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How These Fascinating Arab Women are Celebrating a Century of Chanel No 5

The fragrance that is as intriguing as it is beloved, Chanel No 5 celebrates its centennial in 2021, marking an extraordinary 100 years of the iconic perfume.

Photo: François Kollar © Ministère De La Culture Médiathèque Du Patrimoine, Dist. Rmn

This year marks a century of Chanel No 5, the truly unique fragrance that launched millions of admirers and remains one of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s greatest legacies. Given the specifics issued by Chanel in her quest to perfect her first fragrance, it’s almost as if the Parisian knew how monumental her perfume would become; its relevance becoming only more compounded with every year that passes. Disenchanted with the restrictive traditions of the 1920s, which dictated that ladies were to wear singular flower essences while only courtesans dabbed with multifloral blends, heady musks, and indolic jasmine, Chanel conceived of a newly liberated fragrance that would set Paris alight with its unapologetically modern notes. Created by Ernest Beaux and presented to the couturière for her approval, the scent was the perfumer’s fifth formulation shown to Chanel – a remarkable turn of fate given her association with the number as a guiding good-luck charm. A provocative blend of ylang-ylang, May rose, and Grasse jasmine, topped off with effervescent aldehydes, the fragrance was declared by Chanel as “a woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.”

Chanel No 5 was released in 1921 to immediate acclaim. Now at 100 years old, Chanel No 5 has continued to mature into an olfactory legend, worn by new generations as a rite of passage, and gracing vanities of life-long admirers. The formula has remained steadfastly unchanged since its conception, barring the substitution of natural civet, poured into the iconic beveled and squared-shouldered flacon, with its stopper inspired by Place Vendôme. Collecting a legion of celebrity admirers, Chanel No 5 has remained at the forefront of popular culture since its release. Marilyn Monroe famously wore five drops and nothing else to bed, while Andy Warhol paid homage to its bottle in one of his most iconic silkscreen artworks. As revered now in a modern-day Middle East as it was in its French birthplace, Chanel No 5 continues to inspire and entice as it enters a new century. To pay tribute to this remarkable milestone, five incredible Arab women, each possessing the same independent spirit championed by Gabrielle Chanel herself, share their first memories and enduring love affair with the timeless fragrance, Chanel No 5.

Also Read: Marion Cotillard on Becoming the New Face of the Iconic Chanel No.5

Sheikha Raya Al-Khalifa

A truly modern Chanel woman, Bahrain’s Sheikha Raya Al-Khalifa is a communications entrepreneur, a Qatari ambassador’s wife, and the hands-on mother of boys, who divides her time between Doha, London, and Florida. An avid vintage jewelry collector, she is moved by the connection between past and present that each one-of-a-kind piece offers, adapting a timeless style into her forward-thinking presence.

Photographed by Richard Kovacs

“My mother and my grandmother both wore Chanel No 5. The scent is so much a part of my earliest memories that it’s hard to separate the first time I experienced it myself, but it’s deeply intertwined with the most beloved women in my life. Chanel No 5 is such a refined, elegant perfume which perfectly suited my mother and my grandmother. It’s both strong and feminine. I make a point to say that both of these attributes can coexist – it isn’t weak to be feminine. I like my fragrance to whisper, not shout, but also to subtly linger all day, and Chanel No 5 is perfect for me as I love flowers and elegant floral notes. The fragrance makes its presence known, and projects that powerful, multilayered femininity. I think your fragrance is a little note you leave behind; something everlasting that people will associate with you. We gravitate towards certain types of scents throughout our lifetimes, and a timeless signature fragrance is one way to be remembered by those who know you.

My closeness to my mother’s side of the family meant I would always be rummaging through my grandma’s jewelry boxes. Vintage jewelry has a real craftsmanship behind it and a connection to a different world. Costume jewelry also offers a unique insight into a particular time and a place that won’t ever be exactly replicated again. I love anything big, flashy, and heavy gold. My Arab side loves the bold pieces, then the Londoner in me reins it in a little. I like to wear timeless pieces from my mother and grandmother, but there’s an ease of comfort to my style to balance that opulence.

All women possess their own kind of strength and refinement. You don’t necessarily have to be the CEO in her heels and suit to be powerful, as there are different kinds of strength. Since I became a mother and stepped back from my work as a consultant, I’ve recognized this intangible essence in other women and myself. As I get older, I become less critical of myself and more focused on positivity and channeling my energy into optimism rather than perfectionism. I want to celebrate this undeniable strength all women share, whether they are accomplishing in their career, navigating motherhood, or however they choose to achieve their own version of success.”

Aljwhara Alshaheen

At just 18, Kuwaiti Aljwhara Alshaheen has style in her DNA, with her mother’s influence giving her an eye for fashion from an early age. Along with her close-knit family, Alshaheen shares a passion for horses, perhaps best demonstrated by the well-known Aljwhara stables, named by her father for her.

Photographed by Djinane AlSuwayeh

“For as long as I can remember, the fragrance of Chanel No 5 has been present throughout my childhood. The soft, subtle powdery smell would linger whenever my mother left a room. I remember as a young girl looking on in awe at the way she would spray her favorite scent right before she softly kissed my forehead and headed out to her dinner engagement for the night. This memory invokes feelings of warmth and happiness.

Arab women have a strong and special connection with fragrance. The Arab woman’s taste in fragrance is extremely specific. In my family’s case, it revolves around patchouli and amber, both of which are important ingredients in Chanel No 5. Chanel No 5 has now become an essential part of my routine. When I spray the fragrance, it inspires a sense of empowerment and freedom. It makes me feel like I can do and be anything I want to be; the future is mine to conquer. It’s like the final touch to a masterpiece; the last touch to pull the whole look together.

I grew up being surrounded by strong, independent women, as the eldest child and the only girl. My father built my strength and dedication, and he was the one who brought horses into my life, when we traveled to Egypt to visit our stable, Aljwhara Horse. As Coco Chanel would agree, horses are majestic creatures that teach you love, patience, and discipline. We share this love as a family; it is something we value that keeps a special bond between us.

My mother is my role model and she taught me everything I know about effortless style. Since I was a kid, she would take me to Chanel shows in Paris with her to educate me at a young age about fashion. She showed me that everyone is beautiful in their own way; your clothes or style is not a reflection of who you are, but rather what you give off to people. In the end, style is just a finishing touch to enhance every woman’s beauty.”

Raha Moharrak

Proving that nothing can stop a Saudi woman, Raha Moharrak finds adventure in the everyday. Whether staking her claim as the first of her countrywomen to master the Seven Summits, or delighting in natural wonders closer to home, Moharrak unapologetically forges her own path, with her own take on femininity.

Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn

“My family is full of incredible, confident, bold women, who all have a sure sense of themselves. I grew up with the most gorgeous older sister, who is the complete opposite to me. She’s so ladylike and polished and I’ve always been a real tomboy. Growing up, she was the epitome of elegance to me. She loved Chanel and coveted her own bottle of Chanel No 5. When she finally bought the fragrance, I would sneak into her room and spray it on myself. It was like I was instantly transformed into a lady, even though I still looked like that little tomboy. It was my first taste of what it was like to be feminine, shared with my sister. It’s so emotional experiencing these nuanced steps into womanhood, and figuring out who you will be. Now, I wear Chanel No 5 as my special occasion fragrance. It’s my womanly alter ego in a bottle, for when I want to feel like the most ladylike version of myself. Arabs love to mix our fragrances, it’s in our DNA, so I like to add layers of smoky oud and amber then spritz Chanel No 5 on top.

I’ve always been driven by a sense of curiosity and wonderment. My greatest fear isn’t the highest mountain, but living a mundane, jaded life, and losing my lust for adventure. Climbing the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent, was simply my natural curiosity challenging me further. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone, I only answer to myself. Some people want to make excuses for why Saudi women can’t achieve their goals. I was told for so long that I couldn’t or shouldn’t, but I did it. If other women, Saudi women, see what I’m doing and are inspired to push their own limits, I’m proud to provoke that change. As women, we don’t have to put ourselves in a box or be constrained by traditional ideals, especially as we are setting the bar for the next generation to go even further. It’s hard finding your own authenticity, and not everyone has the confidence to be an individual, but it’s always worth it.”

Ghada Sawalmah

A groundbreaker in healthcare, Ghada Sawalmah is CEO of Gargash Hospital in Dubai, another achievement for the Emirati woman’s lineage of successful career women. As an expectant mother, Sawalmah embodies boldness, self-confidence, and innate style.

Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn

“My grandmother taught me a lot about being a woman and femininity. She loved playing with and mixing her scents – my mother always said that’s who I got my nose for fragrance from. I was always with my grandmother. I remember sitting with her at her mirrored dressing table, and she had her big bottle of Chanel No 5 there, front and center. She would combine it with her oils. Chanel No 5 was always the floral base, then her oud on top; a strong smoky oud that’s different to the modern ouds you find today. She added the oud to make the European florals more Arab. She would teach me how to make traditional incense, and to grind the oud wood before adding a fragrance. She loved experimenting and fragrance was always a bonding moment for us. Now when I spray my own bottle of Chanel No 5, it’s close to home for me and I’m taken back to those moments spent with her at the vanity mirror, as well as the cool fresh air of walking in the streets of Holland Park in my perfumed scarf and high boots.

When I wear it, it gives me that warmth – there’s a spiciness and the florals over the top. When I’m living in the UK, I spray it on my scarf so the fragrance can linger. Chanel No 5 makes me feel so ladylike. It evolves and changes on the skin, where if you spray it close to your neck, it becomes more intimate. It’s never overpowering, but it is a dominating fragrance in the sense that you can instantly recognize if someone is wearing it. Sometimes I will wear it just for myself, close to my skin like a secret. I come from a family of doctors so it was a departure to make my mark in management instead. I thrive with the challenge of sometimes being the only woman in the room and making sure I’m heard. As a woman, it’s important to project confidence. My mother was a go-getter, it’s something I’ve always admired about her. Female empowerment was always present in our household, with massive respect for the strength of women in society and the family.”

Aline Asmar d’Amman

Known for her artful eye and astute belief in the power of beautiful objects, Lebanese architect Aline Asmar d’Amman established herself in Paris with her firm Culture in Architecture. She creates narratives through design with iconic projects such as the Eiffel Tower’s Le Jules Verne restaurant and working closely with the late Karl Lagerfeld on projects of both fantasy and substance.

Photographed by Cheyne Tillier-Daly

“I was introduced to the Chanel No 5 fragrance by my mother, in Lebanon. I have a vivid souvenir of the strong femininity it immediately conveyed and was intrigued by the purity of the bottle shape. My mother’s mirrored vanity was punctuated with scents and flacons. Chanel No 5 particularly stood out with its radical simplicity and almost masculine allure. At the first touch of the bottle, the feeling of female empowerment is instantaneous. It lies in the bottle’s minimalism, its weight, the intimate scent, and the audacity one feels to be associated with Coco Chanel’s legendary heritage. Chanel No 5 is more than a fragrance to me; it evokes stories and symbolizes that empowerment and freedom.

For me, fragrance defines the woman you are and carves an unforgettable facet to your mark. My oriental origins speak about fragrance in many languages, from the legendary descriptions of gardens and their perfume in literature and in art, to the distinctive scent of interiors and the art of living, even before reaching boudoir stories and personal rituals. When I design a home for women from my region, I always pay attention to the powder room and enjoy imagining the perfume ceremony in the space. The intimacy of that moment is a pure, sensual gesture of wellbeing and pleasure.

From hospitality to personal design projects, working alongside Karl Lagerfeld for several years was an immense gift and a life learning experience. Books and handwritten letters were our first thread. Architecture sealed them in stone. Karl was a rare person. In addition to being one of the most extraordinary creatives of all times, he loved working with women and never missed a chance to share knowledge, humor, and compliments, encouraging every free-spirited initiative with his famous wit and heart. When I met him in 2013, after I sent him a personal letter, he was surprised by my obsession with each and every Chanel collection he had drawn, especially the decors of the shows and their narratives. The house of Chanel always inspires me. As long as I can remember loving fashion and embracing its huge influence on my work, there’s always been something from Coco Chanel within me. Some of the best advice in my career came from Karl Lagerfeld. Referencing Elsie de Wolfe, a legendary grande dame decorator of the early 20th century, he said, ‘There’s no second option!’ after our first work session on the Hôtel de Crillon Les Grands Appartements. Behind these congratulatory words, the real advice was to keep up the hard work with no compromise because it’s the only possible way towards excellence.”

Read Next: Chanel Unveils a 55.55 Carat High Jewelry Necklace Celebrating 100 Years of its Iconic No 5 Scent

Photography: Djinane AlSuwayeh, Ämr Ezzeldinn, Richard Kovacs, Cheyne Tillier-Daly
Style: Mohammad Hazem Rezq, Fahad Al Marzook, Sophie Gaten
Sheikha Raya Al-Khalifa’s hair: Jason Sutton at Josh Wood Colour
Raha Moharrak’s hair and makeup: Nabila Merchant
Aljwhara Alshaheen production: Chapter2

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