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Moment 48: Smells Like Money

Yves Saint Laurent's launch of Opium in 1977 was a watershed moment for the fragrance industry, and the tide of designer fragrance has risen ever since.

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Yves Saint Laurent and Marina Schiano at the Opium launch party in 1978

Yves Saint Laurent and Marina Schiano at the Opium launch party in 1978.

Photo By Tony Palmieri/WWD Archive

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD 100 issue 11/01/2010

There was a time when perfumers, naturally enough, ruled the perfume universe. They were titans of the early 20th century: François Coty, the pioneer of the modern fragrance industry, and the generations of the Guerlain family, whose perhaps best-known fragrance, Shalimar, was launched in 1925, to name but a couple. But it was in the Twenties that a revolution began, started by a band of fashion designers including one Gabrielle"Coco" Chanel, who introduced Chanel No.5 in 1921, and Jean Patou, who launched his iconic Joy fragrance for his bankrupt couture clients during the height of the Depression in 1930.

Three decades later, there were fragrant entries from Norman Norell in 1968, Bill Blass in 1970, Halston in 1975 and Oscar de la Renta in 1977. That year, a watershed moment took place: Yves Saint Laurent launched the fragrance Opium, causing a mushrooming of the designer-fragrance movement.

In the days before the now-famous party in New York—on September 20, 1978—for the scent, WWD dubbed the hoopla,"The Opium Wars."

Saint Laurent unveiled Opium in New York Harbor in hyper-lavish fashion on the tall ship Peking, moored at the South Street Seaport, festooned with 2,000 Hawaiian orchids, Chinese temples and a giant Buddha—at a cost of $300,000, a staggering figure at the time. Attendees "groped to the aft deck to view the fireworks," WWD reported. "Rumor had it that an actual Opium den existed in the bowels of the ship (it didn't)."

"This will be great when 400 people leave," said one of the party people. When the fireworks went off at 10:30 p.m., they were described by John Richardson, the art historian, as "better than a Jackson Pollock."

Indeed, one of Andy Warhol's most plaintive cries in his Diaries was having to miss the "big, glamorous YSL Opium party" due to an engagement in California.

The tide of designer fragrance has risen ever since; a designer without a perfume is like, well, a celebrity without one. To wit: Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Betsey Johnson, John Varvatos, Narciso Rodriguez, Dolce & Gabbana and Viktor & Rolf—and the list goes on.