mardi 9 juin 2015

The End of Auteur Perfumery?

For a short period, it seemed that perfumers had reappropriated perfume; that an area of creativity had opened up in which not only were their names disclosed, but their signature could be expressed. Under Pamela Roberts’ tenure as a creative director – the brand’s most fertile era -- L’Artisan Parfumeur paved the way in the 1990s by naming their dreamteam (first Olivia Giacobetti, then Jean-Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour, Anne Flipo). Frédéric Malle turned his perfumers’ signature into a concept. Parfums de Nicolaï, Parfums d’Empire, The Different Company were founded and led by noses. 

The then-nascent fragrant blogosphere drafted the basis of what could be called a politique des auteurs, singling out individual styles from one brand to another. A few perfumers broke free from the « studio system »: Olivia Giacobetti, Isabelle Doyen, Sandrine Videault, Bertrand Duchaufour, Geza Schoen, Mark Buxton, Christophe Laudamiel, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato… Instead of their working for Big Aroma, competing anonymously to win briefs, clients came to see them, and paid them to develop their fragrances.  

Meanwhile, the mainstream having caught on to the advantages of naming noses, they are paraded around to lend their faces even to the direst designed-by-committee juice. One after another, niche brands are being snapped up by big business interests: Annick Goutal, Diptyque, Byredo, Le Labo, Frédéric Malle, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Penhaligon’s…

And, after having sniffed at the sector for years Big Aroma is now throwing its noses at niche. Blocking a perfumer and a production line for a piddling 10 kilos of oil didn’t seem quite cost-effective five years ago. But, a) the market share of niche is growing, and bound to grow more now that some brands are owned by big groups ; b) it is prestigious and therefore a good way to promote the company’s noses ; c) larger budgets per kilo mean better showcases for rare, expensive or captive ingredients. And, finally, it’s good to let perfumers have their fun now and then…

As a result, while you used to have to be an industry insider like Malle to work with IFF, Firmenich or Givaudan perfumers, now even new players have a shot at getting their juices developed by big names. And for free: they pay the oil, but no development fee. Smaller composition houses are thus compelled to handle developments free of charge as well – at least one I know of seems to have based its development policy on nabbing clients from independent perfumers by foregoing development fees.

To sum up: the perfume industry, after having been challenged by the rise of niche, has now mostly brought it back into the fold. This isn’t to say that original fragrances can’t be composed for niche brands – or mainstream brands for that matter –by “big lab” perfumers: our noses confirm that they can, and have. It doesn't mean either that indie noses will go extinct. But it seems that the window of opportunity for creating a different model within the perfume industry, one that would come closer to design, is sliding shut.

10 commentaires:

  1. This is something that has been cooking for quite some time now. At first is disturbing but now all I think is, if the juice is good and the brand maintains its identity, I'm fine. When niche started to become sought after, it was a matter of time for it to become mainstream, and many brands are already taking a more 'easy' approach. Recent example Cologne Indelebile among others. So niche was basically over before it started. Now, my concern goes for indie and artisanal brands. I hope they can maintain their vision and that they don't give up. Most people aren't ready for them yet, the same way they are not ready for more hardcore niche, but I hope the number of perfumistas amongst us can reach out a hand and help maintain the growing community of indie and artisanal brands, until they become the new niche or become sought after by big groups. It's a vicious cycle I'm afraid. I just hope that the increasing attention to easy niche (for us) doesn't affect the true gems of the brands, which most always are the toughest sell.

    1. Alexandros, I agree that if beautiful fragrances still come out -- and there's no reason for them not to -- then as consumers/aesthetes we won't have anything to worry about. I was thinking more of the "philosophical" aspect of auteur perfumery's quick rise and fall: of treating perfume composition as one would other applied arts, of seeking out a signature rather than compliance with marketing specs... And I don't mind "easy" niche. Often, it was initially perceived as challenging, but as we got used to the innovation it kind of got mainstreamed. I'm getting more and more annoyed, in fact, with what I'd call "mannerist niche": an exaggeration of uncommercial traits that serves little purpose other than épater-les-bourgeois...

    2. Definitely! I see your point, though I'm more practical in my point of view 😉
      I wish I could be more optimistic but in my humble opinion, niche came at a point when mainstream perfumery was amidst calone and fruity clean bombs, and people wanted something different. It wasn't an 80's reinvention but it offered something new. Mainstream saw, copied, failed, and bought the pioneers. Goutal, L'Artisan, Diptyque... They might be easier on the nose than say Vero Kern or Masque Milano, but they are what the average consumer knows as niche. For many of them, this is the new it-trend. But don't give them powerhouses or animalic because they are still not ready. So basically, I have no doubt that they will keep offering good stuff, but the public they are catering for now, it ain't me. Sorry if it's a bit of topic, but that's just my opinion!

    3. My annoyance with niche now is that, being well into its Mannerist phase, it often purposely emphasizes its "nichitude" to maintain its edge, resulting in quite a lot of poorly constructed formulas... Sometimes exagerations serve no other purpose than to emphasize edginess, which to me is not auteur perfumery.

  2. I'm curious, what are the designer fees in general, just a ball-park figure? I'm wondering how much money is saved by going to a big house vs. an independent. And what has been the general track record for leaving the creatives in control of the niche brand when the big company takes over? My guess is, corporate bean counters win, creatives lose, but I am cynical and I have no idea really.

    1. Hi Marla. I truly have no idea, but I do know lots of independents no longer charge for developments either. For small brands the savings may be significant. I suspect the larger niche brands, especially the ones owned by groups, just prefer to work in the classic industry way - it also means they have access to captives, analyses, etc... As for the track record, I don't think we really have enough hindsight to tell. But your guess seems likely to be accurate.

  3. That's too bad, as my favorite popular mainstream perfumes tend to be the "weirdos" that were given some creative space and time, like Mugler's Alien or Kenzo Flower. I don't think either could be launched in 2015.

    1. Well, I don't know, Mugler has had a good track record for weirdos up to now -- the fairly recent Womanity was not my cup of caviar but one couldn't call it tame. Mind you, compared to Black Opium or La Nuit Trésor, Angel now seems positively Amish.

  4. For fragrances that give you a sense of eternity, the rise an fall of brands are frighteningly fast.

    I wonder if the niche explosion is making up for what's been lost due to allergen restrictions* and destructive capitalism.

    Your blog unfolds picture of perfume from that museum of Barcelona. How long before the shape of our own bottles looks like fossils form from a long lost era.

    Let's hope this tidal cycle and it's void is creating place for new good surprises for us to enjoy.
    Guerlain's perfumes were golden before the 60's 70's golden era.Then the 80's 90's democratisation and pre-niche, then the niche perfumery.
    There's a balance in nowaday's offering : one very good perfume in a line can redeem it to my eyes. Mitzah saves the Dior exclusive line. Bois d'encens makes me say "long live" the armani privé. Byredo... byredo is still sh*t for me :D Not everything is collapsing.

    Quoting Giacobetti, Ellena, Duchaufourd, can feel old. But, as for art history, they help understand an epoch. The analogy works.
    As for the business model : I just hope there always be a place for a Vero Kern and Andy Tauer.

    I grasp the zeitgeist you grasp : there are amazing new technology, and investors, and talent, but there are still no "proper face" to the perfume creation flow. (A bit like we live in a world of wonderful technology and wealth and willing people, but there's still alarming poverty, high unemployment, wars.)
    The perfume offering's still that "world behind the mirror". We can enjoy a nebula of brands, a maze of amasing and not-so-good things. Do Parisian seize the opportunity to visit the Paris of perfume or do only tourist see it properly?

    * I go my hand on five year old Angel. That amount of coumarine really makes a huge difference. Now I get Angel.