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YSL Opium: Ode to the Seventies

Thursday, 08 October 2009

ysl opiumEarly eighties were marked by a surge of Oriental scents when the oriental theme, somewhat passee and forgotten after the phenomenal triumph of the legendary Guerlain Shalimar, got a chance to revival owing to the French couturier Yves Saint Laurent. In 1977, Yves Saint Laurent released Opium, a dry, spicy oriental scent that has become an icon of spicy, sensual, and seductive oriental-style perfumery. One of the celebrated pacesetters in fashion, Saint Laurent has made a true revolution in the perfume industry n the early eighties. Despite the dominance of the floral aldehydes, he was able to bring the Oriental scents back into the spotlight.

Opium reveals Yves Saint Laurent's fascination with the Orient. It was the quintessence of the Oriental with all its mysteriousness, sensuality and warmth. His concept of complex femininity is conveyed in an opulent scent which mixes strong herb-infused accents with sweeter ones like mandarin, jasmine, and vanilla. Opium opens with clove buds stuck in the peel of dried orange, familiar like a pomander and intensely so. Pimento berries also add a more complex aspect to the mostly-eugenolic character of the opening; pepper suggests dryness and cinnamon adds sweetness.

The heart notes are floral, most notably orange blossom and carnation. Although jasmine, rose and ylang ylang are present, they are hidden behind plenty of carnation and more cloves; the floral notes in this oriental in particular have the role of smoothing things out without sticking out or showing their true colours.

The underlying resins are what make Opium stand apart from other Oriental scents, as it uses a large proportion of opoponax with its powdery, animalic and resinous-sweet qualities, backed up by the dry and sweet bitterness of myrrh and the woody-dry qualities of patchouli. There is a touch of sweetness that is never overly done originated in vanilla and benzoin resin. Both notes serve to accentuate the hint of sweetness present in opoponax and myrrh. To support the Oriental style of the scent, the design of the box was inspired by inro, a Japanese lacquered box for storage of sweet-scented herbs and medicines.

The phenomenal success of YSL Opium is due not only to its provocative concept that appealed to the public immediately. The fragrance has actually become a perfect symbol of its time - a unique fusion of glamour and punk style, so characteristic of the late seventies and the early eighties. This was the era of bold colors and rebellious young people who reveled in Castaneda's philosophic ideas and light hallucinogens, the sexually open generation rocked by David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. This totally justifies not only the provocative name Yves Saint Laurent selected for his incestuous fragrance, but also the image of woman-temptress he wanted to promote. Fully in line with its name, Opium indeed prays to be associated with something narcotic: it's easy to lose oneself in its sensual, seducing, intoxicating aroma, as in the sweet opium fumes.

Launched in 1977, Opium immediately becomes one of the most provocative and controversial fragrances of its time - for the most part, not so much because of the unusual perfume formula, but owing to its really scandalous name. In the United States, Opium has caused outrage from a group of Chinese Americans who demanded Saint Laurent not only changed the name, which was directly associated with the notorious drug, but also made public apologies for his "insensitivity to Chinese history and Chinese-American concerns». For, as we know, China has a tragic opium history: a destructive addiction to opium, brought by the British and American colonialists, has killed thousands of the Chinese.

However, the scandal with the Chinese community only helped YSL Opium to be well-publisized: the scent has become a hit shortly after its release.

Numerous YSL Opium ad campaigns created equal controversy, especially the one featuring Sophie Dahl in a very revealing attire (she's wearing nothing but gold stilettos) posing in a manner that probably made those who opposed it to think she's been just drugged and can be taken advantage of by whomever happens to pass by. Though the ad emerged in 2000, when the sexuality is heavily exploited by everyone but the lazy, this openness was truly shocking. The campaign photographed by a famous photographer Stephen Meisel won a special award in Spain and has been banned in several European countries, particularly, it caused an uproar in the United Kingdom, where the authorities received over 700 complaints from the public, arguing that the ads were too sexually suggestive and «degrading to women». American feminists contested that the Opium ad featuring Sophie Dahl was «an idealization of weak yielding women».

Opium has made the concept of perfume «uniqueness» obliterate - in the next few years, Opium was everywhere, and its numerous ad campaigns were featured on the pages of all fashion magazines.

Inessa Hyder

 

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