Niche is a buzzword. There was a time when the term, used within the context of perfumery, referred to the smaller firms who produced in limited quantities and whose wares were available at few retailers. However, this definition no longer holds true. L'Artisan Parfumeur, one of the oldest and most influential niche houses is now sold at Sephora and owned by Puig (also in Puig's portfolio: Valentino, Nina Ricci, Prada and Comme des Garçons among many others). The fact is that most of the big names in niche perfumery have been purchased by the same parent companies that hold the rights to the classic houses. In 2015, some of the last holdouts were swallowed up: most notably, Frédéric Malle's Éditions de Parfums range and Le Labo were acquired by Estée Lauder and Serge Lutens by Shiseido. This is not to say that there are not independently-owned houses out there. In fact, the niche sector is one of the fastest growing in the perfume industry. However, the question remains: if L'Artisan Parfumeur and Serge Lutens were niche firms before their acquisition, what happens after they are purchased?
This brings us to the core of the discussion: what is niche? The definition I introduced earlier ties the term directly to distribution networks and production capabilities. This has been the traditional way that the industry has used the term, but lines have become increasingly muddled in recent years as niche houses have grown. The question then becomes, does a firm's growth, success, and increasing popularity and visibility mean that they have fundamentally changed?
Niche has also been used to describe a certain aesthetic. In this way, firms owned by large corporations can still be niche even if they are available worldwide. This view contrasts niche fragrances with "mainstream" or "designer" fragrances. This differentiation is only somewhat useful and only tends to work if we disregard the earlier output of larger firms. The main difference between these two camps is the reliance of larger houses on focus groups and market testing, the effects of which have rendered many new mainstream releases less adventurous. Aiming for mass appeal generally guarantees that no one will find a particular fragrance offensive; unfortunately this approach necessarily means that the fragrance in question is unlikely to generate strong emotions, including love. Many proponents of niche fragrances note that mainstream houses are more concerned with producing the next blockbuster than producing a fragrance that smells good—a cursory survey of the latest releases from major houses seems to validate this argument. Even the perfumers themselves have taken to referring to their compositions for large firms as soups: compositions that make use of the same twenty-odd aroma chemicals in various combinations.
So what sets niche apart? For our purposes here at Fumerie, we tend to take a less-traditional view of what constitutes niche perfumery. We view niche more as a stylistic movement rather than in more concrete terms like distribution networks and availability. In an attempt to quantify this, I'll go ahead and list a few qualities that niche perfumes possess.
First, niche fragrances do not aim for universal appeal. In contrast to many mainstream releases, niche fragrances do not attempt to cast the widest net possible. In many ways this is a nod to classical perfumery and the days before focus groups became the norm. Second, niche fragrances explore new and interesting ideas, themes and accords. This ties into the first point but more often than not, niche perfumery is a breeding ground for innovative accords that may not have huge commercial potential but unquestionably move the industry forward. Many accords first introduced by niche firms trickle down to more mainstream releases, albeit in a more streamlined and subtle form. Third, niche fragrances are creative. As with all of these points, this is a generalization and does not necessarily apply to every release from every house, but an unavoidable consequence of less oversight and more creative control is that fragrances produced by niche firms are more likely to reflect the original intent of the perfumer.
I would argue that there is a certain niche aesthetic. In a world where the firms responsible for niche perfumery as we have know it no longer fit the dictionary definition of the term, perhaps either our definition of niche perfumery or our conceptualization of the market as a whole need to be reassessed. As niche perfumery has become an increasingly more dominant force in the market, the market has changed. The acquisitions mentioned above are irrefutable proof of this. Large firms like Estée Lauder and Puig have taken note of the success of niche brands, not because of its scope but because of the public's desire for innovative fragrances that push the envelope. Much of the difficulty we face in attempting to define niche perfumery is the result of the fluid nature of the industry and the fact that this fringe movement has struck a chord with fragrance lovers and, as a result, has become a dominant force in the fragrance industry. To fully appreciate the full circe that has taken place, keep in mind that niche perfumery began as a reaction to the increasing commercialization of the fragrance industry in the 1980s and 1990s. As new releases from classic houses became less and less distinguishable, a market developed for fragrances that offered something new and different. As tastes have changed and the public has demanded unique offerings, the industry has responded by elevating these once obscure houses. In many cases, large houses have even released boutique fragrances in an attempt to capture this market (Les Exclusifs de Chanel, Dior Collection Privée, Tom Ford Private Blend, etc.). At the same time, the celebrity fragrance market has taken a nosedive and, as larger houses watched their profits dip over the course of the last few years, the niche sector has steadily grown. With this in mind, the future of the fragrance industry as a whole looks very bright and represents, in many ways, a return to the Golden Age of perfumery.