“You know, I can’t actually remember what it smells like, but I just LOVE that bottle.” It is the opening Saturday of the No.5 Culture Chanel exhibition at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and two young women – looking trés bon chic bon genre – are wandering through rows of perfect, transparent Lucite cases housing a vast archive of Chanel No.5 related art and ephemera. Like Dior’s New Look and the revolution of pret a porter, the modernist salvo of Chanel No.5 – which launched in 1921 – changed the world of fashion forever. The design of any new fragrance would become significantly more important than the product inside.
“N°5 is not a fragrance, but a cultural artifact,” says Jean Louis-Froment, the curator of the Palais de Tokyo show. “It has a unique aura. It is a manifesto.” Fragrances come and go, but the best become icons. Few achieve the landmark status that Chanel No.5, with its own Warhol silkscreen, has. Still, every year, designers spend fortunes and weeks on designs for new bottles. Each has to sum up the brand, and trigger an emotional response as strong as anything they put on the catwalk. They are miniature mass-produced sculptures. This spring, Yohji Yamamoto and Dries van Noten – two of fashions most renowned intellectuals – launched new product.
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 which Yamamoto selected because it was “the simplest bottle on earth.” For many, the idea of esoteric Yamamoto doing anything as commercial as a fragrance seemed outlandish. He would, of course, do it his way. A new version has been designed by 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 might be seen to echo the wrap of a kimono, something repeatedly evident in Yamamoto’s own designs.
Several designers have working relationships with big name architects and artists to create their product. Zaha Hadid created a typically amorphous bottle for Donna Karan Woman last year. “Her vision is uniquely graceful and strong,” says Karan. “There’s always a sense of lyricism and fluidity to her shape.”
Dries van Noten’s fragrance is in collaboration with parfumier Frédéric Malle, renowned for the minimalism of his presentation. It 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.”
A stark, modernist approach to bottle design continues to be popular. It’s something that stems from Chanel’s original intention for No.5. At a time when fragrance was presented in the most ornate, rarefied crystal vessels, she commissioned a simple, stark, modernist flacon, and subsequently added a stopper based on the layout of the Place Vendome. “What Coco Chanel wanted was an invisible bottle,” says historian Tilar J. Mazzeo, in her book The Secret of Chanel No. 5.
There are still some dubious visual puns around in the world of bottle design. One might 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, as witty and ironic. Or one might not. One of the sole successful and stylish examples of the visual pun is the Bond No.9 range. Each fragrance is based on a different New York neighbourhood, with a visual motif to match. “We use silk screening and engraving and metallization techniques with the theme of the New York subway token,” says founder Laurice Rahmé.
Sometimes, the sweeping iconoclastic visual statement is still the biggest success. Last year Lady Gaga became the latest in a long line of celebrities to put their name to a mid-market fragrance. ‘Fame’ comes in a bottle that looks like something Thierry Mugler sketched late at night and thought better of in the morning; regardless, it sold six million 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 best selling fragrances in the world, 21 years after it first appeared. The crystal futurist star-shape of the bottle – produced by Normandy glassmaker Brosse, who were also responsible for early Chanel No.5 – is one of Mugler’s greatest visual achievements. A Mugler-esque sci-fi looking silver stand is now available to buy which displays the fragrance as an artwork.
Parfumier and fragrance historian Roja Dove has his own line of fiercely high-end perfumes which come in bottles adorned with gold and Swarovski crystals. They are some of the most highly priced and successful in the world. He believes that maximalist French glass designer René Lalique has been at least as influential as Gabrielle Chanel in terms of the look of fragrances. “He was the first person to create what we would call today an holistic conceptual package,” says Dove. “Bottle, label and box reflected the intellectual idea of the scent it contained. ‘Nilang’ has two gilded, fantasy lotus blossoms suspended above the bottle as if floating on invisible water. It has inspired many commercial creations since.”
Bottle design can be a truly inspired, and scarce and pristine pieces – including ‘Shocking’ by Schiaparelli from 1937, with its Mae West body and bouquet of flowers around its neck – are highly collectible. Perfume bottles can be as much an expression of modernism as a piece of Bauhaus or Prouvé furniture, or they can have an embellished narrative. One of Roja Dove’s favourite pieces of design is the bottle that Salvador Dali created for Schiaparelli’s ‘Le Roi Soleil’ back in the 1940s. “It’s been rereleased 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.” It’s a precious as well as beautiful object: originals can reach $25,000 at auction.