digging (into) vintage: Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, 1977

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(Left: Oscar de la Renta  early 1970s. Right: Yves Saint Laurent 1974)

Perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac made some of the most memorable and influential perfumes of the 1970s-1990s.

Yves Saint Laurent’s era-defining Opium (1977) smothered the oriental genre in spice, making the previous big-girls like Shalimar and Youth Dew seem quaint.  In the 1980s Sieuzac skipped the match, but piled on the gasoline to redefine leather with the twin brutes Hermès Bel Ami (1986) and Christian Dior Fahrenheit (1988). As if to stuff the genie that he released with Opium back into the bottle, in 1991 he composed Christian Dior Dune, an eerie beauty that gives me a shiver every time I put it on. It has the jarring capacity to make opposing qualities fit together that renders it both off-putting and seductive. In retrospect, Dune is the the perfume that sat aloof and alone at the cusp of the 80s and 90s. It managed simultaneously to refer to the disproportionate scale of 1980s perfumery yet usher in the sense of concession and atonement of the perfumes of the early 1990s.

In 1977 Sieuzac also made Oscar for Oscar de la Renta. Though it won the 1978 Women’s Fragrance of the Year Fifi Award it was overshadowed by its its own sibling Opium, which crushed everything in its trajectory. Compared to Opium, whose name and scent suggest the unquestioning pursuit of pleasure (ahhh…the 70s), Oscar’s terse mixed floral tone might well have coined the phrase ‘old lady perfume.’ Oscar is a sharp, starched white floriental perfume that leans more toward the dry sting of carnation and the remoteness of gardenia than the lushness of jasmine or tuberose. Opium’s relationship to tradition was to break from it by surpassing it. Oscar could not have been more different in its aspiration. It was in the lineage of Caron Bellodgia, Dior Dioressence and Guerlain l’Heure Bleue—perfumes that might not have been intended to be distant, but came to be seen as remote standard-bearers. In fact Oscar shares l’Heure Bleue’s classic bittersweetness with a similar midpoint between glacé resinousness and acrid powder. It is a potent, almost forceful fragrance but its tone was so conservative compared to its contemporaries that wearing it gives the sensation of falling backward, stepping away from the accelerating dynamic of the late 1970s.

I doubt that a lot of people in the late 70s wore both Opium and Oscar. They capture the two sides of what would very soon come to be called America’s “culture war.” Sieuzac deserves great credit for straddling this nascent divide and creating two exceptional compositions in the process. It cannot have happened inadvertently. Oscar suited the de la Renta brand’s goal of dressing the ladies-who-lunch, the women who aspired to the society-set. Opium captured the Yves Saint Laurent brand’s desire for a new chic: the androgyny, the Studio 54 vibe, the casual affluence.

Perfume’s language is an openly debated question in 2015. Jean-Louis Sieuzac’s perfumes from 1977 comment subtly but precisely on this issues of the day and are a record of how perfumery speaks and can be read. It’s unfortunate that in 1977 the work of the perfumer wasn’t publicly attributed to him. Within the next two decades that closet door would start to open. Better late than never, my hat is off to Jean-Louis Sieuzac.

(Based on an excellently preserved bottle of eau de toilette from the early 1980s.)

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