First, what is niche? One way to think of the current situation is that “mainstream” scents have been “product tested” to appeal to a certain demographic, often young adults, with the idea to maximize sales, obviously. Niche scents are supposed to do the opposite, that is, to appeal to a smaller demographic that is seeking novelty (relative to the mainstream fashion of the time), for whatever reason. It used to be that a major difference involved complex blending (designer) versus simpler composition that focus on a note or accord (niche), with “lesser” brands and “drug store” scents mostly being cheap copies of designer scents. Now things are a lot less clear, with so many designer scents being “chemical mess” irritants and quite a bit of niche being rather uninspiring (too many ham-fisted compositions, for instance), at least to me. However, an obvious question is, should we blame anyone? Isn’t it possible that these developments are largely due to the human sense of smell.
For example, if a niche company created a scent that featured strong notes of ketchup and vanilla ice cream, would you want to wear it? Would it make you feel like vomiting? On the other hand, many people enjoy “tobacco scents,” and these come in quite a bit varieties (fresh, leafy, cherry pipe tobacco, wet/earthy, etc.). If you are a person who even knows about niche (and tobacco scents) you may already have a few. At that point you may want to sample some tobacco scents that some anonymous internet people claim is the “Holy Grail tobacco scent.” However, there may come a time when you say to yourself, “that’s it, I’m not interested in any more tobacco scents!” And it may be that for many people this has occurred within the last few years, due to how the internet has led to a huge number of people wanting to know an awful lot about these kinds of olfactory concoctions (at least relative to the per-internet and early internet days), so that we are now approaching or at a point where these companies (niche or mainstream) think there is much more demand than there actually is, or soon will be, and so they ramp up production. Read about the Great Depression and see how that combination turned out!
One interesting thing I’ve noticed in my swapping adventures, which began in early 2008, is that niche is often under-valued by those willing to “blind swap,” while vintage tends to be over-valued. And with vintage, you can often get an excellent deal on ebay if you have patience, which is rarely the case with a niche scent you happen to be seeking (sometimes the scent doesn’t appear on ebay at all, even after a few years!). However, if the niche scent received quite a bit of “hype,” it should be a lot easier to re-swap or even sell at a fairly high price (I’ve found this to be true for most Creeds I’ve owned, for example). This has led me to be very careful about swapping for lesser-known niche scents, which may be difficult to re-swap or sell at any kind of reasonable price. My sense is that this phenomenon is related to the development of a fan base. With designer, that often occurs because there is so much more visibility (ads, department store counter testers, word of mouth from friends, etc.), so that niche requires something more than a few good reviews on Fragrantica or Basenotes in order to make it intriguing enough to want to buy it or even swap for it.
Now, on to the title’s question! At least some of the recent interest in questioning niche stems from Michael Edwards’ Esxence lecture, which you can find here:
Edwards is certainly not without his critics, for example:
“His suggestions that perfume be mated to products, that flankers are good, and that Giorgio was the first true niche phenomenon gave me pause in considering Edwards a credible authority on the subject…
…when it comes to following advice, if you’re in the business of starting a niche perfumery, I suggest you ignore the wisdom of Mr. Edwards. His suggestions are in no way advantageous to heed.”
And in an indirect way, there was this criticism from a long-time and well-respected member of Basenotes.net had this to say about Esxence 2016:
“My perfumedealing friend recently described to me vividly how it was nearly impossible to find any interesting fragrances at the last Exsense Milano. Instead one was tortured by clouds of ambroxan and cashmeran dominating a market geared at throwing trash in expensive looking bottles at rich Arabs an oligarchs who buy Amouage etc. in hundresd of bottles per shopping spree.
I picked up bottles of PUIG-owned L’Artisan today at the TJMaxx leftovers bin for € 18 – which is more than their downformulated discounter-drugstore content is worth, chemical waste that sadly and insultingly still bears the signagure of Giacobetti and Duchaufour although its the work of accountants. Mechant Loup and Passage d’Enfer, to hellrides indeed in this perverted from. $2 shamnpoo smells classier.
Niche is now a marketing ploy by big corporations, aesthetic hope lies only with a scatttering of independent houses and one-person artisan joints.”
I consider this a criticism of Edwards because he has the opposite belief, and in the lecture cited above he talks about how great it would be if Tom Ford “reworked” scents like Old Spice, for example. But doesn’t Old Spice still exist? And aren’t there already a whole bunch of scents that one could argue are “modernized” versions of Old Spice (some released by niche companies!)? I had no problem buying Early American Old Spice at a low price, which is clearly “vintage” in terms of “quality,” and I see there are still some on ebay at low prices. Why would I want a simpler and much more expensive version of this? Does that make any sense?
Yes, it probably does, if you have so much money you can’t spend it quickly enough and you want to be fashionable. How many of those who attended Esxence and bought at least one niche or designer exclusive bottle would you guess this description applies to? The “dirty little secret ” people like Edwards likely will never bring up in a lecture of the kind cited above is that most people who are fragrance aficionados/hobbyists cannot warehouse niche bottles the way Imelda Marcos did with her shoes! The other obvious point is that not all of us want more than a thousand bottles of these concoctions in our home (when non-wealthy people do this, others tend to call us “hoarders”). Even if these thousand are all 50 ml each, how many lifetimes does one need to use up say 90% of each one? So, are we non-wealthy supposed to buy bottles at let’s say $150 each and then sell them on ebay for $40 on average a year later? Seriously, what are the practical implications of these kinds of statements made by people like Edwards? Should I throw out my “old” Early American Old Spice and replace it with something that is Old Spice “reworked” for $150 or so? Is he going to pay for it? And what happens if I like EAOS better? It seems like he is assuming we are going to sample over a thousand scents each year, but if we do, we won’t have time for the ones we already own! If he is only talking to perhaps ten thousand people in the entire world, practically-speaking, shouldn’t he make this clear?
And this leads me to my main point, which is that I doubt niche can go much further for people like myself. Yes, the “industry” (meaning the designer exclusive lines and niche proper) might generate a few more olfactory Imelda Marcos types but there is still something called supply and demand in this context, isn’t there? More than a few years ago there was a lot more excitement at Basenotes for niche, to the point that I called several members “niche samplers.” They never seemed to buy niche bottles but they really seemed to enjoy sampling niche and writing up reviews or posts about them. To me, that is the best niche can hope for, other than something like what a company such as Creed has done, which is to successfully target those who want “signature scents” or a small rotation (they definitely don’t want a scent that smells like leathery tobacco-infused turnips, let alone something like Secretions Magnifiques) of pleasant but at least somewhat unique scents. Where did those niche samplers go? My sense was that they were looking for something that can’t exist, at least until humans develop or perhaps genetically-engineer a different sense of smell. If you’ve sampled a dozen or more “leather scents” and are still sampling new ones, isn’t there a point where you are highly likely to be disappointed nearly all the time?
In the short term, there may be money to be made, for sure, and if I owned a niche company and could find a buyer for it, so that I could “cash out” that’s what I would do now (some have already been sold to major “mainstream” companies), since a whole lot of consolidation might be coming soon! Now it may be that there is so much profit margin for many niche companies that the “show” will go on for quite some time, but the idea that aficionados want a “reworked” (and very expensive) Old Spice, Brut, Shalimar, etc., especially at niche price points and with the current adherence to IFRA restrictions, is laughable to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if most wealthy people want to be told what is “in” before making a fragrance purchase (and they may think that we aficionados are “weirdos,” and that normal rich people should simply follow the advice of people like Edwards), and probably don’t want to “vintage hunt;” they may even believe that vintage scents contain harmful ingredients that will cause serious damage to their skin (or have all “spoiled,” perhaps largely due to what “experts” with conflicts of interest tell them)! So, when people like Edwards talk, remember that they may not be talking to people like you, so to speak. He isn’t speaking for me, that’s for sure.
NOTE: These are the notes to Old Spice, taken from Fragrantica:
“Top notes are nutmeg, lemon, orange, star anise and aldehydes; middle notes are carnation, jasmine, geranium, cinnamon, heliotrope and pimento; base notes are ambergris, benzoin, cedar, vanilla, tonka bean and musk.”