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Boy Chanel: Chanel’s Gender-Bending Perfume

Olivier Polge created the 17th fragrance in the house’s Les Exclusifs line.

PARIS — For his second fragrance creation in Chanel’s Les Exclusifs line, Olivier Polge gleaned inspiration from Arthur Capel, Gabrielle Chanel’s lover and benefactor.

“The idea, I think, was in the house for a long time,” said the perfumer, who transported an idea from Chanel fashion: making a traditional men’s aesthetic feminine when sported by women.

“My way of working on this fragrance was really not to try to make a unisex fragrance but really more to dive into men’s fragrance…and to show how well it could be worn by a woman,” said Polge, drawing a parallel to a woman putting on her boyfriend’s shirt, thereby rendering it feminine. “So it was not to try to create an in-between fragrance, but a very masculine fragrance. And — like many other things in life — gender is given by the person wearing it.”

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Polge, whose father was Chanel’s in-house fragrance creator between 1978 and 2013, had long known about the relationship between Chanel and Capel, whose nickname was Boy. Since taking on the chief perfumer role three years ago, he has read numerous books on the subject and looked into its archives, as well.

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The new scent, Boy Chanel, is the 17th Les Exclusifs perfume. Polge opted to build the fragrance around a masculine fougère accord, a first for the collection. It blends lavender with rose geranium — grown in Pégomas, near Grasse, France, where Chanel sources other aromatic plants — along with coumarin and moss. There is also lemon and grapefruit zest, notes of rose, orange blossom, sandalwood and heliotropin, plus a hint of vanilla and musk accords.

Polge described the fragrance as having a duality, with a fresh, aromatic masculine barbershop aspect and its more enveloping element.

“I was trying to play with rules [of masculinity and femininity], which I liked. By playing with those rules, it’s a way of showing there are no rules,” he said.

Boy Chanel is to launch exclusively in Chanel’s beauty boutique in the Marais neighborhood of Paris on Thursday, followed by a broader rollout in early June to 240 doors worldwide. The 75- and 200-ml. bottles will retail in France for 175 euros and 320 euros, or $196 and $359 at current exchange, respectively.

“We are targeting people who are looking for unexpected scents,” said Polge, in discussing Les Exclusifs.

He came out with his first scent for the line in 2015. Called Misia, the fragrance was named after a close friend of Chanel’s, who introduced the designer to numerous things. Polge wanted to convey the atmosphere of the Ballets Russes and the smell of makeup from that time.

Observers lauded his risk-taking.

“Even with his first fragrance, Olivier has shown that he’s willing to recast the traditional Chanel palette,” said Victoria Frolova, fragrance industry analyst and Bois de Jasmin editor. “Misia is a clever perfume and its voluptuous, powdery character was a surprise. Olivier combines two skills that are key for any perfumer — impeccable technique and imagination. In the past he has shown that he is not afraid to take creative risks.”

Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail, credited Chanel’s longtime couturier Karl Lagerfeld for ensuring its fashion remains relevant to new generations of luxury shoppers and Polge senior for doing the same in perfume.

“One of the strengths of Chanel fragrances is that each is grounded in an intriguing Chanel story — not just top notes and bottom notes, not just celebrities. With the introduction of Misia, that continues. That’s good news because it is very relevant to shoppers now — especially younger shoppers,” she said. “The term ‘authenticity’ is often overused today, but certainly here it feels appropriate, even this early into his tenure: Olivier Polge brings an authentic and yet next-generation sensibility to the Chanel brand.”

Frovola said Polge’s challenge will be to maintain Chanel’s reputation for quality and elegance, while allowing for his “own signature, which is quite distinctive. This is much harder than it sounds, because he is contending with many legends — No. 5, 19, Coco, etc. How do you make your mark when you work alongside such standards? For my part, I hope that he will take more risks and be willing to reinterpret the legacy of Chanel in his own style. And above all, maintain the quality of new launches and classics, the hallmark of the house since its inception.”