The Flower Of Youth

Beneath its delicate layers, the red camellia holds a tantalising promise: it lacks the cellular system for ageing. It’s a genetic quirk that’s been seized by Chanel, as it reinvents an icon of the house and breaks new ground in “clean beauty”.

Article by Divya Bala

Camellia japonicaCamellia japonica trees at Jean Thoby’s botanical conservatory garden in Gaujacq, France. Photography courtesy Chanel.

In early March, spring hints at its arrival on an unassuming plot of land in Gaujacq, France. Between the green hills of Béarn and the banks of the Adour river, the farm — also known as Chanel’s open-sky laboratory — begins to hum back to life. Set in the country’s south-west, close to the Atlantic Ocean and shouldered by mountains in the south, the region is known for its deep soil, numerous springs and ideal growing conditions.

Here, the wealth of the land is evidenced in impossible scale: wisteria grows metres in a single year, flowers as big as hats hang from hundred-year-old trees and bumblebees the size of puppies dart in and out of the ivory cherry blossoms that rain petals onto the lawn. So biodiverse is the 70-hectare property that the marsh copper butterfly, unseen since the early 2000s, has made an appearance in the area, as has an endangered tree frog and a protected white hawk, which returns from Spain every autumn.

At this apex of agriculture and Disneyesque charm, Chanel grows its camellias — those fabled flowers that captured the imagination of Gabrielle Chanel herself (she once claimed to eat them, though perhaps in jest). Though this enigmatic bloom, with its plump, translucent petals, has no scent, it is in possession of a unique allure. “Camellias have a very special feature,” explains Jean Thoby, a renowned camellia expert who runs the botanical conservatory garden for Chanel, a partnership that began in 1998. “They don’t have a senescence [ageing] program: genetically, [camellias] are not programmed to die. For this reason, the more time passes, the more beautiful and strong they are.”

Sporting a shock of shoulder-length white hair and yellow trousers that match the yellow convertible Beetle he uses to get around the property, Thoby is a fifth-generation plant collector who grew up learning the family trade. In 2009, having conducted trials with Chanel’s phytochemistry laboratory, he cultivated a first crop of the white Camellia japonica “Alba Plena”, a bloom only cultivated in Gaujacq. Without his perseverance, it might have been lost forever.

Just a few kilometres from the farm is Thoby’s conservatory garden, established in the spring of 1986. Known as the Plantarium, it houses more than 3,000 different plants (including native Australian eucalyptus, acacia and grevilleas). Of these, there are 2,000 varieties of camellia, 75 of them being protected botanical species that have been collected from all over the world and safeguarded from extinction. Two camellia tufts were born from mother plants thought to have been ordered by Chanel’s founder more than a century ago. But the plant of particular interest to Thoby today is the red Camellia japonica, the key ingredient in the new N°1 de Chanel skincare collection. This bloom is harvested for its protocatechuic acid, said to protect the skin, improve texture and promote radiance.

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Harvesting white camellias in Gaujacq. Photography courtesy Chanel.
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Camellia Alba PFA is an active ingredient prized for its moisturising qualities. Photography courtesy Chanel.

Across cultures, the camellia has come to represent purity, love and devotion. It has staying power: a hardy, complex plant, it does not falter in the cold or rain. Yet its simple blooms appear incredibly fragile. A display of complexity masquerading as simplicity, the camellia has much in common with the refined, minimalist designs of Chanel. After all, Chanel once said that simplicity — a key element of her designs — “is the keynote of all true elegance”. Camellias were the designer’s favourite flower. In a photograph taken on France’s north-west coast in 1913, just a few years after she founded the company, she wears a fresh bloom on the belt of her coat. In another image, taken almost 25 years later, she is seen speaking with Salvador Dalí, a clutch of camellias adorning her lapel. The flower first appeared in her designs in the 1920s and would sprout up in almost every Chanel collection to follow, most extravagantly realised as pieces
of high jewellery paved with diamonds, cut from rock crystal and spun from gold.

Now, a century after the camellia’s debut at the house, it has been reimagined once more: this time as Chanel’s first signature skincare ingredient. Extracts of red camellias feature throughout the N°1 collection, which includes skincare products, cosmetics and even a fragrance imagined by the house perfumer, Olivier Polge (taking its cues from an unscented flower, the scent is as delicate as it is subtle, with a second-skin freshness and notes of jasmine, rose and orange blossom). Nicola Fuzzati, a phytochemist at Chanel Research, has been exploring the plant’s scientific properties. His team has developed methods of extracting the skin-plumping, antioxidant-rich protocatechuic acid in a way that harnesses key molecules and removes others to make highly concentrated ingredients. “They are as pure as possible to be as efficient as possible,” he says. In this latest incarnation, Chanel’s camellia has also come to symbolise a clean conscience, with the new products marking the company’s entry into the clean beauty game. The N°1 de Chanel Revitalizing Cream, for example, is said to comprise 95 per cent naturally derived ingredients and, in a first for the brand, is sold in a refillable glass jar.

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A display in the reception area at Chanel’s camellia farm shows varieties grown on site. Photography courtesy Chanel.
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By the fire, a stock of Chanel wellington boots awaits guests at the camellia farm. Photography courtesy Chanel.
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Thoby’s assiduous care extends to the surrounding woods, hedges and soil. Photography courtesy Chanel.

This comes at a time when shoppers are becoming increasingly vocal about waste (in a survey of more than 10,000 beauty consumers in the United States, released by PowerReviews in 2021, some 76 per cent of respondents said they were planning to buy sustainably made products). Luxury brands are taking notice, with several launching refillable products in recent years, among them Hermès (the Rouge Hermès lipstick cases), Dior (the L’Or de Vie skincare line) and La Prairie (the Pure Gold collection).

And we can expect to see plenty more, according to Jenni Middleton, a former director of beauty at the London-based trend forecasting firm WGSN. “Products that give back to the environment, rather than just take less from it, will be expected as regenerative design becomes the norm,” she explained in a recent webinar. “Businesses must protect the planet for future generations and the future of beauty, too.” Most of N°1 de Chanel’s packaging is bio-based and uses less glass than the brand’s other products. In addition, Fuzzati’s team endeavours to use every part of the camellia — from petal to stem — “to honour the ingredient entirely”. That includes the seed shells, which are incorporated in the black lids.

Chanel is quoted as having once said: “Nature gives you the face you have at 20; life models the face you have at 30; but the face you have at 50 is the one you deserve.” Had she been privy to the perpetuating powers of her beloved camellia, she might have observed that sometimes the most beautiful things are not those that are frozen in time, but rather those that are eternally evolving.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 40 of T Australia with the headline: “The Flower of Youth”