Chanel’s Rouge Noir has quite rightly become the most iconic shade of all time. Debuted at Paris Fashion Week in the mid-90s as a striking Le Vernis nail enamel, the hue is still one of the most coveted—and questionably duped—colours in both fashion and beauty history.
But while the legendary status of Rouge Noir is unwavering, the origin of the red-black is surrounded by urban myth. Keen to know more about the enigma that has become Chanel’s signature shade? Scroll down for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the cult classic…
It’s true that the Le Vernis Rouge Noir was first debuted at the A/W 94 Chanel show, but the relationship between the hue and the label dates way back. In an article titled Seeing the Mode in Colour, which appeared in the May 1926 issue of U.S Vogue, Mademoiselle Chanel’s preference for the shade is duly noted. Describing the colour before it was given its iconic moniker, the article reads: “Black and white are joined by red, a garnet shade, like the heart of a black cherry, which Chanel uses frequently and which is often called ‘red-black.’”
It’s the shade that’s sparked a thousand imitations, but the nail enamel was actually born out of a pre-show hiccup. Ahead of the A/W 94 collection debut in Paris, makeup artist Heidi Morawetz realised she had no polish for the models' nails. In an interview with Peter Phillips, Morawetz has since revealed how she mixed together black and red pigments on her kitchen table in haste, before giving a rudimentary version of what came to be Le Vernis Rouge Noir, to the (somewhat unimpressed) manicurist backstage. Journalists saw the striking new colour and the frenzy began.
Following the raging success of the nail paint at the runway show, the shade was in high demand immediately. Laboratories in America were the first to produce high-quality batches of the nail enamel and rapidly launched it under the name Vamp—even though the now-iconic Rouge Noir moniker had already been registered by the Paris team. More on Vamp versus Rouge Noir in a moment.
In America, queues lined the pavements outside Barney’s the day “Vamp” was due to hit counters, and the polish even made the news on CNN. In the UK, it sold out on the same day it first became available, sparking waiting lists of 6–12 months. Unit by unit, it’s still the best-selling Chanel product ever, raking in over $1 million in its first year alone.
If demand for Rouge Noir wasn’t already enough, Uma Thurman then wore the shade in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. An iconic actress, playing an iconic role, wearing an iconic nail polish? Orders for the enamel went through the roof. In 1995, U.S. Chanel rep Judy Biasalli was quoted as saying: “If I had a penny for everyone that wanted Vamp, I'd be rich. It's literally flying out of the store. In my 11 years with Chanel, I've never seen anything like this.” Then, of course, Madonna wore it in her “Take a Bow” music video…
The Le Vernis frenzy of the '90s came to an abrupt halt when—in a shocking move—Chanel actually discontinued their best-selling shade! However, it returned in 2003, with one major difference; in the States, No.18 Vamp was now a different shade compared with the classic No.18 Rouge Noir. Yes, they’re both still marked-up as No.18, which is where plenty of confusion still lies. While the original was, and still is, a deeply dark red-black with a creme finish, the new No.18 Vamp (not available in the UK) has a lighter burgundy hue with a subtle silver shimmer.
Chanel’s Christmas 2015 makeup collection was an homage to Rouge Noir on the 20th anniversary of its debut. Eye shadows in shimmer and matte finishes, kohl liners and even mascara took on the hue for a limited-edition run of vampy staples. But if you missed it, take heart; the creamy Rouge Allure Lip Colour still comes in No.109 Rouge Noir (£26).
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Opening Image: Instagram/Chanel