This week marks the last few days of the No 5 Culture Chanel exhibition at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, a show devoted to a vast archive of No 5-related art and ephemera that has seen queues down to the Seine on the opening weekend, and more than 2,000 visitors a day since.
Two thousand visitors a day to a show about a perfume bottle? Well, yes. Except this isn’t any old perfume bottle: it’s proof that a perfume bottle is much more than the sum of its scents. It is, as curator Jean Louis-Froment says, “a cultural artifact, a manifesto”. No wonder every year designers spend fortunes and weeks on designs for new bottles.
The latest entrants to the field are Yohji Yamamoto and Dries Van Noten. Yamamoto’s fragrances – both “homme” and “femme” – are essentially a re-release of a range that vanished due to licensing issues in 2005, but with a new bottle design in addition to the original test-tubes, selected because they were “the simplest bottle on earth”. The new containers have been designed by London-based studio Vonsung, with an architectural curve reminiscent of Richard Serra, but in glass rather than metal. “The box is origami-inspired,” says Yulia Livne of Yohji Yamamoto Parfums. The bottle itself echoes the wrap of a kimono, reminiscent of Yamamoto’s own designs.
Dries Van Noten’s fragrance, created in collaboration with parfumier Frédéric Malle, comes in the simplest of circular bottles, in an orange fabric-texture box. “It’s a modern aesthetic,” says Malle. “We avoided unnecessary details, very much like Dries’ fashion. It’s crisp and clean, not old-fashioned or fussy.”
Still, not every brand goes the minimalist route pioneered by No 5. There are different schools of bottle design, from big-name architect and artist collaborations (see Zaha Hadid’s amorphous bottle for Donna Karan Woman, released last year) to the dubious visual pun. For the latter, consider the gold bullion container of 1 Million from Paco Rabanne, or Konvict, which comes in two chained-together bottles in the shape of handcuffs. Or think of one of the most successful examples as regards concept, the Bond No 9 range, where each fragrance is based on a different New York neighbourhood, with a visual motif to match. “We use silk screening and engraving and metallisation techniques with the theme of the New York subway token,” says founder Laurice Rahmé.
Sometimes the sweeping iconoclastic visual statement has the biggest success. Last year Lady Gaga became the latest celebrity to put her name to a mid-market fragrance with Fame, which comes in a bottle that looks like something Thierry Mugler sketched late at night and thought better of in the morning; regardless, it sold 6m bottles in its launch week. It still has a long way to go to rival Mugler’s own Angel, which continues to be one of the five bestselling fragrances in the world 21 years after launch. The futuristic star-shape of the bottle – produced by Normandy glassmaker Brosse, which was also responsible for early Chanel No 5 – is one of Mugler’s greatest visual achievements; a silver stand is now available to display the bottle as an artwork.
Then there’s parfumier and fragrance historian Roja Dove’s eponymous line of high-end perfumes, which come in bottles adorned with gold and Swarovski crystals. Dove believes maximalist French glass designer René Lalique has been at least as influential as Gabrielle Chanel. “He was the first to create what we would call today a holistic conceptual package,” says Dove. “Bottle, label and box reflected the intellectual idea of the scent it contained. Lalique’s Nilang has two gilded, fantasy lotus blossoms suspended above the bottle as if floating on invisible water. It has inspired many since.”
Another of Dove’s favourite pieces is the bottle that Salvador Dalí created for Schiaparelli’s Le Roi Soleil in the 1940s. “It’s been re-released recently,” he says, “executed in Baccarat crystal, in the shape of clouds and a huge sunshine, with doves in flight creating a face in the centre of the sun. It represents the end of the darkness of the second world war.” Like many museum pieces, it’s a precious as well as beautiful object: originals have reached $25,000 at auction.