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
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.
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,
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.