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Zealot Crusader

Drugstore, Designer, and Niche: What are the Differences?

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Most of us entering the world of perfume as a hobby learn really quickly that not all scents are created equal, and even within the purview of a single fragrance line, there can be differences based on various vintages of the scent, depending on how long it's been in production. It's honestly no wonder that the more pedantic members of our community fastidiously catalog every batch code of a scent (if given), and painstakingly chronicle the differences, with phrases like "Cosmair Era". "Deep Vintage", and "Batch XYZ987" being slung around the site in forums. In the end, with all the changes that occur, everyone just wants the best experience from their favorite fragrance, and nobody likes a replacement bottle seeming less exciting than the outgoing one. This compounds when scents slide down-market or change hands when the companies that made them restructure or fold. Even before all this, the scents themselves are made to different standards and meant to be within reach for different levels of consumer, and like it or not, that assigns a class value to them.

So what's all the hubub about then? Are cheaper fragrances worse than more expensive ones? Yes and no. Conversely, are super-obscure fragrances better than more common ones? Again, yes and no. Perfume to me is like any kind of art or craft sold to the public. For example, pop music is made to reach the most people, and is often the easiest to find, the cheapest to attain (or free if you use radio and streaming), while more obscure or "niche" genres of music like death metal or jazz fusion are decidedly harder to locate and may cost a bit more money, since limited-edition physical media may be the only option. Anyone who's ever hunted down a rare numbered edition of an independent film on BluRay knows this pain. Niche perfume to the fragrance fan exists in much the same realm as the aforementioned examples: it can be much more limited in supply, much more expensive, and much less-commonly likeable, while designers represent the "pop music" of fragrance.

Drugstore scents are thus named because their origins lie in apothecaries or barbers which evolved into modern pharmacies/druggists, which back then used to make their own scents, and from which some niche houses like Caswell-Massey, Penhaligon's, Geo F Trumper, and Kiehl's evolved. Obviously fragrances designed with the intent to be sold at these sort of corner store locations would be inexpensive, since they're often bought out of impulse then eventually out of brand loyalty/familiarity, but that doesn't make them bad anyway, or at least the vintage ones. In 2018. at least in most western markets, the "Drugstore" category is dying thanks to even-cheaper aerosol body spray alternatives, and traditional lines failing to keep in step with new generations of buyers, meaning what ones are found are reformulated into oblivion to compete or end up just being imposters of designer lines. Coty and Jovan still know how to make a decent drugstore scent, but who knows for how much longer that will remain true?

Direct Sales houses like Avon, Mary Kay, Amway, Armand Dupree, etc. all fall into the same relative quality as drugstore scents, with a few exceptions. I feel that quality has not deteriorated with them like it has the drugstore lines simply because they don't have to directly compete against lesser products like deodorant sprays, and in many cases when sale of the products aren't solicited by the reps who peddle them door-to-door or online, people are actually seeking them out to buy, so other than keeping the prices relative to entry point they're seeking, they don't necessarily have to keep revising a fragrance to be more cost-effective. I tend to tell people that if they enjoy the often simplistic vibe of drugstore fragrances, that they should probably check out Avon, Mary Kay, and the like, as it's where that market segment has gone since the age of Calgon and Axe body sprays.

Designers are likely the most common type of fragrance, and many people who don't know better consider them the top of the food chain. In all cases, these designers existed only in the realms of haute couture or cosmetics before entering fragrance, and have done so only because perfume is seen as an aspiration purchase to get more people of varied incomes into a brand. Many people see their designer of choice as the top of the crop for that reason. Conversely, a lot of really in-depth perfume hobbyists look at designers the same way that fans of designers see drugstore scents, as cheap swill. In recent years, designers have become much more stratified too, in price point, style, and quality, with some designers almost indistinguishable from a cheapie drugstore company, and others approaching niche realms of exclusivity. Some designers have even launched "private/prive/exclusifs" lines meant to directly compete with niche, making this all the more confusiing, but since the bulk of pricing is again perceived value, it boils down to testing.

One thing to remember about designers is they can sometimes be nearly as expensive as niche or as cheap as drugstore scents. The latter is because overstock and store liquidators sell online too, and flood cosmetic discounters with product, so that $20 bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity has more to do with it being lost product from a warehouse than actually being worth $20. Buy the same bottle from a Macy's or a Nordstrom, and you'll pay closer to $60-$80, because of that perceived value. The former is because the likes of Chanel, Hermès, Christian Dior, or Yves Saint Laurent do nearly borderline on niche quality anyway, even within their standard lines, and have been more devoted to fragrance craft than many other houses, who merely entered it as an afterthought for another marketing angle. In these cases, designers have invested almost as much artistry as their niche competitors. I'm not saying the price is justified exactly, but there's more backing it up than perceived brand value.

Niche scents, the last frontier for most perfume fans, is an even greater mixed bag than designers. Whereas drugstore scents are mostly just honest attempts to bring a more value-oriented spin on a luxury like smelling good, and designer scents an effort to create an entry-point for their often more-expensive clothing, shoes, and accessories, niche perfume houses are literally all about the perfume itself, period. Purists in the community trump niche above all others for this reason, since the very definition of niche implies that anything in this category is of the utmost quality since all the focus in on the perfume, but this isn't always the case, at least not anymore. Nowadays, some niche houses can really just be seen as snake oil salesmen trying to dress up a creation that could sell at any other market level like something that should be worth the price of a used car because their illustrious name is on it, or it comes in bottle of real gold or Swarovsky crystal. Niche scents can also be notoriously acquired tastes, since the point of most is artistic expression and not marketability, so the perfumers aren't really confined by what's likeable by the largest group.

The truth is, unlike designer, most niche truly is focused on the product, the quality or artistry of it, and the style it creates as an expression of the house brand or the creator themselves if they market their own wares (this is much more common in niche than anywhere else due to the scale at which things are produced). You do have some brands that use exclusivity and expense as the actual point of attraction, to likely bring in the shallow types that like to flaunt their wealth or idiots that can be sold on such concepts, and even some houses that make up incredulous backstories or production methods to try and romance the buyer into falling in love with what the brand (falsely) represents. At the end of the day, none of this really affects the perfume itself, so like any other fragrance at any other price, you'll want to sniff something niche first if possible, as a bad blind buy of $500 is much more regrettable than a bad blind buy at $50. I will say that by and large, most niche does use higher concentration for their perfumes, so there is literal material value in how far you can stretch what you've purchased, which can't always be said about designer or drugstore scents.

With bans and restrictions on materials, the only "X is better than Y" argument that can really hold water is vintage versus new production, sometimes because costs increase or companies want to bring in more money per bottle, but mainly because key ingredients that once made a fragrance smell the way it became known for often get reduced or removed completely, with perfumers trying to reconstruct something into the semblance of what made it so great, and often being less and less successful at it as more things get banned or restricted. Fans of relatively recent perfumes won't have this problem however, and neither will fans of some niche houses, which are too small to bother adhering to IFRA regulations anyway. I admittedly collect mostly old drugstore and designer scents, but I do respect a lot of more recent efforts, and niche scents as well. I rarely come across a scent that I don't like in at least some capacity, so perhaps I'm the wrong person to ask about what is best, but at least after reading this, you know what the differences are. Let your nose do the rest.

Updated 8th September 2019 at 10:09 AM by Zealot Crusader

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  1. AnthonyG's Avatar
    Good read.

  2. Zealot Crusader's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by AnthonyG
    Good read.

    I appreciate it. I try to be as objective as I can with these kind of write-ups. People can get really tribal in their loyalty to various brands or price points, so without any subjective asides about what I find better or worse, I just wanted to state the facts and a bit of personal observation where relevant.
  3. Dimitrios's Avatar
    Enjoyed this info .. well done Z
  4. HouseOfPhlegethon's Avatar
    Well said and I wholeheartedly concur. My nose doesn't care who or what made what. I've got 10 dollar perfumes and I've got 100 dollar perfumes. All that matters is how a scent makes me feel.
  5. Zealot Crusader's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Dimitrios
    Enjoyed this info .. well done Z
  6. Zealot Crusader's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Zealot Crusader
    I definitely go by feel, and not results/reactions from others as well.
  7. ClockworkAlice's Avatar
    Wow, I accidentally stumbled upon your blog entries and I was impressed how interesting and informative they are. I know nearly nothing about scents and perfumes (yet), and reading your insights is helping tremendously. Thank you and keep up the good work!
  8. Zealot Crusader's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ClockworkAlice
    Wow, I accidentally stumbled upon your blog entries and I was impressed how interesting and informative they are. I know nearly nothing about scents and perfumes (yet), and reading your insights is helping tremendously. Thank you and keep up the good work!
    I greatly appreciate the comment! <3
    Doing my best (worst)!
  9. amarius's Avatar
    Thank you for your article! Lots of info!
  10. notspendingamillion's Avatar
    I still bet someone with experience in fragrances could pick which one costs $400 and which on $10 by smell. Maybe not all the time, but maybe bat over .500 I do agree that price does not matter necessarily though.
  11. Zealot Crusader's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by notspendingamillion
    I still bet someone with experience in fragrances could pick which one costs $400 and which on $10 by smell. Maybe not all the time, but maybe bat over .500 I do agree that price does not matter necessarily though.
    I actually have a scent from 1991 (discontinued) with an opening identical to Aventus, made by a mid-tier designer. The dry down is pretty close until you reach a mossier base (because 1991), with some clove (and no ambergris).

    I could place these in a blind sample test and at least half of experienced colognoisseurs would get it wrong. I'm leaving the vintage unnamed because I'm not done backing it up and don't want scalpers who use the boards here to see what I'm onto.


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