There's no industry where the adjective 'niche' is used so often as in perfumery. But what is the definition of niche? What does it stand for? Does it equal better and more expensive?
In my search for fine fragrances for our new scent store, I came to realize that 'niche' isn't always that niche.
What is Niche?
According to the dictionary, the adjective “niche” denotes or relates to products, services, or interests that appeal to a small, specialized section of the population.
What that basically means to me is that niche means ‘different’, not wanting to please everyone. The definition doesn’t say anything about price or quality, however.
What does it mean for perfumery? It seems like the perfume industry has really embraced this adjective, making it the new buzzword. I don’t know any other industry where the adjective “niche” is used so often. I’ve never heard of niche restaurants, hairdressers, DJ’s or shoe stores for instance.
When I decided to quit my job as customer experience manager for an international company to set up our own perfume store, a whole new world of niche and less niche perfume houses opened up to me.
Of course, there are the mainstream brands we all know, which you’ll find in almost every department store or perfume chain store. Most of those luxury (designer) brands launch perfumes, just as they do bags and accessories, to give people the chance to buy into their brand, and basically, to increase their revenue. Big marketing budgets are spent to determine the formulas that will appeal to a broader public, and even more is spent on luxurious campaigns with famous models or actors, to add extra appeal to their fragrances. Once they have a winner, they create endless variations of the perfume in order to please even more people.
Although some great and iconic perfumes, like Fahrenheit by Dior, Bel Ami by Hermes, or Femme by Rochas, would probably never have seen the light without these luxury concerns, it’s fair to say you can’t exactly call them ‘niche’.
Still, the rise of niche didn’t go unnoticed to the designer brands. They’ve tried to catch up with this trend and introduced more exclusive lines like Armani Privé and Dior Collection Privée, trying to get their share of the niche market.
What about perfume brands like Guerlain, Acqua di Parma or even Tom Ford?
For these brands, perfume isn’t just a lucrative side product, but are they niche? All belong to international luxury concerns such as LMVH or Estée Lauder. Today, you’ll find them in every medium or large city worldwide, offering 70 or more different fragrances, something for every taste. More exclusive, more expensive, but niche?
avant garde brands
It becomes even more difficult with avantgarde brands like Comme des Garcons or Maison Martin Margiela. It’s true their perfumes aren’t exactly crowd pleasers, but again, both belong to international concerns and are, although more selective, widely accessible across the globe.
My search went on, considering brands like Frederic Malle, Le Labo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Byredo. Luxurious and exclusive indeed, but again: each has released over 40 different fragrances, and yes, they’re all part of international concerns.
my definition of niche
Defining niche turned out to become quite confuse. It seemed like there wasn’t really a clear line on what you could call niche and what not.
So, I came up with my own definition:
Handcrafted perfumes, made by smaller, independent perfume houses, who produce perfumes on a smaller scale, have a limited collection of perfumes, and have a clear and distinct story or inspiration that sets them apart. Brands that are passionate about making great perfumes, but are less concerned about ‘pleasing everyone’, and more about pleasing ‘individuals’.
This made my search easier, but even using this definition, I discovered hundreds of brands that met all those criteria. I had to further refine my definition: it had to be brands with a limited list of stockists. Living in Brussels, I translated this into “no or at the most one point of sales in Brussels, or even Belgium”. It turned out that there are lots of beautiful brands out there that still aren’t on the Belgian or Brussels market.
I believe there are two main reasons for this:
First of all, lots of people are very loyal to their ‘signature’ perfume, making it harder for unknown brands to find their way to people. Which is kind of strange, because few people wear the same shirt every day, or the same jewels, bag or pair of shoes. So why do people stick to one perfume, day in, day out, year in year out, to go to work, to go out, to go for dinner, to go on holiday…?
Maybe the second reason gives an answer: choosing a perfume you like is in fact quite difficult. It’s emotional and very personal. A perfume is something you really have to try on your skin. You can’t just judge a perfume by the picture or the bottle. It takes time, because perfumes release their different notes on different moments, evolving over time. We’re genetically conditioned to look for the easiest way, so we tend to trust on the bigger, known brands, the design of the bottle, the attractive campaign, instead of taking the time to explore the unknown.
Does niche equal better and more expensive?
As said in the beginning, the definition of niche doesn’t say anything about quality or price. Are niche perfumes better and more expensive?
A perfume is basically alcohol with juice. It’s the juice (the essential perfume oils) that make the perfume. Some ingredients, like pure jasmine, are extremely expensive, but on average, the actual liquid in the bottle represents only a very small percentage of the final retail cost. The research, bottle, packaging, production, shipping, marketing and testers account for the largest part of the retail cost. Smaller brands often save on packaging and marketing but use noble products and because they produce smaller quantities, have higher purchase and production costs. Niche brands are more expensive, because it’s not mass produced, but I did observe huge price differences between the various brands which I still can’t completely explain.
Because of the use of noble, often natural ingredients, their perfumes are often more complex. But more importantly, they are created and handcrafted with passion, dedication and love. I don’t know if this accounts for ‘better’, but ‘different’, for sure.
We did open our perfume store, where we only propose brands that fit all the criteria of real niche. But we've realized the term ‘niche’ is confusing, not meaning anything anymore. Maybe 'independent', 'handcrafted', 'small' or ‘different’ are better words to describe them. Raising immediately a new question. What is different? Open to any suggestions…