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As Esxence, the niche perfumery fair, prepares to open its doors in Milan from 15 to 18 June 2022, Nez caught up with a number of figures from the world of niche fragrances, in a series of interviews with perfumers, stores and brands. But, putting common misapprehensions aside, what lies behind the term that is as much overused as it is decried?
Founded in 2009 by Maurizio Cavezzali and Silvio Levi, Esxence describes itself as the “international artistic perfumery event” and is celebrating its twelfth anniversary this year. A key meeting point for various niche perfumery actors, the event will be hosting a diverse line-up of 270 brands. How has this very distinctive category emerged on the market to become a core feature of the fragrance industry?
The origins of the term “niche” are a little unclear. While it lacks any negative connotations in English, in French it is often viewed by the sector as far from positive, an insult even, due to another meaning as a dog’s kennel. The word’s meaning was initially architectural rather than canine though, referring to a recess hollowed out of the wall, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that it began to be used to refer to where a pet sleeps. And its Italian roots derive from the word nichio, a seashell. Plenty there for the imagination to play with! However, in business terms it refers to a “market segment where little competition exists, allowing companies to develop new commercial opportunities,” according to the Larousse dictionary; in the Cambridge one, it is described as “an opportunity for a business to offer a product or service that is not offered by other businesses”.
Also known as high, exceptional, alternative or independent perfumery, the niche category emerged in the 1960s in response to the sector’s growing industrialisation. According to historian Elisabeth de Feydeau’s Dictionnaire amoureux du parfum, it essentially aspires to “wake the emotions, flatter the personality and meet a strong need for singularity,” and is spearheaded by a handful of figures who demand greater creative freedom, a vision less influenced by market diktats, and limited distribution. In her book La Grande Histoire du parfum, she also suggests that the term niche can refer to “the habitat of birds who nest in secret, protected places,” similar to the cosy little boutiques that these new fragrance houses favour.
Maïté Turonnet, a specialist journalist who witnessed the sector’s emergence, cites three key pioneers: “With Serge Lutens, Annick Goutal and Jean-François Laporte, perfumery was shining the spotlight on people for the first time, using very powerful storytelling. However, at that point it was about creative directors rather than perfumers,” she stresses. It wasn’t until Frédéric Malle’s 2000 initiative that perfumers took centre stage. But in those days, the niche branch of the industry stood out in olfactory terms for its innovative style: “it wasn’t about rich florals anymore, with their multiple components; ingredients were worked on in radically different ways. And the authors, their distinctive styles, began to be recognised,” explains Maïté Turonnet. As the niche sector took shape, it excited a lot of interest and a number of specialist journalists with olfactory training began to write about the subject: “Perfume writing and niche perfumery arrived almost simultaneously, which played a huge part in the new category’s growth. The cultural influence was significant, serving to cultivate people’s tastes and change how the industry was seen overall. In short, thanks to niche perfumery and the media that promoted it, the public as a whole became aware of olfactory creation,” she concludes.
The large traditional fragrance houses soon took an interest and started to develop their own exclusive ranges, travel and private collections. Some brands were acquired by powerful multinationals, in the manner of Puig’s very recent takeover of Byredo for an amount supposedly close to one billion euros [update June 1st].
A number of trade fairs, particularly Esxence and Pitti Fragranze (Florence), point to niche perfumery’s strong presence in Italy, where it is recognised by some special prizes. So although Larousse claims that “the niche sector is often abandoned by large businesses for reasons of profitability, since it is a micro market with a limited potential customer base,” our industry refuses to embrace this passive approach. As Marc Dubrule, in charge of strategic development of L’Oréal’s Selective Divisions, said during a 2016 press conference, the sector has even “saved the market in the last few years, by bringing enchantment back into perfumery stores, and by educating consumers.”
While it is difficult to find reliable figures on the annual number of launches – there is talk here and there of several hundred creations (perhaps close to a thousand) – this is a market segment that is constantly progressing, as evidenced by the growing number of brands present at the Milan show.
As an independent perfumer, launching a niche brand is not usually about opportunistic marketing – quite the opposite. It is a risky gamble and plenty of brands fail every year. And those who delude themselves about the success of emblematic brands bought by large groups often find themselves brutally confronted with the mysteries of a fragile economic model.
At the heart of this model is the distribution of perfumesThe distributor is the economic agent whose role is to market the perfumes to retailers and to ensure the logistics – storage and transport, which brands are sometimes confronted with for the first time at trade fairs such as Esxence, when they had previously concentrated on the creative part. But once the perfume is in the bottle, the hardest part remains: reaching the shelves of perfume stores and finding customers, which is where the role of points of sale is crucial in spreading a perfume that is still largely unknown to the general public.
We wanted to hear from these different voices and paint a broad-brush portrait of a sector that is a force to be reckoned with.
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