Monday, November 12, 2012

Yves Saint Laurent Opium




Western Orientalism is flattering, offensive and funny to someone like me, a Japanese immigrant raised in New York. The flattering part is that even when Asian culture is taken as a vague and mixed up whole (Asian sushi, anyone?), as if people in the various countries in Asia identify with being Asian any more than Americans identify with being North American, that at least in the beauty business, it is meant to appropriate the parts westerners find attractive. The offensive part is when the appropriation is of something they don't really understand because the understanding never came through actual contact with anyone from that part of the world in an intimate, sincere and positive way. It's also unflattering to have real cultures that belong to specific countries reduced to images to only enhance western beauty and to degrade the very cultures being ripped off (It's also painful to see no one from the culture being used as paid models, like westerners playing the role of Japanese, Chinese, etc., which can make us feel quite ostracized, foreign in our own home).

Then there's the Oriental sensuality factor, of course, the stereotype that reduces Asian people (women in particular) to being "fetishes" (objects), as if true love with someone from that part of the world is impossible. The funny part is that I love perfumes like Guerlain Mitsouko, Yves Saint Laurent Opium, Holzman & Stephanie Misuki, Crown Matsukita. Even if the orientalized fonts and bad artistic rendering of styles make me chuckle, I believe orientalism in beauty is less often an offensive act and mostly about mutual appreciation, sharing a love of universal beauty--gentility, charm and grace. As long as salespeople aren't pushing these products onto me, as if I should use them because I'm you-know-what, I'm OK with western orientalism and other kinds of role play which is all in harmless fun.



Opium is a famous perfume launched in 1977 by Yves Saint Laurent. The bottle according to Michael Edwards, author of Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances, was inspired by a snuff box. The red lacquered look of the parfum bottle complete with a gold-tone tassel with a black fringe looks very antique, indeed. The fragrance inside is of a dark orange hue, and the first thing one notices when smelling it for the first time is how spicy it is. The principal note that smells like cinnamon and clove is carnation, the same flower that gives Old Spice its iconic spicy character. Whereas Old Spice is "emasculated" with traditionally Fougère fragrance notes of lavender and leather, Opium is softened with an aldehydic powdery texture, quite reminiscent of Chanel N°5 and perhaps even more so of the now-discontinued vintage Givenchy L'Interdit with its spicy carnation notes in an Aldehydic Floral setting.

I think Opium is one of the most elegant-smelling spicy perfumes for Women that was ever made. Although I'm not the biggest connoisseur of Spicy Oriental perfumes in general (other Spicy Orientals include Guerlain Vol de Nuit, Caron Parfum Sacre, Krizia Teatro alla Scala), I can see myself digging out my mini every now and then to cure my fetish for something sizzling red hot and daringly different from my usual sweet girl-next-door type scents.

The big question is, does Opium smell oriental enough to actually remind me of something of the Orient? Come to think of it, I think it reminds me of my mother's vintage custom silk kimonos that were kept in a cedar drawer. Either that or it reminds me of the little sachets my grandmothers in Japan gave me, the ones with intricate designs like boats, woven in hues of red and gold, with little bells and tassels on them, that are meant to be tucked into the kimono for their scent. I never thought those sachets smelled especially pleasant although they were subtly aromatic; I was never sure whether they were meant to attract boys or repel insects, or both.