Scent is now a $40bn retail industry, with over 100 new perfumes launching annually. Many are single-season wonders, contrived to surf the trend, but which then drown in the riptide of newcomers. Far fewer manage to enthral us for decades, and of those that do, it’s often their provocative – some would say scandalous – reputation that keeps them relevant. One such is Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium, which has upheld its legendary status – and loyal adherents – for 40 years. An anniversary that is being celebrated with a new limited edition perfume bottle.
Launched in 1977 on the orchid-festooned schooner Peking in New York’s East Harbour, with 800 party guests including Cher, Truman Capote, Nan Kempner and Diana Vreeland, Opium was inspired by Saint Laurent’s Chinese Couture collection that year – and immediately courted controversy.
High on mandarin, jasmine and peppery carnation floating on a dreamlike bed of amber, patchouli and vanilla, the sheer erotic potency of this new-style oriental seemed shocking in a pre-power perfume era. And that name. The scent was banned at the time in Australia and the Middle East for its drug connotations, and in the year 2000, Opium further fanned its salacious reputation by attracting the opprobrium of the British Advertising Standards Authority for its explicitly ecstatic imagery. The now infamous ad campaign, shot by Steven Meisel and directed by the then YSL creative director Tom Ford, featuring a luminously voluptuous Sophie Dahl on her back wearing nothing but her slingbacks, attracted 948 complaints and was banned from billboards. It is still one of the most complained-about adverts of the past 50 years.
Should we need further incentive to celebrate one of the 20th century’s true “greats” with its indelible imprint and deliciously saucy past, Opium has an exquisite new birthday ensemble. In a tribute to the original bottle and using pointed Japanese brushes, artist/gilder Manuela Paul-Cavallier has deftly embellished the limited edition eau de parfum’s red lacquer inro boxes with strokes of liquid gold; while its red silk tassel is hand-fashioned by a Moroccan female cooperative. There are just 20 of these collectors’ items, five of which arrive in Harrods on November 1, priced at £1,700. Something to fill a cheeky stocking, perhaps? It would seem a scandal not to…