What is What on the Perfume Counter: Designer vs. Niche

Lab-Glass

Since time immemorial fragrance experts have been dividing perfume into two general categories: designer and niche.  Generally speaking, designer fragrances are sold branded and sold by fashion designer brands and the niche ones are created and sold by companies that focus exclusively on perfume.  It is a myth that niche perfumes are made by perfumers-artistes and that the designer stuff is created by somehow lower caste of fragrance makers.  In fact, the biggest master perfumers create scents for both – niche and designer companies.  Bertrand Duchaufour, for example, has created masterpieces for  Dior (Fahrenheit Fresh) and L’Artisan Parfumeur (Timbuktu, Dzongkha, just to name a few).

In the past one can say there was a somewhat clear division between designer and niche fragrances.  This distinction, however, has been getting blurrier and blurrier as designer brands start releasing exclusive or limited edition lines and niche companies start looking more like mainstream brands.  To put some order to what is currently on the perfume counter, I’ve tried to classify the different types designer and niche juices on the market.  This classification may not be accurate, however, it presents a structure of the different types of players in the perfume market.

If we were to put all types of fragrance brands on a continuum, mainstream designer brands and purist niche houses will be on the far opposite ends.  Everything else will pretty much fall somewhere in between.

Drugstore Fragrances

You can’t get more mainstream than that.  The drugstore designer fragrances are borderline hygiene/cosmetic products.  We all know them and have used them at some point.  I call them drugstore fragrances because this is where you find them.  The classics in the category are Old Spice, Aqua Velva, Brut, etc.

acqua velva

Drugstore fragrances are usually an extension of an already existing cosmetic product: a lotion, aftershave, shaving cream, etc.  I haven’t come across anyone who buys a drugstore fragrance only because it smells good.  In fact, I am yet to meet a person who buys Aqua Velva period.

Drugstores are also known as the graveyards for designer fragrances.  You know a perfume is on its last legs when it appears in the clearance section of your local pharmacy next to the expired Bed Head hair spray.  Some of the regular nearly dead in this section are Jovan Musk, Dirty English and Bob Mackie.

JovanMuskEven though the drugstore is where you can find the cheapest of the cheap, there is another place where not self-respecting human being should ever look – the dollar stores.  Recently I was looking for paper plates and passed by the cosmetics aisle.  There I found gems like Blue Water – Our Version of Davidoff’s Cool Water and Clean Musk – Interpretation of Elizabeth Arden.  The fact that these sell at a dollar store and that their price is under $5 should tell you plenty about their quality. If you were ever to get a rash from a perfume, it would be from these ones, not Chanel No. 5 with its oakmoss (a wink at the European Commission’s Scientific Committee of Consumer Protection).

Mainstream Designer Fragrances

designer-perfumes-colognesThese are the scents you find in almost any department store – Armani Attitude, Gucci Guilty, Ralph (Ralph Lauren), D&G The One, etc. As it is evident by their names, they are released by large fashion brands in large quantities and very broad distribution.  For the fashion houses, fragrances are intended to serve several purposes:

  1. they serve as a gateway drug to the brand – if you like the perfume, maybe you will try the dress or shoes or whatever other high price item they make.  
  2. Designer fragrances capture the low end and middle level market. You may not be able to afford $5,000 Zegna suit but you can definitely spend $50 on Z by Zegna and buy into the “dream”.
  3. They are cash cows.  Armani was quoted saying that his fragrances bring in 75% of the revenue of the company.  Fragrances are cheap to produce, so the gross margins per bottle are huge.

Armani-AttitudeAs the cost of the perfume is carefully watched, the mainstream designer fragrances tend to use mostly synthetic ingredients. One cannot safely say that none of them use any naturals, but it is a fair assumption that the large majority don’t.

The mainstream designer fragrances have a huge distribution network usually through the perfume company commissioned make and distribute the fragrance.  Beaute Prestige, Puig, Estee Lauder and Coty are some of the largest distributors of designer fragrances.

The mainstream designer fragrances are the ones with the double digit flanker releases. Staying relevant and keeping prominent shelf space is key in the overly saturated fragrance market.

Designer Limited Editions/Exclusives Lines/Private Labels

The curse of the mainstream designer fragrances is that their huge popularity destroys their exclusivity.  It is not exclusive to wear a Chanel perfume or an Issey Miyaki.  Therefore, a particular segment of the market would not buy these fragrances and would go to smaller brands with a perceived exclusive status.  Likely in response to this trend, many designer brands started releasing private or exclusive lines.  They are usually made with higher quality ingredients and tend to be more original and creative.  Their distribution is limited to high-end retailers or only to select boutiques of the brand (Cartier‘s L’Heures de Parfum, Chanel’s Les Exclusifs, HermesHermessence, etc.).

The exclusive line fragrances are often no different than many niche perfumes – they have comparative quality of the ingredients and many are as creative as any niche scent.  They come at higher prices, often double or triple the price of the mainstream designer fragrances.  Tom Ford‘s Private Blend, for example, start at $200 for a 50ml bottle.

Popular Niche Lines

By definition niche perfumes houses focus exclusively on making fragrances.  Their existence precedes many of the designer houses popular today.

The most popular niche line I can think of is Guerlain.  They have been around since 1828 and for the most part have produced only perfume. In the recent years (likely after their acquisition by LVMH) Guerlain added a cosmetic and skin care lines.  The brand still remains mostly known for its fragrances despite its diversification.

LArtisan-ParfumeurNowadays, many of the popular niche lines act and behave very much like designer perfumes.  Evidently, the management at Guerlain is acutely aware of this mass-marketisation of its brand that it had to start releasing exclusive fragrance available only in its boutiques. Rumour has it that L’Artisan Parfumeur is going down to a similar path by signing a distribution deal with Sephora.  The company is said to have some exclusive fragrances that will be available only in their boutiques.

Purist Niche Lines

The purist niche lines stay the closest to the idea of perfume as an artistic expression.  They focus exclusively on creating fragrances and take a much more artistic approach to the process.  The goal is to create a unique fragrance that expresses a certain idea, emotion or a place.  Commercial success comes second, which, however, doesn’t mean that they are not profitable businesses.  James Heeley summed it best by saying that he makes fragrances that he likes – if other people like them too, that’s great, if they don’t…oh well, they can find something else.

Niche fragrances

Some of the more well known purist niche houses include Patricia de Nicolai, Heeley, The Different Company, Parfumerie Generale, Creed, A Lab on Fire, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Tauer Perfumes, Le Labo,  Editions des Parfums Frederic Malle, etc.  Their distribution is limited to high-end department store, specialized fragrance niche perfume stores, the niche company’s own boutiques and specialized websites.

clive-christian-guinnessLimited production and high quality of ingredients contribute to generally higher prices.  It is safe to say that niche perfumes range in price from $150 to several thousand (e.g. Clive Christian‘s concoctions).  The majority lines, however, fall in the price range $150-$300.

Some niche companies (e.g. Creed) often make claims that they use almost exclusively natural ingredients.  One can never be sure if this is true, however, chances that almost always there are more synthetics in a fragrance than the marketing materials dare say.

Indie Fragrances

copper-skies-by-kerosene-new-bottle

I’ve come across some indie fragrance houses, which can be generally categorized as indie lines.  They are usually fragrance enthusiasts (with or without professional training) who make perfumes either as a hobby or as a supplementary business.  Kerosene and Aftelier Perfumes are two lines that come to mind.  The line was started by John Pegg, a youtube fragrance reviewer, in 2011. He has 11 fragrances with very limited distribution and I believe also very low production.  With solid financial support and business savvy leadership, an indie fragrance house can easily become a more established purist niche line.  Many times the difference between a niche house and an indie house is nothing more than money and full time dedication to the art of perfumery.

I hope this informal classification gives you a good idea of the main types of fragrance houses on the market.  The market and industry are fluid and some designer and niche fragrances switch their places in the market.  Good fragrances abound in each category and it hardly makes any difference how a fragrance is classified as long as it smells good.

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