Dread Agent of Unimaginable Pleasure and Pain!

The late 19th century has always been my favourite historical period: the Victorian age, in particular, retains an incredible charm, as it represented a period where appearance and good manners had many different dark counterparts, one of which is the use of drugs. The title of the post refers to Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, first published anonymously in 1821, an autobiographical account of the addiction to laudanum (opium and alcohol). It has never been proved that London had more opium dens than France or North America, yet De Quincey’s account, along with The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, contributed in establishing the fame of the British capital as a centre of danger and mystery [1]. I am sure Yves Saint Laurent had this in mind when he decided to call one of his most famous perfumes after the poppy-derived drug. The great French designer was addicted to drugs for part of his life, so it’s interesting to see how he turned to the imagery related to opium and decadence.

The fragrance was created by Jean Louis Sieuzac and combined oriental and floral accents: the complex olfactive pyramid includes benzoin, patchouli, oppoponax, cedar, sandalwood, labdanum, castoreum, musk and vanilla at the base, clove, jasmine, cinnamon, rose, peach, orris, myrrh and ylang ylang at the heart, aldehydes, plum, pepper, tangerine, coriander, bergamot and lemon on top.

The advertising campaign by Helmut Newton featured a stunning Jerry Hall, leaning on a bed covered by silver and pewter brocade cushions, surrounded by white lilies and a golden Buddha statue; she wore a Chinese-style embroidered jacket, purple pants, strappy sandals and loads of rings on her fingers. The idea you get from this image is a clear reference to the Far East culture and to decadence. The catchphrase (“For those addicted to Yves Saint Laurent”) caused quite a stir, so much that in some countries the campaign was banned.

This is another picture of the campaign, with a different shot of the model.

In 1981 she posed again for Helmut Newton. This picture is amazing because it perfectly and beautifully rendered the mood of the scent. For the first time, some visual themes – destined to become recurring – are introduced (white orchids and a dress of bronze lurex) . Here, Jerry Hall appeared in all her fierceness.

It is not a case that many of the advertising campaigns had women with eyes closed and long wavy hair, lying on canopies or beds, in what could supposedly be a moment of ecstasy coming from the perfume (but the reference is of course to the drug and its effects). The picture on the left – shot in 1989 by David Lynch – featured Nastasia Urbano, wearing a bronze lurex dress, while the second had a blonde woman dressed in black, with white orchids on one side.

In 1990 Nastasia Urbano was the protagonist of another Opium campaign: the picture above is ruled by different tones of purple and crimson – her dress, her lipstick and the fabric used as screen behind her. I am not crazy about this one, because it totally lacks drama and mystery.

Orchids, bronze lurex and wavy hair can be found in a picture of another campaign: this was shot by Steve Hiett in 1986 and featured a young Linda Evangelista.

In 1995, the Canadian supermodel became the face for the same perfume again: she starred in a campaign by Jean Baptiste Mondino, where she was lying on a purple fabric, wearing a gorgeous red and orange kimono dress and purple sandals. Her male counterpart – and face of Opium pour Homme – was the actor Rupert Everett.

Another supermodel who has been the face for this infamous fragrance is Kate Moss: in 1993 she was shot by Satoshi Saikusa wearing a crimson dress and loads of jewellery, surrounded by drapes of the same colour. I don’t like this campaign very much, because they over-did her make-up.

In 2003 she was chosen again as face of Opium: in this case, she posed for the Norwegian photographer Solve Sundsbo. The result was extremely refined and sexy: she wore a black bustier, stockings and garters. I love the trick of using mirrors to give the picture depth. As a side note, Kate Moss is the face of another Yves Saint Laurent fragrance, Parisienne, launched in 2009.

In 1999 Natalia Semanova was the protagonist of a campaign for Opium: she was portrayed sitting on a velvet armchair, wearing a beautiful gold lace dress, with some clouds of steam in the background and a bottle of the perfume on a small table beside her. I personally have no memory of this campaign, which is actually nothing special, even if the general mood is consistent to the idea conveyed by the perfume. I love the vampy make-up she was sporting, because it adds mystery to the whole picture.

An Opium campaign which stirred much controversy was shot in 2000 by Steven Meisel, under the direction of Tom Ford, who had just been chosen to be at the helm of the French maison: the statuesque British model Sophie Dahl posed naked, wearing nothing but gold sandals, a necklace and a bracelet. Many accused the sexually suggestive image of being offensive and degrading to women. I understand the reason behind the controversy – does it necessarily take a naked woman to advertise a perfume? – yet I cannot help but admire the Reinassance painting-like quality of the picture, very much in Tom Ford’s style.

In 2006, the Italian model Maria Carla Boscono was the face of the perfume in a campaign I’d never seen before. Maria Carla is one of my favourite models, but she was the worst choice for Opium, because she is so distant from the imagery of the perfume, especially with that hideous blonde wavy bob. I like the way in which the picture is conceived though, as well as the reference to the Rising Sun and the black laquer vase with white orchids.

One of the latest testimonials of the perfume is Malgosia Bela, who was featured in an extremely vapid picture by Glen Luchford in 2007. There is an attempt to introduce elements of Opium‘s traditional iconography – the white orchid and the wavy hair – but the result totally misses the point.

The latest face of the perfume is Karen Elson, one of Stefano Pilati’s muses, who posed for Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott in 2009. Even if I like the picture, it steers away from the tradition: first of all, it introduces a restyled bottle, which is definitely not as interesting as the classic one; in second place, I cannot get the quirky pose of the model, the way in which she holds the bottle, the ankle bracelet. It looks like a shift has occurred – from the atmospheres of an opium den to the steamy interiors of a hammam. I don’t know why but this doesn’t convince me.

Much can be said of the bottle: I adore the classic one, originally designed by Pierre Dinand.

According to him, Yves Saint Laurent wanted to create a perfume “that would remind him of his experience with LSD” and had some images in mind – “fire flowers, candles, red and purple colours”. When asked to design the packaging and the bottle for this new perfume, Dinand chose purple and gold for the box and worked on the shape of an inro for the bottle.

The inro is a wooden box used, according to the tradition, by samurais to carry herbs, spices and opium with them. It is made of several compartments, closed by strings, and is topped by a netsuke, a sculpted ball. The compartments of the inro are stylized in the bottle, the netsuke has been turned into a glass top and the strings holding the compartments together have become the tassel.

The story behind the spray bottle is less interesting, yet a different recurring theme – bamboo leaves – can be found. The trademark crimson and gold colours have been kept.

The campaigns are only a part of the sdvertisement of the perfume, because several commercials were shot, too. The first – dated 1986 -sees a white-clad Linda Evangelista going into a Far East market to rescue (or to pick) a slave. The narration thread is a little blurry, but I quite like it.

The second is dated 1985 and introduces a more mysterious mood: a woman, covered in furs, sneaks into Yves Saint Laurent’s headquarters (I can assume into his private apartment) like a thief, just to lusciously apply some perfume. Before leaving the shadow-hunted room, she puts the bottle back, in front of a framed picture of the designer.

The third one is my favourite and the most sophisticated of the Opium commercials, shot by David Lynch in 1989: the protagonist is Nastasia Urbano, who is applying perfume as if she is having an ecstatic experience. I love the structure of the short film and the recurring theme of the fan, presented in material form but echoed by the opening movement of the model’s hand and by the shape of a ceiling light. I also like the sequence where the camera seems to fall into the bottle, followed by Oriental decorations trembling like perfume (or opium) fumes.

The last one was shot by Jean Baptiste Mondino: the protagonists are Linda Evangelista and Rupert Everett, both lying on a purple floor of fabric moved by a winding machine. I don’t like this commercial (I think it’s the worst of the four), because it doesn’t retain any of the main visual characteristics of the previous ones.

I’ve never used this perfume even if I’ve always been charmed by it. Is any of you a die-hard fan of it? And what are your opinions on its campaigns? Which is your favourite?

[1] It’s not coincidental that Frederick Abberline (played by Johnny Depp), the detective protagonist of From Hell by Albert and Allen Hughes, smokes opium and drinks absinthe. Another famous movie character, Noodles (Robert De Niro) from Once Upon a Time in America by Sergio Leone, often goes to an opium den.

Source and source.



  1. I think the earlier campaigns are much more interesting and visually sophisticated; I also like how they are slightly Orientalist (in this context intended towards the Far East rather than the Middle East)without turning it into a cliche (as in red lanterns, geishas and the usual stereotypes connected with the Far East).
    It’s a shame that Karen Elson, who IMHO could have been the perfect testimonial, looks like she’s adverstising Pepsi!:( Similarly, I find that Maria Carla’s mysterious allure has been totally undone by that blonde hair (I don’t know if they thought it would recall the orchids or what).
    If you get around to try/buy the perfume, I’d be curious to know what you think about it- I never tried it either!

    PS: Did you know that the Opium Wars, which were fought under Queen Victoria’s rule, is how the British acquired Hong Kong and other strategic cities in China?

    1. I totally agree with you: the brilliant rendition of Far Eastern culture and imagery by Yves Saint Laurent has slowly been lost, as the latest campaigns show.

      I’ve never bought the perfume, but I’ve tried it several times. I don’t know how to explains my feelings to it: I think it’s a complex perfume, perfect for a strong-willed character, for a power/sensual woman; the combination of floral and oriental notes is very pleasant, even if I can smell the oriental notes more than the floral ones. I guess you should try it at least once to grasp its complexity. Def worth trying.

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