Laying out the blue print for Chanel's Le Grand Numero de Chanel exhibition in Paris. Credit: Chanel

Much like love, fragrances and the feelings they evoke can be hard to encapsulate in tangible form. From Dec 15 to Jan 9 next year, though, the house of Chanel stages one of the most ambitious attempts at doing so: Le Grand Numero de Chanel – an exhibition at the Grand Palais Ephemere in Paris (sign up for your free slot here) that promises to be an “unprecedented experience” to transform what visitors know and think of the brand’s perfumes.

Ahead of its opening, Thomas du Pre de Saint Maur – head of global resources for Chanel’s fragrance and beauty, and fine jewellery and watches departments (read: he helped to conceptualise the entire affair) – walks us through the allure, theatrics and importance of bringing a scent to life. 

Credit:Chanel

Le Grand Numero De Chanel has been conceptualised by Chanel’s Thomas du Pre de Saint Maur (above) and team to delight and educate visitors about the cultural and emotional significance of perfume.

What’s the message behind Le Grand Numero De Chanel?

“Le Grand Numero De Chanel is a show – a return to reverie that is emotionally evocative on several levels. The idea is to let oneself indulge in daydreaming, charting one’s own path as you travel from one universe to another on-site. It is not an exhibition to be visited in a specific order. It is very open! It is also a social experience – a chance to share in the holiday spirit – and feels a bit like discovering the window displays of the Parisian department stores at Christmas time.

I want the public to leave having discovered the role a fragrance can play; how it can reveal the singularity of every individual; and influence our vision of beauty. A fragrance is more than a name, bottle or scent. It is also everything it brings to mind when we breathe it in and all it evokes when we wear it. It is an extraordinary product. 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 want everyone to experience.”

Credit:Chanel

An immersive, multi-room experience said to take approximately an hour and a half to complete, it is touted to boast “spectacular scents, marvellous magic tricks, unexpected discoveries, highly anticipated encounters and many other sensational acts.”

How did the name Le Grand Numero De Chanel (which translates to “the grand number of Chanel”) come about?

“Beyond the symbolic meaning behind each of the house’s emblematic numbers (for example, the numeral five, which Gabrielle Chanel believed brought her luck and would influence everything from the name of her first and most famous perfume to when she showed her collections), it ties back to the idea of artistic performances – a notion that is very important to Chanel. This act reminds us that Gabrielle Chanel adopted the nickname Coco around 1901 when she was living in Moulins and performing as a singer. A Chanel fragrance is a virtuosic performance by the perfumer. It is also a spectacular celebration of life, movement and allure – a daily invitation to put on a show.”

A peek at the making of the Le Grand Numero De Chanel exhibits reveals larger-than-life renditions of Chanel’s most emblematic motifs and star perfumes, including Coco Mademoiselle – known for its surprisingly fresh spin on an amber floral scent – and, of course, Chanel N°5.

Tell us more about the symbolism behind the house’s emblematic numbers.

“Gabrielle Chanel was the first to name a fragrance after a number, contrary to the lyricism that characterised the era’s scents. For her, numbers were never chosen at random: 19 for her date of birth, 31 for the address of the legendary rue Cambon… She presented N°5 as a homage to her instinct and forwent any unnecessary storytelling surrounding the fragrance. Needless to say, there was a little bit of superstition involved.”

In your opinion, how important is it to tell the story of a fragrance?

“What we communicate about a fragrance is an expression of our style and vision. For example, the Chance collection (known for its floral scent punctuated by notes of pink pepper) conveys the belief held by Chanel that happiness always involves a little bit of luck. At the same time, having luck takes a lot of work – it is not about luck in itself, but Chanel’s vision of luck that is expressed and for which we need to tell the story. Le Grand Numero De Chanel will allow visitors to discover every facet of a fragrance because it will tell its entire story instead of fragments of it, which is usually the case. For N°5, we will further explore its cultural and historical influences with a retrospective of its best advertising campaigns and a deep dive into its artistic influence with a series of artworks inspired by N°5.”

Credit:Chanel

A peek at the making of the Le Grand Numero De Chanel exhibits reveals larger-than-life renditions of Chanel’s most emblematic motifs and star perfumes, including Coco Mademoiselle – known for its surprisingly fresh spin on an amber floral scent – and, of course, Chanel N°5.

How do you transform a fragrance into a visual campaign?

“Much like a piece of music, a fragrance is composed. It begins as a mental process and is then written down in the form of notes and accords. At Chanel, we start with a desire to express a facet of the brand, and from there, we work in parallel on a name, a scent and a bottle, followed by an advertisement. What connects everything is this idea, which always starts with a Chanel vision. It is for this reason that a luxury product is sometimes surprising – a convergence of subjective elements organised around a main idea.”

And how do you approach the house’s heritage during this creative process?

“It is very inspiring to work for a house with so much heritage. It is very exciting and also very demanding – to work today knowing that Gabrielle Chanel created N°5 in 1921 is something that challenges me on a daily basis. The pitfall would be to limit the brand by excessively glorifying the past or – on the other hand – completely distancing ourselves from what has contributed to its history since the beginning. Chanel is a brand that is both incredibly classic and revolutionary: classic in the sense that it has an extremely clear vision of life and beauty, and revolutionary in that it is always trying to reinvent the way it expresses this vision. And this is what makes it so incredibly powerful: the fact that people can see themselves in it and, at the same time, its tremendous ability to surprise and continually create desire.”

Credit:Chanel

The lion motifs peppered throughout the space is an homage to Gabrielle Chanel’s Leo star sign.

Why do you think Chanel fragrances are so successful?

“What is irreplaceable for Chanel is Gabrielle Chanel herself. A Chanel fragrance is unique in that it conveys the Chanel style and its singular vision of beauty and self-fulfilment… Chanel fragrances illustrate the perfect balance between tangible and intangible experiences: a fragrance is a visible, palpable product, yet it is also everything it summons up in the imagination of the person wearing it. When Marilyn Monroe wore N°5, it wasn’t just because it smelled good: The abstract quality of N°5 was a celebration of freedom and self-affirmation.”

Book a slot for Le Grand Numero de Chanel here