When French perfume house Editions de Parfums hit the market in 2000, it was a game-changer. Here you had no celebrity endorsements, no marketing gimmicks and no-frills packaging. Presented in a minimalist bottle with a simple black label strapped across the centre, the scent is left to speak for itself.
While Editions is still considered niche, it became so sought after that it eventually caught Estée Lauder’s attention. The beauty powerhouse acquired Editions about two years ago, and other niche labels have been snapped up just as fast by major corporations. Most recently, niche perfumer Maison Francis Kurkdjian was bought by luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. Beyond the mundane business of mergers and acquisitions, one thing is clear: Niche is in, and bigname brands are out.
French perfume expert Axelle Frachon believes this is smart business, but the ample options also make it an exciting time to be in the market for a new fragrance.
The shift to niche was predicted long ago by Editions de Parfums founder Frédéric Malle, who recognised that perfume makers were tired of churning out commercialised scents that depended on celebrity endorsements to sell. Consumers were bored, too.
“The fragrance industry almost died because of all the celebrity fragrances,” Malle says, explaining that Europeans were so underwhelmed by the available choices that many stopped wearing perfume altogether. What modern, fragrance-savvy men and women really want is quality – and it’s a factor they’re unwilling to compromise on. “Slowly but surely, they are coming back to us because … there are some very good collections,” Malle says.
From the get-go, Malle took a different approach to perfume-making. He eschewed fancy bottles and brand ambassadors, instead opting to celebrate the hitherto unknown perfume makers who bring his ideas to life. Each fragrance bears the name of the individual perfumer who created it.
“They think only of images and not of the perfume,” Malle says of mainstream perfumers. The cheaper the perfume, the fancier the bottle … We have different quality standards. It’s a different level – the ultimate luxury in perfume.”
Aside from Editions, there’s no shortage of self-proclaimed niche perfumes on the market right now, but beware of brands that use it solely as a buzz word. For those wondering how to separate the professionals from the amateurs, Frachon has a few recommendations. Paul Emilien (UK) and Histoires de Parfums (France) both make high-quality fragrances, Frachon says. If a quintessentially French eau de parfum is what you seek, even more options await. “The perfumes of Nicolaï are elegant, chic and easy to wear,” says Frachon. “I also enjoy the richness of Parfum d’Empire, the beautiful raw quality of Les Indémodables and the humour and edginess of État Libre d’Orange.”
For brands that are more readily accessible in Hong Kong, pop into IFC Mall to sample scents by French label Diptyque or British perfumer Penhaligon’s. Parfumerie Trésor in Sheung Wan (G/F, 18 Upper Station Street) is the best shop in the city for niche fragrances, Frachon says.
Although the perfume industry is closely associated with France, other brands around the world have proven to be formidable competitors. Byredo, founded in Sweden in 2006, has taken the niche market by storm with its seductive scents and innovative application methods.
In addition to a traditional spray bottle, Byredo also makes scents in powder form that can be applied with a brush. The fragrances are certainly unique, too. The Bibliothèque (library) scent, available in perfume and candle form, captures the essence of old books through a blend of peach, plum, peony, violet, leather, patchouli and vanilla.
Gypsy Water, “a glamorisation of the Romany lifestyle”, is a bohemian blend of bergamot, juniper berries, lemon, pepper, pine needle, amber, vanilla and more.
Another alternative perfumer is Jo Malone, which is particularly popular in Hong Kong. One of the brand’s newest colognes, English Oak, comes in two varieties: redcurrant and hazelnut. Although most of Jo Malone’s colognes tend to be perceived as masculine, they aren’t specifically marketed to men – and indeed, many women enjoy wearing the brand’s floral fragrances.
Unisex scents have been picking up steam in the industry and are now considered “quite trendy”, according to Frachon. “I think this trend is following a social evolution towards more equality. People don’t want to be defined according to their sex anymore,” she says. “Furthermore, fragrant raw materials don’t have sex. It’s our culture that considers woody notes more masculine than floral ones. In the Middle East it’s very common for men to wear rose perfumes, for example.”
Like Editions de Parfums, Jo Malone was acquired by Estée Lauder, which also owns Le Labo. In a similar vein, Byredo and Diptyque are owned by the same investment firm, and L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s are both Puig brands.
Being bought by a larger company allows niche brands to greatly expand their distribution network, all while retaining their own ethos – for now at least. Established perfume houses are capitalising on the niche trend in other ways, too.
“Even the big traditional brands are launching their ‘niche’ style ranges,” Frachon says. “Think about the Hermessences from Hermès, or Les Exclusifs de Chanel, and what about the new fragrances from Louis Vuitton? Are they niche or not?” Frachon leaves it up to consumers to decide, but notes that shoppers “can find a lot of variety on the perfumery market” right now.
While the major maisons like Chanel and Dior are still king in Hong Kong, more and more people are beginning to appreciate the nuances and complexity of fragrances, contributing to the growing demand for more personalised perfumes. This has fuelled the popularity of brands that offer bespoke perfume-making services which tailor a scent to a customer’s preferences and personality.
Frachon’s French Elixir in Hong Kong works with a few independent perfumers to create customised fragrances. Perfumers get to know clients’ preferences by having them smell raw materials, and they also try to get a feel for the client’s personality and needs. After a perfume is created, clients receive a sample and have the chance to make adjustments as they see fit.
“Perfume is about creating magic – making people dream with just a spray,” Frachon says. “It’s about bringing some luxury into your daily life.”
The perfume industry’s embrace of sugar, spice and everything niche has made shopping for fragrances a more playful experience, with surprises at every turn. Are you a Mister Marvelous (Byredo) or the perfect Portrait of a Lady (Editions de Parfums)? If you’re unsure, let your nose lead the way.
Text: Emily Petsko