Perfume has traditionally been interpreted as fashion’s cash cow - “entry level” is the term often applied. But with designers offering enticingly lower-priced collaborations - the latest example being Kenzo’s tie-in with H&M, on the back of last November’s sell-out Balmain line - fashion houses are now re-examining their perfume offerings. There has, effectively, been a backlash. They’re expanding them, and in many cases pushing the price and exclusivity higher than ever before. Consumer response has been rapid, and rabid, meaning that these fragrances are now the fastest-growing facet of the multi-billion pound fragrance industry.
Key fashion houses - namely Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Armani - have all expanded into a niche market sometimes referred to as “haute parfumerie,” or perhaps more accurately as “collection parfumerie”. The latter is reflecting the fact that these fragrance ranges, separate from the houses’ standard fair (Dior’s variations on Poison, Chanel’s numbered lines), are grouped into collections, in similar bottles. Like perfume Pokemon, you’re encouraged to buy them all. As for the former, these lines aren’t that haute - not when houses like Roja Dove and Guerlain (part of LVMH) offer custom-made fragrances priced at around £30,000. There’s a specialised market for that, of course, but a wider one exists for fragrances priced in the hundreds, rather than thousands, that still give consumers a sense of the exclusive. Their grouping into collections offers an array of scents tailored - if not bespoke-fitted - to customer’s needs.
Haute parfumerie links with haute couture, the hand-sewn, custom-made clothing shown biannually in Paris, which counts as the most expensive produced in the world. The four labels all offer this service, and their niche perfume products draw on the vocabulary surrounding couture. Armani’s is called Privé - the moniker given to his couture line. “Mr Armani wanted to create a haute couture line for fragrances just like he did for fashion,” remarks Veronique Gautier, International General Director Giorgio Armani Parfums and Beauté, of the Privé line founded over ten years ago, the first of this exclusive niche fragrance market. “A line like this means to be able to choose the best ingredients and to have more of a freedom of creation.”
Givenchy’s is L’Atelier, the name of the workrooms where couture is made, and the stopper is modelled on a reel of thread. It was launched in 2014. Dior dubs theirs Collection Privée, launched in 2010, and when discussing sourcing perfume materials, their UK Fragrance Ambassador Carl Groenewald, states it’s “the same way we do the fabrics for Haute Couture gowns.” Speaking of the clients for these fragrances, Groenewald declares they “do not want a commercial fragrance and to smell like everyone else.”
Maybe that’s why Chanel plumps, simply, for “Les Exclusifs”. Exclusivity is an important draw: these fragrances are made available at certain retailers, in-store at the designers’ boutiques, say, or at Harrod’s Salon de Parfums on the sixth floor, where Chanel have a space. “The collection will never have a large distribution,” says Françoise Donche, director of olfactory creation at Givenchy, whose L’Atelier line is only sold at forty retailers across France, Italy, Russia, the US and the UK. She compares the perfumes to a Champagne Millésimé: like that rare champagne breed, limited availability is part of these perfumes’ appeal.
That appeal is measurable. Teresa Fisher, Senior Account Manager for UK Beauty at NPD Group, states that niche fragrances are currently driving market growth. “In 2015, Niche fragrances represented 4 per cent of total Fragrance value sales, but contributed to 69 per cent of the growth,” she asserts. “They have been continuously showing strong performance in the past few years: only last year, they added 28 per cent to previous year’s value sales.” There has been a 36 per cent increase in the number of niche fragrances available in 2015 versus 2011 - Chanel, Givenchy and Armani have all expanded their offerings this year alone.
They also all emphasise the differences between these perfumes and others on the market. “Prestige” is a term used often, differentiating from “mass”. The emphasis is on scarcity of ingredients and limited editions, frequently on focussed, specific scents. “Armani Privé fragrances only have a few ingredients in them, twenty to twenty-five,” says Gautier. “Most fragrances have more than a few hundred and it is actually harder and more of an art to have fewer.” Dior’s Collection Privée line contains a dozen scents; Givenchy and Chanel also have multiple fragrances. The idea being that each scent is keyed to an individual customer and their demands - that haute couture idea again.
Chanel offer a fragrance consultancy at their salon in Harrod’s - “an olfactive journey,” they dub it, which includes smelling the individual ingredients that make up Chanel No. 5 to “warm up” the nose, before diving which fragrances a client is more naturally drawn to. That helps to divide down the Les Exclusifs range, which roams through from light florals to heavy orientals. Launched in 2007, it includes modern scents alongside a trio - Cuir de Russie, Gardénia and Bois des Îles - originally devised in the twenties and thirties for Gabrielle Chanel by Ernest Beaux, Chanel’s perfume “nose” through until 1952. The experience is akin to being fitted for a dress - something specially tailored to your needs. “You have to try them all to see if you like something more floral, strong or subtle,” states Veronique Gautier, of the Armani Privé scents. “Fragrance is such a personal choice that you have to try the fragrances on the skin to see how they suit you. just like with clothes, you have to try them on!”
“There is a level of personalisation when it comes to niche fragrances which create a uniqueness to consumers,” comments Teresa Fisher. It’s something brands are keen to emphasise. Dior’s Collection Privée also offers four products dubbed Les Elixirs Precieux, single-not concentrates of Oud, Rose, Ambre, and Musc that can be worn as a base oil with fragrances. “To make the fragrance unique, or your own,” comments Carl Groenewald. The appeal is across the board: men are as likely to sport these niche or collection fragrances as women, and the bottle scenes are specially designed to appeal to both sexes. “Mr Armani chooses to wear Bois d’Encens,” states Gautier - indeed, he loves the perfume so much he scents Milan’s Armani Hotel with it.
Limited availability, scarce ingredients, high price-points. Perhaps the niche or collection perfume is about seizing back exclusivity for fashion, eschewing mass appeal and mass profit in favour of something more unique and individual? “To be niche, to be different,” says Veronique Gautier, nailing the appeal of these perfumes - the antidote to the mass market. Something customers are, ironically, willing to pay through the nose for.