On scent and semiotics

Take a quick test for me. I’ll say a word and you tell me the first thing that comes into you head. Ready?

Jersey

What did you think of?

A U.S. state? A sports shirt? A Channel Island? A dairy cow? A knit fabric?

Chanel Jersey

Honey, you smell like Jersey

Well, the luxury brand Chanel is hoping for the latter. It recently released a new limited-edition perfume called Chanel Jersey.

Now, I “get” the reference, but only because I’m married to a French woman with an uncanny knowledge of fabrics and who was raised on the national myth that is Coco Chanel.  The defunct fashion designer apparently caused outrage when she began using jersey to make outerwear (it had traditionally been use to make underwear, according to Wikipedia).

The other fragrances in the collection all have evocative names, ranging from the mappish 31 Rue Cambon to the czarist Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather). I imagine that they all refer to different chapters in the Chanel narrative. And it is true that in France the English word jersey is closely associated with Chanel, at least among the fashion-minded bourgeoisie.

But to to try to stretch French signification of an English word into markets where English is the mother tongue, I’m not so sure. The word already means something in English. It isn’t a blank slate. How much money will Chanel have to spend to overcome the preconceived notions already associated with the word? I wonder how many Americans are going to buy the perfume simply as a joke for their friends from Jersey, the butt-of-all-jokes state. I wonder how long before Jon Stewart gets ahold of it. Will people think it smells like a cow or a locker room? Is it for men or women? Is this, in the end, going to be good for the brand?

Maybe I’m wrong. Knit fabric is the first definition of jersey in the dictionary, after all. Maybe because I’m a guy I don’t immediately think of the fabric (just like when women say “fawn” I think of an animal and not a color). And maybe Chanel aficionados are the market for the product, and they are in the know. I’m just glad that I don’t have to do the storytelling on this one.

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