mardi 18 décembre 2012

Why do soliflores rule niche?

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)

11 commentaires:

  1. Sometimes I think the soliflore/note approach can backfire. Coeur de Vetiver Sacre is a case in point. It's a wonderful creation, but left some perfumistas disappointed because they were expecting a hearty, more typical vetiver. CdeVS is an airy, spicy tea scent. So although historically, solinotes at least in name have done better than others, hopefully in the future brands will be more free-spirited in naming their perfumes. Etat Libre d'Orange already does this!

  2. Marla, I agree sometimes naming a perfume after an ingredient can be a recipe for disappointment -- on top of which, Coeur de Vétiver Sacré had a very confusing name for a French speaker: I keep calling it Sacré-coeur de Vétiver (like the church in Montmartre).
    Thank you for mentioning Etat Libre d'Orange. Another personable brand owner, by the way! I do think the trend is moving away from the solinote.

  3. Soliflores or naturalistic compositions have several factors going for them that go beyond aesthetic appreciation. I believe that the main appeal is that the consumer can recognize the main ingredients. The consumer feels a)smarter-more cultured-more sensitive than the average person, b) they feel like they are furthering their education/sensitivity. Niche initiates usually had at some point at least a brief acquaintance with aromatherapy so recognizing essential oils in their fragrance can probably mean to them that they are reaping their therapeutic benefits. Recognizing the note also mistakenly leads some to assume that there is a high content of naturals in their bottle, which of course is a synonym of quality but also especially appealing in our (not completely without reason) chemophobic society. Last but not least, I believe that solinotes owe their success to the phenomenon of intertextuality. When you choose a natural over others it is not just aesthetic or therapeutic reasons. It has a lot to do with the cultural associations that exist with the material. Ylang-ylang, florentine iris, labdanum, they are all materials that have been linked to civilizations from time immemorial. Buying a fragrance is like borrowing a culturing heritage, something that abstract compositions of modernity can not put a claim to.
    However, the affection for materials is making its way into the mainstream now, meaning it will soon be "out" for niche. Niche will always need to find a way to differentiate from the mainstream in order to maintain a reason for its existence. If the niche companies would offer the same thing that mainstream does in higher prices with less advertising and limited distribution, it would certainly mean the end of them.

  4. culturing heritage??? I mean "cultural" What was I thinking of...

  5. Kostas, thank you very much indeed for adding so many interesting, relevant ideas to this post.
    I agree with all your remarks. The last one about intertextuality is something I've often thought about: I do believe ingredients carry a cultural memory (iris = aristocracy, for instance) even when what originated the link is almost forgotten.
    All the factors you put forward are additional elements that provide "image" to brands that don't advertise.
    But, as you point out, niche seems to be moving away from the genre, if new brands are anything to go by.

  6. Isn't Divine a bit of an exception as well?

  7. Austenfan, absolutely true. So is Nicolaï for that matter. They're more within the heritage of classic perfumery, though not necessarily from the olfactory standpoint.

  8. "personable brand owners" as a "hook" for consumers is an interesting idea.
    Food for thought...

  9. Anna-Lyssa, well, it totally makes sense from a PR standpoint, doesn't it? Of course, it's not as though they were just pretty faces. They're also doing all the entrepreneurial work and creative directing, and in some cases are the actual perfumers. But it doesn't hurt that they're photogenic.

  10. I hadn't really thought about this, perhaps because the first niche brand I became acquainted with was Annick Goutal. Demeter came next, though, when it and Sephora first appeared in the U.S., and the thrill of that spray burst of Dirt, Grass or Tomato Leaf was amazing! This perfumer's trick of conjuring a lost childhood experience - playing outdoors, a tomato patch or first snow was magical! For me, Demeter was pivotal in opening up expectations of perfume beyond the standard advertising theme of sexual attraction. ~~nozknoz

  11. Nozknoz, that's right, Demeter was the brand that took the figurative stance most literally. Not properly solinotes, but certainly in the same spirit. They were never big in France (I don't even think they're available here any longer) so they only showed up on my radar much later for me. But I can imagine how astounding it must have been to discover the line.