Encountering a scent is a rather intimate act, and particularly tricky when a) there are hundreds on offer and b) the brand owner is staring at you while you sniff. So to me, Pitti was less about fragranze than it was about Florence, friends and food (filed under “fabulous” and “Tuscan”). Still, as we made our way from one display to another, our eyes were caught by three unusually attired brand owners that somehow seemed to embody the various ways in which niche was morphing.
Since the thoughts they’ve inspired take up quite a lot of space, I’ll be publishing this post in three parts.
Exhibit 1: Of Hat Ladies and Baby Indies
The delightfully eccentric Naomi Goodsir, channeling Edith Sitwell by way of Anna Piaggi, presided over a display of her hats and fragrances with a lovely smile. The Australian milliner’s two-scent line, picked up by the chicest niche shops from L.A. to Vilnius, has garnered rave reviews online. And how could it not? It ticks just the right boxes. Edgy owner straddling the line between fashion and concept art: check. Leather notes: check, with Cuir Velours. Incense and smoke: check, with Bois d’ascèse. Independent perfumer: check, with Julien Rasquinet.
Rasquinet, whose bio states he was taught by Pierre Bourdon and Christine Nagel, belongs to the group of perfumers whose scents are produced by Accords et Parfums, a subsidiary of the company founded by Edmond Roudnitska (other clients include Duchaufour, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato and the late Mona Di Orio).
There’s a growing, viable market for those indie noses, since industry outsiders can’t necessarily rope in big-name noses from major oil houses – there just isn’t enough money in small niche brands for big labs to give man-hours over to small batches, though existing but non-commercialized formulas may be tweaked to suit. But while mercenary noses like Bertrand Duchaufour, Mark Buxton, Christophe Laudamiel or Geza Schoen spent a large chunk of their career honing their skills with the majors before breaking away, there’s a new generation that’s almost entirely bypassed that process. People like Rasquinet, Barnabé Fillion, Amélie Bourgeois, Cécile Zarokian are increasingly showing up in the credits at Pitti, Esxence and Elements.
Or not: Rasquinet also composed scents for the Icelandic artist Andrea Maack, and I seem to remember that at the 2012 edition of Esxence, Maack wasn’t disclosing any names. Which is another trend in niche: creative directors or brand owners hiding their noses, as it were (this is, in fact, a return to form: pioneers like Jean-François Laporte, Annick Goutal or Serge Lutens didn’t name their noses either). Of course, not every perfumer is an auteur able to go it alone, whatever his age or experience. And the input of artistic directors is bound to foster genuine creative partnerships (and therefore co-authorships).
Or not? As more and more outsiders are drawn into the niche game, some with little or no information on the actual way a brand is produced, we’ll probably be seeing slews of me-too juices fobbed off on non-perfume-literate owners – every other display at Pitti seemed to feature the nth dry woody incense or greasy amber. And while the two Naomi Goodsirs are excellent indeed, some of the things we smelled felt just plain unfinished, copy-pasted or badly formulated.
Will these young noses, unfettered by years slaving away at mainstream formulas, pioneer new styles? Or are those years spent fine-tuning technique and industry culture essential groundwork for expressing an original vision?
Still, these baby-indies are now definitely a thing, and as all ISIPCA graduates can’t nab jobs at Givaudan or Firmenich (who’ll also be focusing on local talent in emerging fine fragrance markets like Brazil or India), it’s likely we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.
I’ll be continuing these notes from Pitti next week.