The magical show of the Chanel’s perfumes

There are only ten days left to go and see the exhibition Le Grand Numéro de Chanel in Paris, an interactive and enchanting exhibition on the house’s perfumes. An event for those who have taken care of their childlike soul. Isabelle Cerboneschi

When I arrived in front of the Grand Palais Ephémère, in front of the huge letters announcing the exhibition Le Grand Numéro de Chanel, I was expecting a lot of things indeed, but not this. Not to enter a marvellous world tailored to the childlike soul that has always lived in my body. The doors opened on a universe where magic had its place, right in the centre, because without magic, without wonder, life is singularly meaningless.

Le Grand Numéro de Chanel, scénographie espace central ©Chanel

I spent hours that seemed like minutes under this immense and enchanting marquee. If you think about it, the exhibition is monothematic – it’s about Chanel perfumes – and it could have followed a didactic path. But as soon as you enter, you know what you are in for: you are greeted as if at the circus by a gleaming fanfare and a bouncing, singing Monsieur Loyal. He invites you to enter this space outside of time, outside of everything, a place for those who know how to be amazed by magicians who perform mind-boggling tricks, or dancers who move through the spaces. People who want to explore the area dedicated to Chance perfume, can play a junk roulette and win little things that have the same effect as a surprise bag. They can also have their make-up done and, amidst the colourful ballerina’s tutus, discover the various developments of the perfume.

In the Coco space, you can play the spy you thought you were as a child, with the adulation of Mademoiselle Chanel who gives imaginary missions by white telephone. Obviously, even if the mission is impossible, the message never self-destructs.

In the Bleu space, we discover a miniature city that has the colour of this slightly ozonated, slightly dry, woody perfume, and we can play a few musical notes in the manner of E.T. the extra-terrestrial, which accompany the perfumed notes.

The large library, populated by elegant sofas where visitors lie down for an olfactory psychoanalysis session, is dedicated to the Exclusifs. My favourites. Sycomore, Cuir de Russie, Le Lion, they are all there but none of those I love have been prescribed to me. I probably lied when answering the questions of the man in the white coat who took his role very seriously. Perfume is a serious thing, when you think about it. It defines us in an extra-corporate way. It is our form beyond form. An invisible and yet very real garment. This link established between a few words expressed and the senses gave me food for thought…

Le Grand Numéro de Chanel, scénographie N5, ©Chanel

Finally there is the part dedicated to No5, the keystone of Chanel perfumery. A universe in itself. A room dedicated to its history shows pieces of archives, photos, drawings, letters, books, which give precious indications on the context of the birth of this perfume, more than a century ago. On the walls of a reconstructed art gallery are hung numerous works of art referring to No5 such as the famous bottles painted by Andy Warhol. In another room, a « baudrucheuse” shows how she closes the bottle. “This technique appeared in the 17th century in pharmacy and in the 19th century in perfumery. Gabrielle Chanel used this method from the launch of No5 in 1921. The baudruche is a thin membrane of vegetable origin that we wash with soap and water to obtain an extensible sheet. I place it on the end of the cap and as it dries, it will shrink, guaranteeing an absolute seal. There are only six of us left in the world doing this job,” she explains as she wraps a cord around the membrane and seals it with wax.

Robe portée par Marion Cotillard dans le film publicitaire pour CHANEL N°5 réalisé par Johan Renck en 2020 Patrimoine de CHANEL, Paris A droite : Costume du Petit Chaperon rouge porté par Estella Warren du film publicitaire Le loup, réalisé par Luc Besson en 1998 Patrimoine de CHANEL, Paris

But the highlight of this journey into the world of perfume is the virtual encounter with Gabrielle Chanel when she discovers No5, created by perfumer Ernest Beaux. Chances are that the presentation took place in Grasse, but for the purposes of the exhibition, the Daruma workshop team led by director and immersive artist Mathias Chelebourg decided that it would take place in the Mademoiselle flat in Faubourg Saint Honoré.

It is not clear how the choice of No. 5 came about. I decided to make it a story and to go through animation. Marion Cotillard lends her voice to Gabrielle Chanel.
Mathias Chelebourg

Nine people can experience immersive storytelling through a virtual reality headset. It’s like being immersed in a cartoon and being able to interact with your environment. Among these nine people, only one will be drawn to live this life-size experience in a 200m2 space where he or she wanders. This space is furnished with real objects – armchairs, a piano, sculptures, perfume bottles – that can be seen through the headset and touched in real life. You virtually meet Gabrielle Chanel, who is presented with several tests before finding the one that corresponds to her desires: “a woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent “*.

« We don’t know exactly how No5 was chosen. I decided to make it a tale and to use animation. Marion Cotillard lends her voice to Gabrielle Chanel. She is the muse of the perfume and knows the 20’s and 30’s very well. It was very fluid to work with her“, explains Mathias Chelebourg. This show, because it is one, is a very subtle form of immersive experience. It’s not like video games where everything goes too fast. Here, you take your time. « I wanted the spectator to find himself in the shoes of Ernest Beaux, to play a role. The creation of No5 was an avant-garde act. I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the salons of the time in a form of intimacy. Virtual reality is often used for video games and requires a lot of characters and interactivity. I wanted to create an immersive narrative: a film in which you are the hero. I wanted to reinvent a language, a poetry. This project was selected at the Mostra. It shows that you can make an elegant campaign, where you talk about a product, but still remain in the world of fiction. It’s almost a heritage piece for the company », explains the director

After living this experience, looking at this strangely beautiful circus universe, coming across dancers caught in a kind of perpetual motion, and magicians who manage to make us believe that magic exists for real, one is a little disoriented. What is real? What is imaginary? And what if it doesn’t matter after all?

Culture Chanel, Editions de la Martinière, 2013

Le Grand Numéro de Chanel, du 15 décembre 2022 au 09 janvier 2023, au Grand Palais Éphémère à Paris. Entrée libre. Réservation nécessaire: Durée de la visite : approximativement 1H30