Even if you’ve only dipped your toe into the world of perfume, you’re likely to have come across the term ‘niche’. But what is niche? Niche is an evolving term that originally referred to fragrances in limited distribution, and there has, of course, been much deliberation over the years as to what counts as limited distribution; usually involving arguments around the number of doors (i.e. the number of retailers) that a fragrance is available to buy from. But niche is more of a mindset, or perhaps an approach to perfumery, one where the concept is king and the craft of perfumery is pushed to exciting new limits.
A niche fragrance aims to give us more than the latest thing for men or women. It doesn’t follow the same tropes of boy meets girl, boy smells good in close proximity to girl, boy gets girl or visa versa. In niche, the story is key, and brands try to tell tales, whether these be tales of abstract concepts, or simply the stories of beautiful materials; brands let the fragrances do the talking. Niche was the antithesis to the marketing-led mainstream world, and it relied on the word of mouth of enthusiasts to spread the news about what was good and great about their hard to find products.
But as you can imagine, things have evolved, and the lines have blurred. Many designers and mainstream brands now have exclusive collections as capsules within their main lines, offering them only at select locations. At the turn of the millennium we have talked about niche brands in the hundreds, now we could talk about them in the thousands, so it’s a big market in an already noisy industry. There’s more choice, but when consumers are thirsting for new and interesting, niche doesn’t always deliver.
My disclaimer is that there is good and bad within both mainstream and niche. Niche doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality or more interesting and mainstream doesn’t necessarily mean boring or low quality. As always, follow your nose, but if you’re new to niche and are looking for a scent that is going to make you smell different from; a) those around you; and b) the fragrances you have typically worn, then this selection provides a good number of places to start.
#1 Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger
Serge Lutens, the makeup artist, photographer and reclusive creative, was one of the pioneers of niche perfumery. His early work with Japanese cosmetic brand, Shiseido and perfumer Christopher Sheldrake is some of the most iconic in the industry, and it’s impossible to talk about niche without speaking about M. Lutens. My favourite from Serge Lutens’ extensive back catalogue is Fleurs d’Oranger; this is a heady and seductive floral that takes the sunny, sweet and honeyed note of orange blossom and injects some dastardly filth in the form of a sexy cumin note. The result is an erotic, pulsating white floral that has an intimate, sweaty vibe. In summer, there is nothing quite like it.
#2 Etro Patchouly
Many niche fragrances focus on telling the story of a particular material, twisting said material in new and intriguing ways – this is what Patchouly by Etro does. Patchouli is somewhat of a maligned material. We tend to associate it with the 1970s and hippies, but it’s actually a wonderfully complex and rich note that can be twisted in many ways. For Patchouly, Etro focuses on the earthy, spicy facets of the material, pairing them with a wealth of resins and balsams to forge an exotic, transportive fragrance that carries one away to a distant spice market in the middle of the desert.
#3 Amouage Interlude Man
Another key focus of niche is weirdness – offering consumers olfactory treats that they had never conceived in their mind, let alone as something they could wear. For example, if I were to tell you that Interlude Man by Amouage smelled like a bonfire comprised solely of vanilla pods, you’d think that was pretty odd, right? You would never have thought of that as an idea for a fragrance, and while that was not the inspiration behind this beautiful scent, it’s certainly the result. Interlude Man is a surprising fragrance that contrasts the rich, inky smokiness of leather with the gauzy, gourmand sweetness of vanilla. On the one hand, it is creamy and delicious, while on the other it is harsh and burnt. It boggles the mind that this thing exists, let alone the fact that it smells amazing.
#4 Juliette Has a Gun Citizen Queen
One of the biggest issues with niche historically is that it hasn’t been accessible. High price points and limited distribution have meant that for many people, niche fragrances simply aren’t on their radar. But this has changed over the years, and there are a number of brands offering what I like to call “accessible niche”, meaning they give you all of the oddness, the material focus and the storytelling of niche, but at a price point and availability that is easy. One of my favourite accessible niche brands is Juliette Has a Gun – a rebellious little outfit from Romano Ricci, the great-grandson of designer, Nina Ricci. Take their fragrance Citizen Queen as exhibit a. This is a modern take on the chypre that captures the standoffish, killer sharpness of the genre but twists and subverts it with a glassy, metallic coldness. It looks and feels like a top niche fragrance, but it’s not so expensive you’d be crying as you input your card details, or so hard to find you’d need a series of clues and a heap of luck to find it. Juliette Has a Gun is my kind of niche.
#5 Miller Harris Wander Through The Parks
My favourite aspect of niche perfumery is the aspect of storytelling; this is where brands take us on a journey via the medium of olfactory experience, and no perfume house does this better than Miller Harris. With Wander Through the Parks (one-third of their Forage Collection), Miller Harris transports us on a stroll through a London park where concrete paths meet swathes of humble stinging nettles – all shown to us through a vibrant green composition that pairs tangy grapefruit with mineral violet leaf and verdant galbanum.
#6 Miller Harris Scherzo
Another offering from Miller Harris’ Forage Collection is Scherzo, a fragrance inspired by an actual story – a passage in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, to be exact. For Scherzo (and its accompanying fragrance Tender), two perfumers were given the same passage of text from the novel and asked to create a fragrance. Scherzo is perfumer Mathieu Nardin’s take on Fitzgerald’s words, focusing on the idea of flowers in a confectioner’s window, presented in the form of rose-flavoured candy floss and oud smoke. Trust me when I say that these fragrances are as gripping as any novel!
#7 Annick Goutal Nuit et Confidences
We now move to another icon of niche and one of the most iconic French fragrance brands there is Goutal Paris. Started by Annick Goutal in 1981, Goutal Paris offers a veritable wardrobe of brilliant scents that have stood the test of time. One of their more recent works, the alluring Nuit et Confidences, takes inspiration from the city at night and focuses on the note of vanilla, teasing out the rich, spicy elements of the material and interpreting them with a boozy flair that is surprisingly transparent. Nuit et Confidences is an example of Goutal Paris’ commitment to the highest quality fragrances – scents that aren’t wild and wacky but showcase a beauty seldom seen.
#8 Eau d’Italie Paestum Rose
Niche brands can pop up in all kinds of places, and I like to joke that anyone, literally anyone can start their own. Eau d’Italie is the most intriguing of brands because it comes from the most curious of places: a hotel in Positano. Eau d’Italie started life as a stand-alone fragrance, the signature Eau d’Italie Eau de Toilette, created by husband and wife duo Marina Sersale and Sebastian Alvarez Murena to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their prestigious Hotel Le Sirenuse. One of their most highly-regarded fragrances is Paestum Rose, a vivid, juicy and spicy rose that has a complexity, unlike many others. Paestum Rose smells like rich, red fabrics, and dark wood draws filled with ancient spices. It’s really damn good.
#9 E.Coudray Iris Rose
Then we have the heritage brands – those that were niche before niche was even a thing. Take E.Coudray, for example, which has been making perfume since 1822. E. Coudray was founded by doctor-chemist, Edmond Coudray, who composed fragrances, creams and soaps for royal courts. Today it makes fragrances in a classic style, evoking a Parisian chicness. Iris Rose is the stand out in the collection, pairing two of perfumery’s most luxurious materials (the iris and the rose, if you hadn’t guessed from the name) to create a soft and delicate powder fragrance shaded in iridescent pink. It has sweetness and a cool, mineral air too, but mostly it smells like the most expensive face powder you could ever be lucky to find. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly on board with that.
#10 Van Cleef & Arpels Neroli Amara
For my last selection, I’ve chosen a brand that I think carries the original spirit of niche because it flies somewhat under the radar. Yes, we all know Van Cleef & Arpels for their jewellery and yes, we may have tried some of their more mainstream fragrances (First is iconic!) but their Collection Extraordinaire still very much feels like a hidden gem of the niche world and in it, the brand is showcasing some seriously good perfumery. Neroli Amara was composed by Quentin Bisch, an up and coming perfumer who is basically one badass boss when it comes to creating beautiful things. For this fragrance, Bisch has shown the roundness of neroli (an essential oil from the blossom of the bitter orange tree) in all of its glory, creating a fragrance that has the zesty, citrus facets, the sweet honey facets and the warm, white floral headiness too. It is simply glorious and smells just like the colour of sunset. B-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l.