Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883. She came from a modest background, her mother working as a laundry woman and her father as a street vendor. Chanel was immersed in the world of clothes from an early age, as her father sold work clothing and undergarments on his stall.
But at the age of 12, after the tragic death of her mother, Gabrielle was sent to a convent orphanage, Aubazine, which was founded by 12th-century Cistercians and located in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of central France.
The nuns at the orphanage had a very strict way of life, and Gabrielle didn’t find living there easy. Everyday over the next six years she would cross a series of paths that led to the cathedral for daily prayer. The stones in these paths were grouped in fives, which imbued the number with significance.
Since these paths led the way to holy prayer, the number five came to symbolise purity for Chanel, which was a key aspect of the perfume she would later go on to develop.
The Roaring Twenties saw the birth of Maison Chanel, one of the most influential fashion houses to have ever existed. In 1920, Chanel started working on her first fragrance with Ernest Beaux, a former perfumer to the Tsars of Russia.
It took Beaux several months to perfect the new fragrance, but eventually he came up with 10 samples. When he presented them to Chanel, they were numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. She picked number five, which explains the origins of the iconic Chanel N°5 perfume.
Legend has it that the concoction was actually the result of a laboratory mistake. Beaux’s assistant had added an unusual dose of aldehyde to the sample, but it clearly impressed Chanel and later the world of fashion.
Chanel told master perfumer Beaux the main reason she named her perfume after the number five was the belief this would bring good luck.
“I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck,” she said.
Judging by her success, Chanel’s good luck wish came true. She went on to release four more successful perfumes during the 1920s, and at the height of her fame in 1935, Chanel employed 4,000 workers and owned five boutiques at Rue Cambon in Paris.