THE SCANDALOUS HISTORY OF YVES SAINT LAURENT’S OPIUM FRAGRANCE OBSESSION

The ASA stopped the ad from concluding that the broadcast was "irresponsible and unacceptable."

By Balthzar Malevolent

THE SCANDALOUS HISTORY OF YVES SAINT LAURENT’S OPIUM FRAGRANCE OBSESSION

If Gucci's revamp in the 1990's by Tom Ford has a non-monetary legacy, it is firmly grounded in sex. Texas-born Ford gave the faltering Italian leather goods manufacturer, who was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1994 (when he was promoted to the role of creative director) during his tenure at Gucci from 1990 to 2004, an identity... a bold and sexy one.

As Sarah Mower of Vogue wrote in 2004, on the heels of the Ford finale, he brought the "embodiment of sexual confidence, burnished to a high gloss and bursting with predatory power" to the Guccio Gucci-founded and formerly family-owned business. A symbolic figure of the hedonistic highs of the past decade, complete with "mean-looking black skirtsuits fanatically worked to the body, ruched to the ribs, and pieced to grip the derriere in multiple complex slivers." International success resulted. Sales at Gucci increased by 90 percent between 1995 and 1996, and the Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion when Ford left in 2004.

Mr. Ford, who joined Gucci when he was barely 30 years old, was charged with revitalizing the business and its reputation and image, which he did, turning the brand of once-quaint leather goods into the home of it' products, whether it was cut-out jersey frocks, mod mini-dresses, or perfectly sculpted suits for her. As Amy Larocca of the New York Magazine wrote following Ford's final outing for Gucci, "What Ford did for fashion, season after season, was constantly bringing up sex-in-your-face, jutting-pelvic-bone sex... He was not subtle: Ford shaved a tidy G into the pubic hair of a model for an ad campaign when the fashion world did lady with structured handbags and tweedy pencil skirts."

Taking a page from the boundary-pushing campaigns of Calvin Klein in the 1980s, and with the French stylist Carine Roitfeld, known for her own sex-dripping aesthetic, Ford's Gucci advertising campaigns were some of the most iconic (and shocking) in the history of fashion, led, of course, by the one referenced by Larocca: The ad starring Carmen Kass (even though we do not see her face), who has the Gucci “G” shaved into her pubic hair.

Ford, meanwhile also worked at Yves Saint Laurent's helm, which is also owned by what was at the time PPRR (now Kering). Ford followed a similarly divisive path at YSL. In 2000, he dreamt of a campaign for YSL's Opium scent, which the eponymous founder of the house had launched some 30 years earlier. The ad featured model Sophie Dahl lounging on her back wearing nothing but gold jewelry, green eyeshadow (the perfect contrast to her fiery red hair), and a pair of strappy YSL heels, taken by Steven Meisel and designed by Roitfeld. For a little while at least, the image was plastered on billboards throughout the United Kingdom.

The phone started to ring at the office of the British Advertising Standards Authority ('ASA') not long after the image of Dahl went up around cities in the UK. Thanks to its model of operation, namely its recognition of complaints from the public and professionals, the independent regulator of ads in all media in the ASA was used to receive formal objections to negative or distasteful advertisements in play in the UK.

YSL's in-house produced Opium ad was different, however. The ASA has received almost 1,000 complaints about the essence of the initiative over a period of only a few months. This was more than had been earned by the regulatory body in the previous five years and is now one of the most objected to campaigns to date.

Complaints argued that the image was too sexually provocative and unacceptable for children to be viewed. "Others saw it as "anti-women," in the midst of the controversy Dahl herself said of the campaign; something she dismissed saying that in fact I think it's really empowering for women." Ford also noted that the fragrance ad, created by perfumers Jean Amic and Jean-Louis Sieuzac and oozing with mandarin orange, jasmine, sandalwood and patchouli essences, was a nod to house’s history of sexual provocation and female liberation.

Nonetheless the campaign was pulled from billboards in the face of some 900-plus protests, but was allowed to remain in "appropriate magazines."

However, this was not the first time that the scent of the house was at the core of a fall-out. YSL was the subject of widespread protests prior to the official launch of the fragrance in 1978, which centered on its name and came primarily from the American Coalition Against Opium and Drug Abuse, a committee that claimed that the name of the fragrance demonstrated "insensitivity to Chinese history and Chinese American concerns" and that the brand supported "a threat that destroyed many lives in China").

YSL, the man and the brand, channeled its fury into sales in the absence of regulatory interference. "As The Rake noted at the end of 2015, "The controversy fanned the sales of the perfume and in its first nine months produced over $3 million. When the fragrance eventually hit shelves, YSL opted not for a low-key soirée [or a diplomatic public statement." Instead the company hosted 800 guests, from Cher and Truman Capote to Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland and fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick." Testers were stolen, posters ripped from the walls and shops sold out within hours of its release."

The after-party took place at the famous Studio 54 in New York.

That was still not the only time YSL faced distaste for its Opium-inspired collection. "In early 2011, Belle d'Opium was the subject of scorn and ASA action when it was featured in an ad campaign that "featured a woman who appeared to be under the influence of narcotics." In the case, the ASA received more than a dozen complaints about the campaign, complete with a commercial that the ASA said featured a woman running her finger through the inside of her arm, which "could be seen to mimic the campaign.

In response to the ASA, YSL defended itself and its commercial, claiming it was a responsible advertiser" and did not plan to use drug imagery in the ad. It further held that its market analysis found that the ad was not viewed by audiences as encouraging the use of drugs.

The ASA stopped the ad from concluding that the broadcast was "irresponsible and unacceptable."

Opium remains one of YSL's best-selling scents, and the company is ready to unleash a new campaign for its Black Opium fragrance in partnership with L'Oréal, which owns the YSL Beauté license, revealing that Zoe Kravitz will be the new foreign face and spokesperson.

In other news, Spring 2021 Ready-to-Wear Mugler collection. There’s the hyper-sexy clothes, and then there’s the way Cadwallader is going about making them!

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