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Fashion and the avant-garde: How Chanel No. 5 distilled an epoch Add to ...

In 1954, Jean Cocteau wrote of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, “she has, through a sort of miracle, worked in the world of fashion following rules that only seemed valid for painters, musicians and poets.”

Missing from his observation is the fact that painters, musicians and poets such as Salvador Dali, Francis Picabia, Igor Stravinsky, Guillaume Apollinaire and Cocteau himself just happened to be some of Chanel’s closest friends.

And now a new show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris aims to convey how these avant-garde artists also influenced the creation of arguably the most famous perfume in the world: Chanel No. 5.

In the age of the fashion blockbuster exhibition, No. 5 Culture Chanel represents a departure. There are neither mannequins nor a flashy mise-en-scène. The walls have been left bare and the objects – from a bronze Brancusi head to the original, rounder No. 5 flaçon – are housed in a sprawling runway of faceted glass vitrines.

Chanel enlisted Piet Oudolf, who was responsible for the landscaping of New York’s High Line elevated park, to create a subterranean garden that will remain a permanent part of the Palais de Tokyo (the 7,000 flowers and plants are still getting used to their new home).

Artistic director Jean-Louis Froment says he wanted to get past the story of the scent’s creation (Chanel literally chose the fifth scent that was presented to her by perfumer Ernest Beaux) and explore how the perfume defined a period of great change and radical ideas.

“It is the portrait of an object,” Froment explains in an interview, adding that he wanted to distance the show from the ad campaigns that have helped secure the scent’s status over time.

No. 5 Culture Chanel is the fifth in an international series of museum exhibitions mounted by Chanel (the previous four took place in Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou). The number parallel is not a coincidence; the show opened on May 5 (05/05), the same day the perfume was first offered for sale 82 years ago in the designer’s boutique at 31 rue Cambon. If not entirely superstitious, Chanel believed strongly in symbols (her apartment above the store, preserved in perfect condition, is filled with talismans symbolizing health and good fortune).

When Chanel No. 5 debuted in 1921, women were accustomed to wearing perfumes that smelled of a single flower. No. 5 was comparatively complex; not only did it contain several floral notes – jasmine, rose, ylang ylang – it also included aldehydes, synthetic organic compounds that added body to the scent and made it more enigmatic.

Chanel as a fashion brand may be among the most clearly defined of them all: the tweed suits, the little black dresses, the pearls, the camellia flower motif. So it is curious to see how the theme of abstraction works as an essential counterpoint. Fragrance, after all, is arguably even more indecipherable than a cubist painting.

The abstraction also plays out familiarly in pencil drawings by Picasso, Apollinaire’s calligrams and Tristan Tzara’s Dada journal. Of the 220 artifacts on display, the majority help bolster the notion that Chanel believed that the perfume world was prime for its abstract period, too.

Items included from Chanel’s later years include Warhol’s silk-screened interpretations of the bottle circa 1985 and a shot of Marilyn Monroe provocatively dabbing herself with the juice before the premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (it was Monroe who, unsolicited, told journalists in 1954 she wore “five drops of Chanel No. 5” to bed and nothing else).

Noticeably absent: the recent ad campaign featuring Brad Pitt, the first man to be the perfume’s face. It’s as if anything too commercial would have weakened the “cultural” positioning.

“It was absolutely necessary to stop talking about perfume and No. 5 with the same marketing stories,” says Froment. “Instead, [I wanted to look at] at what happened with the stories in her books, in her life and all around her.”

And yet he is adamant that No. 5 – perfume, bottle design or both – is not a piece of art.

“It is a concept but it is not art,” he says.

Does Jacques Polge, the director of Chanel Parfums since 1978, feel differently?

“Mme. Chanel talked about being an artisan. And me, I would consider myself as an artisan, too,” he says. “Today, everyone thinks of themselves as artists!”

No. 5 Culture Chanel runs until June 5.

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