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. In 2000, he dreamt up the campaign for YSL’s Opium fragrance, which has been introduced some 30 years prior by the house’s eponymous founder. Shot by Steven Meisel and styled by the Roitfeld, the ad featured model Sophie Dahl lounging on her back wearing nothing but gold jewelry, green eyeshadow (the perfect complement to her fiery red hair), and a pair of strappy YSL heels. The image was plastered on billboards across the United Kingdom – for a little while, at least.
Not long after the Dahl’s image went up across cities in the UK, the phone began to ring at the office of the British Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”). The independent regulator of advertising across all media in, the ASA was used to – thanks to its model of operation, namely its acceptance of complaints from the public and professionals – receiving formal objections to harmful or distasteful advertisements in play in the UK.
However, YSL’s in-house created Opium ad was different. In a span of mere months, the ASA received nearly 1,000 complaints about the nature of the campaign. This was more than the regulatory body had received in the five years prior and is still one of the most objected-to campaigns to date.
Complaints alleged that the image was too sexually suggestive and unsuitable to be seen by children. Others saw it “as being anti-women,” Dahl herself said of the campaign amidst the controversy; something she dismissed saying that “in fact, I think it is very empowering to women." Ford similarly noted that the ad for the fragrance – created by perfumers Jean Amic and Jean-Louis Sieuzac and oozing with essences of mandarin orange, jasmine, sandalwood and patchouli – was a nod to house's history of sexual provocation and female liberation.
Nonetheless, faced with some 900-plus complaints, the campaign was removed from billboards, but was permitted to remain in “appropriate magazines.”
This was not, however, the first time the house’s fragrance had been at the center of a fall-out. Ahead of the fragrance’s official launch in 1978, YSL was the target of widespread complaint, which centered on its name and came largely from the American Coalition Against Opium and Drug Abuse, a committee who argued that the fragrance’s name displayed “insensitivity to Chinese history and Chinese American concerns” and that the brand was promoting “a menace that destroyed many lives in China”).
In the absence of regulatory intervention, YSL – the man and the brand – channeled that fury into sales. As The Rake noted in late 2015, “The controversy fanned the perfume’s sales and made over $3 million in its first nine months. Testers were stolen, posters ripped from the walls and shops sold out within hours of its release.” When the fragrance finally hit shelves, YSL opted not for “a low-key soirée [or] a diplomatic public statement.” Instead, the brand hosted 800 individuals – from Cher and Truman Capote to Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland and fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick.”
The afterparty was held at New York's legendary Studio 54.
Still yet, that was not the only time that YSL faced distaste for its Opium-inspired range. Belle d’Opium was the topic of scorn in early 2011 and ASA action when it was featured in an ad campaign that “featured a woman who appeared to be under the influence of drugs.” In the case, the ASA received over a dozen complaints about the campaign, complete with a commercial that the ASA said featured a woman running her finger across the inside of her arm, which "could be seen to simulate the injection of opiates into the body” and and then was pictured with her "body seized upwards while lying on the floor.”
YSL defended itself and its ad, in response to the ASA, saying that it was “a responsible advertiser “and did not intend to use drug imagery in the ad. It further held that its consumer research indicated that viewers had not interpreted the ad as promoting drug use.
The ASA banned the ad concluding that it was "irresponsible and unacceptable for broadcast.”
Opium remains one of YSL’s best-selling scents, and the brand – in conjunction with L’Oréal, which holds the YSL Beauté license – is readying to release a new campaign for its Black Opium fragrance, announcing that Zoe Kravitz will be the new international face and spokesperson.