Although Opium was a perfect accompaniment to the most beautiful Saint Laurent’s The Ballets Russes couture collection that defined him as an artist, it was Saint Laurent’s love for Asian love, his memories of Japan and his vision of the 18th century China that inspired the actual fragrance.
The perfume was also available to those who couldn’t afford haute couture or Rive Gauche clothes, but still wanted something classy, elegant and magical. The $80 bottle of perfume was an opportunity to belong to the world of Yves Saint Laurent without spending a fortune. For the company every sale meant a profitable affair: a 14ml bottle would only cost $4 to make, $6 to package and $8 – to advertise.
In the mid 1970s French perfumes, particularly Chanel No. 5 and Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, were the most popular in the world because they were associated with the centuries of expertise of the Grasse “noses”.
Traditionally, a new perfume would start with a formula, the “juice”. If it felt special enough, a name and suitable advertising campaign would be designed to match the fragrance.
Opium was the first French perfume that followed an American model: its creation began with a name and an image for the fragrance and only then the formula was created to match the idea. The “juice” was also constructed in a way perfumes were made in the States where proportions of one part oil to four parts liquid helped to achieve a stronger scent.
It turned out that the name “Opium” was already registered by two elderly perfumiers years before Yves Saint Laurent, but they happily sold the rights to the company for $200.
The formula was created by Jean Amic and Jean-Louis Sieuzac of Roure. It was based on a deep warm mixture of woody tones made of sandalwood, cedar, myrrh, patchouli, musk, vetiver and amber mixed with fruit and spices including mandarin orange, pepper, plum, clove, bay leaf and coriander followed by the middle notes of jasmine, rose and Lily of the Valley combined with carnation, cinnamon and peach.
The packaging was inspired by a replica of a Mandarin lacquered bottle encased in a brown box embossed with hold lettering and sprigs of Chinese flowers that was a part of Saint Laurent and Berger’s collection at rue de Babylone. The beautiful flacon holding a sensual mysterious fragrance was designed by Pierre Dinand who took inspiration from the Japanese inro and decided to avoid frilly crystal designs and let the perfume inside speak for itself.
What was toned down in packaging, was made up for in the advertising campaign featuring Jerry Hall lying on a lamè sofa beneath a Ming buddah in the Oriental room at rue de Babylone wearing a black and gold Mandarin jacket lined with red satin over a gold vest and purple satin harem trousers with a red braid belt, high-heeled strappy sandals and handfuls of jewellery. Saint Laurent not only designed the outfit, but also insisted that campaign shoot took place in his apartment. Before everything was photographed by Helmut Newton, every detail was adjusted by Yves himself – he even showed the model how to lie on the cushions and made sure that every piece of jewellery was placed perfectly.
The ad said: “Opium, pour celles qui s’adonnent à Yves Saint Laurent” / “Opium, for those who are addicted to Yves Saint Laurent.”
France loved the perfume and so did the Europe. In 1977 the sales of Opium in just one month generated more sales than Chanel No. 5 did in the entire year! When the perfume was launched in the States, Diana Vreeland who attended the Opium party held at the Peking was asked what she thought of the fragrance. “I like the smell of money,” she replied. She was right: no matter how much controversy it caused, very quickly Opium became one of the best selling perfumes.
Photo sources: Opium bottle 2011, Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps 1976 & Chanel No. 5 1975 vintage ad campaigns, Chinese dining room at rue Babylon via Mark d. Sikes, Jerry Hall photographed by Helmut Newton for Opium ad campaign 1977, Opium 1984 campaign. Linda Evangelista in Opium 1988 and 1997 campaigns, Nastasia Urbano in Opium 1992 campaign, Kate Moss in Opium 1993 campaign, Natalia Semanova in Opium 1999 campaign, Maria Carla Boscono in Opium 2006 campaign, Karen Elson in Opium 2010 campaign