By  on January 7, 2002

PARIS -- With the launch of his fragrance Opium in 1977, Yves Saint Laurent caused an earthquake, the likes of which the beauty world never experienced. Its provocative name, exotic story and scent and plastic bottle combined with top-tier pricing caused a perfect 10 on the Richter scale.

After all, no one had ever dared so much -- to market a luxury product like an uptown cousin of street heroin. Even the suggestive tag line in Opium's ads -- "For those addicted to Yves Saint Laurent" -- caused a scandale, and the tag line was swiftly withdrawn in the U.S.

Opium changed forever the way prestige fragrances are marketed and presented. Before Opium, the fragrance industry was about French perfumers touting centuries of savoir-faire, while post-Opium it was about a clearly articulated, story-driven product concept, often expressed in contemporary campaigns such as Calvin Klein's Obsession.

For Opium, Saint Laurent envisioned a scent for an Empress of China and shrugged off all conventions to get the mix right. He chose an appellation whose utterance was shocking, concocted an oriental juice despite the fact orientals were long out of vogue, and contrived plastic packaging to get a lacquered look, though that material was ordinarily a no-no for high-end beauty goods.

Yet the outcome surpassed all expectations. "Opium took people by storm," said Chantal Roos, who worked with Saint Laurent as product manager at Charles of the Ritz, the U.S. company, which at the time owned the rights to Yves Saint Laurent Parfums. It topped perfumery charts and also opened the floodgates for other best-selling, provocative scents, such as Parfums Christian Dior's Poison.

Roos, who is now back at YSL's parent company YSL Beaute as president and chief executive officer after more than a decade's hiatus at Shiseido's Beaute Prestige International, credits Saint Laurent with introducing audacity and vivid color into the world of beauty.

One year after Opium hit shelves, YSL Parfums produced a makeup collection for which the designer -- long called the king of color -- created unexpected hues echoing those in his fashion. A pinky-blue-violet lipstick launched at the time, for instance, was taken from a swatch of clothing. It has been a bestseller that remains in the company's lineup and was among the other boldly colored Yves Saint Laurent makeup that startled the makeup industry into a new, more fashion-forward direction.Saint Laurent's beauty business has made news almost from the moment of its conception. As far back as 1971, the designer himself caused an international incident when he posed nude in an ad launching his first men's fragrance, Pour Homme.

Sparks continued to fly in 1994, when Saint Laurent was forced to change the name of its Champagne scent in numerous countries, after being taken to court by wine growers for "theft of reputation."

It wasn't his first time in court. In 1989, YSL Parfums submitted a blueprint for its selective-distribution system, which strictly regulated the distribution and display of a prestige brand, to the European Commission for approval. When the Commission declared it in accordance with EC competition rules in 1991, it was a landmark decision that has been upheld numerous times.

By 1998, the YSL beauty brand had lost much of its shine due partially to gray market woes, overly stretched distribution and lackluster product sales, particularly in skin care. But the firm rallied and made yet another splash with its one-shot fragrance and color cosmetics collection, In Love Again, created to fete Saint Laurent's 40th anniversary in the world of fashion and to lure the 25-to-45 set. It was a hit and helped ramp up introductions by other companies of limited-edition fragrances Europe-wide.

YSL Parfum's history is full of intrigue, with the firm undergoing numerous high-profile changeovers.

When Sanofi bought YSL Parfums and fashion for $650 million in shares from Saint Laurent's partner Pierre Berge in 1993, it raised some eyebrows. Not only did the price seem incredibly high for a publicly quoted company to pay for a fashion firm, but some grumbled that Berge's friendship with France's then Socialist president Francois Mitterrand gave him preferential treatment that enabled the deal to close quickly.

Then, in 1999, the Gucci Group NV acquired YSL Beaute -- which at that time also included the YSL ready-to-wear and beauty businesses, plus the Roger & Gallet brand, and the licenses for Oscar de la Renta, Van Cleef & Arpels, Krizia and Fendi beauty, from the French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi in a complicated $1 billion deal engineered in 1999 by Francois Pinault and his Artemis holding company.That acquisition almost didn't take place, in part because LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton had also had takeover talks with Sanofi Beaute, which were called off at the last minute.

Yves Saint Laurent Beaute's stable now includes beauty licenses for Alexander McQueen, Zegna and Stella McCartney, among other businesses. In 2000, YSL Beaute holdings -- including the Boucheron beauty business -- were estimated by industry sources at $566 million, ranking it 35th among beauty firms worldwide.

Though Saint Laurent has not had hands-on involvement with the YSL beauty products since 1999, his audacious stamp remains.

The new ad campaigns for YSL, including those for fragrances Paris, Kouros and Opium, recently designed by Gucci's creative director Tom Ford -- purveyor of the new Saint Laurent -- are risque. The latter, featuring a nude Sophie Dahl reclining in a provocative position, was pulled or toned down in certain markets.

And for his premier YSL scent for women introduced last October, Ford -- in a nod to tradition -- carried on the skin-is-in tradition with the name of the scent -- Nu (French for nude) and its ads featuring intermingled limbs of a naked man and woman. He also chose cobalt blue for its packaging, since there are lots of blues in the history of Yves Saint Laurent.

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