Have you ever stopped to wonder why scents based and named after a single note (aka “solinotes”) are the default setting for niche?
If the first niche perfumes could be Diptyque L’Eau in 1969 and Réminiscence Patchouli in 1970, by the second half of the 70s, L’Artisan Parfumeur – and, to a lesser extent, Le Jardin Retrouvé – went against the grain of big-brand abstract scents. To their post-hippie clientele, their single-note perfumes felt more genuine, more connected with nature. Annick Goutal (partly) and Serge Lutens (up to recent years) continued in this figurative vein.
Solinotes still speak to our craving for provenance and authenticity. Many niche brand owners have found that when they stray from the rule, they do less well: one striking example is the regretted Mona Di Orio, who was at last beginning to find success with Les Nombres d’Or, while her previous line sold so poorly she had discontinued it. But even with exclusive lines from luxury brands, the buzz from sales assistants is that scents named after something recognizable do better. Which may be why brands sometimes bend over backwards by giving the name of a note to a fragrance that clearly isn’t what it says on the bottle – Annick Goutal’s Mimosa or L’Artisan Parfumeur Coeur de Vétiver Sacré spring to mind.
Why is that? Well, since niche brands don’t advertise, they can’t count on prior brand awareness in the way that fragrances put out by fashion, cosmetics or luxury brands can. What if perfumes that refer to recognizable things like rose, vanilla or leather provide the hook that’s needed to process such an abstract thing as fragrance? Not to mention that highly figurative scents went a long way into helping the budding perfume aficionado culture navigate its way through raw materials and build up its vocabulary.
Now think of niche brands fronted by owners whose persona guarantees a decent number of profiles in the press. They are, more often than not, the ones most likely to stray from the solinote default setting. The late Annick Goutal, adored by French beauty editors, frequently did. As do media darlings Frédéric Malle and Serge Lutens. Newer brands like Juliette Has a Gun, By Kilian, Byredo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian and more recently Arquiste, all fronted by very personable gentlemen, have shunned the solinote.
As the niche sector matures, it’s natural for owners/perfumers to want to move away from niche’s essentially figurative stance (a growing trend, to be sure) and offer an alternative-universe vision of what mainstream.But it’s worth noting that these successful third-wave niche brands are strongly predicated on their owners’ personalities and media-friendly personas. Perhaps this provides enough of an anchor to dispense with the “let’s run through every major note in the catalogue” approach? The owner’s identity and story would then act as “provenance”, just as rose, vetiver or amber did in first or second-wave niche collections…
Just a thought… I’d love to read yours.
Illustration: Flower (Peony), Robert Mapplethorpe (1984)