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March 1, 2010

"Opium" By Luca Turin

"Opium" By Luca Turin

Opium is 30 years old ! I make it 33, since it came out in 1977, but lying about your age is ok. On reflection, though, it seems unnecessary: Opium was born middle-aged, and all the better for it. From day one, it was the come-hither perfume of the tanned woman in furs who is beginning to look a great deal more beautiful than her husband. Naturally, young women loved it because it suggested a past that would take some time to explain.

I remember vividly when I first smelled it. I was in London at the end of the dreary seventies, and a French girl, maybe 24 and deliciously named Josette, turned up to work in the fusty London university I was in. She had close-cropped hair and dark red lips, wore emerald-green velvet jeans and spoke in a husky voice that has become scarce since smoking went out of style. She was proof that glamour not only existed but had made alarming progress while I fussed with corduroy flares and snot-green cardigans.

By an illuminating coincidence, Opium came out a few months before the launch of a very similar yet strikingly ineffectual fragrance called Cinnabar. Both referred to China, both used the same red color in the packaging. Cinnabar was composed by Bernard Chant, the man responsible for the fragrances that made Opium inevitable: Cabochard, Aramis, Aromatics Elixir. All these, though wonderfully rich and complex, played with a fallen-leaves palette from umber to deep brown.

Opium wasn’t autumn, it was Christmas. Unforgettably vivid and saturated in color, it seemed to square the perfumery circle by being at once fresh, medicinal and sweet. Above all, it was scarily different. Chant and his collaborator Josephine Catapano had clearly been looking for Opium, but Jean-Louis Sieuzac found it. Cinnabar also gives the measure of another ingredient that made Opium great, one not to be found in the bottle but all around it: perfect art direction.

The name, for a start, outrageous enough to get publicity, but not so much that you lose customers. The slogan was “Pour les femmes qui s’adonnent (give themselves over) à Yves Saint Laurent”. The women in the ads, though fully dressed, looked as if the great gay genius had figured out something better than sex. There were protestations all over the world, and the fragrance was banned in China and the Gulf States. The Chinese couldn’t afford it anyway, and Gulf customers simply went to Paris to buy it. Saint Laurent upped the ante in 2000 with a naked Sophie Dahl making love to Invisible Man, but the original was funnier and more apt.

Opium had a stellar first decade. It then fell into disfavor in the nineties when people decided they wanted pale, thin, overexposed fragrances, which is like preferring a 2-bedroom flat to the Arc de Triomphe. Like it or not, Opium is a landmark that will outlast all who read this.

Luca Turin works at the MIT; he lives in Boston.

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