Emily in Paris would probably love this new Chanel exhibit

You can smell perfume, but you can’t see it – or can you? Chanel’s latest fragrance exhibition in Paris, Le Grand Numéro de Chanel, allows you to do both. The exhibition offers a range of experiences that will tickle the heart of any perfume lover or perfume researcher through a mix of cabaret, live music, art installations, fashion exhibitions from the archives and virtual reality immersions. (We have a feeling Emily in Paris would definitely be first in line to visit).

In real life, celebrities such as Sadie Sink, Keira Knightley and Marion Cotillard visited the exhibition. Sink told me, “In today’s world, you can walk into a big beauty store and smell 60 different scents to try. In this exhibition, you slow down and get better at appreciating every little detail.” Example: Inside the main room, you’ll find interpretive dancers twirling bottles of Chanel N°5 (and even magicians.) Go to the smaller break-out rooms, each with a big Chanel fragrance, and you’ll experience card games , live-action chess games, and scent psychoanalysts who can match you with scents based on your personality, the visuals are all so very TikTok-friendly.

ELLE spoke to Chanel’s house perfumer Olivier Polge to learn more about the secrets behind Chanel N°5, as well as the surprises found in the exhibition. You can visit display in Paris from now until January 9; make a reservation here.

le grand numero de chanel

Courtesy of the brand.

What would you say is the best way for someone to experience the exhibition?

Don’t have a lot of preconceived ideas. Just be yourself and come with your story and personality. Hopefully you will discover perfumes differently. There are often perfume displays with commercial posters or empty bottles. Since we manufacture our perfumes ourselves, we really wanted, apart from all these visual aspects, a real experience of fragrances. In preparation for the exhibition, we tried to figure out which perfumes and which ingredients to display, if any. But we found that the best way to smell perfumes was not to be overexposed to them. We smell better if it’s the right amount of perfume. It is always dangerous to smell the whole room.

What is the “correct amount” of perfume?

Would you be able to smell 70 perfumes, or better to show about 10 that you will remember well?

Was there anything that surprised you about the exhibition?

What surprises me the most, and I saw the exhibition for the first time yesterday, was the room and how big it is. I can’t wait to see the comments from everyone who will visit. People are often very unconscious of all the scents that surround them.

It has often been said that you write a biography of Chanel via scent. How do you think the exhibition contributes to telling that story?

Perfume and fashion were two different worlds, and [Gabrielle] Chanel was the first to come up with a perfume with her own name. She saw it as a different way of expressing herself – her personality and her style. My intention is never to tell, or to go too much into the story. Gabrielle’s story has been translated into her style. Often when people ask me, “Where do you find your inspiration?” I say, “This is more of a way of being. When you’re creative, everything inspires you.” That’s why I prefer to talk about style and history, but maybe it’s a bit of the same thing.When you think about new fragrances, it’s important that it makes sense and that it somehow resonates with others. It would be a shame to ignore it.

We came up with a line, Les Eaux de Chanel, and I really liked it, because when you think of fragrances, you always see someone in with a scent or places. These are things that anchor scents in your mind. As I thought about the fragrances, I realized that all these destinations evoked images and began to build something in the style of Chanel. For example, Chanel went to Venice in the 1920s, and it is probably here that she developed a taste for the Venetian art that is often seen in certain jewelry.

le grand numero de chanel

Courtesy of the brand.

You have also said that perfumes are a language. Do you make up phrases or words when you create fragrances?

The opposite. I have nothing to say. It is difficult to talk about perfume. Yes, the language of a perfume is scents. They express things. They leave a mark on themselves that words cannot do. I’m not saying it’s better. I think it’s interesting to say because these are things we can’t explain.

What do you think the exhibition would say if it could talk?

If the exhibit could talk, I would hope it would tell you something you didn’t know.

You have worked with Karl Lagerfeld before, and now with Virginie Viard. How would you describe the difference in the way the two approach fragrance or think about fragrance?

They are so different that it is hard to see overlaps. Karl was quite fond of perfume. The last time I saw him, I was afraid he would talk to me about a perfume I didn’t know. He knew every perfume on the market for the last 50 years. I am exaggerating a bit, but in his early life he had worked with or for [Jean] Patou when he was very young and Patou came up with many, many perfumes. He knew about perfumes that no longer exist, so he was quite the expert.

What would you say are the main factors that give Chanel N°5 its timelessness?

First of all, it is a great perfume, with an identity that you organize immediately. Gabrielle Chanel has said that with No. 5 she wanted an artificial perfume – that is, one that does not exactly represent the scent of jasmine or a rose, but is more abstract [and] probably more mysterious.

There is something about Chanel N°5 that you cannot fathom. I think it is beyond the raw materials. We preserve N°5 with its original raw materials. We even bought certain jasmine fields to ensure we would have the quantities and quality we need. On the one hand, we are always very careful to preserve the N°5 in its original iteration, but also continuously work with new interpretations, to also try to bring something new within the No°5. We constantly maintain N°5 as if it were a new perfume, and that helps.

I also like to remember that Gabrielle Chanel herself was the first face of No. 5. There was a picture of her in the first commercial. Then, in the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe said that all she would wear at night would be a few drops of No. 5. All of these things go beyond our planning.

le grand numero de chanel

Courtesy of the brand.

Would you describe other Chanel perfumes as artificial?

Yes. When I say artificial, I mean abstract – we’re not trying to make Rose by Chanel or Vetiver by Chanel. We always try to express something different. I would say that about all our perfumes to some extent. It is a signature of the Chanel fragrance. And the other important thing is this composite aspect – artificial – but it goes all the way to raw materials that are selected or transformed in the way we extract them. We distort nature’s identity. We never try to reproduce nature.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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