THE POWER OF FIVE
Bold and provocative, Chanel N˚5 is emblematic of its creator. Natasha Kraal attends a seminal exhibition in Paris that reveals deeper dimensions to the iconic scent.
‘N˚5 Culture Chanel’ explores an iconic scent
How can a fragrance in an unadorned glass bottle with only a number for a name carry the kind of immortality that others can only dream of achieving? 92 years on and Chanel N˚5 is still at the heart of perfume lore, woven into the very fabric of our consciousness. More than its heady floral scent, it exudes power, sophistication, and timeless fashion.
Let’s be honest, in this age of signature scents, it doesn’t quite suit everyone and yet any woman of true style would like to accessorise her dressing table with that famous Art Deco bottle. So what exactly is it about Gabrielle Chanel’s first perfume – a mythical composition of aldehydes and luxurious florals – that captures our imaginations, and makes it so legendary?
The story of N˚5 has moved between fact, fiction, and superstition ever since its conception in 1921. It began with Ernest Beaux, the French perfumer who was commissioned by Mademoiselle Chanel to create a perfume “which smells like a woman, not like a flower”. His fifth proposal made it, and was launched at Chanel’s Rue Cambon boutique on the fifth day of the fifth month – as with her fashion shows – in keeping with her birthdate and lucky number.
The perfume is said to be a tribute to the great love of Chanel’s life, Boy Capel, the English polo player and self-made millionaire businessman who inspired her menswearstyled fashion, and who died tragically in a car accident in 1919. It is said that his whisky flask inspired the design of the bottle; some say it was the Charvet toiletry bottles that he carried on his travels. After Capel’s death, Chanel routed all her thoughts and energy into creating a “perfume of eternity” – but only for herself. She eventually presented these as Christmas gifts to her friends and best clients, without revealing that they were of her making. Word quickly spread of this mysterious, modern perfume and after offering it to a select few at the boutique, she officially launched her first perfume to the world in 1924.
N˚5 conveyed the artistic vogue of the time. Chanel’s radical innovation of some 80 ingredients blended into an untraceable composition was the olfactory mirror of Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Just
like her innovations in fashion – the little black dress, dressing women in menswear, fashioning humble jersey as couture fabric – Chanel’s little bottle of perfume made a powerful statement away from decorative art and baroque fragrances in Baccarat crystal. It pioneered aldehydes, synthetic ingredients that give an abstract finish, and the flacon was also the first of its kind: masculine, modern and “invisible” as Chanel had envisioned it to be. The box was a minimalist study in white grained paper with black graphic lines, a stark label, and the number five as its identity. It spoke of imagination, intelligence, and liberation – and every modern woman wanted a drop of it.
Journeying over Marilyn Monroe’s skin to the silk screens of Andy Warhol, N˚5 quickly became more than a perfume – it was history and creativity and commercial artistry.
The exhibition ‘N˚5 Culture Chanel’ that opened on May 5 – of course – and which ran for a month at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris presented a dialogue between the fragrance and the avant-garde artistic and literary movements of its time. Featuring 110 displays of 20th- Cent u r y art – paintings and photographs, sketches and sculptures, books and manuscripts, poems and music scores from the works of Cocteau, Picabia, Picasso, and Stravinsky – curator JeanLouis Froment delved deep into the heart of Chanel’s prized creation to uncover the myriad references that inspired Chanel.
“I wished to reveal in this exhibition that N˚5 is not a fragrance but a cultural artefact, which is sustained by one woman’s profoundly personal adventure,” said Froment. “N˚5 relies entirely on the historical and artistic forms of modernity. N˚5 is a manifesto.”
The founder and director of the CAPC Contemporary Art Museum in Bordeaux from 1973 to 1996, then curator of the Venice Biennale, Froment launched the ‘Culture Chanel’ exhibition series in Moscow in 2008, thereafter Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, to create an artistic dialogue with the brand. This is the first time the focus is on a single creation.
Aiming for authenticity and working with prized archives, Froment achieves a modern chic. Nevertheless, research only goes so far. As any curator will tell you, presentation is important. His low-key, modernist style of presenting the exhibits makes them accessible and true to the spirit of the subject; here, presented in Perspex display cases on a sleek white runway. “It’s a great debate about modernity,” said Froment about his latest project. “The world wanted to define itself, women wanted to break from the 19th Century, and Paris was such an exciting place to be. Artists from all over the world – from Russia to America – were all at this historic crossworld, and Gabrielle Chanel was ready to receive the signs of such encounters.” Taking an intuitive and scholarly approach, Froment researched deep into the history of art to look for associations with the perfume that reflected the intentions of Chanel.
But it first had to begin with Capel. “It was an empty time for her, and she was feeling sentimental. But she had found something in his death,” Froment explained, “and so, this exhibition is biographical, a sentimental journey. To create something you need to live a story, you need to be involved, moved by something. For Gabrielle Chanel it was her bereavement.”
Capel was more than a lover; a great reader, he initiated her into esotericism and
the avant-garde, where soon enough Chanel found herself among celebrated poets, artists, and writers. The exhibition opens with her intimate effects: the original bottle of 1921, inspired by Capel’s personal possessions; a photograph of the man, reading; and various books he introduced her to, including The Most Important Issues in Humanity by Carl Henry Walter Jochnick and Hindu Theology by Prem Sagar, today still housed at the library in her Rue Cambon apartment. Paul Éluard’s poem “Absences”, which she kept in a folio all her life also became the starting point. “It gives in great detail the reality of her love for Capel,” he pointed out.
“I believe in the fourth dimension, and in a fifth [ ... ]. This stems from the need to be reassured, to believe that one never loses everything, and that there is something happening on the other side,” said Chanel.
When Capel died, Misia Sert, a famed Polish pianist and art gallerist, took the grieving Chanel to Venice, on a voyage of discovery where Byzantine style became a great influence for her creations.
“She sublimated the absence of Boy Capel by creating this perfume, and it so happened that Venice was the city of perfume, with all its related trade and treaties, also its secrets,” revealed Froment. “But more than creating something that smelled like the ylang-ylang or jasmine variants of the time, she wanted a perfume to smell, and feel, like her. A satyr. No floral identity but an abstract compound that could only be known by the number she gave it. It escapes definition. The perfume is a portrait of this woman.”
“Cubism also shaped her environment, an art form where things slide into each other,” said the curator, who displayed several works by Pablo Picasso, from charcoal sketches at the start to the very last exhibit, “Femme” (1911), which evokes the bold spirit of the scent. Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrammes – letters and words composing a picture – influenced Chanel to replace a name with a figure. She wanted to reflect these abstract ideas, be utterly 20th Century, to rejuvenate the idea of perfume with a sense of daring, while keeping it romantic and feminine – all in her image.
The famous interlocking-C logo was also examined, its origins possibly the stained glass windows at the church in Aubanzine where Chanel lived as an orphan. It could also be inspired by Catherine de’ Medici, whose monogram was a double-C. Medici was another orphan, raised in a convent and always dressed in black after she was widowed. Froment placed an iconic photograph of Gabrielle Chanel by George Hoyningen-Heune next to the portrait of the Italian aristocrat who became the Queen of France, to show the parallels. Medici was also a great patron of perfumes, supporting her personal perfumer Renato Bianco in opening the first perfume shop in Paris in the 16th Century.
Everything about the bottle adds to the aura of the fragrance: the logo, the stark label inspired by Dada font and text, the number five expressing Chanel’s lucky charm, the Cubist packaging, and the jewel-shaped stopper, fashioned after Place Vendôme. “It’s the history of a secret, which I’ve developed into a point of view,” disclosed Froment.
Moving from the artistic leanings, he then presents the commercial dimension of Chanel N˚5 for a complete picture of the icon it has become. Parfums Chanel was corporatised in 1924 with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, brothers who owned the perfume and cosmetics house Bourjois, and whose families today own the controlling interest in the entire Chanel business. Chanel was ambitious and not only did the perfume bring her global success it also made her one of the world’s richest women.
The power of the perfume is also in its campaigns. In a Harper’s BAZAAR campaign photographed by Francois Kollar in 1937, Chanel was the creator, muse, and model, posing in her suite at the Paris Ritz in her black dress as the embodiment of The Chanel Woman. Later, the world’s most beautiful and sophisticated women were cast in the starring role, with Lauren Hutton,
Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, and Nicole Kidman placed in unforgettable campaigns by superstar directors Ridley Scott, JeanPaul Goude, and Baz Luhrmann.
It’s a perfume for women like Chanel herself, sophisticated and delicate; women who men like, and who behind it all, have a mind and will of their own. “It’s not a journey, every journey ends but we go on, the world turns and we turn with it. Plans disappear and dreams take over. But wherever I go – there you are. My luck, my fate, my fortune,” said Brad Pitt this year in tribute to the Chanel woman, in arguably the most iconoclastic campaign so far.
Chr i s t o p h e r Sheldrake, deputy perfumer of Chanel, summed up his idea of ‘ N˚5 Culture Chanel’: “If we can make a parallel to the sculpture of [Constantin] Brancusi [“The Sleeping Muse”, pictured above]. It seems very simple with not much detail, but it gives you a lot of emotion in very simple forms.”
“Gabrielle Chanel, in wanting a composed perfume, also put down some rules which we still use until today. Basically she wanted something that was not figurative, that did not remind you of something in particular; she wanted something with a feeling,” said the charming Englishman who has been working closely with head perfumer Jacques Polge for the past eight years in creating and redefining fragrances for the Maison. “We still today try to create fragrances in the same way; our fragrances have a sophistication and represent an era.”
“People often ask us, have we changed the formula for N˚5?” Sheldrake confided. “What’s important is that as guardian of the tradition, the classics, our job is to make sure that the emotion is always the same. During the last 90 years we have taken out certain ingredients that today may not be considered ecological but we have spent years working on how to keep making the smell remain the same. There have been very few evolutions What is important to me is the emotion.”
After all the immersion in the fragrance, it was actually the one thing absent from the exhibition. “It was a clear decision to remove N˚5 from the bottle, and present the naked bottle instead, because the spirit of the exhibition is all about transparency, the scenography, and the content,” said Froment. “The content of the bottle is the content of the exhibition. There is no perfume – you can smell the perfume from the exhibition. Beyond Gabrielle Chanel, it’s the history between oneself and the bottle ... N˚5 is not a fragrance. It’s the fragrance of the thoughts of women who wear it.”
Chanel N˚5, the legendary elixir
A portrait of Catherine de’Medici draws parallels to the photograph of Gabrielle Chanel by George Hoyningen- Heune
The ‘N˚5 Culture Chanel’ exhibition at Palais de Tokyo in Paris Boy Capel reading in his apartment, circa 1911
Gabrielle Chanel at Royallieu, circa 1910
Gabrielle Chanel treasured Paul Éluard’s “Absences”
Jean- Louis Froment
The Chanel N˚5 ad in Harper’s BAZAAR, November 1937, photographed by Francois Kollar Marilyn Monroe wearing the perfume at a photo shoot before the premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955
Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Reconnais- toi” (“Recognise Yourself”), as a calligramme addressed to Louise de Coligny- Chatillon
Philippe Halsman’s 1954 print “The Essence of Dali”
Modernist art, such as this portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse, mirrored the dark aesthetic loved by Chanel. Black and White, photograph, 1924-77, Man Ray
Catherine Deneuve for Chanel N˚5 in 1972, shot by Richard Avedon, in a style inspired by the Man Ray photograph above
The number five featured prominently in the art of Dada and Surrealism. Tickets, India ink, gouache, and pencil on paper, 1922, Francis Picabia
The Sleeping Muse, bronze, 1910, Constantin Brancusi