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A brief history of (niche) perfume

A brief history of (niche) perfume

Niche perfumes emerged in the eighties. How did that came about? What existed before? And how will it evolve? A short overview.

The 1980s: the start of niche

The term 'niche perfume' originated somewhere in the 1980s. It was a reaction by smaller, independent perfume houses to large, commercial brands. Perfume was big business, with expensive bottles and advertising campaigns featuring film stars and supermodels. The packaging and marketing had become more important than the perfume itself. Each fragrance was thoroughly tested by consumer panels before being launched. The result: perfumes that 'everyone' liked, and ultimately no one touched.


"People don't really smell perfumes anymore, they smell marketing." - Roja Dove

Perfumers and creative minds, often from one of the big brands, wanted to return to the essence of perfume: artisanal, original creations made with noble ingredients. They wanted to put freedom and creativity back first and no longer be dictated by market studies and profit margins. Their perfumes were made in small quantities and were no longer intended to please as many people as possible. The pioneers of the time were brands such as L'Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Frédéric Malle and Serge Lutens.


The past, when every perfume was niche

Didn't niche perfumes exist before then? Although the term is relatively recent, you could call all perfumes created up until the industrial revolution niche. They were extremely expensive, limited in supply and created by 'perfumers'. This began with the Egyptians, where expensive resins such as frankincense and myrrh were burned (hence the name 'perfume' or 'per fumus: to burn') during spiritual rituals, statues of gods were rubbed with perfume oil, and only the pharaoh had the privilege of wearing perfume himself. Perfume was the connection between the earth and the realm of the gods. These customs were adopted by the Greeks (who created the first liquid perfume), and later by the Romans, who were fond of perfume. At least, those who could afford it. Spreading perfume in the home and wearing perfume was a sign of absolute luxury. Ingredients were transported to ancient Rome from all over the world. They were more expensive than gold.


When the Roman Empire fell, the interest in perfume disappeared from Europe for a long time. The Church banned it for centuries, considering it too decadent. Only in the Middle Ages did monks start making perfumes again. Not to make you smell good, but for their healing powers. It must have smelled pretty bad at the time. The streets in the cities were open sewers. When the plague killed millions, the (often not very clean) water became dangerous. The royal houses and rich nobility did not wash with water but bathed in perfume and used perfume everywhere in the house to drive away the bad smells. The court of the French King XV was even nicknamed 'the perfumed court'. The perfumes of that time were so exclusive (often custom-made for the person ordering them) that you can easily give them the term 'niche' as well.


The link between perfume and fashion originated in the 13th century in Grasse, then the centre of the glove industry. To dispel the pregnant smell of the leather, the gloves were permeated with perfume. This was such a success that Grasse eventually became the world centre of perfumery. Couture houses did not yet exist at that time. It would take a few more centuries before perfume and fashion would be inextricably linked.


The Industrial Revolution, and the link with fashion

In the 19th century, everything changed. The industrial revolution made crafts disappear and ensured that products could be produced much faster, in larger quantities and cheaper. It was the rise of the first 'department stores', such as Selfridges in London and Le Bon Marché in Paris. Luxurious palaces full of products where you could suddenly shop for pleasure and not just 'because you had to'. Prosperity grew, and the demand for more products increased. The advent of modern chemistry also led to new ways of making perfume on a larger scale. 


These changes also led to the creation of couture houses. Clothes were no longer made by the local seamstress, but designers launched real collections made in ateliers. Besides couture, they also launched "prêt-à-porter". Ready-to-wear clothing that you could buy off the rack in those department stores. In the 1920s, perfumes were added, such as My Sin by Lanvin or N°5 by Chanel. It allowed people to complete their wardrobe with a fragrance and allowed more people to buy something from these luxury brands. Since then, the link between perfume and fashion has been undeniable. But it remained a luxury product, reserved for the wealthy class. In those days, every perfume that was launched (and there were not that many) was also innovative. Think of Chanel N°5 and its revolutionary use of aldehyde. Although they were not introduced by perfume houses but by couture houses, you could call them 'niche' in a way.


The Second World War put everything on hold. But then people got back into the habit of luxury. The couture houses flourished and brought out new perfumes, such as Miss Dior by Christian Dior and L'Interdit by Givenchy, perfumes that are still successful today (in a modified formula). It is mainly the American companies that would make perfumes truly accessible, such as the classic Youth Dew by Estée Lauder. By offering the fragrance not only as a perfume, but also as a derivative such as bath oil, perfume suddenly turned from a luxury product into a consumer product, accessible to everyone.


For many of these houses, perfume became a more important source of income than couture. Whereas perfume had until then been a luxury product, and one could call it 'niche', it was now accessible to everyone. More and more perfumes were launched, and creativity gradually faded into the background. They were also increasingly easy to obtain, thanks to the emergence of perfumeries such as Paris XL or Sephora, which were established in every city. The luxurious and artistic aspect of perfume was slowly lost. Until the 1980s, when a countermovement started, and small perfume houses started to market original fragrances of high quality and in small quantities. These niche brands became more and more successful, and more and more new brands saw the light of day. Today, they are hard to count.


The evolution of niche perfumery

This success did not escape the commercial brands. Large groups like Estée Lauder and LVMH bought up the most successful ones (such as Frédéric Malle, Jo Malone, Le Labo, Maison Francis Kurkdijan). Few of the first niche houses are still independent today. The big brands also released more exclusive collections, such as La Collection Privée Dior or Armani Privé. More expensive perfumes that you can often only buy in their own shops. The clear line between mainstream and niche is therefore becoming increasingly blurred. Not every new niche brand that is established is as original or based on the basic principles of creativity and noble ingredients. We ourselves consciously chose to offer only small-scale, independent brands and every week we test new perfumes and new brands, looking for the next pearls.


How will the world of (niche) perfumery evolve in the future? Takeovers and consolidations are bound to follow. Not every brand will survive. The number of brands and new launches seems difficult to keep up. There is a clear trend: more and more brands are consciously opting for a more sustainable approach. They use recyclable packaging, alcohol of natural origin (like L'Orchestre Parfum and Manos Gerakinis) or even avoid alcohol (like Maison Sybarite) and source their raw materials from producers who produce in a responsible and more ecological way. Because behind the pleasure and magic of perfume, often a less ecological or ethical world is hidden. More transparency, honesty and ethics are welcome.



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