The Persistence of N°5

Published May 8, 2013

ABOVE: GABRIELLE CHANEL ON LIDO BEACH, FLANKED BY MISIA AND JOSE-MARIA SER, MRS. PHILIPPE,  BERTHELOT, AND A FRIEND, 1920s. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHANEL AND © FONDS BORIS KOCHNO-COLLECTION PARTICULIERE.

After fragrances by Justin Bieber, Usher, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and the New York Yankees, it seems that everyone is a parfumeur and timeliness trumps timelessness. So, it is a relief to honor an eternal fragrance at the N°5 Culture Chanel exhibition, which opened last week at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. N°5, concocted in 1921 by the Russian and French perfumier Ernest Beaux, was imagined by Gabrielle Chanel as a perfume for a modern woman—someone like herself—enriched with knowledge of culture and art. Over 90 years later, women, modern to their times, use it still.

Jean-Louis Froment, who curates the Culture Chanel showcases, does not view the show as a celebration of the perfume. “Thousands of women each day celebrate it by wearing it,” he says. “N°5 is not a fragrance, but a cultural artifact…sustained by one woman’s profoundly personal adventure.”

As N°5 is so tied to Chanel herself, the exhibition delves into her history: photographs, clothes, and other objects are displayed in rows of glass cases.  The process of conceptualizing the perfume was a personal journey–Chanel’s lover, polo player Arthur Capel, was an avid reader, who encouraged her intellectually. After his death in 1919, she continued reading and traveling; her expanding worldview inspired the scent, which differed from the flowery smells dominating at the time.

The show affirms, lest we forget, that Chanel was a game changer, imbuing her idea of a powerful, intelligent women in her designs ands scents alike.

THE “N°5 CULTURE CHANEL” EXHIBITION WILL BE AT PALAIS DE TOKYO THROUGH JUNE 5.