It is a Thursday afternoon in Paris and Whitney Peak, the ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Hocus Pocus’ star, has not long finished shooting the COCO MADEMOISELLE campaign. Now dressed in an elevated white T-shirt along with an exquisitely cut pair of pale blue jeans, all CHANEL of course, her skin luminous and her hair an extraordinary tumble of curls, the young actor discards her black chunky biker boots and then maneuvers herself cross-legged onto the sofa. Peak breaks into a smile, oozing a joyful exuberance and verve that can be felt in every crease of the room. The message is clear: Whitney Peak has arrived.
The actor is simultaneously relaxed and poised, energized and animated, convivial and yet serene, however it quickly becomes evident that the art of staying still – be it in body or brain – is not her natural state of play. Labyrinthic is perhaps the best way to describe the trajectory of a conversation with the multifaceted Peak. There’s the flighty, fanciful revelations; she admits to mimicking the life of a food critic filming herself trying and rating desserts from a plethora of famous French patisseries (‘I could literally eat desserts every day for the rest of my life’ she laughs.). And then, with astute fluidity, the discourse might just shift to addressing weightier societal issues; the power and influence of social media, women’s rights (‘We are literally taking one step forward and two steps back’) and the necessity of unapologetic debate (‘If people disagree with you, that’s fine’)… It is certainly not the depth and breadth of conversation you would expect from a 20-year-old. But let’s be clear, Peak is no ordinary 20-year-old. A reflection of her generation, she exudes a powerful sense of freedom; freedom to present herself to the world, with great clarity and audacity, freedom to be exactly as she is right now and in the future in all her juxtapositions, in all her nuances; freedom to be who she chooses to be and in what she chooses to do. It is gloriously resolute in attitude, admirably so. And yet, she retains a charm and curiosity about the world. Hence Peak, the new face of COCO MADEMOISELLE, is fitting as the modern-day embodiment of a young Gabrielle Chanel; a woman who at the age of 20 was not only shifting the narrative on what it meant to be a woman but was already on the journey to becoming the woman, the innovator, the icon who would change the world of fashion and beauty.
As she launches in, sharing how energized she is by Gabrielle Chanel, Peak’s eyes dance with excitement. ‘Remember, she came up in a time when women didn’t really have any freedom. And yet,’ adds Peak, her dulcet tone laced with awe, ‘she found a way through a society that was limiting for women and she continued to persevere, to work on her craft, to create things.’ Her words tail away but Peak is unequivocal: ‘Coco Chanel is that girl. She is unconventional.’
The link, arguably unlikely, between a Canadian girl born and raised in Uganda by her mother and a French orphan who went on to become one of the world’s most influential self-made icons is not immediately obvious. However, if one peels back the layers of both their lives, it provides a, perhaps surprising, parallel between these two women, from two different times, two different cultures and two different generations.
Photography by CHANEL
The transition from Uganda to Canada is one Peak remembers as being ‘a complete switch up. I had to relearn everything. It was a hard transition for me.’ And while being in Canada may have seemed closer to the aspirations she had of being an actor (she grew up loving ‘That’s So Raven’), she had no connections whatsoever, making her desire something of a pipe dream. Until she heard a radio advert for a Disney Channel casting call. And she, with no previous experience or training or friends in the industry, boldly went for the audition. This sense of audacity is also true of Gabrielle Chanel herself. Unbeknown to most, she grew up in an orphanage and yet forged her way through society to become one of history’s most influential women. Especially impressive considering the homogeneity. But Chanel was never afraid to be contrary.
This early sense, and embracing, of difference is one of the many attributes that propelled Gabrielle Chanel forward. Chanel was said to have cultivated a different type of femininity, one that totally went against the grain. At a time when women were dressed in theatrical frills and flounces, Chanel was a lesson in freedom from constraints minimalism; white collared schoolgirl dresses and straw boaters were one of her early style signifiers. Later she said, ‘People laughed at the way I dressed but that was the secret of my success. I didn’t look like anyone else.’ On the subject of Gabrielle Chanel’s style, Peak’s leans in with a glint in her eye. ‘So I only recently discovered a photograph of her with Etienne Balsan where they are pretty much dressed the same, wearing a white shirt with a tie and riding pants. And you know, I have worn pretty much the same outfit. I will find the actual picture. I mean,’ she says, with a soft chortle, as she scrolls through her phone to reveal an image of her dressed in an almost identical ensemble, ‘I know it might sound corny, but when I saw it, I completely resonated with it.
I love that she made these choices because that’s what she wanted to do. She was very singular about that. It was her way of making a statement. And that’s how I felt when I was younger. I didn’t identify with being super feminine or wearing dresses. I grew up mostly wearing my brother’s clothes because I was such a tomboy. So, to know that she kind of went through that same cycle, that sense of I don’t want to be all prissy and uncomfortable, I want to be free to roam and be free to run and to experience the same things as any individual does.’ The triumph in Peak’s face says it all.
The freedom to embrace and celebrate exactly who you are no matter where you are in your journey is something Peak is passionate about. ‘To quote Nina Simone, ‘Freedom to me is no fear.’ When I discovered her,’ she recalls emphatically, ‘I was very much trying to be someone else. But then I listened to her music, saw her interviews, her documentaries… Just the way she spoke about herself, the way she spoke about life, the way she was proud to be who she is, of her culture, where she’s from… I love her rebellion and I hold her very dear.’
There is a woman much closer to home who probably has Peak’s heart more than Simone does: her mother. ‘She raised me with these core values and a very strong sense of self that I have no need to be accepted, or liked or even wanted, do you know what I mean? So, she has always told me to be myself.’
Part of this powerful journey to fully being herself meant leaving home in Canada in 2020. Which is when she moved to New York. It proved a turning point. ‘These last couple of years living on my own, I have had time to reflect. Alone in my own space I realized, I felt the most at home I’d ever been. And that’s because I wasn’t afraid; to try new things, I wasn’t afraid to disappoint anybody, to perform or to be someone else. It was the first time in my life that I wasn’t being suffocated by expectation.’
This relinquishing of other people’s expectations, and rather, simply following her own path is part of what Peak considers self-care. ‘For me, self-care isn’t ‘I’m going to stay home and do a face mask and watch a movie.’ I do that anyway,’ she admits, laughing. ‘Self-care to me really is just doing whatever fuels me, whatever helps me put the best, truest version of myself out there.’
Which she says also includes what she smells like. ‘I put on a fragrance as a form of self-care.’ The conversation naturally turns specifically to her now being the face of COCO MADEMOISELLE. Peak is keen to make clear that she came to the scent of her own accord. Peak’s special connection with COCO MADEMOISELLE, she explains, has now, invariably, gone way beyond her initial encounter with the scent. ‘I’ve gotten to build a relationship with COCO MADEMOISELLE that overlaps any experience I’ve ever had with the fragrance before. It’s not often that you get to learn how the perfume you wear is made. I wear it and I’m like, “Yes, this is me”.’ And Peak’s way of wearing the fragrance is nothing short of ritualistic. ‘When I get out of the shower, I put my moisturizer on, I do my oil, I put my fragrance on and I also put it on my clothes and on my hair. Without [my fragrance] I am incomplete.’ This sense of being ‘complete’ is key to how Peak inhabits and exists in her world. ‘When I’m complete, I can fully give myself. I can be fully vulnerable; I can be open and accepting. If you’re going to leave the house and give yourself to everybody, I think you should always feel very complete. My fragrance is the perfect “complete”.’
COCO MADEMOISELLE is a fragrance that is both strong and subtle, youthful but confident, seductive yet not provocative, modern but classic… A perfect reflection of Peak, who, like the fragrance, is also comfortably layered with exquisite paradoxes. ‘I love to be unpredictable,’ she agrees. ‘Yes in my work I am all about structure but outside of that, even how I choose to dress day to day, I like the unexpected. Which is why I love COCO MADEMOISELLE. It doesn’t leave too much…’ she pauses thoughtfully and begins to search for her words. This perhaps validates what CHANEL In-House Perfumer-Creator Olivier Polge meant when he describes the fragrance as “an interesting combination that is simply hard to describe. At CHANEL we always speak about a certain level of abstraction within our perfumes.’ That said, he generously name checks woody, amber notes, tonka bean notes and of course patchouli in COCO MADEMOISELLE; but anyone expecting the ubiquitous, run-of-the-mill patchouli will be surprised. This patchouli is not as you know it. It is a very specific grade of patchouli, modernized, fractionated, and refined, leaving only its heart quivering on the skin.
Which goes right back to Polge’s thoughts around the concept of abstraction. And so, to focus too much on the raw material as a way to describe COCO MADEMOISELLE is perhaps missing the point. ‘Yes’, agrees Polge, nodding his head, ‘it is never literal.’ He provides an anecdote to drive home the point. ‘I like to always reference what Gabrielle Chanel had said to Ernest Beaux while creating N°5. She was asking for an “artificial” perfume. Not meaning synthetic but as in not linked to one specific raw material. She compared it to her work as a fashion designer; she’s building dresses, she’s sculpting shapes, she’s mixing fabrics… She was asking the perfumer to work with the same mindset. That is why at CHANEL we have always created perfumes that are composed like a dress and complete an allure.’
After a long pause Peak, who arguably could also be described as an embodiment of that complexity, lands with something that isn’t far off Polge’s idea. Perhaps because, just like Gabrielle Chanel herself, to whittle the scent down to a single note would be inadequate and frankly impossible. ‘There’s a mystique, a mystery,’ says Peak dreamily about COCO MADEMOISELLE. ‘It doesn’t paint too big or full a picture. It leaves room for the imagination for women to embody the fragrance in their own individuality, however they want their own personality to shine through. And when you have the right fragrance, it gives you an air of confidence. There is,’ she concedes, ‘a beautiful duality to it.’ All that said, ultimately however Peak believes the scent, just like the rest of the work created by Gabrielle Chanel simply speaks for itself. Referencing her own work whether in an acting role or using her platform to represent her generation, she says, ‘It doesn’t require a lot of talking about yourself to convince people to support you… I think your work should speak for itself.’
Still, Peak understands the importance of having a strong support network. ‘I think moving to New York at 17, being on a show like ‘Gossip Girl’ – where it’s kind of portraying an elite lifestyle – and getting exposure to so many things and experiences, I think it is easy to get lost in the scene, in Hollywood.’ When she talks about ‘keeping people around you that feed your soul,’ she is referring to her family as well as her ‘little New York family,’ which is made up of her high school best friend as well as creatives who have ‘extensively grown my taste in everything from literature to French cinema.’ Gabrielle Chanel’s own circle of support consisted of poets, musicians, artists and actresses, such as Misia Sert, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev and even Picasso. ‘She was a much better networker than me,’ jokes Peak. ‘But,’ she adds, more seriously, ‘I loved that she left room for socializing, that she networked, that she was very smart about every relationship and encounter she had.’
‘I hope people think that I never tried to be anything other than myself.’
The challenges the digital age presents in developing deeper meaningful connections is not lost on Peak. On the one hand ‘You have access to almost everything immediately, all the time. There’s really no genuine encounters anymore because if you’re curious about somebody you just look them up.’ On the other hand, ‘It has made a lot of information accessible and has also become a source of education and knowledge about certain things we wouldn’t have necessarily heard of. And it is your choice whether you choose to bring up certain conversations on there. You don’t necessarily agree with everybody so there is always going to be that. But there’s beauty in debate and conversation. You can agree to disagree and have separate opinions.’
As one would expect, Peak has no qualms in speaking candidly on thorny issues be it on gender or social justice. But, explains Peak, almost baffled at the very idea, it is certainly not strategic. ‘I don’t think about it,’ she says earnestly, ‘I’m just existing and living in my truth and sharing my values. I think sometimes as much as you can speak out and be vocal about certain things, sometimes it is more important just to act on it and just to do it and let it speak for itself. I’m never consciously trying to present a certain version of myself. I just kind of hope if it makes sense to me then someone else is going to resonate with it. We, this generation, my generation, are all trying to do our best to do whatever we can do to help move things forward.’
Still, as she embarks on this new journey marking a significant new chapter in her life, Peak is excited, refusing to allow anything to dampen her optimism. ‘I think if you look for negativity in anything, you’ll always find it and so you just have to put yourself out there. ‘I mean, let’s face it, this,’ she says, beaming as she refers to her new role, ‘does not happen every day.’ And so, she continues to be fueled by the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel. Mulling over what she’d like her own legacy to be, she once again displays her jesting spirit. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if my legacy was that I smelt good?’ And then as if by magic, Peak exhibits that concept of duality she used to describe the COCO MADEMOISELLE fragrance. She takes a moment to be still with her thoughts and then responds with a beautiful sincerity. ‘Honestly, I think it’s simple. I hope people think that I never tried to be anything other than myself.’
Just like Coco.
Read our exclusive interview with CHANEL’s perfumer, Oliver Polge>