To be honest, I largely agree with your disagreement. The main reason I raise that overly simplified delineation is because it shows just how slippery the designer/niche binary can be. With that said, "niche" (meaning non-designer/mainstream) has been infiltrated by the same crass commercialism you'd find at the department store—there's a lot of mundane, soulless crap being peddled as "niche" simply by performing certain "niche" characteristics (limited distribution, higher quality materials, forward-thinking scent profiles, high price tag). I've heard it referred to as "boardroom niche"—essentially meaning mediocre, low-IQ stuff dressed up in niche clothing if you will.
Originally Posted by Kagey
Andy Tauer had some wise words on the subject:
“In the past, up to a few years ago, niche perfumery used to be a term that defined a market segment and an artistic segment beyond the “mass market” and aside the “luxury perfume market”. Niche perfumery used to be low volume perfumery, with highest standards for ingredients and the formulas of perfumes, being sold outside of the main distribution channels, by selective perfumeries. Niche was characterized by highest quality standards for ingredients and creativity, and lowest marketing expenses and the abstinence from marketing blurs."
"Nowadays, niche is dead and as a term, niche has become meaningless, as multimillion dollar brands try to define themselves as niche and marketing has absorbed what used to be invested into raw materials and creativity."
"For consumers, it has become very confusing. Hence, I try not to use the term niche for my perfume house anymore. I use the term artisanal or haute perfumery for my perfume house, fitting much better."
”Modern niche, if you so want, is an industry approach to money making, by offering mediocre perfumes, with a marketing concept, and an exuberant price tag."
I think he nailed it, to be honest.
So, the reason I tend to cling to that reductionist delineation is because it's technically and categorically accurate (designers make designer perfume; niche is a corner of the beauty/fashion industry that only does perfume—hence niche), but, as you observed, it shows how the delineation undermines itself. This is largely for the reasons that Tauer outlines above: what we once understood as niche has been co-opted and commercialized by the same corporations who pump out endless flankers and trashy, pedestrian mall stuff.
Although I really don't subscribe to much categorization myself, the IAO Awards outlined a fairly smart system of categorizing non-mainstream perfume. Taken as a given that designer and mass-produced/distributed (non-designer, but in malls) are largely corporatized affairs (capital gain trumps artistry: make the product as cheaply and as prosaically as possible to appeal to the most people), anything outside of that could be categorized as either Independent or Artisan:
Independent would be defined as:
- The company is not owned by another, larger corporation.
- The company is built to be capable of scaling up in size, but is privately-owned.
- The company commissions or employs perfumers to create scents that are released under the company name.
- The company has ultimate creative control over branding and marketing.
- If the company was started by a perfumer, the perfumer acts primarily as a business person and/or creative director, leaving 60% or more of the formulations to external hires.
Artisan would be defined as:
- The company is helmed by a perfumer.
- The perfumer at the helm of the company makes all the company’s perfumes him or herself.
- The perfumer at the helm of the company manages all aspects of production.
- The perfumer at the helm of the company has ultimate creative control over branding, marketing and distribution.
- The company is smaller in size, with sales and product development contingent on the perfumer’s direct labor.
While none of these categories is perfect (or even that necessary for the individual perfumista), the designer / niche dichotomy was broken sometime ago when CEO and marketing teams set their sites on niche aesthetics. So, again, I agree with you—but I'm also of the mindset that because of what's happened to niche, the terms have absolutely no real function anymore.