op/ed: wtf is niche anyway?

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By the late 70s, perfume came from large corporate brands (eg. Estée Lauder, Coty), commercial fashion brands (eg. Halston, Pierre Cardin, Calvin Klein) and the old guard like Caron and Guerlain.  The common thread is that investors saw perfume as a cash cow and designer-celebrity culture was a cheap ticket to the show.  The perfumer was in the closet, the consumer rabidly craved identifiability in branding and the ‘coarsening of culture’ argument had been laughed into submission.  Culturally we had tuned back in and were picking up any shiny objects we could find.

op:ed niche 1op:ed niche 2.

The niche trend started in the 1970s as a response to the state of the perfume market of the time. It wasn’t so much a manifesto against the river of commercialism as an eddy that avoided the current. I group the history of niche perfumery into three stages, similar to the olfactory pyramid of classical perfumery that niche perfumery has alternatingly derided and venerated.  Top, middle, base.

Topnotes: Early niche ran from the mid 1970s to the late 1980s and is illustrated by l’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Diptyque and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier. Mix auteur theory with artisinal sensibility, stir, pour. The perfumers of this era looked both forward and back. Goutal’s perfumes were nostalgic, referring to an arcadian past that was pure and good. MPeG played on an appeal to the good-old-bad-old (largely fictionalized) de Medici days. Diptyque surpassed its crafty, art-school origins and entered fine perfumery with a strong character. l’Artisan was the most forward thinking of the bunch and created perfumes with a broad appeal that focussed on innovation and quality, attributes that appealed to both the traditional perfume buyer and the aesthete who found the increasing volume of the late 1970s deafening. Following the trend in film of elevating the director, l’Artisan identified the perfumer and proclaimed him/her the artist. (note: I’d love to read a real history of Jean-François Laporte who founded both l’Artisan Parfumeur and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier.)

Middle: Niche perfumery is often held to have some sort of inverse relationship to the mainstream, but the middle era of niche perfumery grew in direct ratio to the over-the-topness of the mainstream perfume market. There are many perfumers and companies from this time, approximately 1988 to 2010. New styles and new schools came into being. Eclecticism was valued and new models of working were as important as new genres of perfume. 

The Lutens model of pairing artistic director/perfumer like producer/director produced a new sensibility of perfume that influenced a generation of perfumers and fumies. Comme des Garçons imprinted perfumery with its particular take on minimalism and made rock stars of perfumers such as Mark Buxton, Bertrand Duchaufour and Natalie Feisthauer.  Perfumery was changed with the recognition of the formally trained perfumer, but it was shaken by the arrival of Andy Tauer, a self-taught perfumer whose line of perfumes made many other niche perfumes seem amateur.  Perfumers from the academy might have become the Jaggers and McCartneys, but Tauer quietly rewrote the narrative just as Kurt Cobain had done loudly in the previous decade.  The Lie/Maisondieu/Maisondieu collective of Etat Libre d’Orange challenged the role of perfume and perfumery in contemporary culture and did it with a laugh that only partially disguised serious thought.

Yet it’s the women of the era who capture this middle age of niche perfumery. Patricia de Nicolai’s work marks the start of the 2nd wave of niche. She ingeniously balanced tradition and innovation when she launched Parfums de Nicoai in 1988-89 with Number One, Odalisque and New York.  She started with three identifiable genres, namely the mixed floral, the chypre and the oriental.  She took on the entirety of perfumery with three perfumes and she won. Number One won an award from The French Society of Perfumers when it was released and Odalisque and New York became the new standards of their genres.

Olivia Giacobetti ignored the noise of exploding nichery and demonstrates that radical thought isn’t necessarily accompanied by huzzahs and fireworks. Her perfumes reflect and foster a mindfulness that make them the perfect accompaniment to the long view.  They planted the seed for a language of aesthetics that can use perfume to comment on concepts outside of perfumery. She focused on details of composition and dynamics that sidestep the premise that perfume wearers have a short attention span. The surprise isn’t in the drydown. It’s months and years down the road when you’ve caught up with her ideas.

From the mid-1980s to the present the treadmill of perfume debate has sought to make distinctions between the classical and the contemporary. Modern vs Old School is a matter of opinion but the discussion doesn’t really offer much of value. Still, the ground was being prepared for the discussion that Vero Kern brought to it in 2008 when she launched her brand. Kern went to the heart of the matter driving a spike between tradition and classicism, a pairing that went largely unquestioned through the niche era. Her perfumes show the range of abstraction and expressivity that is at the heart of classicism. They might comment on tradition (eg. Jicky/Kiki) but they are unorthodox and unencumbered.

(image Philip-Lorca diCorcia)

In 2015 we find ourselves in The Basenotes of the niche era.  The upside of this stage is that previously limiting distinctions between niche and mainstream perfumery are dissolving. Smart people are coming up who can take this crumbling structure and make beautiful sense of it.

The downside is in two disturbing trends: the race for luxury and dilettante theory.

1) Better, faster, stronger.  Actually, just more expensive. For better and for worse, previous distinctions between niche and ‘corporate’ perfumery are not as clear as they once were. Niche perfumery threatened the perceived lock on quality that high-end mainstream perfume producers assumed was theirs. The univocal response of Guerlain, Chanel, Dior, Hermès… has been to steal niche’s thunder (and often perfumers) by creating costly exclusive lines and selling them as designer perfumes ‘à la niche.’  Stratified branding is nothing new and the cynicism of flattening a movement into a style is an operating principle of the fashion industry.  The distressing response of high-end niche has been to adopt the tactics of their designer rivals.  The niche field is now rife with increasingly expensive upper-limit lines. (See: by Kilian, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, 777, Xerjoff, Roja Dove.)  It’s luxo-warfare and creativity is the first victim. Finery is preferred to artistry and costly perfumes match costly handbags as the graceless symbols of exclusivity and brand-affiliation.  Fashion’s pose of weltschmerz has made its way to niche perfumery.

2) A faulty premise guiding many new niche perfume lines is the belief that artistry is the result of an indiscriminate and small act of will.  Amateurism and passing fancy are mistaken for expertise and inspiration.  A ‘let’s put on a show in the barn!’ attitude assumes that most anyone with an interest in perfumery can make good perfume.  The hoard of slickly packaged, clumsy perfumes flooding the market makes finding the excellent ones a needle-in-a-haystack challenge.

But excellence is there.  Many of the perfumers who cut their teeth in the creative atmosphere of the 90s-00s are entering new stages in their work. Self-trained perfumer Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse, and artists from other media such as Antonio Gardoni of Bogue (architecture) and Bruno Fazzolari (painting/visual arts) have questioned the underpinnings of the traditional perfumery schools. They’ve breathed new life into the field and the caliber of their perfume challenges the status quo. Niche perfumery is choking on its own low-standards of artistry but Lobb, Gardoni and Fazzolari offer hope.

Dec. 6, 2010. Election Day, Cotes d’Ivoire, image source Winnipeg Free Press

Early niche perfumery arose in response to a perceived lack of quality in the market.  A market saturated with expensive, second-rate perfumes is ripe for revolution. To paraphrase Etat Libre d’Orange’s paraphrasing of history, ‘La niche est morte. Vive la Niche!’

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