Horse sense

Outlook - - FRONT PAGE - By Astrid Wend­landt

A fas­ci­na­tion for horses and pen­chant for ‘pick­ing up peb­bles’ pro­vides the muse for Leâ Trí Duõng’s paint­ings as well as his prose, and af­ter three books, he says there is more to come.

T he first thing one sees on en­ter­ing Guer­lain's per­fume shop in Paris' Champs El­y­sees is the French brand's ex­clu­sive col­lec­tion - Les Parisi­ennes - which costs 200 euros (US$250) a bot­tle and is sold only in a few dozen shops around the world.

Les Parisi­ennes and other lim­ited edi­tions are Guer­lain's an­swer to the myr­iad small, niche per­fume brands in­vad­ing the $26-bil­lion fra­grance in­dus­try and start­ing to steal mar­ket share from big la­bels.

Niche brands take up in­creas­ingly more shelf space at up­mar­ket depart­ment stores such as Har­rods in Lon­don, Prin­temps in Paris and Bergdorf Good­man in New York.

They are also backed by a new gen­er­a­tion of trendy per­fume and cos­met­ics stores such as Liq­uides and Nose in Paris, Min in New York and Space.NK in Lon­don.

They are pop­u­lar in part be­cause of a grow­ing per­cep­tion that many main­stream per­fumes, de­signed to mimic other suc­cess­ful scents, end up smelling the same.

"They smell of fear. The fear of be­ing a flop," Denyse Beaulieu, per­fume blog­ger and au­thor of The Per­fume Lover: A Per­sonal His­tory of Scent, says of many main­stream per­fumes.

In­dus­try an­a­lysts say many main­stream la­bels such as Yves Saint Lau­rent, Ar­mani and Lan­come have been launch­ing too many so-called "flankers" or vari­a­tions of the same per­fume name, adding to con­fu­sion among con­sumers and over­crowd­ing the mar­ket. Also, con­sumers have be­come more de­mand­ing and knowl­edge­able.

"I am a big fan of niche brands be­cause they of­fer some­thing dif­fer­ent," says Fed­erico Bar­darzzi, 56, a der­ma­tol­o­gist from Bologna, Italy, shop­ping at niche per­fume shop Jovoy in Paris.

Niche brands dif­fer from their big­ger ri­vals in that they fo­cus more on the orig­i­nal­ity of the scent than the pack­ag­ing and the im­age pro­jected via a celebrity. They also usu­ally use higher con­cen­tra­tions of per- fume ex­tracts and more nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents which tend to last longer.

Even though there are no of­fi­cial statis­tics on niche scents, an­a­lysts es­ti­mate they may al­ready rep­re­sent as much as 10 per cent of to­tal high-end fra­grance an­nual sales, be­cause they cost so much more than mass mar­ket per­fume prod­ucts.

For depart­ment stores such as Har­rods, niche per­fumes make up the bulk of rev­enue. But in the cat­e­gory they also in­clude lim­ited edi­tions by ma­jor brands such as Chanel, Guer­lain, Dior and Her­mes, which Har­rods head of beauty Mia Collins says sell "supremely well".

Chanel and Her­mes give their noses "carte blanche" to cre­ate ex­clu­sives and try out new in­gre­di­ents. These per­fumes, sold in a lim­ited num- ber of stores, are more a way to re­gain the ex­clu­sive im­age these brands lost by be­ing too widely dis­trib­uted than to make money, in­dus­try in­sid­ers say.

"Ex­clu­sives help put some of the dream back into the bot­tle and they are also a way to se­duce re­tail­ers which are very much in de­mand of that kind of prod­uct," says Thierry Wasser, Guer­lain's in-house "nose".

Wasser cre­ated for Har­rods a per­fume with flo­ral and am­ber notes called "Royal Ex­trait" cost­ing 280 pounds ($440) a bot­tle.

Michael Ed­wards, au­thor of the Fra­grances of the World guide, cur­rently tracks 360 niche per­fume brands com­pared to un­der 100 less than a decade ago. His guide counts 1,642 per­fume brands over­all.

"I think it is cur­rently ac­cepted wis­dom in the in­dus­try that niche brands are steal­ing mar­ket share from some of the big brands and that trend looks likely to con­tinue," said Ex­ane BNP Paribas an­a­lyst Jeff Stent.

Big names hit

Al­ready, com­pe­ti­tion from niche brands and the launch of ex­clu­sives has hit big names such as L'Oreal's Ralph Lau­ren and Coty's Calvin Klein. Re­search firm Euromon­i­tor found they both lost mar­ket share in North Amer­ica and Western Europe.

"The grow­ing move­ment by key fra­grance houses to­wards more ex­clu­sive col­lec­tions does in­di­cate that there is de­mand for niche, al­ter­na­tive scents even if they sell at high price points," said Ni­cholas Mi­callef from Euromon­i­tor.

Per­fume sales at Coty - which heav­ily re­lies on celebrity brand­ing - have been de­clin­ing for more than a year now while per­fume sales in gen­eral in North Amer­ica and Western Europe have been flat­tish to de­clin­ing in the past two years.

Some of the more re­cent niche brands in­clude Roja, who used to work for Guer­lain, and Fran­cis Kurkd­jian, the "nose" be­hind Jean-Paul Gaultier's “Le Male”. Older names are Dip­tyque and L'Ar­ti­san Par­fumeur.

One orig­i­nal ex­am­ple is Italy's Na­so­matto which cre­ated a per­fume series around nar­cotics. His Hindu Grass smells of mar­i­juana and Black Afgano of hashish. A 30 ml bot­tle sells for 118 euros.

Es­tee Lauder Com­pa­nies which owns Jo Mal­one - which used to be re­garded as niche - just bought Le Labo and Edi­tions de Par­fums Fred­eric Malle and con­sol­i­da­tion is set to con­tinue as big groups hunt for what could be the next big per­fume brand.

Fra­grant: A col­lec­tion of Jo Mal­one per­fumes. Photo Jo Mal­one

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