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May 21, 2013

Chanel No. 5 On Display

By Adam H. Graham | Exhibits

Chanel No. 5 On Display
Courtesy of Chanel

Coco Chanel’s life story has been told countless times in many different ways. But the latest is relayed through her most successful commodity, Chanel No. 5, which gave birth to the modern fragrance industry. Through June 5, Paris’s Palais de Tokyo presents the exhibit “No. 5 Culture Chanel,” which travels back to World War I–era Biarritz, Grasse, New York, Cap Martin and Venice, recalling how avant-garde artists like Cocteau, Picasso, Man Ray and Stravinsky influenced the visionary designer.

“Chanel was a cougar!” whispers my personal tour guide, Ingrid, in a velvety French accent as she whisks me past a hall of Lucite boxes containing Chanel’s collection of books, letters and vintage perfume bottles. She leads me directly to a photo of the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, one of Chanel’s former lovers and a Russian exile, who introduced her to famed perfumer Ernest Beaux. She created No. 5 with Beaux in 1921; the perfumer presented 24 samples and she chose number five, which was her lucky number. “Chanel may have believed in lucky numbers, but she was deeply modernist and was always moved by forward-thinking artists and intellectuals,” explains Ingrid.

Other samples were later developed and sold, like Chanel No. 22, but No. 5 had the It factor and was the first of its kind to blend various scents—it contained more than 80 different notes—to create an “abstract fragrance.” The beveled square bottle, equal parts whisky flask and Bauhaus architecture, was the antidote to the flamboyant Baccarat crystal vessels popular then. Even its lab-inspired name was a deconstruction of all things gilded and gimmicky, elements Chanel abhorred.

The exhibit’s entryway Chanel garden, designed by Piet Oudolf (the Dutch landscape designer behind New York’s High Line), is abloom with purple and pink flowers. And in a loft bathed in beige, flanked by sofas and inspired by Chanel’s La Pausa retreat in Cap Martin, visitors can watch a series of Chanel No. 5 film clips, peruse a library of flora and fashion books and rummage through a chest of drawers for a DIY olfactory workshop. It is also an ideal place to reflect on the life of Chanel, who was orphaned at an abbey at age 12 but transformed herself into one very lucky woman. For a personal guided tour of the exhibit, ask for the art concierge at Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris (37 Avenue Hoche; 33-1/42-99-88-00; leroyalmonceau.com). Through June 5; 13 Avenue du Président Wilson; 33-1/81-97-35-88; 5-culture.chanel.com.