PARIS — Jacques Helleu, Chanel's artistic director for more than four decades, died Friday at age 69 after a long illness.
Helleu was the driving force behind the image of the Chanel beauty business, whose No.5 fragrance remains the perennial bestseller worldwide. Helleu, who joined Chanel at age 18, was also in charge of image for the company's fine jewelry and its watch collection, for which he designed the timepieces, such as the J12.
Under his tutelage, the company has had a long history of cinematic and fantasy-themed advertising in both film and print form, counting Catherine Deneuve, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Kate Moss, Nicole Kidman and, most recently, Keira Knightley among its celebrity pitchwomen. Filmmakers and photographers who have worked on Chanel campaigns include Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Jean-Paul Goude, Baz Luhrmann, Luc Besson and Ridley Scott.
Maureen Chiquet, the company's global chief executive officer, praised Helleu's career in a memo to Chanel employees.
"His larger-than-life personality, immense talents and unique vision have defined Chanel as the ultimate house of luxury, with an unparalleled global presence," she wrote. "He succeeded in bringing Chanel into the 21st century as a leader in the world of exclusivity.
"'Taste is a gift,' he often confessed," the statement continued. "He guided us in his artistic choices, which have given Chanel its worldwide aura."
Throughout his career, Helleu maintained the continuous rejuvenation of a brand's advertising is key to its longevity. He said vital to such an approach is "simplicity," a keystone first laid down by Gabrielle Chanel for the premiere Chanel No.5 ad in 1921. And it subsequently underlined all of the fragrances' campaigns, each an iteration of the same story.
But that wasn't all. Many of the Chanel No.5 ads radiated a certain je ne sais quoi due to their use of actress-models. The first of that newfangled breed was Deneuve, the face of Chanel No.5 from 1968 to 1976. Helleu said he chose her not because Deneuve was already a star, but after he spotted her in a tiny photograph on the cover of Look magazine.
"It called her 'the most beautiful woman in the world,'" he reminisced during an interview for WWD Beauty Biz, a sister publication of WWD, in 2002. "I said there was something magical in that."There was resistance to Deneuve by the agency that until 1968 had created the No.5 campaigns, since she was by no means a household name and didn't speak English very well. But Helleu's dream ultimately became reality, and the ads in which Deneuve speaks of her intimate relationship with the scent (she says she wears Chanel No.5 behind her knees, for instance) met with rave reviews. The campaign "completely revived Chanel No.5," said Helleu.
In the early days of Deneuve and No.5, celebrity advertising was in its nascent phase. But now it's all the rage. And yet, Chanel continues luring new and faithful clients via models chosen "for certain characteristics, be it beauty or style," said Helleu. "It frequently has happened that after [being in a Chanel No.5 campaign] they become stars."
Cases in point? MacGraw, who was shot while still an assistant to legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and Bergen, before she made it big.
Kidman, however, was already a major star when she was signed on to feature in a mini-film directed by Luhrmann for Chanel No.5. It aired in 2004.
Among those considered the most creative Chanel No.5 campaigns was "Share the Fantasy." Kicked off in 1979 by Scott's "Pool" ad, a surreal spot involving a woman, a plane and a pool, "Share the Fantasy" is the dream-like, post-Deneuve advertising.
"It was rather extraordinary. There were so many accidents in that film," reminisced Helleu. For one, it was a fluke the plane's loops were in sync with the music. "That's what is interesting [in advertising]. You can't have rigidity, storyboards, control."
Indeed, it was this vision that made him unique to work with, collaborators said.
Rather than commanding too much control, which could easily squelch creativity, Helleu gave a few words to inspire a photographer, said Dominique Issermann, who began working with Helleu at Chanel with a fragrance ad featuring Carole Bouquet in 1997. Since then, Issermann has lensed numerous Chanel print campaigns, the most recent of which is the Coco Mademoiselle ad starring Knightley.
"He wanted me to understand what he meant with two or three words," she said. "He wanted you to collaborate with him."Jacques was an image fanatic," she continued. "He collected photographs and was a good painter. He was very sophisticated and elegant and it came from the heart. Jacques had a total reverence, respect and love for Chanel."
She added that, at the same time, he was irreverent, always saying things on the edge.
"Jacques Helleu was a great personality, a great talent," said photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who worked on Chanel campaigns, including Allure's. "He was very kind and had humor."
Ines de la Fressange — who was photographed for Chanel ads, including for Coco — lauded Helleu for his ease, critical sense ("often with a lot of humor") and exigency "to never do things in a mediocre fashion."
Goude, who was behind such campaigns as the one for Coco starring Vanessa Paradis in a birdcage, said Helleu approached fragrance advertising "in a flamboyant way, not the meek way in which it had been done and is still sometimes done."
Goude recalled working on the Egoiste fragrance campaign, in which dozens of models shout "egoist" from as many of a building's windows.
"It was really groundbreaking, a really fresh way of doing advertising," he said. "Jacques really believed in the projects we did together. They were artistic.
"I owe Jacques a big, big hunk of my career. He took lots of chances with me. We did really good work together," said Goude. "I'll miss him; the whole industry will — and more."
Helleu was born in Boulogne-sur-Seine, France, on June 30, 1938. He is survived by his wife, five children, a sister and four grandchildren.
A private funeral will be held in Paris on Tuesday afternoon.
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