Of all the fragrances produced by fashion houses, it is arguable that CHANEL No.5 remains the most iconic in both its packaging and its scent. Worn by actresses, mothers, politicians, models, professors, daughters, it is a scent of such complexity that it becomes unique to each woman.
In CHANEL’s current exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the curators set out to chart a path between art, music, fashion and fragrance in the 20th century, using both the history of No.5 and Mademoiselle Chanel’s personal and business development.
Hubris? Maybe. Ambitious? Certainly, but it does, in the main, succeed, firmly anchoring the fragrance in the codes of the house and showing how Mlle Chanel challenged stereotypes, creating a different kind of freedom for women through matters both sartorial and olfactory.
The history of No 5 is the history of both a fragrance and a business: its popularity and the resulting fiscal returns are what propelled CHANEL from its beginnings as a fashion house to its positioning as a global brand. The exhibition shows how celebrity, art and visual imagery have added lustre to CHANEL, whilst successfully showing the link between emotion, fashion and fragrance.
Mlle Chanel’s vision was rooted in the artistic movement that started before the First World War and blossomed in the 1920s, and as early as 1921 she was making a statement as to her vision, her brand and her view of women, for that was the year that No.5 was developed with the perfumer Ernest Beaux.
For Chanel, a fragrance was a chemical portrait associating smells and scents with personal memories, and she was quite precise in her requirements: she didn’t want pure florals, the traditional scents in women’s fragrance: the roses or the lilies, and this was how Beaux had the idea of using the chemical aldehydes that distinguish CHANEL No.5, to make the first abstract floral fragrance. (The olfactory effect of aldehydes is to rub out the distinct lines between the gathered floral extracts.)
The irony is that to achieve its unique structure, No 5 actually contains over seventy floral extracts, because Chanel wanted a perfume that could not be copied. To that end Beaux came up with something so expensive that no one would ever be capable of copying the formula.
There is equal irony in the history of the bottle, perhaps the most famous scent bottle in the world. Chanel felt that the bottle was not important: for her it was the fragrance that mattered, so a very simple bottle, with a square stopper with the double cc in a circle on the top of the stopper was developed.
Part of the exhibition’s success lies in its humanising of Mlle Chanel (although there is no mention of her strong affiliations with the Nazis in Paris during WWII ). There are personal papers, letters, books, MS, scores, sketches and photographs. The most telling are a series of portraits by Man Ray which are rarely shown to the public, showing a different Chanel, less sophisticated, more natural, as opposed to her famous Horst portrait, which she used to build a specific public image.
There are treats in store for those interested in the ephemera of a brand: this is the original beige packaging of No.5
Even if your interest in CHANEL, whether the Maison, or the person, is tepid, this examination of the iconography of a modern brand is fascinating, and worth a visit for that alone.
When you exit the main body of the exhibition make sure you head upstairs to discover the reading room, with its piles of Chanel books and papers.
There are drawers to pull out with sensory surprises, and sand-hued suede banquettes with quilted cushions for gentle lolling.
But the rather wonderful part is around the corner from the books, in a small, white-painted studio, where a white-jacketed scent technician awaits, to take interested parties through olfactory journeys around No.5.
There is a journey for children, as well as one for adults, and our technician humoured us when we discovered that the infants could decorate their own renderings of the No.5 bottle with art supplies.
I’m afraid we all betrayed a rather un-adult enthusiasm to get down with the CHANEL stamps and ink pad.
Whilst I eschewed the glitter pens (I do draw the line somewhere), I was *most* taken with the adhesive camellias. Here’s my homage to CHANEL No.5…(Mademoiselle Chanel was incurably superstitious, and had to have everything in pairs, so I was very careful to not to have odd numbers of camellias.)
A rather lovely souvenir of a glorious morning exploring the complex, yet always enthralling world of CHANEL and No.5
No 5 Culture Chanel, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, until June 5; 5-culture.chanel.com. Admission is free
LLG was a guest of CHANEL for 24hours in Paris