Uncommon Scents

This article first appeared in The Toronto Star, March 11, 2011

Walk through the fragrance aisles of your favourite drug or department store, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into the pages of a tabloid. Lady Gaga is trying to push Britney Spears off the shelf. Justin Bieber and Usher are arm-wrestling for shoppers’ attention. Sarah Jessica Parker is trying to grab market share from Liz Taylor. And Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Hilary Duff, Beyoncé, Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion and dozens of others are hoping their star power will prompt shoppers to shell out cash in return for a whiff of their celebrity cachet.

It’s a tougher sell than ever, though, with the celebrity fragrance market “showing softness” says Karen Grant, vice president for beauty at the NPD Group, a global market research firm. “Celebrity scents tend to appeal to younger, more fickle and more aspirational buyers,” she says and market share for celebu-scents has been declining since its peak in 2002-2003.

Where are the buyers going? Many are shifting their attention to what the industry calls the “prestige market,” says Grant. While the average price for a bottle of perfume sits at around $50, the prestige market price point sits at over $75. Market share for prestige fragrances almost doubled—from 19% to 35% of the US market—between 2007 and 2010, according to NPD research.

And while pop culture celebrities are front and centre in mainstream fragrances, a different kind of celebrity is emerging in the high-end niche fragrance market. In specialty perfume shops—like Toronto’s Noor, Burlington’s Saltridges and Vancouver’s The Perfume Shoppe—and in the exclusive aisles of Holt Renfrew, Andrews and Montreal’s Ogilvy, perfume aficionadas (and –anados) search for other names: Bertrand Duchaufour, Olivia Giacobetti, Andy Tauer, Jean-Claude Ellena, Francis Kurkdjian, Dominique Ropion, Maurice Roucel.

They’re hunting for the latest scent from their favourite “noses,” the perfumers who create the “juice”—insider’s slang for perfume—they crave. What’s the attraction? “What you are getting when you wear their compositions is a piece of wearable art rather than a consumer product,” says Denyse Beaulieu, a Canadian based in Paris who writes about the fragrance industry on her blog, graindemusc.blogspot.com, and in her soon-to-be-published book on the subject from Harper Collins. “These scent are not engineered to potentially please tens of thousands of consumers.”

“We get customers who come in and say ‘I smelled three women on the subway this morning wearing Britney Spears and I don’t want to smell like that’,” says Nahla Saad, co-owner  of Noor fragrance boutique in Yorkville. “They don’t want to smell like everybody else.”

Where global mass market fragrances tend to conform to distinct gender trends—fruity florals and fresh, clean scents for women, citrus-based colognes and clean sport fragrances for men—niche perfumes bend both gender and scent rules. “Smokey, leathery, animalic notes are common, as are very strong white floral notes like tuberose,” says Beaulieu. “They’re more off-beat and complex, and [as a niche perfume customer] you have to prove your mettle as a perfume lover by embracing things that you might have been raised to think of as stinky.” That’s especially true for North Americans, where clean, fresh scents dominate. Europeans have long favoured muskier, more complex scents, while Middle Eastern consumers have a long tradition of robust, almost sour scents build around oud, an aromatic resin found in agar wood.

The noses crafting these niche fragrances typically work as free agents, creating perfumes on contract for a variety of clients. (Exceptions are Andy Tauer, who creates exclusively for his eponymous line, and Jean-Claude Ellena who became house nose for Hermes after a career as an independent.) What separates these celebrity noses from their less well-known colleagues is that along the way, they’ve created their own “very specific signatures” and demonstrated a mastery of composition, says Beaulieu, that fragrance companies—and perfume shoppers—then seek out.

“They’re artisans,” says Gwen Dunant, co-owner of perfumeniche.com, a Toronto-based e-retailer that sells sample sizes—called decants—of niche fragrances. “And artisanal products are very very hot right now.”

They’re also not cheap: Bertrand Duchaufour’s latest creation is a limited edition scent for designer Marc Atlan. Called Petite Mort, the fragrance will sell for $1000US for 10 ml when launched in April. That price point makes other Duchaufour scents seem comparatively affordable, with scents for niche lines L’Artisan Parfumeur, Comme des Garcons and Eau d’Italie in the $100-$150 range.

The irony is that some of the celebrity noses are also behind those mass-market celeb perfumes: Dominique Ropion created Jennifer Lopez Live and Maurice Roucel has formulated perfumes for Celine Dion and Gwen Stefani. “It’s a bit like Hollywood,” says Dunant. “Robert DeNiro makes great films. He also made Little Fockers.” And like Hollywood, sometimes it’s about art, she says, and sometimes it’s about the paycheque.

But not every mass market celeb-uscent stinks as much as, well, Little Fockers. “Some of the celebrity fragrances made by well-known noses, the juice itself is quite nice,” says Noor’s Saad.

Still, the lure for perfumers is that because niche brands are creating smaller batches of fragrance, they’re able to take more risks and typically invest in higher quality ingredients. “You’re paying for what’s inside the bottle, not for some model or star doing the advertising,” says Beauleau. They also allow the perfumer more room to create a scent driven by artistic intention rather than being hemmed in by a marketing brief. “They aren’t market tested into oblivion,” says Beaulieau.

That doesn’t mean there’s no direction at all, though. In some of the niche brands, as in some movies, the director is at least as much a celebrity as the nose. The Serge Lutens, Frédéric Malle and James Heeley lines all bear the name of the artistic director shaping the line, with Malle (nephew of filmmaker Louis Malle) sharing billing on his bottles with the noses who create his scents and including their photographs in his retail locations.

It also doesn’t mean that the occasional pop culture celeb won’t make a guest appearance—though they do tend to be indie film types rather than blockbuster stars. French niche house Etat Libre D’Orange tapped Tilda Swinton for its Like This scent, and CB I Hate Perfume has launched two scents—Cumming and 2nd Cumming—in collaboration with actor Alan Cumming. And both houses swear their celebs are involved in creating the scent rather than just lending their names.

Find your niche

Interested in following a nose? These sources can help:

* http://graindemusc.blogspot.com: Denyse Beaulieu’s fragrance blog. Beaulieu also leads perfume workshops at the London College of Fashion; details available on her blog.

* www.nstperfume.com: An online perfume news site and community. Look under “Noses” to see who has created which scents, or search under “Perfumes” for specific perfume reviews

* www.perfumeniche.com : Toronto-based e-retailer of niche decants—0.7 ml samples of a range of niche perfumes, priced at $3-$7 per sample

* Andrews Department Store, 55 Avenue Road and 2901 Bayview Avenue: Carries Serge Lutens, Bond no. 9, Amouage and other niche lines

* Holt Renfrew, 50 Bloor Street West and other locations: Carries Frédéric Malle, Bond no. 9, By Kilian, Creed and other niche lines

* Noor boutique, 176 Cumberland Street, Toronto, 416-928-0700: Carries L’Artisan, Comme des Garcons, Heeley, Eau d’Italie and other niche lines

* The Perfume Shoppe, Vancouver, theperfumeshoppe.com: Carries Tauer Perfumes, Serge Lutens, Bois 1920 and other niche lines

* Saltridges, 389 Brant Street, Burlington, 905-333-5959: Carries Ineke, Juliette Has a Gun and other niche lines