On paper, the divide is clear. Mainstream fragrances are those produced and marketed to mass audiences by large corporations who devise their latest releases according to consumer trends and panels. Niche ones are created by independent houses with smaller circulation figures, working to their own creative briefs and distributed at selected retailers. The recent explosion in demand for the latter has muddled these divides, the acquisition of indie brands by luxury conglomerates notwithstanding.
As fragrance commentator Lizzie Ostrom notes in Perfume: A Century of Scents, niche fragrance first came to the fore in the 1970s, but flourished with the rise of the internet. Nowadays, sites like Basenotes or Fragrantica offer a vast universe of discussion forums, fragrance reviews and extensive scent directories. Thanks to these online portals into the heart of independent perfumery, the scent
exploration options are infinite.
Fashion theorist Carol Tulloch first discussed style narratives, or an expression of one’s history and identity through fashion. Borrowing from this concept, fragrance functions as an olfactorial fashioning of identity. Independent brands have an undeniable advantage over their mass market counterparts for those who see individuality as a core element of this display of self. “The creators of niche fragrances offer different narratives for thinking about our sense of smell, a form of intellectual enquiry,” Ostrom writes. “We live, today, in a perfume fairground with a ride for every persuasion, whether play-it-safe or daredevil.
In creative industries, an increase in popularity or brand expansion is often equated with selling out or losing sight of one’s original vision. On the other hand, one could argue that a superbly crafted product is bound to gain a large audience, in large part due to the aforementioned digital channels that offer amplified promotional opportunities. While a tendency of disdain towards mass popularity may exist, the real defining characteristic of the niche industry is its unbound creativity, which should be protected at all costs.
Back in 2008, Marina Geigert noted: “The history of fragrance in the 20th century follows the same model as fashion: from exclusivity, high price and made-to-measure quality to the focus on middle market, mass production and democratisation.” If one looks at the infiltration of athleisure at heritage fashion houses, and similarly, perfume underdogs sitting alongside established names in fragrance retail, one thing becomes clear: the game rules have changed. The defining characteristic of niche is an unbound creativity, which should be protected at all costs.
In his speech at the World Perfumery Congress, entitled Niche 2.0: The Future of Niche Perfumery and its Search for Meaning, journalist Eddie Bulliqi stated: “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…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.”
A Global Fragrance Market report states that artisanal scents are the fastest-growing segment of the fragrance industry. After several highprofile niche brand acquisitions, Estée Lauder saw a 24% annual increase in sales. In the digital age, no industry can stay inside its own isolated bubble forever, and the clear demarcations have been replaced with increasing fragmentation. This doesn’t mean that independent perfumery is doomed, quite the contrary. Expressed as a musical metaphor, the niche fragrance industry’s tune hasn’t changed, it is simply playing to a larger audience. Now more than ever,
it’s an opportunity to amp up the volume.