Blowing Smoke: Opium

Opium in the original release

Opium in the original release

When Opium came out in the late seventies it was the adjunct of Yves Saint Laurent’s  Chinese couture collection.  Useless to ponder what effect all those coolie hats and quilted  gold lame jackets might have had on ingredient selection, the perfume was then owned by Squib/ Beechnut, the formula a matter of corporate calculation.  Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge no longer owned the YSL perfumes.  Instead they received a five percent royalty and the right to veto products inexpressive of the Saint Laurent aesthetic.

There was one change though, according to a source Chandler Burr quoted in  The Perfect Scent, Opium represented the first time a fine fragrance oil was made very cheaply.  You can draw the same conclusion from Edmond Roudnitska who described Opium as “L’Origan without the flowers”.  Stripped down, mostly basenotes by 1977 the return to the soft floral oriental was not surprising. The YSL backer Richard Salomon of Charles of the Ritz  had  risen through the ranks at Coty before he founded his business and  when more YSL perfumes were required after the perfume arm was sold, the American  productions were revamped versions of earlier Coty successes starting with Opium.

The methodology of Opium was transatlantic and contemporary. It was a “concept scent” like the successful Charlie, meaning that the name and images came before the perfume. The last YSL fragrance Eau Libre a  unisex scent, had flopped though Saint Laurent himself had entrusted its marketing to  a hot new PR team in Paris.  Opium was more carefully thought out. Engineered to compete with top oriental perfumes especially Shalimar, Opium had been market researched for maximum consumer impact.  Young buyers at the time wanted stronger more assertive fragrances rather than the  delicate French classics like Je Reviens. They wanted zero to sixty seduction in under ten seconds. The question of whether the high octane fragrance should be a chypre or an oriental was settled in favor of the oriental simply because the oriental was stronger. US consumers  also liked high oil concentrations.  They had acquired this taste from Youth Dew which had a 70% concentration  as a bath oil heavier than the usual French 20% for parfum. Opium had to begin its life at a lumbering 30% just to compete with the overdosed Estee Lauders on the US market.

Moreover a breach had opened up between Charles of the Ritz and the designer around 1976 or so.  Saint Laurent wanted a new perfume and he stipulated an oriental

Eau Libre

Eau Libre

bottle to match his Chinese couture reveries.  “I wanted a perfume for the Empress of China” Saint Laurent told Andre Leon Talley dreamily, and the bottle lacquered red  with a netsuke cap designed by Pierre Dinand had met with his approval but who should supervise development of the scent did not.  French YSL insiders wanted control, and Charles of the Ritz were reluctant to take such a risk after the debacle of Eau Libre. There was the YSL then controversial taste in marketing to consider, his ad campaigns for Eau Libre and YSL for Men being two cases in point.

The name Opium itself was a problem.  Believed to be an endorsement of drug culture, Charles of the Ritz and Beechnut/Squibb had no wish to endorse any drugs.  The designer however loved the name and had a whim of iron.  No matter how much headbutting went on, Saint Laurent always returned to the fray insisting on Opium.

Yves Saint Laurent  for his YSL Pour Homme perfume advert

Yves Saint Laurent for his YSL Pour Homme perfume advert

Opium was also the first clubbing perfume.  It’s brief was for disco wear and the perfume submitted by Roure made reference to one of their previous huge successes Tabu.  Although originally the formula was meant to be a spicy floral oriental with carnations, that evolved into a peppery clove studded fixative fest, far less floral than its  grandmother L’Origan, far less animalic than its mother Tabu.

If the soundtrack for Opium was low camp disco the packaging was high brow and high concept.  The appearance of Opium was one of the most consciously refined ones of recent decades.  The Chinese red, the rounded corners, and the inro shape were  wonderfully evocative of the East if a mishmash of Chinese and Japanese inspirations.  Opium in many ways was latter day Chinoiserie.

No such release, with a junk moored in New York harbor for the launch party, could have been complete without someone being offended.  Right on schedule James Tso,

Launch party for Opium

Launch party for Opium

chairman of the Committee for equal Opportunity of the Organization of Chinese Americans denounced the name Opium as “psychological pollution”.  This may seem a stretch but Mr. Tso and his colleagues carried their operations to the next general meeting of Squibb waving signs like “Boycott Opium”. Naturally the publicity from this controversy proved priceless, and despite the high initial expenses  (Squibb paid $300,000 for the party to launch Opium), the scent was a hit.  Women loved Opium’s speed and daring, and unlike too many dates in the disco era, it stuck around until morning.

Opium was soon among the top ten scents sold in the US and Europe, and as of last year was still on the top ten list because of its flanker Black Opium. As for Yves Saint Laurent, he was amused. He wished Opium detractors would come and protest underneath his apartment in Paris, in the Rue de Babylone. Sadly no one did.



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7 thoughts on “Blowing Smoke: Opium

  1. A concept scent it may have been but it was still a great scent! And I say that as one who doesn’t actually like it much.

    I wonder if all of that huge launch events and mega-marketing campaigns might have assisted the gradual development of niche houses – L’Arisan, Diptyque, Annick Goutal etc – which promised great fragrances stripped of gazillion dollar marketing campaigns and fancy packaging. A simpler relationship between product and customer.

    • Perhaps more marketing might have helped those brands. The cost though might have meant much less innovation, no Passage d’ Enfer or Eau du Navigateur at L’Artisan and probably no Folavril at Goutal with that great tomato leaf note. Not much I bet without the marketing department’s say so in fact. So perhaps being independent and scrappy was good for them.

      Not an Opium fan myself though I pulled out my sample when writing this to check. But I still smell it around…

  2. Fascinating to look back on the origins of Opium.
    It is so recognisable and potent that I simply can’t wear it too often but, as autumn gets colder and darker, it calls to me: “Wear me!”. Hard to refuse.

    • I read a quote from a long term Opium addict who said that it was indeed so recognizable that when her children wanted to find her in a crowd they would sniff her out “like calves” by the sent of her perfume!

      It’s kind of a fun mental image.

  3. A classic indeed. I cherish a vintage bottle from the 90s that unexpectedly belonged to my mother, though I have no recollection of her wearing it. A third has gone, so it seems it was used somehow. I prefer the flankers myself, notably Fleur de Shanghai and Poesie de Chine. Black Opium is a travesty imho.

    • You sent me a little bit of Fleur de Shanghai and I must say I prefer that to the original myself.
      Opium is a bit like that huge black monolith that appears amongst the proto-humanoid apes at the beginning of 2001 (and I do think of the soundtrack as well when smelling it). Far too much for a primitive ape like me to wear. As for Black Opium that’s the monolith without the soundtrack and apes can wear it any time they like :-)

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