PARIS -– While the palatial Ritz Hotel that she once called home is currently closed for renovations, devotees of Chanel can still find a piece of the iconic designer at a new exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo this May. "No.5 Culture Chanel" will feature a look back at the perfume that helped build a brand name item into a timeless and iconic artistic object.
Chanel No.5 was Franco-Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux's fifth attempt in 1921 at capturing what Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel wanted in her perfume -- an abstract, clean-smelling fragrance with no identifiable main notes among the 80 ingredients. Its destiny was to be a mark of modernity. Sleek, simple and minimalist, the bottle almost looks like something out of an early apothecary.
It became a success so quickly that artisanal means of producing the perfume proved insufficient. She signed a deal with a perfume maker in Paris (not without a little controversy) -- and the rest is history. No.5 became an icon, with names like Warhol and Monroe surrounding it in pop culture, with ads directed by Ridley Scott and Baz Lurhmann, and with Natalie Portman and Audrey Tatou among the many faces selling the product in glossy magazines and advertisements. Now it will be the subject of a monthlong exhibit at Paris's modern art museum, the Palais de Tokyo, giving visitors a more detailed look at the iconic bottle and fragrance that we recognize even if we've never smelled it.
But how did this perfume among all others manage to become one of the most popular fragrances of the last 100 years?
To help understand the transition from brand to icon, SmartPlanet spoke to fragrance historian Denyse Beaulieu who recently released her book The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent (St. Martin’s Press) in North America. Canadian-born but based in Paris for over 25 years, she and her blog are an industry reference for all things perfume.
She explains that while the scent has changed slightly over time, the marketing and essence of the brand have not. This first modernist perfume, she said, broke with the trends of the time, bringing a sleek, modern product to the beginning of the 20th century. Even the name embodied modernity. "The fact that it was a number was a confirmation that the only backstory it needed was the myth of Gabrielle Chanel herself," she said.
Back in 1921, Chanel was ahead of her time, as her perfume maker used a larger than normal quantity of artificial organic compounds called floral aldehydes in No.5. The unique scent, like other highly successful fragrances, would go on to trickle down into other products, including hair products and cosmetics, Beaulieu said. "What makes a scent classic is the longevity and popularity, but also its fertility and how it inspires other things," she said.
No.5's success, she said, was in large part due to the perfect storm of factors including the packaging, scent, backstory and a name that resulted in a product that became a craze. "It's also been continuously owned by the same family, constantly feeding the myth, recycling it –- those fantastic ads, many of which are still remembered as film, as cultural artifacts, all ensured the iconic status," Beaulieu said.
And the ads, the most recent featuring the first-ever male spokesman, Brad Pitt, have clearly been working successfully. While the perfume isn't a favorite in blind tests, consumer research shows that people more often prefer No.5 when they know they are smelling No.5.
Calling it a masterpiece that defined the rest of the Chanel aesthetic, including the little black dress, Beaulieu said that No.5 was, and still is, a clever branding operation. "It sells well because it's the default setting for perfume," she said, "and it is part of our olfactory vocabulary." Though very modern at the time, the perfume is now a classic, with a more youthful spinoff attracting a younger generation of brand followers.
The evolution of the first modern fragrance will be on display at the Palais de Tokyo through works of art, archive material, and photographs that follow No.5 through specific moments in history. Jean-Louis Froment, founder of the Bordeaux’s contemporary art museum and later artistic director of the Prince Pierre de Monaco Foudation, is the show's curator.
The exhibit runs from May 5th through June 5th and includes portraits and objects that help demonstrate No.5's involvement in culture over the decades. It's part of a series of expositions that Froment oversees detailing Chanel in culture in Moscow, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Photo: Top: Marilyn Monroe; Middle: Chanel No.5; Bottom: U.S. troops outside Chanel store in Paris (No.5 Culture Chanel Exhibit)