Jan 7, 2022

CHANEL & Es Devlin, A Surprising Match Made in Heaven

Post by 
Heather Gallagher

When I was at Miami Art Week last month, I was surprised that one of my favorite experiences was the immersive installation Five Echoes by Es Devlin. The work had been commissioned by CHANEL as a celebration of 100 years of CHANEL N5. 

I’ve been an Es Devlin fan for years, so the fact that she created another fantastic work wasn’t a surprise. I’ll get to why her piece was a stunning example of immersive experience design in just a moment. 

After two decades in the heart of Burning Man supporting it’s principle of “decommodification” and helping to defend against commercial entities attempting to appropriate creativity and culture, let’s just say I developed a healthy skepticism about the relationships between brands and art. I’ve seen too many exhibits that were overloaded with brand logos or where the cool kids were being exploited for their trend du jour to make outdated companies appear relevant. 

I'm happy to say that Five Echoes was the complete opposite of that. The installation was an elegant tribute to the teen years of Gabrielle Chanel. It was a celebration of a time when she lived in southern France and was significantly influenced by the natural world and forest landscapes outside her window in the Abbey of Aubazine.

Under the labyrinth of Five Echoes by Es Devlin, Commissioned by CHANEL

What was surprising was that even though (from a certain perspective) I was basically immersed in a multi-sensory large-scale real-life commercial, I was loving it. It felt good. It was inspiring. It was uplifting and evocative. It felt fresh. It didn’t feel commercial. It was fantastic art, and it was making a positive impact on the world. Here are 9 reasons why Five Echoes was one of my favorite experiences during an art-filled week in Miami.

  1. It proved it is possible to tastefully integrate brands and art

Beforehand in promotions and numerous articles published, it was clear the installation was a commission and was a tribute to the founder of a global brand. Once inside the experience however, aside from two museum quality sign placards with the backstory and fully flushed out credits, there was no product placement, no logos, no taglines, no counter reps with squirt bottles, and no one trying to give samples or schwag on the way out the door. Once you were inside the experience, it was about experiencing the art, the ambiance and the exploration… with no strings attached.  

  1. It was free and open to the public

Timed-entry pre-reserved tickets were required to get in. A limited number were available and they quickly ‘sold out’, but they were free and open to anyone online. I’m sure this was due to covid restrictions and possibly to keep the experience quality elevated versus overcrowded. I’ve got no problem buying tickets to a great experience, especially one that benefits artists and creatives. I willingly spent $36 to go see another Es Devlin piece and a whole lot more at Superblue a few days later, not to mention a week in the expensive playground of Miami. That said, often this kind of experience is only available at a price or for free through sponsorship or a brand activation, so for an installation of this quality, they have my gratitude.

  1. It was a somatic experience

The ground of the entire venue was covered in soft mulch chips, so as soon as I stepped off the cement and into ‘the forest’ my body relaxed as if I were on a gentle hike out in nature. Never underestimate your feet as powerful tools for storytelling. If your body believes it, your mind will too. Combined with ramps and stairs to climb, variations in elevations, plants to touch, and a labyrinth to get lost in, and my whole body became engaged in the experience.

  1. It was a sensory experience

The smell of soft damp mulch, the scent of trees and the oxygen rich environment created by the temporary forest of countless living plants was a delight for the senses. Apparently many of the scents in N5 were inspired by the intoxicating forest scents Gabrielle found outside the abbey. I was so grateful that the entire installation did not reek of a perfume counter! 

  1. It transported visitors to an entirely different world

The installation took over an area known as Jungle Plaza, which is adjacent to Palm Court and nearby luxury brand stores in the Design District in downtown Miami. Once I was inside, I almost forgot we were surrounded by cement sidewalks, buildings full of shops, and streets filled with Lamborghinis looking for parking spaces. It truly created a new earthy, ethereal and lush natural world right in the heart of a busy urban environment. 

  1. It was a comprehensive experience

The installation activated and transformed the entire space. From the first step past the ticket takers all the way to the walls that bordered the lot, everything you saw was part of the experience. The walls were painted with a mural of a faint distant forest that helped give the illusion of the forest extending well beyond its actual footprint. Every wire was hidden and there was no unsightly ‘infrastructure’ or remnants of the vacant lot anywhere to be seen. The illusion that you were visiting a forest was maintained in the entire area that the installation occupied.

Forest mural painted on the far walls on two corners of the lot where Five Echoes was installed
  1. It was an auditory experience

The installation was full of nature sounds such as insects and owls that you would hear deep in a forest at night. Overlaying that was an ambient audio track which occasionally had a subtle and soft female voice reading a poem about nature. The sounds were encompassing, with speakers distributed throughout the environment hidden in plant filled berms, but not overwhelming or intrusive. 

  1. It was an educational experience

There were over a thousand plants and trees gathered around the installation in various clusters and forming pathways to explore. Many of the trees had identifying cards indicating the type, species and native habitat. Admittedly, tree identification is not my specialty, so I attempted to imprint at least a few leaf shapes into my brain along the way. 

  1. It had a positive social and environmental impact 

The installation made use of locally native trees, including protected and threatened species, that were brought in for the exhibit and lovingly tended to for the duration. After closing, all the trees and plants were going to be planted nearby in the Gladeview and West Kendall areas of Miami in a partnership with local groups for reforestation efforts, and other materials donated for reuse and recycling projects.

In full disclosure, I’m not a CHANEL customer, nor am I likely to become one. I prefer my essential oils and exotic natural spice scents over the chemical smells from perfume counters and bottles. As far as fashion, their looks tend to be a bit conservative for me with my purple dreadlocks and colorful flair. I’m a creative who makes or upcycles my own clothes, eagerly trades with the rest of my community, or supports my local California festival designers. I exist in a world where the worth of a person is measured by their humor, capability, integrity, loyalty and creativity, not by what luxury brand they buy. 

That said, visiting this beautiful immersive installation and experience, which was offered so graciously and presented exquisitely, has given me a connection to the brand which I would not otherwise have felt. It gave me insight into the rich history of the company, the humble origins of it’s founder, and demonstrated a quality of intention, execution and artistic vision which I can respect. Supporting large scale installation artists and sharing their work with the world is definitely something I can get behind, and seeing this example of a brand and artist collaboration gives me hope for what’s possible when these two worlds come together.