Q&A with Legendary Chanel Perfumer Jacques Polge

There has been, perhaps, no better launch of a men’s cologne than Chanel’s landmark Egoïste in 1990. Not only were its gender-bending scent and provocative name immediately, and forever, etched in our collective memory (particularly in France), but who could forget Jean Paul Goude’s gorgeously camp TV commercial, with its over-the-top Prokoviev soundtrack and hysterical women shouting from balconies? Citing the 17th-century French playwright Pierre Corneille, this is what they so plaintively, melodramatically cried out (translated): “Egoïste, where are you? Stop hiding, selfish man! Watch my ire! I will be implacable! O anger! O despair! You betrayed my love. Have I lived simply to know this infamy? Show yourself! Egoïste!”

As the fragrance marks its 20th anniversary this year, we wanted to know more about its genesis and its genius creator, Jacques Polge, Chanel’s legendary in-house perfumer—or “nose”—for 32 years…

A Chanel executive once told me that of all the fragrances you’ve created at Chanel, Egoïste is your favorite. Is that true?
Yes, it’s true, it’s my favorite. It was so new and singular—and still is.

How did the adventure start?
What happened was, I found an old formula by Ernest Beaux [creator of N°5] of a women’s fragrance called Bois des Iles, which is exclusively sold in Chanel stores. There was a high content of sandalwood in it. We were used to such scents as fougères in men’s fragrances, but sandalwood had never been used as the main note in a male perfume. Egoïste is built around that. There is also some ambrette seed in it.

What about the name? Egoïste, which means selfish in English, is perhaps not the easiest way to market a fragrance. 
In our industry, we always use code names while working on fragrances. For example, I have a bottle here named Carla. It has nothing to do with Mrs. Sarkozy. It is a new variety of lavender. So at the time, in the eighties, I was working on a men’s fragrance that we called Black Wood. Chanel’s then-CEO had said that if we were to launch a men’s fragrance, we should also launch a menswear line. Ultimately, they dropped the menswear idea, so he decided to cancel the fragrance. But some of us really liked it, so we said, “We’re still going to launch it. Only, it will be exclusively available in our flagship stores.” We called it Bois Noir.

It still wasn’t called Egoïste?
No. But when you put fragrances in stores, there is always a fan base. And people loved Bois Noir. There really was a buzz around this perfume. So we decided to launch it for a wider audience. The marketing people said Bois Noir wasn’t a good name, so they chose Egoïste instead. There was this beautiful photography magazine called Egoïste, which was done by Nicole Wisniak. We called her and bought the rights to use the name for the fragrance.

Then there was the fabulous commercial…
Yes. Jean Paul Goude made this very strong commercial, which played a major role in the fragrance’s fame. Yet, despite all the exposure, the fragrance didn’t sell that well, especially in America. We had expected more success with it. So we launched Egoïste Platinum in 1994, which was a more classic scent, and it was a much bigger hit. But I am still very glad we did Egoïste. I think it’s important for a brand to have a fragrance that shakes things up. You know, the men’s market is very particular. I know we went far with Egoïste, but I like it. It was good for Chanel. Brands today maybe don’t have the courage that they used to.

You once said fragrances were divided into two groups, those for cleanliness and those for sex. Where does Egoïste lie?
Definitely in the sex part. Egoïste is about seduction. I have a funny anecdote about sex and smells. An American woman once asked me if French people took showers before or after sex. I answered, “After, of course.” (Laughs.)

Speaking of America, you’ve said Americans have changed the fragrance business, making it more sanitized.
Yes, indeed. You know, I started my career in the United States. Perfumes were then made of both good-smelling and bad-smelling ingredients. But the bad-smelling ingredients, when used in a certain way, brought something sensual and interesting to the final scent. The first time I arrived at work, they told me, “You want to work here? Then smell this.” They made me smell chives. With American puritanism, all these kinds of fragrances disappeared.

What is the inspiration behind Bleu, your new men’s fragrance, which has just hit stores?
Bleu is the opposite of Egoïste. Egoïste was inspired by a woman’s fragrance, whereas there is nothing feminine about Bleu. I wanted to do something very direct. You know, men’s fragrances are still very linked with shaving. When I find myself in planes, at some point I always see those business men coming from the bathroom smelling of aftershave. So Bleu is spicy, woody, and dry. There is no fantasy. 

In the decades you’ve been a perfumer, what changes have you noticed?
There used to be this special relationship between perfumers and couturiers. Now everything is different, but I think a lot of houses are catching up with that tradition again.