For ease of discussion, I’d say plug in your own definition of niche to whatever you read here. Myself, I think the Independent Film model, or moving quickly and unabashedly from the fringe to the mainstream, is applicable to niche perfume. Studios gobbled up any production company that was trying something new. Soon every studio was cranking out the same variety of ‘indie-style’ movies.
Niche perfumery has its roots in dissatisfaction with the limits of mainstream perfumery. The early ’60s art-school Diptyque and mid ’70s perfumer-driven l’Artisan Parfumeur showed how stifling the mainstream was. The new-exoticism of the second wave of niche (eg. Serge Lutens) defied the inertia of the perfume industry and brought back creativity and style.
Like ‘Indie’, ‘Niche’ signaled a radical alternative. It called for innovation and exploration. But somewhere in the ’00s an exclusive luxury model took the lead. Creativity lost ground to opulence. Independent lines sprang up, backed by investors who, oddly, looked to niche perfumery to make a buck. Glossy, expensive lines that emphasized prestige and affluence sprung fully-formed: by Killian, Xerjoff, 777, House of Sillage, Roja Dove. Mainstream brands quickly mimicked the style and vocabulary of independent perfumers but added sophisticated packaging and marketing. And cost. The safety of expensive ubiquity quickly replaced the small-pond appeal of smaller independent lines. Indie lines responded by upping their game and their prices. The battle continues.
Mainstream perfumery’s latest tactic is to buy the ‘little fish.’ Brands that had been symbols of indepenence were bought part-and-parcel by international beauty brands. Estée Lauder gave itself a rejuvinating make-over by adding le Labo, Malle and by Kilian to their line-up. Puig bought a lineage when they acquired the historically significant l’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s. L’Oreal just snatched up Atelier Colognes.
Is niche fucked? It’s a logical question, and, well, yes, it is. The complications of the luxury-aspiration of the last 10 years have led to volumes of expensive, uninspired perfumes and the trend has the feel of one of those train-without-brakes movie scenes. On the whole, niche perfumery is much larger and far less interesting than it was 10-20 years ago. The tactic of targeting buyers who don’t balk at the inflated prices leaves behind many perfume aficionados. It also complicates the work of independent and artisan perfumers who don’t want follow the luxury-product model. The market competition is growing more intense each year, adding pressure to a new, inspiring artisan perfumer model.
Most niche perfumery is fucked, but not all of it. Despite the noise, there is still outstanding creative work going on. Many of the most interesting early independent perfumers are making more exciting work than ever. New independent and artisan perfumers are entering the field from surprising angles, bringing whole new trains of thought. Some of the most interesting stuff I’ve smelled in the past ten years was composed in the last two or three. Winnowing through the thousands of annual releases is difficult for fumies, but there is plenty of exceptional stuff to be found.
Here’s how I filter niche these days:
- Reconsider a brand 5-15 years later.
- Come to a brand late.
- Smell what your smart friends tell you you should.
- Look closely at what other perfume writers are saying.
- Talk with perfumers.
- Look at models of artistic direction.
- Smell everything new from the perfumers you think are important.
The answer to Why Niche? Is the same that it’s always been. For the outstanding, for innovative, the daring. It’s just a little harder to find.
(Photo Victoria Beckham, source unknown.)