Dedicated to the brand’s fragrances, it’s a circus of scent and couture, complete with a ringmaster at the entrance to Paris’ Grand Palais Éphémère museum and magicians doing card tricks.
“Le Grand Numéro de Chanel,” which opens to the public Thursday, is a tribute to the house’s most famous fragrance, as well as its newer library of scents, through a maze of rooms. The exhibit is centered around a carousel draped with twinkling lights, swinging stars, iconic camellia blooms and double Cs. Dancers make their moves around a circular stage partnered with giant bottles of perfume, with curtains that pull back to reveal hidden passageways.
The grandest number of all, the legendary Chanel No.5, has the most space devoted to its history and legacy. Entering a darkened hallway, visitors emerge under a vast starry sky display that glimmers with the Chanel logo. To the side, guests can walk through the history of the fragrance, from its conception and development through the years.
Original glass bottles are on display, as are various iterations of the fragrance in powder, perfume and lipstick forms, as well as Chanel’s early experiments with packaging in nickel and chrome, shown with some of Gabrielle Chanel’s monochrome clothing designs of the time. Visitors come to understand her instinctive vision for creating not only a new, more streamlined silhouette for women, but what was the precursor to an immersive lifestyle brand.
Artisans demonstrate the technique of baudruchage, the hand-tied and wax sealing technique used on the made-to-order Parfum Grand Extrait, which retails for $3,500. Only nine artisans have mastered the technique, of which six are still practicing and two will be on hand each day through the exhibit’s run.
Photos of Chanel with luminaries including Igor Stravinsky and her lover, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovitch, tell her personal story, while a commemorative portrait sketched by Karl Lagerfeld is on display.
Chanel was famously superstitious, and named the house’s signature fragrance No.5 because five was her lucky number. This story is told in an immersive virtual reality exhibit, as Chanel’s avatar walks through the rooms of the designer’s apartment discussing her decision process with perfumer Ernest Beaux and flipping tarot cards. When Chanel arrives at her choice, in-person attendants spritz fragrance in the air — an upscale smell-o-vision, with much more expensive glasses.
Another room is a masterclass in marketing, and walks visitors through decades of Chanel ads and replays some of the brand’s most famous commercials. Here some couture is on display, such as Nicole Kidman’s costumes from the Baz Luhrman-directed short film and others worn by Carole Bouquet and Marion Cotillard.
A gallery is dedicated to art that uses Chanel’s logo, most famously Andy Warhol’s No.5 paintings, alongside works from longtime collaborator Salvador Dalí and more contemporary artists including Ma Jun, Laurie Simmons, Burton Morris and Chantel Stoman, among others. The pieces are from the brand’s private collection, normally housed in Paris and New York, and united here on display for the first time.
Entering into a dark room, visitors are invited to lie down on a couch old-school analyst style, while they are quizzed about personality and scent preferences. The result is a profile that aims to pair guests with one of the 18 fragrances in the Les Exclusifs line. Experts from the fragrance development team serve as consultants.
The exhibition also takes guests through newer scents. A room dedicated to Chance brings visitors backstage at a dance performance, with ballerinas prepping in tulle skirts and colorful costumes, while Chanel official makeup artists are available to create a look. Through another door, dancers perform onstage at a mini-casino, complete with roulette, spin-the-wheel and a game of dice. Guests are gifted a handful of chips to try their luck, while winners get a prize at the door.
The Coco Mademoiselle display is set up as a control room, with lipstick case dials and the more sporty of Chanel’s collections on offer: a basketball, skateboard, headphones, skis, helmets, weights and even a megaphone — all stamped with double Cs.
The Bleu de Chanel room shows a cityscape that lights up with musical notes, complete with a slinky bar at the back.
Other rooms detail the fragrance ingredients and their collection methods, such as hand-harvesting buds from Grasse, France, and include scent pods where guests can have an olfactory experience of different notes and olfactive blends.
Visitors exit through the gift shop, which features a range of unique and sure-to-be-coveted items, including Chanel chess sets, playing and tarot cards, puzzles and an embroidery kit.
The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 9, took more than a year to complete. Admission is free, but must be booked ahead on the exhibit’s website at grand-numero.chanel.com.