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Yves Saint Laurent Ritz campaigns
Courtesy of the Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising

Smoking kills, but maybe the vintage Yves Saint Laurent cigs are worth it

Captured in campaigns shot by Helmut Newton, the women of YSL wouldn’t look quite as glamorous honking on a Blue Razz Ice or a Triple Mango

A Lost Mary is perhaps a topless guy in a plaid bucket hat listening to AJ Tracey on loudspeakers, while an Elf Bar is a group of girls in square-toed heels drinking Pornstar martinis at a premium branch of Slug and Lettuce. Both vapes do have a certain charm compared to the industrial Mr Gadget-looking ones that people smoke outside of CEX shops, but there is little mystique to be found in a flavoured e-cig. It makes people look like they’re sucking on a USB power bank, lithium coursing through their bloodstream like they’ve stuck their tongue into a socket. The alternative is, of course, cigarettes – which are like old-fashioned, analogue vapes – that cause irrefutable health problems but continue to be mythologised as glamorous and seductive, a torch of freedom for artists and socialites and aspirant fashion types.

There are less attractive ways to smoke a cigarette – like standing outside Stansted airport at 5 AM – but fashion knows good smoking. During the 80s, fashion houses like Givenchy, Versace, Pierre Cardin, Christian Lacroix, and Cartier marketed cigarettes to professional, fashion-obsessed women. But it was Saint Laurent that best aligned itself with smokers, releasing a line of luxurious “Ritz” cigarettes in 1985. Long and slender and embossed with a cursive YSL logo, the cigarettes were the brainchild of GH Long, the president of Reynold’s tobacco firm, who wanted to create a new brand that would become “the standard of stylishness”. Dovetailing with the label’s signature Le Smoking silhouette and all those cigarette pants, Long said the company approached YSL because the designer was himself “a smoker.”  

Yves Saint Laurent refused to smoke his own cigarettes – he didn’t like the taste – but he did appreciate the “romance, mystery and intrigue of a spirited, opulent lifestyle,” as the accompanying Helmut Newton-photographed campaigns were described. Shot in Monte Carlo and Paris, rich-looking women were captured on yachts, hotel balconies, and fountains, dressed in backless gowns and power jackets with cigarettes dangling between their fingers. They had “a lot of chic,” Newton said of the adverts. And when tobacco advertising was prohibited in Europe and the US in 2002, YSL’s imprint moved into Russia and Asia, where its sophisticated cigarettes promoted a “sense of appeal to female vanity and thereby making the woman who chose to smoke Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes more attractive than one who smokes another brand, or more attractive than a woman who did not smoke at all,” according to ad copy.  

While the maison no longer produces tobacco products, its legend will forever be wrapped in pensive tendrils of smoke, perhaps best embodied by this photo of Kate Moss puffing on the steps of the Saint Laurent AW22 show or this croc-embossed cigarette holder or this (probably bootleg) but quite elegant brick of menthols. In a world where cancer, emphysema, and just about every other grave ailment can be connected to cigarettes, the glamourisation of smoking is all the more loaded, fraught, and controversial. And yet the women of Helmut Newton’s photography would not be anywhere near as captivating had they been honking on a Blue Razz Ice or a Triple Mango – infantile and synthetic substitutes for an absolutely fabulous life lived in service to romance and galas and opulent hotel suites. Fingers, lips, flame. Not hand, mouth, plastic.