SINGAPORE: Perfume is often used as an invisible yet powerful accessory to make an impression. Big dollars for the global fragrance industry, it will generate US$43.6b (S$58.92b) by 2021, according to Statista, a German statistics portal.
Some scents, however, sell better. Niche or cult fragrances, the ones you will not find at regular department stores, are today’s preferred choices. Now the best-selling category and fastest-growing segment within the global prestige fragrance market, it has raked in nearly US$250 million in the last three years, noted NPD, a leading consumer and retail market research group. What’s clear: We want to smell of loveliness, not ubiquity.
Managing director of fragrance and cosmetics distributor Luxasia, Alwyn Chong, has seen the steady growth of the niche fragrances in the region, and he confirmed there has been strong double-digit growth in the last five years. Back in 2001, the company set up Escentials, a fragrance boutique at Raffles Hotel to offer consumers an alternative to mainstream scents. It carried 12 cult labels, including Diptyque, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Annick Goutal. Today Escentials’s flagship is at Paragon and it has a second parlour at Tangs Orchard. In its stable now: Over 20 niche labels including Byredo and Memo.
Niche perfumeries attract the discerning and individualistic consumers who want a fragrance to reflect their personalities. And also a tired nose sick of the sameness of mainstream fragrances, said Gauri Garodia, founder of Code Deco, Singapore’s first niche perfumery.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT
It was not an issue back in the 18th century when only kings and nobles could afford scented luxuries made by a master perfumer – royal patronage is a distinction of the world’s oldest (read heritage) perfumeries. Fast forward two centuries later. Couture and beauty houses are also making fragrances. Good at first because we have more choices but as more scents flood department stores, the aromas blur.
Even when labels divvy up smells by gender, designer or celebrity, mass appeal whiffs of demographics, not distinction. To distract from the common sillage, glitzy campaigns pushed us to fit in with a tribe. Calvin Klein’s CK One or Be fragrances, for example, became the olfactory code for androgynous youths in the 90s. And if the ads were not convincing, then gift-with-purchase gimmicks would tempt.
Fortunately not everyone endorsed the sentiment of sameness. Perfumers Serge Lutens and Frédéric Malle, were especially pivotal in shifting the focus back on scents, and thus the birth of niche perfumery as we know now.
In 1992, Lutens launched Les Salons du Palais Royal in Paris. It was a place to “define oneself through one’s perfumes in order to stand out from the identity-free crowd which previous times had imposed on us.” Féminité du Bois was the debutante release. Multi-dimensional and revolutionary for its time, it mixed sweet and girlish floral and fruity notes with cedar, a traditionally masculine wood. The result: A scent feminine only in name, but a distinctive fragrance that wears beautifully, regardless of gender. The classic cocktail subsequently became the springboard for a series of Bois scents, each with a different nuance of the woody motif.
Similarly Malle opened his scent boutique, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle in Paris, in 2000. Its novel allure: Exclusive eponymous fragrances created by master perfumers. Up till then, fragrances bore the branding of the fashion or beauty house.
Another differentiation was that these scent artisans had free rein to make their ideal smell. Malle’s only credo to them was that “the superfluous or merely decorative be eliminated”, and each fragrance should uniquely merge with the wearer’s skin rather than be a “pretty scent”.
Formerly, the niche perfumes were defined by limited retail distribution, a criteria set by The Fragrance Foundation (FiFi), the non-profit, educational arm of the international fragrance industry. But it has all changed. Indie fragrance is FiFi’s term for perfumes made by smaller, successful, entrepreneurial brands not backed by a large cosmetic giant; an indie brand is “one that has been on the market for at least two years, and is distributed in one to 25 doors.”
It is a poor definitive because it discounts many young indie brands that sell through e-commerce, and with that, it instantly makes them more accessible than ever. There is also no divide between young indie labels and heritage perfumeries.
Compounding the issue too is how big conglomerates are buying over niche perfumeries. Estee Lauder has acquired into its fold, Frédéric Malle, By Kilian and Le Labo; L’Oréal has Ateliers Cologne; Puig owns L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s; LVMH has majority stake in Maison Francis Kurkdjian; and UK-based private equity Manzanita owns Diptyque and majority share in Byredo.
The evolving fragrance market makes the definition moot, said Chong and he suggested this perspective: “Did it start as a perfume house? Heritage is a limiting factor as some niche brands have longer histories while others like Byredo are younger but no less distinct.” He added that another big tell is the scent narrative. Niche fragrances have more depth and authenticity because they reflect the inspirations of the perfumer, his lifestyle or travels for instance. “The story behind a designer scent tends to originate in a marketing agency, what they feel they can sell you,” he said.
HEART AND SCIENCE
A different accord may be elusive to capture, but at the end of the day, you still need to make an exceptional product. And artistry gives niche perfumeries edge, said Luxasia trainer Stacia Chua.
It goes back to the original tenets of perfumery. It is an art that requires the due process of introspection and time for a narrative to develop. There has to be respect for the ingredients; however perennial, seasonal, exotic or rare, they have to be top quality. There must be an openness to experiment with new materials or novel combinations of smells. Just as how more robust concentrations of oils and extracts can give boldness to a fragrance, a refined distillation of ingredients can give it clarity and transparency. Chuck the notion that some fragrances are made for men, and some for women. Smells know no gender and a scent that is well formulated is gender equal. How they wear on you depends on heat, body temperature and your skin’s natural acidity.
At the end of the day, use your nose to suss out your signature, the one that says “me, not you”. It is that instinctive; there is no ambivalence. That is the wondrous alchemy of scent.
Here are six options if you want to smell different from the rest:
• CODE DECO HAPPY BLU
Made by Singapore’s first niche perfumer, this citrusy sunshine-in-a-bottle is what you would use to re-write a blue Monday – an energising mood-lifter.
• BYREDO KABUKI FRAGRANCE, BLANCHE
It’s hard not to fall in love with this Swedish rebel perfumery – it makes wearing scent exciting again. A retractable brush dispenses micro-fine perfume powder that you dust all over your body or layer over your spray. It comes in three scent variants but we’re partial to the fresh notes of Blanche – think fluffy, clean towels, blue skies, and the luxurious lather of French-milled soaps.
• PENHALIGON’S LUNA EDT
This English heritage perfumer (it was founded in 1870) embodies the difference between old-world and old-fashioned. Its fragrances don’t date, like this fresh, clean and yet sensual citrus floral scent that wears delightfully well in our humidity.
• DIPTYQUE VETYVERIO EDP
The perfume complement to the French brand’s 2010 Haitian Vetiver EDT, the addictive floral and woody fragrance has more depth and a slight smokiness that’s very sexy on skin.
• SERGE LUTENS L’EAU SERGE LUTENS EDP
This almost feels like an antithesis of a perfume. It smells clean and refreshing, like clean mountain air and breeze. It’s quite a departure from the full-bodied fragrances more typical of the iconic French perfumery.
• FRÉDÉRIC MALLE CARNAL FLOWER EDP
Tuberose scents tend to lean towards heavy and heady, but the leafy greens and woods in Malle’s version give this a gentle freshness. Timeless, sexy and intimate, this scent is very reflective of his perfumes. Plus, you keep wanting to smell your skin.