How does one create an exhibition around something which is only experienced through the sense of smell? That was the challenge that confronted Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, Head of Global Creative Resources for Chanel Fragrance, Beauty, Watches and Jewelry.

Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, Head of Global Creative Resources for Chanel Fragrance, Beauty, Watches and Jewelry

“I thought about the life of Gabrielle Chanel when creating ‘Le Grand Numéro de Chanel’,” says du Pré de Saint Maur. “Gabrielle Chanel became Coco on stage and she pretty much created the role she would play for the rest of her life. Even when she launched N°5, it was a performance—it outdated everything at once and took the world by surprise.”

Photography: Edward Berthelot for Chanel Singapore

With Gabrielle Chanel’s dramatic life story in mind, “Le Grand Numéro de Chanel” (which translates to “Grand Numbers by Chanel”) was born. Held at the Grand Palais Éphémère from 15 December 2022 to 9 January 2023, it showcased the House’s biggest and most iconic fragrance creations: Les Exclusifs de Chanel, Coco Mademoiselle, Bleu de Chanel, Chance and of course, the iconic N°5. The exhibition was an immersive and multi-sensory experience that combined live music, dancing, fashion displays, art installations and a virtual reality room.

Photography: Edward Berthelot for Chanel Singapore

Du Pré de Saint Maur’s personal favourite was the room dedicated to Chanel’s best-loved fragrance. It featured dresses worn by N°5’s ambassadors, a gallery of N°5-inspired artwork including one from Andy Warhol that had never been shown to the public, and an interactive virtual reality experience where visitors were transported back to 1921 when Ernest Beaux presented Chanel with the samples of what would become the world’s most famous perfume.

Photography: Edward Berthelot for Chanel Singapore

“The beauty of N°5 is that we were never scared of rewriting the same story in a different way,” shares du Pré de Saint Maur. “N°5 is about connecting with your own desires, about not bending to societal codes. [Gabrielle Chanel] said something extraordinary, that a woman who is well dressed is almost naked. What she meant was, when you wear something for the right reason, the only thing that people see is you, the real you, not the clothes you’re wearing, not what you smell like. We are here to give you the tools for you to be who you are, and I think N°5 is about that story—the story doesn’t change, it’s just the way it’s being told.” 

Photography: Edward Berthelot for Chanel Singapore

This narrative has often been told through its muses, a list that included Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Gisele Bundchen, and Audrey Tautou, all of whom shared certain similarities to Chanel. “The most memorable women of N°5 all have a free spirit in a way that they are curious about things, free from societal influences. There is no prejudice. Gabrielle Chanel was a passionate woman and if you really think about it, she always put herself out there and was ready to lose. We are talking about a woman who was born in 1883. Being 20 years old in 1903 was a different game—you had to be fierce, and at that time, it required a lot of energy and dedication to make things happen,” observes du Pré de Saint Maur.

Photography: Edward Berthelot for Chanel Singapore

The N°5 room was just one out of the five social media-friendly rooms at “Le Grand Numéro de Chanel”. Each of the rooms explored an aspect of Chanel’s life, coupled with the back story of a fragrance. The Chance room was designed like the backstage of a cabaret, complete with dressing tables and lightbulb mirrors, inspired by Chanel’s short stint as a singer in the town of Moulins, where she adopted the nickname “Coco”. The Coco Mademoiselle room was made to look like the control room of a secret base, with panels that displayed a variety of outfits to suit the different personas a woman can assume. 

“I wanted the public’s takeaway to be the role a fragrance can play, how it can reveal the singularity of every individual and influence our vision of beauty,” says du Pré de Saint Maur. “A fragrance is more than a name, a bottle, or a scent; it is also everything it brings to mind when we breathe it in, and all it evokes when we wear it. Many people believe that fragrance is an accessory or a finishing touch, but it is so much more than that. Fragrance has a real effect on our feelings, confidence, mood, and desires, and this is what we wanted everyone to experience.”