Let me start by saying that this article is intended as a celebration of commercial (mass-market) perfumery and not an attack on niche brands. Most people agree that creativity and quality are some of the essential aspects of a good fragrance product, and with the explosion in privately owned and highly priced perfume companies in recent years (over £1000 for a single bottle! come on…), I think it’s important to keep asking yourself whether what you’re paying for is really worth the money. Ultimately, much of the enjoyment of a fragrance lies in the very subjective experience you can gain from it, so I think it should stay that way. That said, commercial perfumery has a bad rep at the moment and I want to open up discussion and try to set the record straight…
I used to be a complete ‘niche-head’ - a self-confessed Perfumista with a capital P. As Angela from Now Smell This quite accurately documented, many with a serious interest in perfumery go through similar stages as their knowledge, exposure and, consequently, olfactory tastes develop which in general means a transition from easy-to-find, big brand, commercial perfumes to rarer, more unique, so-called niche fragrances. I believe the plethora of reasons why the niche / luxury / artistic perfumery market developed and splintered so rapidly over the past 10 years are very complicated, but some of the most important include:
- A renewed interest in personalised unique brand experiences in response to the digital revolution (sorry for the cliché but I think it’s apt here)
- A powerful contemporary zeitgeist for self-awareness and self-fashioning, inspired by social platforms
- In general, the uncreative low quality products from perfumery companies in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s
- A rise in industry figures (often with their own agendas) then responding to the above by degrading commercial perfumery and selling a story to the public that rich chemists are manically laughing over their beakers in thick lab glasses at the stupid consumers buying their cheap chemical compositions
Michel Almairac's Joop Homme
First thing’s first – the latter point is just not true. Despite what many people may think (as I used to) most fragrances on the market, whether they be £5 or £500 a bottle, were and are made by the same cohort of Perfumers. Not devious scientists that mourn the days of the 19th century ‘aromancer’, but well-educated, passionate, creative Perfumers! There are countless examples: IFF
’s Bruno Jovanovic
who created both Fierce by Abercrombie & Fitch
and Dries Van Noten
by Frédéric Malle; Givaudan
’s Calice Becker
of Marc Jacobs Lola
fame as well as Amber Oud By Kilian
; or Michel Almairac
from Robertet who made the infamous Joop! Homme
and Fire Island by Bond No. 9
. In fact, the truth of it is that many niche houses cannot afford to employ the biggest and best houses and Perfumers, and therefore make a compulsory turn to juniors who are just making their first perfumes. Suddenly the specialist discourse of niche is infused with irony.
Marc Jacobs' Lola ad featuring Karlie Kloss
There are very few companies in the world with the expertise and facilities to create finished perfumes, and their Perfumers go through rigorous training that promotes creativity, innovation, as well as artistry. A Perfumer from one of the large houses once told me he saw himself as a ‘neo-craftsman’ which I thought was a fantastic description of the job – a half-way between artist and designer. There are some independent Perfumers out there that work with small houses, but in general they’re getting the juice from the big guys for the reason that they have the experience to design thoughtful quality perfumes. I mentioned quality earlier – for many, this doesn’t just mean plonking a whole load of natural bergamot into a bottle and selling it as luxury, but is reflected in advanced fragrance design that combines naturals with cutting-edge synthetics to create a product that works. It lasts; it projects; it smells great. And the difference for the Perfumer working on commercial and niche? The brief.
The challenges of perfumery
Each sector of the market faces different challenges when developing a new product. Yes, when creating an artistic perfume aimed at selling into cool concept stores and independent luxury fragrance boutiques, the salient brand owner has to consider his connoisseurial customers and huge expectation to deliver something totally novel – something that will blow the buyer away. However, other than that, there aren’t too many other considerations or constraints. I’m not saying it’s easy! It is undoubtedly difficult to capture the hearts and minds of luxury consumers, especially when the market is now so flooded.
Michel Girard, the legendary Givaudan Perfumer, once commented that successful perfume creation is about ‘evolution not revolution’
However, the job required on the mass-market side is much harder. Michel Girard
, the legendary Givaudan
Perfumer, once commented that successful perfume creation is about ‘evolution not revolution’. There is a huge amount of risk in projects that attempt to revolutionise, and also I believe this is not generally a tactic that works with people’s taste patterns that tend to change slowly over time with cultural shifts, rather than suddenly jump from one series of associations and values to another. Niche often attempts to revolutionise without many consequences – “who cares if not many people like my sweaty clove-heavy composition, we only need a few to rave about it and our image and bank account are fine”. If you want a big brand product to be successful, you have to find exactly the right balance between many olfactory, marketing, and retail strategies. Here are some suggestions – it has to:
- Be a scent that a lot of people enjoy
- Be a scent that not many people hate
- Work with the brand image and concept
- Have good performance i.e. longevity, projection etc.
- Be part of an evolution (not revolution)
- Have an ‘X-factor’ about it (indefinable, really)
Very few products can achieve this, but it’s interesting to evaluate the best-sellers against this criteria and in most cases I think they fulfil them. Think 1 Million by Paco Rabanne, Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel, Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier etc. This is why it can be argued that commercial perfumery is more interesting than niche, as per the title – the challenge is potentially harder, the investment bigger, the execution extremely uncertain.
Essentially, many luxury halls are now filled with brands that are selling the same rubbish as the bottom shelf at the discount store but by putting it in a shiny bottle they think they can sell it at astronomical prices.
The state of things now is very different from 10 years ago. The big brands likely realised they were making inferior products and, alongside the development of niche, are now creating more and more genuinely interesting juices – novelty is again very significant for the big houses! This is certainly reflected in recent releases. Take for example Marc Jacobs’ Daisy Sorbet
with its bracing cold effervescence, the oddly savoury and popcorn-like hazelnut accord in Diesel’s Loverdose Red Kiss
, and the saline effect present in Olympéa by Paco Rabanne
(clearly inspired by Thierry Mugler’s Womanity
). For me, these products are all right on the mark, innovating through evolution. Whilst high street fragrance has a revived spirit, the overwhelming number of niche brands releasing countless perfumes per year has meant that in many cases they undermine exactly what they are supposed to stand for – their artisanal vision, rebellious intention, and emphasis on quality ingredients is totally compromised by the olfactory copies that are being produced. Essentially, many luxury halls are now filled with brands that are selling the same rubbish as the bottom shelf at the discount store but by putting it in a shiny bottle they think they can sell it at astronomical prices.
Olympea by Paco Rabanne
One possible reason for this is the (lack of) professional evaluation. The role of the Evaluators is to be the connection between Perfumer and brand owner to help them untangle technical vernacular and help realise their vision. For the newest big brand fragrance, this is an extremely important and recognised role. For niche brands, many creative directors will try to communicate with the Perfumer directly if possible because they think they know better or, if not, will be quite singular with their expectations i.e. “I want a niche 1 Million” so that’s exactly what they’re given (a virtual copy) or “I want a fragrance that smells of cherries and oud” – unique as that may be, is it really intelligent? The aesthetics and ethics of artistic perfumery is perhaps a subject for another article but I do think it extremely important to consider or else niche could end up becoming entirely irrelevant, swallowed by the big companies who are starting to understand the selective distribution market and responding with some very successful products.
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I’d like to end on one topic that is ever-increasing in relevance – that of authorship. Okay I’ll admit, commercial fragrance marketing still isn’t great. Then again, I don’t believe many people really think that buying Boss Bottled
will make them the ‘man of today’. What does that even mean? However, there is a lot more transparency regarding the process of creating perfume nowadays and even who made it. Perfumers are kind of famous now, and whilst many credit Frédéric Malle
for bringing this interest in author to the fore, I believe it’s part of a wider culture for understanding product development mechanisms and ingredients so the consumer feels more connected and more in control (take the food industry, for example). It’s actually pretty cool knowing that the handsome Aurélien Guichard
of Firmenich (previously at Givaudan
) was the guy that made your Narciso Rodriguez fragrance
. Niche has done a lot for this engagement. But again, there are indicators that the counter-intuitive direction this market is going in will end in its demise – or at least a complete restructuring for niche.
Also, let’s be honest, did anyone ever think Britney Spears actually sat in a white lab coat in Paris and made her perfume? No
For Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s first fragrance
for Marks & Spencer, a video
was released of her working with MANE’s Ralf Schwieger
on the composition. Sure, she may have barely exchanged a word with him, but the chances are she probably did smell it at some point before its release and could even have suggested a note or two. The same with Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and her StormFlower Noir
. She stated, “I met with the Perfumers in Paris and we worked hard to ensure this new fragrance was both sensual and addictive”. For me, this type of authorial presentation is both financially savvy and ethically intelligent. It works – it makes sense. Also, let’s be honest, did anyone ever think Britney Spears
actually sat in a white lab coat in Paris and made her perfume? No.
Cheryl Fernandez-Versini's StormFlower Noir
Do people think that many niche brand owners and creative directors do so when they call themselves Perfumers? Or self-professed Master Perfumers? Yes. Be savvy – most (not all) niche brands that have a story like this are just lying. This is where the mistake lies. Niche was all about regaining legitimacy over an industry that was said by many to be debased – aside from the claims of higher quality ingredients, and lack of marketing, one of the key requisites of many niche brands is their perceived transparency and authenticity, particularly to do with the process of creating perfumes, and often with stories of ‘in-house’ Perfumers. This is not clever marketing but just deception and a very dangerous strategy in my opinion – it humiliates and cheats the consumer who is duped into paying ten times the price of a normal perfume because they are seeking an experience that is the antithesis of the mass-market myths they have been sold. Brands taking this route are short-sighted. The point is that they’re selling to an educated consumer base and the danger is once this customer base learns even more they could just stop buying the brand’s products all together.
Niche tried to take away the smoke and mirrors but I fear that it’s just going back into the smoke.
Niche tried to take away the smoke and mirrors but I fear that it’s just going back into the smoke.
Ultimately, categories and authors and novelty don’t really matter in the slightest - it’s all about the powerfully subjective, dare I say existential, experience one can glean from smelling a perfume that is meaningful to them. However, I hope this opens readers’ minds to the creativity to be found in mass-market fragrances and helps people strain the real from the fake.