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.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents -

‘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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.