lundi 25 mai 2009

Niche me, niche me not...

Have you ever learned of the launch of a new niche line and sighed oh no, not another one? I swear, every time I read Now Smell This I find some other brand’s popped up overnight like a mushroom (bless you Robin, I don’t know how you keep up); over half of Sniffapalooza Magazine is dedicated to lovely people I’ve never heard of (no reflection on the people, just on their necessarily limited distribution system). Every week, envelopes appear in my mailbox, stuffed with tiny vials sent by my online friends. Heeeeeeeeelp!

I mean, good God, the mainstream’s hard enough to catch up with as it is. Just keeping pace with Guerlain could be a full-time job. But across the Atlantic, micro-niche lines seem to be proliferating like Gremlins after midnight when you let them drink; Italy is fairly festering with them; even Sweden’s joined the game (smell the Neotantrics and repent), for Freya’s sake…

Okay, so I’m very happy lots of people are getting to play with aromatic materials in their kitchen/basement/backyard shack and coming up with something pretty: I’m all for DIY and self-fulfillment. If they can make a little money out of it, more power to them.

Of course, some self-taught perfumers are clearly no amateurs; a few are true artists (Andy Tauer and Vero Kern, who did train at Cinquième Sens, come to mind). But lots of what I smell coming out of the artisanal perfumery business pretty much limits itself to repeating what mainstream perfumery has been doing for years: daughters of Shalimar, sons of Paco Rabanne pour Homme, sundry limbs of Miss Dior in the best of cases; toilet freshener in the worst. Hey, that’s probably a lot better than I could do and I salute those people.

I’m also glad that the graduates of the perfumery schools in Versailles and Grasse are getting to sell their work to the new niche brands, because clearly, despite the “I learned to mix perfumes with my grand-mother in the kitchen” back-stories you get from the people at the helm of some of those brands, there usually is someone competent writing those formulas in some lab: a ghost-perfumer, as it were.

Trouble is, the neo-niche brand owners often get sold formulas that are far from ground-breaking – the Italians in particular seem to specialize in blockbuster clones (yes, Profumum, I’m looking at you) – or that seem to have been languishing on a lab shelf until they could be fobbed off to a brand owner who can’t afford full-scale development, and can’t tell his Opium pour Homme from his Brut.

In the best cases, the brand owners are in earnest, and just don’t have enough perfume culture to recognize they’re being taken along for a ride; in the worst, they are cynical, and just want to make money from the niche boom by sticking their name on a line of bottles.

That un-bought formula offered up by the lab could have been genuinely too offbeat, too groundbreaking to be sold to big clients: often, though, you get the feeling the labs are just happy to recoup a little money from the time their perfumers put into tweaking a variation of this or a clone of that.

If the niche client has a large enough budget, those variations could actually be a lot better than original versions or templates that have been cheapened over the years, because the materials are better. Those are the canny industry players who can afford gleaming counters in department stores and big beautiful black bottles: they’re expensive, but they don’t cheat.

And then, every once in a while, you get someone who launches a niche brand and gets a perfumer who is sincerely interested in their vision (LesNez, Parfums DelRae, for instance), providing stuff that would be good enough to go out and compete with the big guys if the mainstream market weren’t already so flooded with rushed releases (the actual fragrance just being an afterthought) and derivative dreck. Or fragrances that genuinely veer off beaten paths, and herald new schools of perfumery.

Once upon a time, there were a few people who had a vision, a distinctive personality that they managed to translate into beautiful stuff you couldn’t find in department stores anymore because perfume houses had sold their soul to marketing. L’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Serge Lutens, Frédéric Malle offered us something outside the mall. Those are still the people who are (mostly) putting out things worth seeking out. These days, though, there really doesn’t seem to be that much difference between mainstream and niche except for the price tag.

In the 80s, a brilliant French film critic of the Cahiers du Cinéma school, the late Serge Daney, talked about “des films que ça vaut pas la peine”, “the films that it wasn’t worth it”. I’m sniffing a lot of “parfums que ça vaut pas la peine” these days.

But, for all it’s worth, I’ll keep on sniffing.

Image: VB35 by Vanessa Beecroft, photographed by Mario Sorrenti.

21 commentaires:

  1. Thank you! I've been feeling myself lately that there's been so much new stuff popping up, mass-market and niche, that they couldn't all be worth sniffing, and that quality and creativity seem to be dropping industry-wide. I'm glad to know my feelings have some basis and aren't just me being churlish!

  2. So true. It's nice to hear I'm not the only one frustrated by the amount of new releases that seem to get posted at Now smell this. it just makes me feel I'm lagging more and more behind...

  3. "derivative dreck." That describes so much of what I see and hear, in contemporary art and popular music. Good phrase!

  4. Amy, I think the crunch might have at least one positive side-effect in slowing down the pace... I'm straying less and less outside of the greats these days... At least, our darling Frédéric seems to have the right idea.

  5. Ines, as most of that stuff never crosses the Atlantic, it doesn't reach me, and that's a relief. I may be neglecting some gems, but I've got a lot on my nose already!

  6. Olfacta, don't get me started on art. Most of my friends are artists (and original ones if I may say so myself), but lots of the young'uns are just re-doing stuff that's been done years ago. And unwittingly. Lack of culture kills true creativity.

  7. Excellent piece, thank you! I couldn't agree with you more, and increasingly these days I find myself less willing to stray from those much admired noses and houses whose reputations have already been well established as genuine masters of their art.

    I suppose that one positive aspect of all of this that on the rare occasion when a niche house, such as LesNez or Del Rae, does manage to break away from the thundering hordes and prove the exception to the rule, it is perhaps a greater thrill than ever to discover them for the very reason that it is such a surprising and unique event.

  8. Popcarts: keep trying to think of a clever answer. Can only come up with: Amen to that.

  9. Too True.

    But then if I hadn't sniffed a lot of dreck (which I refuse to write about) I wouldn't have found houses like Les Nez.

  10. Tom, I know... I tend not to write about the dreck either. It's enough I've smelled it. Valuable nose time lost!
    Mind you, for LesNez, I knew I couldn't really go wrong with Isabelle Doyen, and I was happy to discover Sandrine Videault's work, which I want more of.

  11. Hi, D. I completely agree with you, and chuckled at the notion of "valuable nose time lost." I have piles and piles of sample vials of random "niche" scents that i can't quite bring myself try, because it involves some investment of "nose time."

  12. Jarvis: not to mention when you suddenly find yourself confronted to a whole collection all at once. Even when it comes warmly recommended, I'm crestfallen...

  13. Eek! This hits me close to home. I am actually just about to launch two (possibly three) of my own formulae. Well, okay, probably in July or August.

    I must protest that they are not derivative: I created them for myself and my friends and family to supply something I just wasn't finding at all in the marketplace. (Of course we could still have a "lack of culture kills creativity" situation... gosh, I am trying to educate myself to avoid just that, though.) Almost everyone I know was wistful for a scent that didn't exist.

    Now, I am not buying formulae from ANYone. I go to my little lab and noodle around, creating an artwork as best I can from the palette of ingredients I have assembled. Nor am I going to foist off anything boring or drecky just because it smells okay... either it is both original and supports the vision I am going for, or it doesn't.

    I agree that most of the niche-y things I have tried have been dull, but I also applaud Tom's observation that if he hadn't sniffed a lot of dreck, he wouldn't have found some of the gems. (And I hope he's not talking about me, since he's one of my testers! Ha ha!)

    Great article... I just wanted to give you the other perspective too.

  14. Ducks: believe me, I *was* thinking of the people who read me who might be composing on a small-scale, artisanal way, who are sincere and have aesthetic standards...
    It's pretty tough when those vials are lined up against those of perfumers who work for big labs, have years of specialized training and experience, access to the cumulated know-how of the people who work with them, and to a wide variety of materials. I can't judge both approaches in the same way, but when it comes to skin-time, it's every fragrance for itself.
    Technical knowledge and resources can be compensated by vision and talent (certainly well-known perfumers aren't always given the opportunity to express themselves). But it's that much harder for a self-taught indie to take that extra step because just getting to master the technique eats up a lot of time and energy.
    But it's been done, and as Tom says, that's why we keep smelling to sniff out the gems.

  15. Yes, indeed -- very well said. And, of course, I absolutely agree that every scent is for itself when it comes to skin time (and perhaps more significantly, hard-earned money.)

    I am trying to educate myself as thoroughly as possible, but I would obviously value formal training and it would make a difference in my procedures. Of course, there are dazzling resources out there... from formal classes to Anya's natural perfumery group, who are very sociable about sharing discoveries. Hopefully some of the ideas and knowledge we share will build us into better artists.

    But I am not arguing with you, only pleading my case!

    Let me put on my critic hat and take off my indie-perfumer hat. God, I'm overwhelmed by all that is out there and there are simply no standards of quality that are uniform enough to guide me. When I do try out a niche house for the first time (with the same certain sense of dismay you described), I generally try a few of their scents and then judge them categorically on the shoulders of those few scents... which is not the same metric I use for more established, mainstream perfume houses, where I consider the scents more individually. Sometimes I feel guilty... as if I have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But this is something I continue to do.

    Unfair? Maybe not. Niche perfumers seem to me to have signature qualities to their scents (of course, so do big houses) -- I'm thinking about the "Tauerade" in Andy Tauer's delicious fragrances -- and if it doesn't please my nose, it may never do so.

  16. And in case I left that last paragraph too ambiguous and I run the risk of offending Andy ... his fragrant signature and his scents delight me. :) Just thought I'd clarify.

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  18. Ducks, the thing is, if a niche house is unknown to us, all of a sudden we've got from three to thirty scents to discover all at once, which can be overwhelming (and when you've got dozens, you wonder about the overall quality).
    Whereas for an established brand, you've usually more or less followed some of what they've put out.
    Of course, a couple of years ago when we were double-whacked by the Chanel Exclusives and the Tom Ford Private Blends, we faced a similar "too much to sniff" problem. But that's another story.

  19. Too true. Case in point: I really want to try some of the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab scents, but... well, they have about 500 of them. I just don't know where to start.

    I gave myself permission not to even try to smell everything... not even everything that other people loved... this year. Not that I've ever claimed any kind of encyclopedic knowledge of the industry -- I'm a recent perfumista but a long-term HG-seeker.

    I'm just saying that I would be missing something if I hadn't tried Annick Goutal, Les Nez, Andy Tauer, or Dawn Spencer Hurwitz.

    Anyway, as I said, I'm really not arguing with you... this was a beautiful post and rings true with me. It just also rings SCARY with me, because I do have formulae I'd like to share. (And lots and LOTS that I won't inflict on anyone beyond my loyal partner and brother!)

  20. Ducks, I would TOTALLY be scared too. It takes a lot of courage to offer up the fruit of your labor to the world... But if no one did, we wouldn't be smelling as sweet, now, would we?