Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sleight of Hand: Opium, Version Now

Whenever an actress of a certain age who has disappeared for a few months returns on the scene with a perky new set of bangs, I always start looking for the tell tale signs of a nip and tuck. When something seems different, it typically is. This happens to me on the rare occasion I shave. Did I do something different to my hair? New glasses? New diet, maybe? I get this kind of reaction so reliably that it occurred to me, the last time I shaved, that such an occasion would be a very good time to plan some small subterfuge. That's taking it for granted I could afford plastic surgery.

News of the newly designed Opium bottle filled me with a sinking feeling. What could YSL be trying to hide? Surely this wouldn't be the first time someone has tinkered around with the formula. Whether or not I like the new bottle (I do, on it's own terms, and I don't, compared to the iconic look of the original) is beside the point. The perfume itself is far more important to me. I've been suffering from a feeling of helplessness lately. It would be one thing if I adored a lot of the newer fragrances I smell. I don't; or not so much. So there's that: I'm not a fan of the direction fragrance is taking. I'm not a die hard for vintage either, especially. I'm happy with the way fragrances smelled in the eighties and early to mid nineties. But everything is starting to smell very similar to me in a certain sense, and not in a way which feels motivated by passing fashion, like the big boned stuff of the eighties, say, or the Angel clone mine field of the nineties.

I can't describe this sameness, exactly. It's something I sense the moment I smell something which has just been released or reformulated. The new Rochas has this quality of deja vu. The new Mitsouko. I mention these because I feel they've been reformulated with care and consideration for the most part, as has Opium. The point is, even reformulations I like and recognize as having a clear relationship to their prior incarnations are starting to bum me out, because they smell like somebody's desperate vision of Now.

Opium smells great, as it turns out. But along with the hard orange plastic which used to encase it, something more substantial has been removed. YSL will tell you it's the same fragrance, of course, and most people who love Opium will not feel it has changed, the way, say, longtime lovers of Estee Lauder's Beautiful sense a change in their beloved fragrance of choice. Beautiful smells like Beautiful, but not like it always did. Opium still has the carnation, which is reason enough for relief. I imagined that would have to be the first to go in a bid for "modernization." It still has that wonderful woody rasp to it. The difference is subtle but, for me, constitutes a significant loss. It's the difference between ringing a glass bell with a silver fork and a piece of balsa wood.

That isn't to say the new Opium is hollow. It isn't. It has good persistence, and some amount of presence. It is still an oriental--and probably heavier than anything near it on the shelf. But some of the drama is gone. It has less resonance. The department store had a bottle of the old version sitting out and I compared before and after. More than anything I notice a boozy ambiance is missing. A real sense of depth, like the vapors that rise off a glass of brandy when it stirs. I think what depresses me most is knowing that Opium is one of those fragrances many people feel was "too much" to begin with, leaving it vulnerable to this kind of update.

Given that, it could have been worse. I fully acknowledge that. But I believed there was a place for "too much" in a marketplace which offers so little. I never look at an actress or actor for that matter who is aging naturally and gracefully and think, Why am I forced to look at that dinosaur? Frankly, if I want to watch a movie full of twenty year olds there are plenty of them. Opium was like Charlotte Rampling, to me--one of those women fearless enough to aim for timelessness rather than ceaseless modernization. It makes me happy to see Rampling's face here and there. It gives a sense of context to things. It's a counterpoint. Smelling the new Opium, I feel as though her agent finally convinced her to have a little work done.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was beautifully expressed and so true.

I've been wearing Opium for over 20 years, and I can't imagine settling for the reformulation, no matter how good it is. Some things in life shouldn't be tampered with.

Gretchen said...

And this type of posting is precisely why I scour "I Smell Therefore I Am" daily...I'm a huge fan of the "old" fragrances, not necessarily in their vintage formulations, but in attempts to locate new favorites, I keep finding "meh." And couldn't figure out why. I learn from you, Brian, and Abigail certainly, how to drill down to what it is that I love about fragrance. And what I should try, in hopes of getting that "OH! I can't live without this!" just like I did with the first fragrances I fell in love with a bazillion years ago. Bravo, Brian. And brava, Abigail, for your information. I miss the old Opium.


carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

I never wore Opium, but having come of age in the late 70s (and had a first job in a department store right by the perfume counter) I could recognize it blindfolded. Which is why I let out a yelp when I smelled the new version. I'd be less lenient on it than you: I feel it's been eviscerated. Not that it smells bad: it doesn't. It's just not really Opium anymore. Now I have to hunt down a pre-reformulation bottle to make my fashion students understand just what it was that made Opium so distinctive when it came out, because they certainly wouldn't understand fully the shock it was at the time.

Pimpinett said...

Oh, hell! And here I was thinking I could get a bottle of Opium in my own good time, no hurry. This makes me sad.

Brian said...

Thanks, Gretchen. That's really sweet. I haven't felt much like "myself" posting lately. I started to realize that the versions I'm smelling might not be the versions people are buying, because none of us can really be sure anymore what we're smelling or reading about or looking at, and that sort of paralyzed me. Blogging for me is about direct communication, and this has made communicating a lot less clear. Writing about Opium made me realize I need to just talk about it and address it, because other people are frustrated too.

You know, Denyse, that's the thing. These reformulations have really prompted me to ask myself what makes a perfume what it is. What makes it register as itself? There are so many subtle shadings. And they begin a mystery, so when I smell something like the reformulation of Opium, I can't be sure what I'm smelling. I wasn't sure in the first place. The most specific thing I can say about the "new" Opium is that it seems less mysterious to me. And I think this is what frustrates me most about where fragrance is right now, that inability to ascertain precisely what's been changed and how, and the dishonesty behind the nips and tucks; it reminds me of all the conspiracy movies of the seventies, where people feel something is going on but everyone tells them no, nothing at all, and yet there's this...feeling. The women of Stepford aren't what they were yesterday. And the feeling persists. And you alternate between thinking you must be imagining it and believing you're being lied to. This is a dramatic way of putting it. But tampering with Opium seems like a very hostile gesture to me, as well. And that mystery was high drama.

After I posted, I smelled the new bottle again, thinking, Is it really that different? Maybe I'm imagining it. Maybe it's not that different at all. Your response helps.

Mals86 said...

A beautifully written post, Brian. Thank you.

I'm one of those people who have always felt that Opium, and Poison, for that matter, were too much of a muchness. But it is a travesty that even the iconic, strange, shocking weirdos of the perfume world are having their distinctiveness pared away.

Jennifer Grey might be *prettier* since she had a nose job, but she's less herself - and much less attractive, in my opinion. I understand why she might do it: it's probably tough to get cast as Anywoman when your looks are clearly not. I can't help but wish that she'd followed the lead of Anjelica Huston, who is both odd-looking and beautiful, and who has hardly lacked for work in her career.

Like you, I understand the paring down. I get it: the push for mass sales, and tougher regulations, are driving the reformulations. But it's sad nonetheless.

Six' said...


What you said in a comment above is so, very true. By this point, with all the stealthy nips and tucks, it's becoming disheartening to even attempt to talk about a fragrance that wasn't released last month. You're describing the scent of a bottle you bought a few years back - well, there's a mighty good chance that anyone trying it based on your review won't smell the same juice. Or that someone who bought their bottle prior to you won't be smelling the same formula, either.

And of course, the industry won't admit to tweaking the formula, ever, no siree. I had several non-perfumista people around me tell me how they wore their signature scent for years, then all of a sudden, "became allergic to it" because it didn't smell the same on their skin anymore. And they were absolutely convinced the blame was all theirs, as it were.

You know what broke my heart recently? Hypnotic Poison. Yup, barely 10-year-old HP. When testing the Elixir version in the store, I quickly spritzed the original on the other hand to have a reliable comparison point and - lo! Changed. Cheapened. Jarring, plasticky base notes.

But when, oh when did they tweak it? How can you even try to find a pre-reformulation version if you can't know *when* they tampered with the formula?
I guess I'll just wear my 2000 bottle till the end, then kiss HP goodbye.
But hey - at least now Monica Bellucci's fronting it, so all is good, right?

maitreyi1978 said...

NOOOOO!!! When did they change Hypnotic Poison? Maybe you just got a bad bottle. That happened to me once with Gaultier's Le Classique. I spritz some on at Sephora and it smelled awful. I tried it again at another store and it was wonderful, and always has been since. The Sephora was keeping their bottle under very hot shelf lights and it got ruined.

Six' said...


Alas, I'm afraid the Sephora cooking-under-hot-lights torture routine wasn't to blame this time around...

When I noticed the diff, I was horrified, tried the new stuff various times, then snagged a carded sample that I compared home side-by-side with my old bottle. It was heartbreaking.

But I guess I'm more sensitive to the change because I wore HP to death when it was first released. As with most reformulations, I'm sure the casual consumer won't really notice. It's the same scent overall, just cheapened, more angular, less smooth, less nuanced.
Knowing what it used to be, I won't repurchase, that's for sure.

carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

Those constant, stealthy reformulation do feed paranoia because perfume online communities are aware of them, to the extent that an olfactory difference between a new and older bottle will now raise reformulation rumors, when the difference could just be the normal variation in the quality of the natural raw materials, or the fact that the juice has aged.

In the case of Opium and Hypnotic Poison (not to mention all of the classic Diors) the change is so blatant even someone not trained as a perfumer can notice it.

Octavian Coifan and I have often discussed this problem: how can a review be relevant when you're not sure what you're reviewing is what the reader will be smelling? There's no solution to that, I'm afraid.
The only thing that can be done is to raise public awareness so that people don't imagine, as Six says, that it's their "fault" if they don't recognize their favorite perfume anymore. Then maybe they'll work up the nerve to write to perfume companies. Not sure that'll change things much but at least, in the words of one of those 70s movies you were talking about, there'll be a little more "I'm mad as hell and I'm not taking it anymore!"

princess glee said...

WTF? Your review leaves me saddened. I so want to hear of a reformulation that is BETTER or equal to the original just to know that it can be done. This phenom can happen in music sometimes so why not perfume. In my opinion Carole King's version of Natural Woman was pretty damn good but when Aretha Franklin did it, it became something else and the version I think most remember.

Opium is one of those fragrances I can remember just by thinking of it. At the time of it's release I was a child and my mother and her best friend wore it. It was so special that they couldn't deprive the other of it even though they thought of themselves as being distictively different in most manners. So I could hardly wait to be deemed mature enough for my own bottle. Opium become my symbol for acheiving womanhood. Then time passed and I was persuaded by other perfumes. Still, I am not happy with my rite of passage being tampered with--unless it became a better version. From the looks of it, it doesn't seem so.

Anonymous said...

I find the loss of these perfumes is like a death; a path to a magical place has been taken away, and there is no was to get it back.

I too came of age in the '70s, and find the loss of Opium to be another painful loss in a long list of losses.

Doesn't look promising for us lovers of perfume, does it?


Anonymous said...

I am so sad because of the reformulation. I do not like the new Opium. It smells cheap and synthetic.