If No. 5 L'Eau were an item of clothing, it would be a simple, short-sleeved linen blouse.
If it were a colour, it would be ivory.
If it were a time of day, it would be 10 in the morning on a Saturday, when the weekend is still full of promise.
A few days ago, at a local branch of a ye olde generic perfume departmente, I overheard two teenage girls deciding which tester to grab for a quick spritz. 'Oooh, what about Chanel No. 5,' one of them said, chuckling, 'you can't go wrong with that.' Her friend paused for a moment and frowned. 'No,' she said, 'I think I do like it. But it's a bit too grown up for me.' That sums up the issue which has almost certainly led to the brand releasing a new flanker to their icon: No. 5 L'Eau, composed by Olivier Polge.
As my little story shows, the No. 5 legend has successfully been handed down to the next generation, but it is now too grand, too complicated, too downright weighty to be accessible to the very people whose endorsement is needed to keep the myth alive. Chanel tried to address this conundrum in 2007 with the beautiful No. 5 Eau Première (by Olivier's father, Jacques), but their efforts didn't strike as powerful a chord as they'd hoped. So now, with their young, in-house perfumer firmly installed in their lab, they're trying their luck again. And they're not pulling their punches, because L'Eau is probably as unlike No. 5 as a scent could be, without rendering the use of the No. 5 name completely nonsensical.
Housed in the familiar bottle, minus the golden trimmings, L'Eau is No. 5 stripped back, toned down, made more transparent, more linear and, crucially, less abstract. Eau Première tried a similar tactic by making the original formula less challenging, but it still retained its trademark aldehydic sparkle and that vintage-inflected puff of powder. L'Eau takes the modernisation even further. With considerable bravery, Polge has attempted to bring concrete legibility - so in vogue at the moment - to a scent whose very identity is based on mystery and inscrutability.
What does this mean in terms of how the stuff smells? Well, the aldehydes are present, but they're far less radiant and they've lost that snuffed-candle dryness. The citrus notes at the top are now more overt, almost recalling the grapefruity zing Polge recently showed off in Chance Eau Vive. The jasmine core is less specific, less indolic, more polite. The vanillic richness has gone on a strict diet. And the powderiness has pretty much disappeared.
This leaves us with an extremely attractive, easy to wear, but perhaps not terribly original composition, which will probably do well at the tills. And if it does, I won't complain for one moment, because at least it's nothing like the sugar-coated pap which so many other brands continue to inflict on younger shoppers. L'Eau is not No. 5. But it does have a compelling style of its own. And if it keeps its grandmother's magic intact for a few more years, then I'm all for it.
[Review based on a sample of eau de toilette provided by Chanel in 2016.]