(image School of Permaculture)
Chanel No 5 l’Eau, perfumer Olivier Polge.
Thierry Mugler Angel Muse, perfumer Quentin Bisch.
Chanel No 5 and Thierry Mugler Angel are two of the most popular and commercially successful French perfumes in history. As with any fashion house that has a ‘signature’ perfume, the product is both a source of steady income and the face the brand presents to the world. Each bottle, like each bottle of Coca-Cola, is both the medium and the message of the brand and great care is taken with the products and their appearances. Their flankers reflect the different styles of the two brands.
The Chanel Flanker, or, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. A new No 5 is a rare thing, and has typically focussed on the concentration of the fragrance (parfum, edc…) and subtle distinctions in tone. Chanel have always made bath and body products (soap, after bath oil, dusting powder, elixir…) of No 5, but in terms of perfume itself, the timeline is very simple:
No 5 Extrait (1921)
No 5 Eau de Toilette (1924)
No 5 Eau de Cologne (1939)
No 5 Eau de Parfum (1986)
No 5 Eau Première (2007)
No 5 l’Eau (2016)
The extrait of No 5 has always been the Grande Dame, but each concentration has been appropriate and timely. Eaux de Toilette focus on the exuberance of the topnotes and for a perfume founded on the sparkle of aldehydes, an EDT was a logical step. The Eau de Cologne, a favorite of many vintage collectors, had a lighter presence and took advantage of the association in the public nose between the aldehydic floral genre and soap. The EDC wore like that bit of soap that clings after the morning’s ablutions. Also, a less expensive version of the world’s most famous perfume would have been welcome in 1939 to a population who had survived 10 years of poverty and sacrifice during the Great Depression. 1986’s Eau de Parfum, with a denser shape and a long sandalwood drydown, suited the desire for stronger, more aggressive perfumes in the go-go ’80s.
2007’s No 5 Eau Première was something new for Chanel. After embracing the flanker tactic (Coco Mademoiselle, Allure, Chance) Chanel made ‘younger’ versions of three of their classics: No 5 Eau Première, Cristalle Eau Verte (2009) and No 19 Eau Poudrée (2011).
No 5 l’Eau is the latest installment in the epic tale of No 5.
The Mugler Flanker, or, Flank Pain. Thierry Mugler have a completely different approach to the flanker. If Chanel’s approach to flanking No 5 could be called ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’, Mugler’s could be called, ‘Shock and Awe’, although ‘Scorched Earth’ would be appropriate as well. Over the years, Mugler have tortured four basic perfumes (Angel, Alien, Cologne, Womanity) into dozens.
Forgetting all the ‘flavor flankers’ that pessimistically added a series of notes du jour to Angel’s basic framework (Sunnessence, Etoile, Garden, Aqua, Sucrée, Cuir, Taste, and Liqueur) as well as the 16 versions (per Fragrantica) of A*Men, a flanker in the first place, the line of sequels goes like this:
Angel Innocent (1998–later renamed simply Innocent)
Angel Extrait de Parfum (2006)
Angel Eau de Toilette (2011)
Angel Muse (2016)
Angel Innocent was the first of the Angel flankers and could have called Angel Light. Or better, Angel Placebo. It did what most of the throngs of Angel copycats did, which was to make a tame version of the original. In this case, the gear-grinding discord that made Angel so energized was minimized and a fruity-floral accord made it even yummier.
Angel Extrait and Eau de Toilette were concentration flankers. I call Angel an unresolved gourmand for the fact that it is both mouth-watering and poisoned. It’s the apple that both Adam and Snow White regret eating. The EDT was a smart mediation of the original EDP’s founding concept and while not nearly as shrieking as the original, still had an element of danger.
Chanel 5 l’Eau is a cautious but shrewd step away from No 5. For all the specific compositional differences (the citrus up top, the decrease in aldehydes, the white musks) the tone isn’t exactly ‘younger’ (whatever that means) like l’Eau Première. It’s simply less grand. It keeps the chic, but trades the Chanel jacket and pearls for a sundress and an Apple Watch. On first sniff, I was surprised how much of the Chanel 5 DNA was intact and thought that l’Eau was too cautious. The opening has an enthusiasm that follows the fireworks trajectory of ‘classic’ No 5 at the outset. As the topnotes unfold, though, the similarity fades. The citrus notes of l’Eau are more vibrant and the floral notes are less dense. They imitate the expansiveness of aldehydes, but lack the other attributes, namely soapiness and high-pitch.
In the original No 5, when the aldehydes wear off, the dense musky/floral hearnotes can be a bit heavy and cloying , especially if the perfume is applied heavily. Spray l’Eau to your heart’s content—it will never come off as dense or heavy. It is a sheerer perfume than its predecessor and both the floral heart and the woody/musky base remain light, though not insubstantial. The white musk drydown of many contemporary florals feels like a safety net that catches you after the high-wire topnotes collapse. This style of drydown has become a yardstick for the younger buyer, but in l’Eau it is subtle and seems more deliberate and integrated. It’s a choice, not a fix.
It’s possible that Chanel hope to use No 5 l’Eau as a bridge to bring their younger lead to the original No 5 as they mature. For Chanel, order and control are a critical part of their image. They know how to keep their ducks in a row.
Mugler Angel Muse. I’ve read in comments and reviews online that people find Muse a kinder, gentler Angel.
I do not.
I love/hate Angel. It’s the most innovative /horrifying perfume made in the last 25 years. It’s a reflection of everything exciting/demoralizing about modern perfumery. But I’d be the first to argue that it’s also the most influential perfume of the past 25 years.
Angel Muse, nearly 20 years later, is the remedy to Angel Innocent’s apologetic tone. Innocent and the other Angel flankers attempted to find a detente to Angel’s internal struggle. It’s as if they tried to keep the ‘flavor’ but ignored the conflict central to Angel. Muse streamlines the flavors but not the dissonance. Forget Innocent, Angel EDT and the extrait: Muse is the true successor to Angel.
Muse dials back the cotton-candy, but puts a nutty quality up against the classic Angel patchouli-backbone. Mugler tested this combination of hazelnut and cotton-candy in two of the perfumes in their overlooked Miroir series, Miroir des Envies and Dis Moi, Miroir. Nutty notes are often harmonizers. They bridge sweet and savory gourmand qualities and blend disparate materials the way an emulsifier reconciles oil and water. Not in this case.
Angel has a dynamic similar to a shooting pain or the sound of nails on a chalkboard. There is no lead-in or warm-up. It’s more like flipping on fluorescent lights. You can tune it out, but the effort comes at a cost and when you finally wash it off, letting down your guard can leave you exhausted. Muse is different, creepier. It gives me the shapeless fear of sitting through a dogmatic, atonal modernist piano piece. The nuttiness (vetiver?) seems like it should be an easy fit with patchouli, but the warmth of the former and the cool camphor of the latter never settle. There should be a common ground to the woody/nutty tones that form the shape of Muse, but the stand-off never gets worked out. And thank dog it doesn’t. Like Angel, Muse thrives on chaos.
Perfumer Quentin Bisch demonstrated in his clever Fin du Monde for Etat Libre d’Orange that odd pairings of gourmand and object notes can create an unexpected cogency. His Muse is an unexpected bright spot in the Mugler line’s soul-deadening strategy of hackneyed flanking. I’m going to keep my eyes on this guy.
Sample sources for both perfumes, the Sephora Wall. Each perfume tried on skin on two different days. Duck and Chaos image sources, unknown.