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Chanel Beauty Sylvie Legastelois
Courtesy of Chanel Beauty

Meet Chanel’s Sylvie Legastelois, a pioneering voice in beauty design

Dazed meets Sylvie Legastelois, the woman behind some of the most recognisable designs in beauty, from Chanel’s No. 5 bottle to its Rouge Allure lipstick cases

If you don’t know her name, you’ll definitely know her work – it could well be sitting on your bedside table or lying inside your bathroom cabinet, or else tucked away in your make-up bag. As head of packaging and graphic design creation for Chanel, Sylvie Legastelois has quietly been shaping our notions of fashion, beauty and luxury for the past four decades.

Legastelois first joined the house in 1984, just one year after Karl Lagerfeld, and has since overseen the creation of all the most seminal Chanel beauty products – from the Rouge Allure lipsticks with their satisfying click, to the perfume bottles for scents including Chance, Gabrielle and Bleu de Chanel, the fragrance now faced by Timothée Chalamet. In 2012, she redesigned the No. 5 bottle, in what was just the eighth time it had been given a refresh since the scent first launched in 1921.

The enduring symbol of Chanel, No. 5’s iconic whisky flask-inspired design and masculine simplicity was so different from the ostentatious perfumes of its time. The stark, minimal bottle was a lesson in modernity, and it’s this forward-thinking spirit that Legastelois tries to uphold today, while still staying true to the house’s elegance, sophistication and sense of style. It’s a fine line to walk – maintaining the luxury and timelessness of the brand while staying fresh and modern, to both honour and push forward the design codes set down by Coco Chanel, a woman whose collections were always so ahead of their time. “I have a mission to respect the past but also, I have a mission to go further,” says Legastelois. “My challenge is to go further.”

That’s not to say that the maison and its long history does not provide a rich source of inspiration for her. The brand’s most recent launch, 31 Le Rouge – a range of lipsticks beautifully encased in glass – takes design cues from the mirrors that line the staircase at Chanel’s Parisian apartment, 31 rue Cambon. Four years in the making, this is the first time Chanel has created glass lipsticks. It was an exercise in both beauty and sustainability – all plastic components have been removed from the packaging, including the refill mechanism which is now made from metal. 

“We wanted to create a luxurious lipstick directly inspired by the world of Gabrielle Chanel,” says Legastelois. “[But] it was not possible for us to imagine launching a very sophisticated lipstick with plastic. That’s why we challenged our metal supplier to reinvent this refill in all metal. In the past, Gabrielle Chanel also did an all-metal lipstick.” 

Preferring to stay behind the curtain Legastelois rarely gives interviews, but here she speaks to Dazed about the new lipsticks, how she balances beauty with function, masculine shapes with feminine sensibilities, and the legacy she will leave behind.

Congratulations on the new lipsticks, they are beautiful. What has the process been to create them?

Sylvie Legastelois: For this lipstick, I had a dream. I love our lipsticks, but doing a black and gold lipstick was not a surprise. So I wanted to respect the past with the shape but at the same time innovate with the material itself. That’s why I wanted to work with glass. And also because I think, today, the transparency and the truth is very important for me and Chanel. We work a lot on sustainability, and we don’t always say that we do it, but we do our best each time on the product. We can’t hide when we use glass, so we need to be excellent and show everything.

The lipsticks drew inspiration from Chanel’s staircase in her apartment – when you are designing do you always look at the archives and history of Chanel? 

Sylvie Legastelois: Of course when I go to the archive it’s always inspiring. But when I have a new challenge, I refuse to go to the museum or look at competitors because maybe something inside me says, ‘OK, if you begin to look around you, even without wanting to copy, maybe we can follow.’

I have a mission to respect the past but also, I have a mission to go further. So, if I go to the archive, often I go after, just to see because each time it’s really interesting. We always discover that Gabrielle Chanel was ahead of her time, she always goes further, and the simplicity of the products is very nice to see. Sometimes I go, and now because I’ve worked for almost 40 years, I see products I designed, and it’s a part of the story. It’s funny to see that together and it’s interesting.

How do you stay true to the classic Chanel look while still pushing forward and staying modern?

Sylvie Legastelois: I think it is intuition. It’s something difficult to describe, it’s not like a recipe. Sometimes I feel like I need to work on something maybe more classic like Gabrielle and sometimes I want to go further like the hand cream [which came] from nothing. It’s to show that Chanel is able to respect the past but also to reinvent. I like this sentence we use sometimes: let Chanel surprise you. I think it’s a part of my mission. It’s a balance, it’s a question of feeling, and it’s very personal.

When you’re designing, how much do you think about beauty and aesthetics versus usability?

Sylvie Legastelois: I could say, of course, aesthetic, but I cannot forget the usage and the ergonomics. I think it’s really important and that’s why I work on all the senses – the sound, the feeling, the eyes. When you look at the product it should be nice, but when you touch it, it’s very important to have pleasure to use it. I work very hard to have something really nice to use in your hand.

So, it’s a balance, of course. I think Chanel products need to be excellent but also something magic, like Rouge Allure. You don’t know how it works, but it works. It’s not really important to show all the mechanisms inside, to explain to you, ‘oh, it was very difficult to produce.’ For the woman who uses the product, she doesn’t care how it works. If it appeals to use it, I think I did part of my job. The laboratory at Chanel works hard to have the best lipstick itself, so my work is to make the packaging reflect what we find inside.

How would you describe the aesthetics of Chanel? Are there rules or a design code that you always think about when you start designing a new product?

Sylvie Legastelois: The first words I can tell you about the design are simplicity, minimalism – and of course, I have some codes, like the curved, square shape you can find in the 31 Le Rouge. I think it’s a balance between simplicity and sophistication.  

And for me, Chanel also has a masculine element. For example, No.5 could almost be a whiskey bottle. Do you think about the balance between masculine and feminine?

Sylvie Legastelois: Yes, Gabrielle Chanel herself was very inspired by the world of the man, she took from the man to the woman. The simplicity of the bottle of No.5 it’s quite masculine. That’s why if you look at Gabrielle’s bottle, we can see a parallel with the first bottle of No.5. That’s why when I designed the hand cream, I wanted something warmer, more feminine. 

In the past, the No.5 soap was like that [round, soft edges]. And one day I redesigned it – one day 20 years ago! – I said ‘OK I will do something square’. And after some years, I say ‘wow you are a woman, you took the first round shape at Chanel and you killed that’. So I redo it in [the round] shape and when I designed the hand cream it was like a homage to that. It’s quite complicated to do something feminine and at the same time inspired by masculine.

You’ve worked at Chanel for almost 40 years, do you ever think about your legacy and the impact you’ve had on the world of fashion?

Sylvie Legastelois: It’s difficult to say. We are one house and I’m very inspired by the world of fashion. And because I don’t want to look at the competitors, I prefer to look at what Chanel does well: fashion and the Maisons d’art. They inspire me every day and I’m very proud when, for example, fashion decided to create a small vanity for 31 Le Rouge because I think if they do that, they like it. And I’m proud when I see my products in their world. I’m inspired by them and for me, I’m very humble. 

You’re too humble! You’ve made such a big impact on the industry.

Sylvie Legastelois: I hope so. But I think the brand is so impressive that to continue to create for this brand you need to be humble, to listen, to observe, and to have doubts. You know, when you create you have doubts and at the same time, never give up. I have a sentence I kept in my mind: fall seven, stand up eight. So I never give up. 

Sometimes, I do something [but] it’s not a good time. I keep it in my mind and one day it will arrive. But I like to explore, so sometimes I think it’s too early, maybe people don’t understand – next time. It’s strange, you have to manage both – you want to convince people that it could be nice and at the same time, in your mind, it’s not so easy to [believe] ‘I’m true’ the first time you put a product on the table. Humility is part of life.