considering that Mademoiselle Chanel was the designer whose fashions took women out of their corsets and into the men’s club, in a manner of speaking).

Yet there is a striking lightness to this fragrance—a very modern, uncluttered sensibility—that seems in direct contrast to the weighty ornateness of the apartment (if you’ve not seen photos of this amazing pied-a-terre, you can click to see them here).  As such, the juxtaposition of these elements—the sturdy and masculine smell of leather and polished wood in counterpoint to the sprightly fizz of the scent’s bergamot and pepper notes—reminds me less of the apartment at 31 Rue Cambon than it does of the clothes, sold two floors below, that made the address famous. The Chanel 31 Rue Cambon fragrance is as streamlined as a Chanel suit and possesses that same dichotomy of feminine fluidity and masculine crispness. How can one not think of Chanel’s black-and-white suits, as well as her trademark black-and-white logo, when you smell this scent?  It says “class” with the deftest palette—and the fewest strokes—possible. And like Chanel’s suits, this is the kind of fragrance you can wear to the workplace and then trot out for dinner and a night on the town later. You can easily dress it up or down, because it has the kind of quiet elegance that is equal parts discretion and luxury.

I’d venture to say that if more people wore scents like 31 Rue Cambon in the workplace, less people would complain about being sensitive to fragrance. The sillage on this one hugs the body like the lightweight jersey fabric Mademoiselle Chanel favored for her sportswear. Some people find it too light—and while I would agree with that assessment in regard to some of the other fragrances in the exclusifs collection, 31 Rue Cambon is nicely detectable and lasting on my skin. As it wears, the iris undergoes its natural segue from leather into light powder, and in the final drydown, the creamy underpinning of sandalwood becomes evident. At this point, the scent reminds me of a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the lovely Daisy Buchanan, with her moneyed voice, is on a tour of Gatsby’s house when she spies a cloud outside his window—and she tells him she would like to put him in the cloud and push him around in it.

The list of notes for Chanel 31 Rue Cambon includes: bergamot, black pepper, patchouli, cistus labdanum and iris. In the past, you could only purchase it from the Chanel boutiques, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks (because it was considered part of “les exclusifs” collections—and thus not available just anywhere-you-please on the Internet!). Now, however, the Chanel company has made all of these fragrances available for sale on its website,, and it’s worth mentioning that from now until June 21, 2009, the company is offering free standard shipping (as part of their Father’s day promotion) on any purchase. For $200, you can get a 200-ml bottle of Chanel 31 Rue Cambon—or any of the other les exclusifs fragrances—which is enough scent to last a lifetime, making it a rare dichotomy in another sense too: that of luxury bargain