The “big turn” away from niche?

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The title of this post is the same title to a thread I created at the site not long ago.  First, let me quote my first post to that thread:

I’m wondering how many others have made such a “big turn,” especially in light of the 2018 “Guide’s” main focus on obscure niche scents. For years, I sought out, mainly through swaps, specific ones, and I would go through swap lists to see if someone was willing to swap one that I thought might be of interest. Now I have very little interest in either endeavor. I think the main factor is that I think I have a good grasp on what I’m seeking, and today’s niche tend to be unsatisfactory for one reason or another, such as how “chemical” so many come across to me. Then there are so many “clone” type scents. A good example is Craze by Armaf (cost me less than $23 total for 100 ml). I haven’t tried Pegasus, but I enjoy Craze, and even if I would perceive Pegasus as a bit better, it’s not worth me actually knowing this (because there’s nothing to be gained, and only money to lose)! The other day I acquired some “vintage” Rochas Man, and my thought was, “this is certainly good enough for me – now I can swap/sell my bottle of New Haarlem!”

What can niche do for me at this point? What smell or combination of smells, assuming that they are rendered well in the composition (again, one factor being “naturalness”), could I find so compelling that I would even want a sample? I can’t fit the bottles I own (let alone the samples and decants) into a yearly “rotation” at this point, and I find myself mostly gravitating towards several fragrances, with the others being useful for the days I want something different. There’s probably a reason why scents like Old Spice are still around and selling, while so many oddball compositions have joined the dinosaurs, the key point being that while much if not most niche might be interesting, I question the “wearability” of them over the course of several hours. Yes, if sprayed on a small piece of cardboard, they might seem quite compelling for seconds or minutes, but that’s not why I buy a bottle. I wonder how many who are buying today’s niche are buying bottles based upon such a “test.”

My attitude towards niche now is mostly indifference, and if that market indirectly hikes up the prices on my many vintage bottles, that’s not a gift horse I’m going to look in the mouth. But I can sum up this attitude with the statement, “you had your chance and you didn’t get the job done.” Several years ago, more than a few BN members had apparently become disillusioned with niche, and at least a few “disappeared,”‘ never to return. I called them “niche samplers because they wrote reviews, and there were plenty of good/excellent reviews, at least for a while, but then the reviews took a turn towards the negative. What I didn’t understand is why they weren’t satisfied with all the niche they enjoyed/praised? How many bottles do you “need?” Of course, it likely wasn’t about how many bottles they wanted to own, but some abstract notion of “the art of perfumery” (I tend to see it more as a “craft”). And I think the “big name reviewers” also possess this view (as opposed to “wearability” over the course of several hours).

So, I’m wondering how many others are quite pleased with non-niche/non-designer exclusive offerings (including the vintage they can still obtain at non-ridiculous prices, which means the vast majority) that are available these days. Another good question would seem to involve variety. How much do you want and how much of it “needs” be niche? Also, do you feel “deprived,” in that you think there should be compositions that don’t exist or only exist at high prices (let’s say around $100 per 50 ml)?

Perhaps people like myself, that is, those who are going to spend a lot of time thinking and sampling, have satisfied themselves (or left the hobby due to disappointment), and over the last five years or so there are a lot more less thoughtful people who are likely to be quite influenced by “herd mentality.”  But whatever the case may be, I think at least a few interesting ideas were generated on this thread.  One of those is the question of why niche is “better” beyond generally possessing more unique, but possibly less wearable compositions, for those who believe this.  A person who posted on the thread claimed that niche is more “nuanced,” while another said niche used better materials.  The problem with the former claim is that vintage is more complex, nuanced, dynamic, and natural-smelling, so why not just buy the best of those fragrances?

Now the latter claim may be accurate, generally-speaking of course, but again, if that’s the main issue for you, aren’t you better off with vintage?  But let’s say the person is concerned about buying vintage for one reason or another, does this mean niche is therefore the materially-superior way to go, if that’s the best way to phrase it?  My first response would be, even if that were true, who cares?  People aren’t going to know how much the fragrance you are wearing cost to compose, and if you prefer a materially less expensive fragrance, why wouldn’t you wear it?  In some responses there were at least intimations that the hobbyist should know which fragrances are the most expensive to compose and then wear those because… I have no idea! I pointed out that much of the recent niche I tried was too “chemical” for me (iso e super and cashmeran dominant, in many cases) and even when it seemed rich and natural-smelling (such as with ambery/syrupy compositions), these fragrances tended to be too simple/boring, and lacking in compositional balance.

In short, I don’t think most niche perfumers  understand the point of “modern perfumery,” which differed from older endeavors in being long-lasting but “smooth” (not pungent).  Of course there is room for new compositions, but because almost all companies comply with IFRA now, it’s difficult to compete with the vintage greats, and so some to seem to think that the best approach is to “go on the offense,” using large amounts of aroma chemicals!  This is why I have come to conclude that many “cheapos” and “clones” do a better job in the context of “modern perfumery” than expensive niche fragrances – and if you are only going to smell a fragrance on a card for a few minutes (as it seems many reviewers, including Luca Turin, do for at least most of their reviews), then you aren’t really helping those who want a “modern perfume.”  Instead, there seems to have developed some “fine perfumery art” notion, which is mostly about oddball top notes compositions, and if that’s your “cup of tea,” fine, but I will contest that this should be classified as “modern perfumery.”  Call it post-modern fine perfume art, or whatever, but it’s something else.

One Basenotes member who is a scholar (I believe a historian) has argued that these post-modern releases are basically for the new wealthy (CEOs, “kleptocrats,” trust fund kids, etc.), and that it’s basically a scam, or similar to “modern art,” which has become a hot speculation-oriented market (there was a recent HBO documentary about it) more than any kind of traditional notion of “fine art.”  As I said on the thread, if I were a billionaire, I might buy a huge number of samples and have a personal assistant spray a card and bring me a new one every 10 minutes or so – that’s the only way one could sample all the new releases!  But that would have nothing to do with wearability.  I’d still probably have a few hundred that I’d want to wear in the usual way, but if I did that, how could I wear the fragrance that I know I enjoy?  And as to “clones,” it may be that some of these are made to be a big more wearable, such as to use less iso e super and more vanillin, which would likely fit my preferences better!

Now whatever is occurring is good for me, so I’m certainly not complaining, but it does seem like a lot of people are rushing into niche these days without an idea as to why.  Perhaps it’s a great example of “herd mentality,” though I certainly wouldn’t doubt that there is a percentage of the hobbyist population that does prefer many new niche offerings.  But it does seem like most are buying the sizzle rather than the steak, as the old saying goes.  And how does one even decide what to sample?  One person told me to do more sampling and less reading about fragrances, not realizing that he wanted me to do what he said!  The situation is therefore untenable for those who have some sort of facile notion of “doing some sampling” and deciding upon “what’s best for me.”  If you already enjoy quite a few scents on at least a fairly regular basis, you can’t sample a whole lot of new releases in the usual way, let alone all those that you think you might possibly enjoy.

However, if you have patience, and wait for the proverbial smoke to clear, you might find one or two that are unique and wearable (or even a really cheap “clone” of it that works for you, as was the case for me with Craze – and the fragrance company that made the “original” is said by some to be little better than designer, with clearly “synthetic” qualities to their releases, though I have yet to try any).  There are two other things I factors I think are worth mentioning here, the first being a change to one’s sensitivities.  In my case, I’m still quite sensitive to iso e super, calone, cashmeran, and dihydromyrcenol, though I usually can handle the latter two in reasonably large amounts if the composition is right.  Oddly, though, I seem to have lower sensitivity to other typical elements/ingredients.  For example, I used to have difficulty with one spray of Cadillac, but the other day I used three full sprays to the chest and kept my shirt open for a few hours, as an “experiment,” but it never became strong, let alone too strong!  If you say you only like niche today, that could change by tomorrow!

The other possible factor is what one Fragrantica member called “olfactory familiarity,” and I’d like to propose an expansion of that notion.  The basic idea is that as you become familiar with certain notes and/or aroma chemicals, you start to perceive other elements, while the ones you originally perceived as strong you may perceive as much weaker in subsequent wearings, if you perceive these at all!  I think there may be a kind of “bell curve” effect, in that the first time or two you wear the fragrance (in the “normal” way), it may seem unique, but then the next two or three times you perceive more, and this may be where you maximum appreciation for it exists.  Then, around the fourth or fifth wearing, you may still think it’s excellent, but no longer “special;” you may even think that another fragrance that you already own is “good enough.”  I have experienced that quite a few times, and I’m not the only one – here is just one example I’ve encountered (a Fragrantica review of Montale’s Red Flowers):

Well I’m glad I did not bought this blind!
It is lovely but it reminds me so much of l’heure blue (especially the edp) so that I dont need this one
It is a lovely fragrance but more powdery than I thougt, becomes a skin scent, but has good staying power, and no synthetic feel.
With l’heure blue in my wardrobe I don’t need this one, so I look further for another Montale…….

Another aspect to olfactory familiarity is that after a while, you “settle in” with a scent (or decide you don’t want to wear it any more, assuming you gave it a few wearings to make sure), and know when you are in the mood for it.  And the key point here is that if  you sample a very similar scent that in some way can be said to be “objectively superior,” you might still prefer the one you’ve worn many times in the past.  On the other hand, if you haven’t worn a fragrance in years, such as vintage Red for Men by Giorgio of Beverly Hills, then Preferred Stock might be good enough for you (at least the formulation I tried a few years back), whereas the new EA formulation of Red is an entirely different fragrance, IMO.

I suspect that may people who claim to think niche, especially recent releases, are producing the greatest scents these days have rarely worn those several times.  Many say they have a lot of decants and samples to keep the cost down, which suggests they might only wear them on rare occasion.  And I agree (and have suggested) that one not wear a scent for a couple months or so in order to keep the “magic” alive.  But that’s true of “drug store dreck” and all other fragrances!  I suspect that many who are entering into today’s niche world are not very experienced in fragrances other than the most common and available ones, so I can see why it might seem like a whole new olfactory universe has been opened up for them.  But that doesn’t mean that my perceptions make no sense for me (in terms of my experiences).  Another aspect to “olfactory familiarity” seems to be that a “clone” works just as well as the “original” most if not all of the time (especially when you wear vintage often, because then you wear the newer, less “natural-smelling” fragrances when you are in the mood for that particular composition).

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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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