Design in an abstract sense

The history of Chanel N˚5 is intertwined with the avant garde, as a special show at the Palais de Tokyo explored

The N°5 Culture Chanel exhibition breezed through Paris like a waft of the eponymous scent. It opened – naturally – on 5/5 and closed a month later on 5/6, making it one of the shortest, but best attended exhibitions ever at the Palais de Tokyo. Exquisitely curated by Jean-Louis Froment, it celebrated the most iconic scent of our time with an in-depth look at the inspiration that led to its creation and its cultural connections to the various avant-garde movements of its day. In the exhibition, each element of Chanel N°5’s design is meticulously retraced to its source.

Visitors entered through a poetic evocation of a Chanel N°5 garden by landscape artist Piet Oudolf, his first commission in France. Dutch designer Irma Boom also created an all-white book, produced in an edition of 1,000. Copies of this ink-free, blind-embossed creation sold out within days of their delivery.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in Saumur in 1883 to a single mother (a laundrywoman), and a travelling salesman. They eventually married, but when her mother died, her father sent Chanel to an orphanage in Aubazine run by Catholic nuns. The nuns taught her to sew but may also have given Chanel her appreciation of pure, austere lines, the elegance of black and white, and her uncompromising quest for perfection.

In 1910, Chanel opened a hat shop at 21, rue Cambon in Paris, financed by her wealthy English lover, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, who was to be the love of her life. Her success as a ‘modiste’ led her to create a new look for women. After the First World War, French women were ready to shake off the restraints of pre-war fashion with its tight corsets and long, voluminous skirts. Chanel began a French Revolution of her own, dressing women in trousers worn with striped sailor’s jerseys. She bobbed her hair, sunbathed in Biarritz and Deauville, smoked in public, drove her own car, and earned her own money. In short, she liberated women through her designs.
When Capel was killed in a car accident on December 22 1919, Chanel was devastated. “Look at the dates,” says Froment. “Chronology is key.”

In 1920 Chanel met Ernest Beaux, a Russian émigré and perfumer to the Tzars. She briefed him to create a scent that “smells like a woman”, a deliberately synthetic perfume diametrically opposed to the single-note floral scents of the time. Beaux presented her with a scent composed of 80 ingredients without a dominant top note, blending natural essences with aldehydes to make Chanel N°5 the world’s first abstract scent.

Launched in 1921, N°5 was a deeply intimate fragrance, a sublimation of Chanel’s grief at the loss of her love. The number 5 had always been her talisman – the clinical, laboratory-like name perfectly matched the DNA of the scent.

The packaging also had to be as unique as the product, conforming to her aesthetic of stripping away clutter to focus on pure lines and proportions. Chanel had often said, “I am not an artist, I am an artisan,” but she was immersed in the Paris art world and intimate with some of the most influential artists of her time. Dalí, Picasso, Cocteau, Apollinaire, Diaghilev, Reverdy and Man Ray were all close friends. And these connections were reflected in the Chanel aesthetic. Her choice of the stark, sans-serif type used over three lines was inspired by the ‘papillons Dada’ (Dada butterflies), precursors of Surrealism produced by the poet Tristan Tzara and artist Marcel Duchamp. Further artistic influences included Picasso’s first Cubist collages from 1914 and Marcel Proust’s collage technique that he used to correct the galley proofs of ‘A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur’. Chanel N°5’s first packaging was also a collage on rough, coarse-grained paper with a black frame, the product’s name printed on a white label. The black line remains an essential part of the Chanel brand livery, still in use in ads today.

The ‘double C’ logo apparently has two possible sources; it was the monogram of Catherine de Medici, a woman who fascinated Chanel, while the stained glass windows of the Aubazine orphanage also had Celtic motifs of interlocking circles. Perhaps most moving, however, is that the glass flacon was inspired by Capel’s own hip flask. After his death, Chanel discovered the glass phials and perfume bottles produced in Murano, Venice and had them manufactured there. Its octagonal stopper reflects the view of the Place Vendôme as seen from Chanel’s suite at the Paris Ritz where she lived for 30 years. In 1959 the flacon was referenced by MoMa in New York, and in 1985 Andy Warhol reiterated its iconic status by creating prints of it in vivid colours (two were on display in the Paris show). An image of the unadorned flacon, with its breathtakingly perfect proportions, was used on the poster for the exhibition.

Chanel N°5 continued its groundbreaking progress with its advertising, and in 1937 Chanel became the first designer to represent her own fragrance. Wearing a black evening gown of her own design, she was photographed by François Kollar in her suite at the Ritz for a press ad in Harper’s Bazaar in the US, where it had been hugely successful. (In 1944, after the Liberation of Paris, American GIs queued along the rue Cambon in the snow to buy N°5 for sweethearts back home.)

It also became the first women’s fragrance to have a spot during the Superbowl finals, and in 1952 Marilyn Monroe, at the height of her fame, spontaneously answered a journalist’s question on what she wore in bed, with “Just a few drops of N°5”.

Catherine Deneuve became the next face of the scent in 1968, epitomising the elegance and sophistication of the Frenchwoman. Richard Avedon drew inspiration from Constantin Brancusi’s artworks and Man Ray’s portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse for his portrait of the perfect oval of Deneuve’s face. In a small auditorium in the Palais de Tokyo show, ads featuring the faces of N°5 over the years were projected; these included Lauren Hutton, Candice Bergen, Suzy Parker, Estella Warren, Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tautou, shot by photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier, Helmut Newton and Jean-Paul Goude.
Men tend to remain in the shadows in N°5 ads – a subtle reference to Chanel’s own story – and this makes the choice of Brad Pitt as its current face more than a little baffling. “Why Pitt?” Froment ponders. “I wanted Johnny Depp, but as we already use his wife [Vanessa Paradis], it might smack of nepotism. But why not? Chanel has never been afraid to take a risk.”

Using the alchemy of her magic number, Chanel’s creation is as complex, enigmatic and audacious as the woman herself; her scent, a tribute to perfection.

Jean Grogan is a journalist based in Paris. The N°5 Culture Chanel exhibition was shown at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris from May 5 to June 5 2013.


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