Monday, June 21, 2010

Yves Saint Laurent's Opium

If there's a scent more utterly anaethema to the modern definition of a mainstream feminine fragrance than Opium, I haven't smelled it, and frankly have trouble conjuring an image of such a creature. Like its fellow YSL housemate Kouros, 1977's Opium cuts a swath through the flotsam and jetsam of modern mainstream perfumery with its distinctive character and mischievous good mood. It stands and delivers in a market of neutered pleasures and watery non-scents. It's unlike anything else on the shelves, including its oriental forebears Youth Dew and Shalimar. It's a singular piece of wearable, avant-garde art.

And, if we're to believe the rumours swirling around the perfume blogs and fragrance discussion boards as of late, it's been ruined.

Yves Saint Laurent unveiled the revamped packaging for all Opium concentrations (the Eau de Toilette is pictured above) this past fall, and perfumistas and Opium-heads across the land feared that the juice may have been revamped (read: reformulated) along with it. And lo, reports quickly poured in from loyal Opium wearers who found the new Eau de Toilette unrecognizable, diminished to a fraction of its former self, cheapened and threadbare, lightened and freshened to match the bland bestsellers surrounding it on the counter. In what I can only assume is another example of Internet-fuelled hysteria, the kind that convinces otherwise independent thinkers that Kouros smells like feces just because every other review on says it does, these reports have been grossly overestimated (at least in my opinion). The new Opium Eau de Toilette smells the same to me as the stuff in the older bottle, which I've sniffed at department stores umpteen times and owned a sample of two years ago. Either my nose is busted, or Opium is still Opium. I'll choose to believe the latter.

Opium was the oriental fragrance that defined its era; one seems to come along every decade or so. Shalimar (1925) set the vanilla/citrus benchmark, Tabu (1932) added some skank, Youth Dew (1953) brought the balsamic resins, Opium dumped on the spice, and later, Coco (1984) and Obsession (1985) cherry-picked the choicest parts of the others, distilled them, and sold the result for a song. By the '90s orientals were essentially over, save for half-hearted attempts like Givenchy's Organza, although orientals are such failsafe crowd-pleasers that surely the next blockbuster is around the corner. With the passage of time, most of the classic oriental whoppers seem prim and genteel; Obsession has a nice kick, but its vanillic/woody sweetness eventually renders it slightly stuffy. Only Opium still has the power to shock and awe like it must have back in the day: bone-dry, spices cranked to 11, incense to beat the band, powdery florals and tangy herbs, a rock-solid structure and a perfectly haughty character, an anachronism and a landmark all at once. Opium jumps off the skin and fills the room with its oriental opulence and lavish taste, but (when applied sensibly) it neatly sidesteps obnoxiousness. The floral heart, particularly the carnation note, reminds me of Old Spice, and indeed it's Opium's crisp florals and lack of added sugar that make it a convincingly unisex fragrance, especially in today's market of floral masculines and cavity-inducing feminines. (I wore it to work one day this week and got compliment after compliment on my "aftershave".)

Like Kouros, different facets of Opium's structure are given slight emphasis each time I wear it: Sometimes the spices scream bloody murder, other times the syrupy resins and orange-peel sheen come through the strongest, sometimes it's all incense and woods. It's always loud, though, and for an Eau de Toilette the lasting power is unbelievable. Rarely does my skin hold fragrances for longer than 4-5 hours, but Opium's woody, smoky base is still detectable at least 9 hours after I've sprayed. Those of you with fragrance-friendlier skin than mine will probably get a good 12 hours or more out of it. I can't imagine how long the Eau de Parfum (or pure Parfum) would last on me, but I'm itching to try them. Although the EdT is great, the prospect of a richer, denser Opium experience has me swooning already.

For anyone who loves fragrance, Opium is inarguably a must-sniff, although if you're of a certain generation your olfactory memory is probably already inundated with it, so widespread was its use during its heydey. Even I find it distinctly familiar in that "Did my mom used to wear this?" kind of way. I've been meaning to ask her if she, or perhaps my grandmother or an aunt, wore it at some point during my childhood. Regardless, it's the kind of trend-setting, plays-by-its-own-rules fragrance that mainstream design houses simply don't make anymore, and that it's still on the shelves (and with its personality still intact) is a blessing. If you're a woman who's weary of the generic perfumes cluttering up the counters, give this one a try - or a re-try, as the case may be. And if you love orientals but haven't sniffed Opium, remedy this grievous error immediately, and don't be suprised if you fall under its spell.

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