London: The new perfume capital.


24th December, 2010

There are no multi-brand niche perfume stores in Paris.

Just give that a moment to sink in.

The capital of France - the land that's produced some of the greatest fragrances of all time and remains the industry's main trend-setter - cannot boast a single, multi-brand niche perfumery. Sure, many non-mainstream brands - such as Malle, L'Artisan and Montale - have their own stand-alone boutiques in the city, but by definition, they don't adopt the non-partisan approach that many perfume-shoppers seem to prefer. I'm reliably informed by several sources that a couple of 'independent' shops did try their luck a few years ago, but success wasn't forthcoming and they were forced to close down.

However, this isn't an article about Paris. It's about a European capital that does have a couple of multi-brand niche stores, despite the fact that it isn't the first place that comes to mind as an important spot on the world's perfume map. It's a city that recently hosted a well-attended and highly regarded perfume exhibition, although its inhabitants aren't generally considered to be as interested in scent as their counterparts in Rome or Madrid. It's a city whose long-established love of the eccentric may well turn out to be a crucial factor in the salvation of modern perfumery. It's the city of London.

For the last few years, a barely perceptible whisper has been flitting about in the atmosphere here. It's been carried on a scented wind from the top floor of Harrods to Belgravia's Les Senteurs via the counters in Selfridges and Liberty. If you listen hard enough, you might just be able to hear its words: "Change is in the air. Londoners finally 'get' perfume."

There’s no question about it, something has happened since around 2007. I’ve got no scientific way of testing what I'm about to type, but I believe that an event like the recent Perfume Diaries couldn't have taken place in London three years ago. There almost certainly wouldn't have been sufficient interest in it. So what's been going on since then? What's caused the city's - and, by extension, the country's - attitude to our bottled treasures to go through a significant shift?

To my mind, the key factor is language. As has been stated by other writers before me, our enjoyment of perfume is directly proportional to our ability to talk about it. If you don't expand your olfactory vocabulary, it's hard to move your appreciation of fragrance beyond terms like, "It smells nice," or "It stinks." Bearing this in mind, here’s an interesting little fact: the first English edition of Luca Turin’s and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The Guide appeared in 2008. Whatever you make of its authors’ views, the book achieved an important feat: bringing perfume discourse – and the tools with which to hold that discourse – into the mainstream. Suddenly, it became possible for ordinary Waterstone’s shoppers to talk about aldehydes, florientals and Edmond Roudnitska. Their discussions may have been peppered with inaccuracies – that’s bound to happen when a field is opened up to a wider audience – but the point is that those discussions were taking place. That same year also saw the publication of Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent and Avery Gilbert’s What The Nose Knows. An evolution was taking place: perfume was becoming more than just the toxic spray with which you were attacked as soon as you entered Debenhams.

Of course, we can’t talk about the significance of language in modern life without addressing the Internet. Five years ago, some people were already saying that blogging was nothing more than a fad, that it would have no lasting influence and would disappear before the end of the decade. They have, of course, turned out to be ever so wrong: blogging is still on the increase and certain bloggers wield considerable influence in the worlds of fashion and film criticism. The problems that this brings have been well documented elsewhere, but again, one of the undisputed consequences of this proliferation of prose – regardless of its quality – is that it raises the public profile of any given subject. New English-language perfume blogs seem to keep popping up every week, which essentially means that the English-speaking world is being exposed to an increasing volume of writing on the subject. As a key Anglophone hub, London is firmly on the receiving end of this development: the semantics of perfume are slowly but surely becoming part of the city’s make-up, in the same way that the discourse of sociology and media studies worked its way into public consciousness towards the end of the last century. Give it a few more years, and ‘fougère’ will probably come to mean ‘fusty old man’. Umm… then again, that might be pushing it a bit, but you get my drift.

The Internet also allows access to the previously inaccessible. It enables people to track down products which would never find their way to an average high street. In other words, it’s niche-friendly. And if there’s one characteristic that defines Londoners, it’s their love of anything that’s slightly off the beaten track. Okay, the queues at Primark are still as hellish as ever, but the city has seen a steadily rising interest in all sorts of smaller-scale businesses – from artisanal cheese production to organic, all-natural soap making – so it’s not surprising that the growing awareness of perfume has been caught up in this trend too. There’s a general rejection of overly-familiar, overly-advertised brands, and the niche market – which many of us are hoping will provide the innovative and original perfumes of the future – appears to be reaping the benefits.

We also mustn’t forget that, in many ways, London belongs to youth. Practically speaking, this means that it goes through periodic rejections of what’s come before. No offence, but the average English gal isn’t known for her ability to wear make-up, put on elegant perfume and walk through the world like an icon of chic sophistication; that honour has always been reserved for French or Italian women. But again, things seem to be changing. The current generation of British female shoppers seems more than happy to embrace the prettier things in life – could this possibly explain the alarming popularity of cupcakes and all things Cath Kidston? – and seek out sources of glamour which weren’t necessarily popular in the past… sources such as perfume.

Crucially, young men are part of this phenomenon too. How many of you remember the fuss that was caused when Gaultier released his Monsieur eyeliner and foundation? Now, you can walk into any Sainsbury’s or TK Maxx and see mountains of men’s ‘anti-fatigue’ creams and self-tanning gels from the likes of L’Oreal and Clarins. The notion of men’s grooming hardly raises a snigger these days. It is perfectly acceptable for a guy not only to amass a sizeable collection of expensive fragrances (have you noticed how the words ‘after shave’ have started to fade away?) but to choose his acquisitions with great care, using info from reviews he’s read in magazines and on the Web.

When you put together all of the above, the word ‘snowball’ comes to mind. The cumulative effect of each individual development has turned London into a place that has become genuinely exciting for perfume lovers. Just think about it. Home-grown firms like Ormonde Jayne and Grossmith are enjoying tremendous success, not just in Britain, but abroad. Penhaligon’s is becoming a force to be reckoned with, mainly because it’s had the good sense to hire Bertrand Duchaufour – an expert nose if ever there was one – as one of its main perfumers. Foreign brands like Amouage and L’Artisan Parfumeur (Penhaligon's sister company) have come to the conclusion that it’s worth their while to open stand-alone boutiques in the city, the latter right in the heart of a massively popular tourist destination. Guerlain has decided to stock a few of its (hitherto) Paris-only exclusives at Harrods. Niche perfumers such as Andy Tauer regularly make appearances at launches of their products. Public lectures have been held on the scientific aspects of perfume production. Events like Scratch + Sniff are gaining wider prominence. Readers of our own Basenotes have been invited by FiFi UK to vote for a prestigious new award. And then of course there was the aforementioned Perfume Diaries. It could have taken place in any city in the world, but the month-long exhibition of some of the most important and precious perfumes ever made – an exhibition which prompted several people from abroad to jump on the first available flight to the UK – was staged in dear old London.

So the next time you’re on Oxford Street, doing your best to frighten the crowds away with your scowl because, dammit, you will have that spray of Coromandel even if it kills you, just stop for a moment. Look around. The buildings are familiar, but the smell in the air has changed. There’s a lot more to it now. It’s taken on all sorts of interesting facets. It’s the smell of one of the best places in the world to be a perfume fan. It’s the smell of London, in all its eccentric, part-modern, part-ancient, multi-culturally-English glory. And what’s more, it’s going to get even better. So take a deep breath. And enjoy it.

About the author

Persolaise is a UK-based writer and amateur perfumer who has held a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over two decades. He is currently developing his own line of perfume. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com

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About the author: Persolaise

Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.

Website: http://www.persolaise.com/

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Comments

    • msmith139 | 24th December 2010 12:51

      Loved loved this article There are some "perfume snobs" who feel that the proliferation of blogs and discussions on perfume by "non_Experts" is potentially not good for the world of perfume and that only experts should write about scent...I say that is ridiculous...it takes awareness on all levels to attain the level of interest that is happening in the world of perfume and it takes all types of people to make this happen...To think as mentioned in a recent article by Grant Osborne, New York Museum of Art and Design is opening a Center of Olfactory Art. Thats indeed a first.

      I amappreciative of everyone who adores scent and for people like you who write about perfume because they love it. A really nicely written piece.

      best,

      m. smith

      perfumeandinkblog.com

    • awesomeness | 24th December 2010 13:20

      One more reason to visit again ... very soon. :)

    • rickbr | 25th December 2010 23:17

      Amazing article Persolaise. It seems that London is living the best moment of perfumery, specially niche, at this time. So it seems that it's nice moment to go shopping at the stores and have a chance of trying great and hard to find niche fragrances right now. How i wish that something like this happened here, but don't see it happening so soon :(

    • Nostalgie | 26th December 2010 18:12

      Great article. One more reason (as if I needed it) to love London!

    • Ines_B | 30th December 2010 13:47

      Fantastic article, Persolaise. Thank you very much for your article which facilitates my "warming up" to London.

      I have recently moved to London and I must confess, sometimes I have hard time. Yet again, going out for sniffing tours makes it a bit easier.

      Happy new year to you all!

    • encrenoire75 | 31st December 2010 08:06

      London is no doubt a shopping capital with lots of great places to smell perfumes. I would, however, take exception to your opening three paragraphs about Paris.

      "There are no multi-brand niche perfume stores in Paris"

      This is largely true. There are reasons for this however. Paris is a smaller city than London. Most of the single-brand boutiques (Malle, Artisan Parfumeur, Etat libre d'orange, Patricia de Nicolaï, The Different Company, Guerlain...) can be found in one or two specific areas, within walking distance from one another. As a result, customers have no difficulty spending a few hours to compare various niche fragrances. The only exceptions are the big department stores (Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Le Bon Marché) which have extensive choices of niche perfumes all in one place.

      "[T]hey don't adopt the non-partisan approach that many perfume-shoppers seem to prefer"

      I would dispute the claim that French perfume shoppers prefer such a "non-partisan" approach. In the niche market in Paris, there is the feeling that the client does more than smell a perfume in a niche house. The whole experience is enhanced by the particular relationship one has with the house and its concept. This is for example true of Frédéric Malle boutiques, where you meet with knowledgeable personnel who discuss fragrances freely. In fact, this quality of service is not incompatible with a "non-partisan" approach: it was a Frédéric Malle SA who invited me to try Chanel's Sycomore when he heard I specifically liked vetiver fragrances.

      "I'm reliably informed by several sources that a couple of 'independent' shops did try their luck a few years ago, but success wasn't forthcoming and they were forced to close down"

      I've heard the same. This goes to show that the "multi-niche" store approach is not an appropriate business model for Paris. This is partly for the reasons given above (proximity of "single-niche" boutiques + specific client-house relationship). It's probably also because foreign visitors to Paris expect to visit each specific house in the "perfume capital" and, like the locals, seldom went to the "multi-niche" stores.

      Multi-niche stores can be found in many provincial cities in France. In Paris, the market tendency goes in the opposite direction. Guerlain, for instance, can be found in Sephora and Marionnaud stores throughout France; but in Paris, all Guerlain perfumes are exclusive to Guerlain boutiques and stands. This is a conscious choice also made by most niche houses, and seems to correspond to both local and international demand. It could therefore be argued that the multi-niche store model is most appropriate for cities that do not have a fully developed fragrance culture, not the other way round...

    • TricsMan | 1st January 2011 15:33

      Nice article. Good to see that London is becoming a destination for the fragrance lover. Also, would agree with encrenoire75's response about Paris. I think that Paris is a unique city for the perfume lover. The experience is far more than just the perfume. And there are, indeed, multi-brand niche stores in France. One of my favorites is the wonderful Santa Rosa in Toulouse. Very small, but very well stocked with all things niche. Wonderful and knowledgeable staff, too. I wish I could get to all of these places and go exploring!

    • cacio | 1st January 2011 16:17

      Great article! Makes you want to go to London too. I agree with encrenoire, you don't need multiniche stores in Paris, because you can find so many single-brand stores all over. Why buy a Serge Lutens or PdN elsewhere when you can go to the original store? Plus, the Printemps/Lafayette combination is quite impressive. And regular perfume stores like Marionnaud put the Sephoras this side of the ocean to shame.

      While I have not explored the London perfumery scene, it seems that the one area where it has an edge over Paris is Arabic perfumery (as far as I know, Paris only has an Arabic oud store).

      cacio

    • Nathan214 | 2nd January 2011 01:31

      Encrenoire75 makes some good points -- that niche-only stores don't necessarily need to exist in Paris because Paris mainstream department stores carry niche brands. At Le Bon Marché, they carry Serge Lutens, By Kilian, Penhaligons, The Different Company and numerous other niche brands that you'd rarely (if ever) see in a general U.S. or London department store.

      There's also Colette, which carries a very nice line-up of niche fragrances, with Comme des Garcons, Chanel and IUNX just down the street. It's worth keeping in mind that the little stand-alone boutiques in Paris are numerous, and aren't as scattered about as they might be in New York or London, as Encrenoire75, TricsMan and Cacio noted.

      I found fragrance shopping in Paris to be a wealth of over-stimulation, with so much available that it was impossible to take it all in (and I was there for several days with the intention of doing just that). Yes, London is doing much better lately, with a lot more niche availability than in the past, but I'd certainly hesitate to rip the crown away from Paris and do a victory dance at this point.

    • Persolaise (article author) | 2nd January 2011 09:58

      Thanks very much indeed to all of you for your comments and particularly to Encrenoire75, Tricsman, Cacio and Nathan214 for generating a very interesting discussion. Would it be fair to say that the perfume vibes in London and Paris are very different from each other?

    • encrenoire75 | 2nd January 2011 12:31

      Thank you Persolaise, TricsMac, cacio and Nathan214 for your responses to my comment. To answer your question, Persolaise, I'm not familiar enough with London perfume shopping since 2007 (when you started perceiving a change) to know exactly what its "perfume vibe" is like now. I'm a thirty-something Parisian who lived all his childhood and early adulthood in a reasonably big UK provincial city and whose perfume culture originally came from family presents (Guerlain's Vétiver in the original formulation was a particularly marking recurring present from my mother).

      What I'd say is that London is probably one of Europe's true shopping capitals. There's more money in London, more business tourism, and, as you say in your articles, "in many ways, London belongs to youth" (in particular, trendy professional young people with style and money to spend on it). So I'm not surprised the perfume business model there would tend to concentrate on grouping as many luxury fragrances as possible under one roof in the multi-niche model.

      Paris is a city foreigners go to mostly for specific shopping or tourism purposes. Parisians themselves have quite an in-grained perfume culture on which luxury companies are building. Frédéric Malle, for instance, went from one to three Paris boutiques in a few years (only international boutique: New York). I believe Patricia de Nicolaï similarly expanded its Paris retail network. Also, if you look at the LVMH annual report () you'll see that more than half their EU retail network is in France (page 5), and that almost half their EU perfume/cosmetics revenue is also French based (p. 13). Guerlain (same page) recently opened a twelfth boutique in Paris and considers its strongest priority markets to be France and China.

      I guess my (tentative) conclusion from all this would be to say that the emergence of a perfume culture in London is probably a form of catching-up, and possibly centered on a very special international urban center not representative of the UK as a whole. Provincial England probably relies more on high-street chain distribution than provincial France (TricsMan mentioned a multi-niche boutique in Toulouse, and I've had experience in Lille and Strasbourg; you can also see a long and lively discussion on finding rare perfumes in French provincial cities here: ).

      And it must be hoped that the trend you've noted in London will last. As you highlight, the risk in London is that, insofar as it is youth-driven, "it goes through periodic rejections of what’s come before". To consolidate the trend, this London "perfume vibe" will have to expand to all generations and into provincial UK.

    • happy | 10th January 2011 17:37

      Very interesting and well written article. Thanks!

      In Xmas, I talked to friend who is the owner of a small niche brand perfume based in Austria. He told me something quite interesting about his experience in the UK. He contacted that several of the high street department stores and a few internet shops last year. All these companies are friendly, and asked for samples. Then, they disappeared, seldom did they give him any feedback. He called and wrote to follow, if he is lucky, he may get a reply saying they love the concept, the products, but unfortunately, they only sell named brands. He feels that in fact, the UK market is the most closed-mind compare with Germany, France and Switzerland.

      I don't know about Paris, but i think Frankfurt do have quite a lot of independent perfume shops with some really special perfumes on offer. Where in London can I find niche perfume shops? Next time i go, i will try to visit. Love to visit these little independent stores. The atmosphere is so different, and the owner is usually very very knowledgable. Much better than going to a high-street perfume shop!

    • Persolaise (article author) | 11th January 2011 19:10

      Encrenoire75, thanks for your reply.

      I don't think there's any question of Paris' power on the global perfume scene - although I gather Rio is giving it a good run for its money - but as you say, London IS catching up, and that's something thrilling to observe.

      Happy, the incident you describe is certainly very interesting, although I suspect that sort of thing happens all the time, everywhere.

      To answer your question, the main London-based niche perfumeries are Les Senteurs, Avery Fine Perfumery and Roja Dove's Haute Parfumerie in Harrods.

    • helenvanpattersonpatton | 12th January 2011 23:34

      I just joined basenotes, but I've been active on mua for years. This was a very interesting read! Lovely article. I love to travel and enjoy buying fragrance to remember each trip, but it's been years since my last trip to Europe, and I'm so eager to go back. In the meantime I've looked far and wide in The States for fragrance boutiques which are not easily found in the US. When I come across one mentioned on the fragrance board besides Scent Bar--which is, of course, amazing--I'm so thrilled! Places like Essenza (Seattle), Mignonette (Providence), Kuhl-Linscomb (Houston), The Crushed Violet (Lexington), Scents of Charleston (Charleston), Rochellis (Gaithersburg) are all on my to-try or have-tried-and-love list. Does anyone here have any more recommendations of little perfume shops in the US that carry niche fragrances?

    • Ratfink | 10th February 2011 13:25

      Great little article, which I'm embarrassed to say I only just got around to reading! :smiley: