The Glamorous, Scandalous History of Yves Saint Laurent's Opium Fragrance Obsession

If Tom Ford's revamp of Gucci in the 1990’s has a non-monetary legacy, it is firmly grounded in sex. In his tenure at Gucci from 1990 to 2004, Texas-born Ford gave the faltering Italian leather goods maker – which was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1994 (when he was promoted to the role of creative director) – an identity … a bold and sexy one.

As Vogue’s Sarah Mower wrote in 2004, on the heels of Ford’s finale, he brought to the Guccio Gucci-founded and formerly family-owned business “the embodiment of sexual confidence, burnished to a high gloss and bursting with predatory power. A symbolic figure of the past decade's hedonistic highs,” complete with “mean-looking black skirtsuits fanatically worked to the body, ruched to the ribs, and pieced in multiple complex slivers to grip the derriere.” The result was international success. Between 1995 and 1996, sales at Gucci increased by 90 percent, and when Ford left in 2004, the Gucci Group was valued at $10 billion.


Mr. Ford, who joined Gucci when he was barely 30 years old, was tasked with invigorating the company and its name and image, which he did – turning the once-quaint leather goods brand into the home of “it” items, whether it be cut-out jersey frocks, mod mini-dresses, or perfectly sculpted suits for her. As New York Magazine’s Amy Larocca wrote following Ford’s final outing for Gucci, “What Ford did for fashion, season after season, was constantly bring up sex—in-your-face, jutting-pelvic-bone sex … He wasn’t subtle: When the fashion world did lady with structured handbags and tweedy pencil skirts, Ford shaved a tidy G into a model’s pubic hair for an ad campaign.”

Taking a page from Calvin Klein's boundary-pushing campaigns from the 1980's, and with the held of French stylist Carine Roitfeld, known for her own sex-dripping aesthetic, Ford's advertising campaigns for Gucci were some of the most iconic (and shocking) in fashion history, led of course by the one referenced by Larocca: The ad starring Carmen Kass (even though we do not see her face), who has the Gucci “G” shaved into her pubic hair.

Meanwhile, Ford was serving at the helm of Yves Saint Laurent, as well – which is also owned by what was at-the-time PPR (now Kering). At YSL, Ford took a similarly controversial route.

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Credit: Kory Tung

Credit: Kory Tung