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A whiff of luxury

Taking a tour of Coco Chanel's perfumed paradise in Paris

PARIS -- The third-floor apartment on Rue Cambon is more than 3,000 miles from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but elements of this luxurious pied-à-terre, unchanged since Coco Chanel entertained here from the 1920s until her death in 1971, still permeate Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel couture pieces currently on display in the MFA's "Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006" exhibition.

The apartment, which is above a Chanel boutique in a posh district of the city, is only open to a few of Chanel's best couture costumers and journalists. Since I fall into the second category, I've wrangled a tour of the place where Gabriel "Coco" Chanel conducted business and entertained. The tiny apartment has no bedroom -- Chanel lived in a suite at the nearby Ritz. Every morning before she arrived at the apartment, the air was sprayed with Chanel No. 5 -- the world's priciest air freshener -- and the white lines on the edge of each stair leading up to the apartment were repainted crisp white.

Everything in the flat has meaning to the Chanel legacy. In the front receiving room, the coromandel screens affixed to the walls are adorned with camellias , which were Chanel's favorite flower. Chanel devotees know that the camellia was the flower worn by French gentlemen, so it stands to reason that Chanel, who adapted men's hunting bags into purses, and added cashmere cardigans and tweed jackets to the female fashion lexicon, would also claim the gentlemen's camellia as her own.

The symbolism goes further in the living room, where a mirror on the wall echoes the shape of the cap of Chanel No. 5, and sculptural sheaths of wheat, the symbol for prosperity, belie her beginnings as a peasant class orphan. The quilted beige sofa, where Chanel was famously photographed by Horst, was the inspiration for the quilted Chanel purse. In the same way that she was an early champion of mixing male and female styles, she breezily mixed different periods in her apartment furnishings. A 15th-century clock on the fireplace sits above the modern Jacques Lipchitz end irons. And because Chanel chose these items, the combinations work famously.

Lagerfeld and creative types at the House of Chanel still mine the apartment for links to Chanel and her creative legacy. I keep my eyes peeled for the white plume of Lagerfeld's hair, but sadly there is no sign of him. When the guide leaves me for a moment, I record a video of myself at Coco's dining room table, imagining that her kitchen help will soon serve dinner (Chanel had as much interest in cooking as she did in keeping house). And as the tour loops back to the front receiving room, I do my best to stall the inevitable departure, instead hoping to linger in Coco's well-appointed, perfumed paradise. -- CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

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