What is my favourite fragrance? That's the question I get asked the most. Although my answer invariably changes depending on my mood, one fragrance I have worn consistently since the early 1990s is Égoïste by Chanel. Chanel’s first release of Égoïste was in the mid-1980s in the form of Bois Noir, a short time after Karl Lagerfeld was appointed to design for the French couture house. Lagerfeld planned to produce a men’s ready-to-wear collection with the launch of a third masculine fragrance after Pour Monsieur and Antaeus. Chanel’s in-house perfumer at the time, Jacques Polge, developed the new scent based on sandalwood. His team gave the project the codename Bois Noir. Lagerfeld’s men’s line was cancelled and Chanel moved to cancel the fragrance as well, but Polge believed strongly in the fragrance and rallied for it to be launched. A compromise was reached and Bois Noir received a limited launch in Chanel’s flagship boutiques. There it generated buzz amongst the boutique’s exclusive clientele and Bois Noir was eventually granted a broader release in 1990. Chanel’s marketing team didn’t like the name and it was changed to L’Égoïste. Years ago I smelled Bois Noir and the difference with L’Égoïste is indistinguishable. Both are one and the same fragrance.
The advertising campaign for L’Égoïste was as audacious as the name of the fragrance. Graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude directed the television advertisement. Goude created the iconic album artwork for singer Grace Jones and his concept for Chanel also turned heads. Goude’s advertisement for L’Égoïste quoted 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille and finished with an entire building facade of window shutters being opened by women franticly chiming out “L’Égoïste” like cuckoo clocks. Goude later reflected back on the project. “I had no money at all. Everything that I had made had gone into those shows (for Grace Jones) so I was really happy when advertising came. Also in the 80s, in France, advertising was very popular. People loved advertising, even the art world. So I found myself doing my first little spot and not a star, but celebrated. It used to be a lot of fun. The client said no, do what you want. There was no imposition and no marketing strategies, which tend to paralyse a lot of creative people.”
Goude’s creative concept contributed to the fragrance’s cult status. Despite everything, L’Égoïste, which later became Égoïste, wasn’t a major commercial success for Chanel, especially in America, a key market. Its impact was polarising. I clearly remember smelling L’Égoïste for the first time in the early 1990s. I recognised then that it was unlike any fragrance for men at that time, which were almost entirely based on aromatic fougère or chypre structures.
Polge had taken inspiration from a women’s perfume, which may explain why Égoïste was so different compared to other men’s fragrances of this period. In the 1980’s, Polge researched the formula of Bois des Iles (1926) in Chanel’s archives. This was one of a handful of perfumes created for Gabrielle Chanel by perfumer Ernest Beaux who created legendary No 5. Beaux used an overdose of sandalwood oil and you see the relationship between Bois des Iles and Égoïste when smelling the two, side-by-side.
Jacques Polge once said in an interview, “You know, the men's market is very particular. I know we went far with Égoïste, but I like it. It was good for Chanel.” Unwilling to admit defeat, Chanel invested further in the Égoïste name after it failed to produce strong commercial results. Platinum Égoïste was launched in 1994. Platinum was the commercial success Chanel had hoped for Égoïste but olfactory speaking, the two fragrances have nothing in common. It is a rare case of a flanker fragrance overshadowing its parent.
Platinum wasn’t the first Égoïste flanker. In 1992 Chanel launched Égoïste Cologne Concentrée exclusively in America. Perhaps a valiant effort to raise the profile of Égoïste with American men, Cologne Concentrée was around double the concentration of the original eau de toilette. Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake who has worked with Chanel for over a decade mentioned, "It contains much less cinnamon and no ambrette at all, these two ingredients being key in the original Égoïste." Full-page advertisements for Cologne Concentrée featured in US Vogue's June and November 1992 issues which described Égoïste's target audience, "To assume he is uncaring or aloof is to misread him. He walks on the positive side of that fine line separating arrogance from an awareness of self-worth." Both Boir Noir and Cologne Concentrée weren’t available for long so when a rare bottle goes up for auction on Ebay, prices are astronomical.
I have been buying Égoïste since the 1990s and I still have bottles from all three decades, including Cologne Concentrée. You can tell the older bottles apart because the eau de toilette text on the bottle and box is printed above the Chanel Paris text. Newer bottles have the eau de toilette text printed below. Does Égoïste smell different today? Yes, somewhat. I’ll smell Égoïste testers in stores every now and again to see what's changed. I always recognise my old friend, despite the facelift I suspect is due to updates of IFRA’s code of practice, which limit use of ingredients like cinnamic compounds and eugenol found in spices likes cinnamon and clove, and coumarin found in tonka bean, all of which are likely to be key in Polge’s original Bois Noir formula. Over the years, sustainable sources of South American rosewood and Indian sandalwood have also faced scarcities.
As is often the case with older fragrances, the official olfactory description has changed over the years. Chanel's recent description of Égoïste is “a unique woody-spicy-amber composition with a strong personality. Lively, fresh top notes of Mandarin and Coriander, subtly spiced, blend into the warm and enveloping notes of Damask Rose. The richness of Sandalwood is underlined by the extreme sensuality of Vanilla and Ambrette Seed for an Oriental trail.” Older descriptions describe the citrus note as tangerine and the mention of rosewood is now missing. Potentially the fresh rosewood opening of the original fragrance has been replaced by coriander; a logical action now rosewood tress are endangered and both raw materials offer a fresh linalool top note in perfumery. A veteran perfumer in Grasse once recalled that Égoïste was the first fragrance to use an overdose of Osyrol, a sandalwood molecule that adds lift and a slight rosy facet to the odour of natural sandalwood.
Today, Chanel sells Égoïste within limited retail zones and unfortunately Oceania is not one of them. You can only find Platinum Égoïste on Chanel's Australian counters. I recommend smelling Égoïste on your next trip overseas. I often see it in airport duty free shops outside Australia when I travel. I have a stockpile of Égoïste bottles in the event it is ever discontinued. It's one fragrance I can't live without.