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Perfumery’s Limits: Where is Niche Headed?

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The following is part one of a speech delivered at the World Perfumery Congress 2018 under the title ‘Niche 2.0: The Future of Niche Perfumery and its Search for Meaning,’ edited for publication in the November issue of Perfumer & Flavorist magazine. Part two will be featured in the December issue.

This is the most important moment in the history of fragrance. Whilst niche and artisanal development strategies in perfumery have been a huge driving force for change in the function, presentation and appreciation of fine fragrance, niche is only a symptom and coincidental expression of a much larger and more powerful cultural weather system that is shifting the way we engage with scent. The most important event of the last two decades in olfaction, and the broader rubric propelling contemporary scent trends, is a fervent on-going consumer aspiration for scent experiences to carry more meaning governed by a belief system in which artistic perfumery has the capacity to deliver deeper, richer, more diverse, more specific, more affecting meanings for consumers than fragranced products are conveying today. People want their fragrances to make them feel more, stimulate them more specifically and exercise them more intellectually than ever before, exacerbated by society’s search for anti-digital antidotes to electronic ways of life.

In general, we are treating this process of culturalization casually, but it is totally unprecedented both within and outside our field and carries huge implications for the future. We appear to be at the precipice of more widely accepted, finely tuned, acutely implemented olfactory meanings. There is no going back and, to the author’s knowledge, no historical model for a commodity transforming into an art form so quickly and dramatically. We can look for parallels in fields such as photography, performance art, experimental gastronomy and even wine, but nothing quite counterparts what is happening in perfumery.

Niche is Here to Stay

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Whether correctly forecast or not, no one can deny that niche will be part of that future and is firmly here to stay. As John Demsey, executive group president at The Estée Lauder Companies put it, “Niche is the new normal.” Last year, fine fragrance achieved $37.4 billion whilst the niche market share was estimated as having 7% market share.a Niche launches made up 46% of last year’s NPD and an indicator of its success was L’Oréal’s 15% growth rate of niche turnover vs the fragrance market benchmark of 2.9%.b

We define niche primarily by its spirit to revive, rejuvenate, reframe and reassert perfumery’s qualitative craftmanship and romanticism of narrative that borderlines on the artistic and is distinctly separated from mass-consumerist appeal and high-volume commodity models. Niche scents were originally designed for niche audiences. Along with this spirit usually comes very select distribution, leaning towards luxury, higher price points, personal stories, experimentation in odor profiles, a modest commercial footprint, a maximum capacity for production, and flexibility to take risks in strategy.

In counterpoint to much of the rebellious rhetoric abound in niche circles, celebrated longstanding fragrance expert Michael Edwards notes that,

“It is important to remember that niche is in fact not new. Perfumery of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s was aimed at wealthy city people and was not mass market. The key dimension of the luxury goods category is that as soon as you get used to something you want something better. Niche today is just part of that and came along as a rescue to reinvigorate the luxury segment with new forms.”

The recent winners have clearly been those that can prove that the juice in their bottle is somehow more meaningful than their competitor’s; notably, it is not always about objective facts like quality and much more about subjective takeaways grounded in memorable experiences, novel surprises and personal relatability. As such, people are asking for more and more meaning. The question we are tackling today is about the sustainability and potential of this new age of popular olfaction.

Perfumer Problems

As a result of the growing demands for more intellectually engaged and conceptually sophisticated fragrance narratives, perfumers are facing a problem.

Consider the following propositions:

  • Who do you think the greatest perfumers of our time are and why?
  • Could they make a smoky lemon scent?
  • Could they make a fragrance about falling in love?
  • Could they construct a blend that communicates the main tenets of communism?

Could Dominique Ropion, Calice Becker or Christine Nagel ever make a fragrance about Brexit? Could Jean-Claude Ellena convey the Russian Revolution or Madonna and Child in a new juice? Fragrance, at the moment, has the capacity to communicate ultra-specific concepts accurately and reliably if rooted in place or location such as fig trees on the Amalfi coast, as well as abstract concepts such as purity, complexity or love, but anything in the middle that engages with more intricate ideological narratives breaks down that communication and remains too subjective, too opaque, and too coincidental to be considered real and firmly existent within the juice alone. With big ideas in scent, we are often left clutching at straws.

Recently released Feminista is a landmark product for so obviously and thoroughly engaging with political and philosophical motives through scent design from the beginning of the product development process. It was created by perfumer Geza Schoen and intended as an embodiment of feminist history, attitudes and aspirations. There may be some thematic synergies with feminist theory, but the scent is not able to convey those to us without the necessary reinforcement of the title, packaging and copy.

Niche is the sphere where the most experimentation has taken place around new ways to communicate concepts. To take niche a step further, instead of asking ourselves whether it is impossible to convey more complex concepts with fragrance forms, it is much more productive and interesting to ask, “What would need to change for conceptual range to become a reality?”

Millennial Tropes and Figures

Let’s look at some figures to track the influence of niche, provided by fragrance expert Michael Edwards and founder of Fragrances of the World:

Here we have the total number of annual fragrance launches from 2008 – 2017 plotted per distribution sector, divided by three into mass, selective and niche, with figures from 1980 and 2000 as benchmarks (T-1). For the first time in 2013, niche overtook both selective and mass perfumery in volume of launches, reflective of its strategy for collections, its growing public awareness and retail real estate. Since then, it has been far more productive than other sectors.

The gender split over the same time period is also indicative of the growing influence of niche, with its spike in volume of SKUs coinciding with shared and unisex scent outnumbering masculine or feminine-termed releases since 2015. As a result, artisanal strategies that promote non-binary philosophy encourage scent appreciation on more artistic terms than under gender pragmatics (T-2).

When reviewing the split of families in niche only, there appear to be few changes over the last decade per family (T-3). However, the significant dominance of the lower third of the triangle is evident and increasing with top note-centered compositions being squeezed, underlining how important performance properties such as longevity and projection are to niche consumers, suggesting an association between creative value and larger heavier molecules.

Millennial stereotypes also help us to understand niche popularity. The author believes millennial to be more of a mindset than a demographic as it is tied to the use of social platforms, digital natives, anti-corruption and pro-choice beliefs. Millennials are traditionally associated with narcissism, introspection, freedom, respect, tolerance and diversity, mindfulness, an interest in human stories and the humanity about them, and an appreciation for the time and effort put into processes that trump perfection of the finished result. These are all qualities that development teams can harness in scent design practice.

Concept evolution

Christophe Laudamiel, the perfumer of DreamAir, thinks that “the niche market has not revolutionized the industry yet either – one more chypre, one more oud, one more tuberose.” He is right in the sense that perfumery today has still not found a way to diversify conceptual range and tends to orbit around the same familiar concepts, some surviving longer than others.

The classic concepts we find in traditional commercial perfumery and old-school niche include:

    • Clean 
    • Femininity 
    • Masculinity 
    • Sensuality 
    • Sex
    • Confidence 
    • Strength
    • Luxury
    • Exoticism
    • Happiness
    • Escapism
    • Bravery
    • Nostalgia and
    • Paradise

New-school niche looked into, amongst others:

  • Absurdity
  • Introspection
  • Loss
  • Cinema culture
  • High art
  • Perfumers themselves
  • Personification
  • Urban landscapes 
  • Unexpected moments of beauty
  • Mundanity
  • Frivolity 

Overall, we can say that classic scent-making focused more on fantasy but was somehow also more serious, whereas niche spirit had a sense of humor but analyzed reality and real-world dynamics. What we can and can’t do as of today with scent is tightening as projects become more and more ambitious. Most assume that the niche trajectory can keep moving at its current pace but what if niche in its current form is the apex of the movement?

Find part two in the December issue on ‘Smelly signs: an introduction to scent semiotics’

 

 

Footnotes:

a For fine fragrance turnover see https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180418006524/en/Global-Perfume-Market-2018-2023---Trends-Opportunity; for niche market share see https://www.pressreader.com/usa/wwd-digital-daily/20180612/281736975157043

b For NPD see https://www.fragrancesoftheworld.com; for L’Oréal’s growth figures see https://www.fashionmonitor.com/#/

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T-1.

A table of fragrance launches

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T-2.

A table of fragrance launches

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T-3.

A table of fragrance launches

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Image 1

A feminist fragrance

Inspired by feminist history and attitudes, Feminista compels its wearers to engage politically and philosophically through a scent. Photo courtesy of Feminista.

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