Friday, January 23, 2015

Penhaligon's & L'Artisan Perfumeur: Niche Fragrance Brands Bought by Puig

I have tired of saying it: we're experiencing the end of niche. Niche was a marketing tool to grow companies and then sell them to the highest bidder. The sale of Editions de Frederic Malle and Le Labo last autumn to the Lauder Group is followed by the sale of British traditional house Penhaligon's (established in 1870 as they boast) and of French artsie proto-niche (well, at least when it was founded by Jean Laporte in the late 1970s) L'Artisan Parfumeur to the Spanish group of Puig.

Jenner Studio photo via archdaily

Puig is at least no LVMH....They do nevertheless cater to a more mainstream perfume portfolio: Carolina Herrera, Prada, Paco Rabanne, Valentino....but also Comme des Garcons, which is anything but conventional in their fragrances.

Two years ago I was complaining on L'Artisan Parfumeur losing the grip on niche. In fact actively seeking to distance itself from the Jean Laporte, Olivia Giacobetti, Anne Flipo and Jean Ellena past. They were commissioning hundreds (or so it seemed, at least) new fragrances on Bertrand Duchaufour and seemed to branch out. Now it's evident even to the most well-meaning why that was.

Penhaligon's (funnily enough employing the same indie perfumeur, the Mitsotakis of niche apparently) was following a similar trajectory, a markedly different business model than its small shop cutesy of its long past.

All the same it's another tombstone on niche perfumery. How much longer will Serge Lutens withhold after having bought his rights for handling his name from the Japanese giant Shiseido?


  1. Anonymous00:55

    "we're experiencing the end of niche"

    Are you joking? Niche is stronger now than ever. Or do you just assume whatever is on the Barney's counter is what's available?

    How do you make such a declaration at a time when modern niche masterpieces like Lampblack and Maai are being released?

    I find these articles utterly baffling. As though L'artisan and Le Labo were such highly artisan lines to begin with? Nobody is surprised these lines got snatched up. Will you also feign shock when Heeley and Arquiste go the same route? Bond No 9?

    If these lines are niche then I've never been interested in niche to begin with. Much better perfume out there, perfume more focused on great scent and not great marketability.

  2. I have to agree with Anonymous. I will say that the first niche bottle of perfume I ever bought was Tuberose by L'artisan many moons ago. I also had a bottle of Jean LaPorte and still have it.
    But now there are so many choices for niche perfume lovers and so many good houses to choose from.

  3. annemariec08:21

    Elena, I assume you are referring to a drift into the corporate mainstream by some of the older niche brands, with the possible (probable?) diminishing of innovation and creativity as a result? It is sad, but as others have pointed out, there is no lack of indie brands out there. Too many, but there is still lots of good stuff to smell.

    I suppose my perspective is that of someone who has never been a brand follower. I cheerfully buy the fragrances that I like from whatever house they come from. I admit that if No. 19 disappeared from the shelves I'd be looking for the nearest gas oven to stick my head into ...

  4. Anon,

    although I thank you for your detailed comment and analysis, I find commenting anonymously when doing a critical commentary utterly baffling, to use your terminology. Why not come out and say things under a name? I don't bite.

    To clarify my position and reply.

    "Niche is stronger than ever". This is one perception of the thing. It really depends on viewpoint. As you state, the distribution channel of niche is relying on very specific venues. By selling a brand on more and more venues one by definition becomes something else, not niche.

    (allow me to quote from a comment I just made on another article)

    My claim is that capitalism though it is so, niche began as an address to the needs of those who wanted to buy something not available to the masses. So the massification of niche is canceling out the original need. Those people need to increasingly seek out other options, till those become mainstream-ized as well, and then on to other options, and eventually to bespoke.
    With the rise in prices this is not to the betterment of the consumer, because if anything niche managed to raised prices 10-fold in the last decade. When people began to "discover" niche in considerate numbers around the mid-00s the price of Lutens was considered expensive. Now Lutens (apart from the new eye-popping Gold new line which is 600€ a pop) is considered rather tame, good value for money really.

    The failing from an ethical point of view is that niche was marketed as art. But the difference is that art is not made in order to make a profit, to be marketed, recognized, acclaimed and then sold up to a 10-fold markup. It's made because the artist cannot do ANY OTHER WAY. It's an internal need, not a business model.
    But niche relied a lot on positioning as art in order to convince the audiences, so this is a basic deception on their part. Admitting to the marketing might have "saved" their faces, but few and far between did that.

    If you mean that niche brands are erupting right and left, that's certainly right, but think about it: do they erupt because all of a sudden everyone had an artistic urge and they just had to have a pee, excuse me, make some artistic juice, or did they see the potential for growth, branding, and ultimately selling the brand? That's as capitalistic as it gets, not very artisanal.

    As to Blacklamp and Maai, though I haven't tried them yet, I am a bit stumped to consider them as masterpieces since no more than a couple of seasons have passed since their release. The testing period isn't over yet, the comparisons with their progenitors and successors not quite began, so I'm a bit hesitant.
    If you mean that lovely and exclusive things are produced by smaller brands, certainly.

    But L'Artisan in its time was one of the brands who "started" the whole niche thing (alongside Diptyque and look at them now) and F.Malle was pivotal to the niche game on several levels. Think about that for a sec, please. There's an expected sense of some disappointment.

  5. Phyllis,

    true and glad you know the references I made from personal experience (back then we really thought we were discovering something that would last forever).

    There are indeed many brands around, certainly more than ever before. though I'm not sure if everyone can lay their hands on more than a sample or a small decant of them for various reasons (That's fodder for another discussion)

    I 'm just not convinced they last more than 5 years many of them. Perhaps my criterion of business and artistic success marked by longevity is individualistic and a bit eccentric, I'll give you that.
    Thanks for such a kind comment.

  6. AMC,

    you said it much much better than I could:
    "a drift into the corporate mainstream by some of the older niche brands, with the possible (probable?) diminishing of innovation and creativity as a result".

    I feel like I'm abandonding all the niches I "grew up with". Back in the late 80s there was only L'Artisan, Diptyque, Goutal (if you consider it niche) and one or two others (Creed etc)? I discovered Lutens in mid-90s and that was a revelation! It feels like a very very different world right now.

    I'm mourning
    my "perfume formative years", I suppose.
    I believe I'm allowed to do that on my very own personal blog,without being made like I'm committing a cardinal sin, much as it might cause indignation in an anonymous commenter or more.

    But I do appreciate the dialogue!

  7. I think we're on niche 2.0; the first round of niche, the ones that started it all back in the late 70s and 80s are the ones that are in a more delicate position. Goutal, Diptyque, l'Artisan... Does the fact that their compositions are rather soft and ethereal have something to do? They're not powerhouse niche after all. Serge Lutens is the one left from the first crop, but I hope he keeps up to the pace. Malle, well that's different in a way. Niche right now is abundant, so as indie. If it's worth looking into is something personal for each of us, but Elena you have a point about the lack of niche and exclusivity when something becomes easily available through major retailers, as the 'it' thing. I guess were facing the 'reformulation' of niche, even though it's hard to accept. And for the record my first ever niche was Lutens and Goutal, and I steel have a soft spot for them!

  8. Something I wanted to add.. Veteran niche has done what it sought, create in a way a fan base through creativity and originality. When they started out, we were starting to witness the first wave of mainstream sinking. Each brand (mainstream) had its personality and until the late 80s, launches weren't dictated by market research and briefs. The 90s brought not only calone, but for many the slow death of powerhouses, creativity, and originality. Also the first batch of significant reformulations. Niche ventured out to solve this, and they achieved it. Now the big corporates who buy these brands, are catering to the demand of people who still want a statement perfume; why not have the gourmand and the fruitchouli to please the masses, and create something different in the higher end brand for the growing percentage who wants something different? Chanel and Dior are at it with their exclusive lines, as is Hermes. We will end up with the niche and indie on one side, and with the pre-reform niche catering to briefs for a few. It's sad but money talks. And many brands that have been bought would not be able to keep up in this market without a serious injection of cash flow.

  9. Good points as usual.

    The reason for the trend is perhaps is that the big firms have lost much of their credibility in producing luxury products on par with, say, expensive wines or the like. Some had tried to go the "private collection" way, with good results early on (Chanel, Dior), but now the "private line" riff has degenerated to irrelevance.

    But it's hard to see where this is going to, whether the end of niche, or the survival in the hands of larger companies. One possibility is that the big firms will maintain the quality, novelty, artistry of those lines (and continue reaping the luxury market profits). The other, sadly attempted in previous acquisitions like the early Guerlain etc, is that they'll milk out easy profits for as long as they can, until the reputation of the brand will be completely depreciated.

    I'm somewhat optimistic that at least in some cases, the first possibility will prevail. It would help, for this, if perfume critics (like this blog) recevied the same attention that a Parker has in wines.

  10. I find it scary and exciting. I wonder would Annick Goutal have survived without Pacific Amore? Have they survived with them? Remember when Tom Ford curated frags for Gucci? The early years of his own line with Lauder?
    There will be change, life is change. Fortunately I have all the Malle, Le Labo, L'Artisan and Penhaligons that I think I'll ever need. Yet we may be surprised, this could herald an era of genius? Naah, I don't believe that but my fingers are crossed.
    It does open up the field for new innovation in the underground niche and independent genres.
    It will be fun to watch it unfold no matter what happens.
    Portia xx

  11. meh, I like your blog, but your attitude toward criticism is quite childish. So what if critics comment anonymously? Would it make a difference if they commented under a pseudonym or their first name, as most blog commentors do? Moreover, you are putting your thoughts (and criticisms of companies and perfumers) on the internet, critical comments / argumentative discourse should be expected.

    As for your original post, i don't disagree - niche lines going mainstream/mass corporate generally do not spell out good things for the fragrances. But I think it will be a cycle - where niche lines go mainstream, new niche lines will come fill their place.

  12. Nathan11:47

    Hi Elena, all is not what we see on the surface, as you show in this piece.

    I laugh at the widespread use of 'niche', it is silly (I have heard two very famous niche perfumers confess their dislike for it, too). Great marketing ploy, though.

    Maybe, independent would be better.

    Exclusivity in fashion and taste is for immature people. It is insecure to need to be the only one in your town to have something. The 'niche' label suits these people.

    The death of high quality goods is what I am worried about. Lots of these 'niche' perfumes are not original, are uninspiring and are ridiculously priced.
    I'm wearing vintage Givenchy III today and this smells much better than any 'niche' I've tried.

    We are being conned! Stop paying a fortune for crap. It is just perfume. These business people want us to believe it is something more. 'Niche' whoa, how cool!

    They have succeeded, it seems. They've managed to make us spend much more for a beautiful bottle of perfume than ever before (taking into account inflation), and the product is often inferior... I'm talking pre-nineties.

    What does the grouping together of these brands mean for us, the consumer, Elena? I'm not sure, but I'm sure it will suit them rather than us.

    Meanwhile, I will not be handing out €200 for a perfume unless it is mindblowingly beautiful.

  13. Well this is "my pennies worth" Helg .... I thought there was something brewing with L'Artisan and Penhaligons .. they were releasing new perfumes and they all came to Australia!!! LOL

    Putting new or released once again perfumes on the market is like dangling the worm for Big Bird to strike and , of course, the big companies Buy their competition - that good business!
    My hubby gave me two niche perfumes for Christmas - A Lab on Fire -What we do in Paris... but the one I really love is Papillon Artisen - I have Angelique - my new "love" and I want to get their 2 other scents!
    May some Niche houses still live!

  14. Duchaufour the Mitsotakis of niche??? Haha, nice one, as the one we all love to hate? I would go as far as call him Stephen King of the fragrant world. I suspect he is a cyborg that needs not sleep or food and gives birth to a new perfume every 3.5 hours... hmmm, pretty much like the Alien queen. If I ever see a Lutens with Duchaufour's signature it will mean the end is near. I can't understand all the hype about him really, how so many people who start an indie or niche brand say it was their life's dream to have him make a perfume for them... there are so many talented people out there and surely, they would give great care to their creations. Duchaufour these days is more common than the plague was in the middle ages... chances are he'll land on you sooner or later.

  15. Alexander,

    thank you for such your very comprehensive comments!!

    You captured what I meant to say. We're experiencing the "reformulation" of niche indeed. The concept has changed, irrevocably. We have indie on the one hand and luxury brands positioned a certain way on the other. I think at some point in the mid-to-late 2000s it became a bit of an expectation that you should really stink in order to be a connoisseur: in with all the extremely dense & opaque stuff, even if it was experimental and not fully thought out sometimes. Anything less and you were a wussy. This "shaped" the niche market in a way. It was thought that people asked for this. But the niche audience, the hardcore, like us, discussing things online, proved to be a minuscule portion of the "pie" so niche brands had to reach out to moneyed customers with a disposable income for "uniqueness" but not formed taste in fragrance, necessarily, so the niche offerings became less challenging. They also copy one another now. This is what I meant to convey.
    You explained it very very well, actually!

  16. M,


    When Chanel Les Exclusifs, Hermes hermessences, Lutens Paris exclusives and Dior Private line being offered online what stops a housewife from Missouri wearing the same thing with the business mogul's wife, something that was before necessary to buy in a dedicated boutique which was some sort of abode into which the housewife from Missouri had never set foot before? Money, only. But money for perfume is easy to amass. It's not the Birkin in Australian crocodile skin! So, the exclusivity factor has waned.

    As a result the luxury firms have increased the prices with a straight face and they have augmented their market profits as a result, without really changing the standards. I find this cynical, the way LVMH is cynical in their treatment of brands.

    Hopefully, since the industry IS actually listening (they do read blogs, I can vouch for that) they will take into account a few of our remarks, though not the most crucial ones because those collide with the greater market share we do not represent (see above my reply to Alexander). But at least they will do a little effort to save face in the details. That's something....

  17. Portia darling,

    as always a joy to find a comment by you here. You say everything so well.
    Yes, Gucci and Tom Ford and Lauder and the Goutal Pacific Amore direction etc. SO TRUE!

    Life is change. It's a great pity that I'm a bit resistant to change myself, I suppose. I just don't like change. :-)

    But one comment resounds more and more. Have you noticed how many older perfume lovers say "well, thank god, I'm set, I have lots of what I love". Noticed it? It means "I've seen it all and nothing impresses me anymore". I find this a bit of a downer for hope...Then again let's not be too cynical. Perfumery still holds a few asses up its sleeve, especially now that indies are given freedom like never before. Right?

  18. Catherine,

    belated reply, sorry about that.

    First of all, glad you're enjoying the blog and thanks for commenting.

    Secondly let me clarify something because I think I was misconstrued. The only reason I mention the anonymous situation is because commenting critically as an anonymous I have absolutely no idea who I'm talking about: is it a regular who knows my positions? is it a random Google search reader? is it someone with an agenda wanting to stir trouble? is it someone who just can't comment and uses this route to do it? Opting for a simple alias or a nickname is so easy and greatly enhance dialogue. That's all.

    Of course critical posts come under the fire of their own share of criticism. In fact some posts are designed to do so, because I find that the dialogue clarifies and highlights some aspects better than anything else. I'm not annoyed by that, I welcome it (other blogs moderate comments and delete anything even slightly critical).

    Good point about the cyclical thing. Very true. I guess like older customers I want what I grew up with, be it L'Artisan as it were or Poison or Arpege vintage etc. Don't take that away from me. *nah nananana nah*

    Must be a sign of reaching a point of saturation.

  19. Nathan,

    your highlighting the need for a different term is spot on. Independent is so much more to the point and more of the essence (no pun intended).

    As you say it's more of a manipulating of the consumer into thinking they're paying for something "cooler" while in reality that something is often derivative, deja vu, uninspiring and priced ridiculously.
    I'm fed up with this. I wish they'd stop already brain-washing people they're offering premium when in fact they do not.

    Wise final part from you!

  20. M,

    exactly! It's all business, in the end, so why pretend and pose as "art"? It's hypocrisy,
    Let the real indies step in and let us pay them instead of the posers.

  21. Kostas,

    although I did laugh out with your comment, I don't really agree.

    For what is worth (and in the slim chance Bertrand is reading) I meant that he jinxes the niche brands into eventually becoming mainstream. In a way, that's not jinx for them, that's excellent good business acumen in what will appeal to the market, it's only utterly jinx for us perfumephiliacs!!
    The real reason so many niche brands and upstarts want Duchaufour is because he's one of the last independently hired perfumers. All the rest have been snatched by big producing companies and need to be hired winning a brief. That's why you see him everywhere. ;-)

    (FWIW I kinda respect Mitsotakis for being brave enough to tell hurtful truths when he had things to lose, contrary to most other local politicians).

  22. Anonymous15:49

    The 'popularity' of Duchaufour has little to do with the quality of his scents(post-2007 it just got absurd), rather it's 100% down to the timing of his mass of releases which coincided with the explosion of 'niche' popularity in general, I'm talking about new paid bloggers, new niche-specific retail distributors, and this was also the time of the launch of The Perfumed Court, which even corporatized decanting.

    The timing was perfect, for really anyone who was already established to rocket into stratospheric popularity.

    I've always SMH at people swooning over Traversee du Bosphore. etc. That one in particular stood out to me wrt marketing v quality.

  23. Anonymous16:03

    It's sort of how 'Punk' was repurposed as a fashion statement. No one listens to the music, but they do lust after the band t-shirt and the edgy hairdo.

    Niche perfume, punk rock, techno, ethnic food, basically every art movement...have been homogenized and condensed at some point, bc capitalism.

    And the same thing is happening in fashion. You guys think only Chanel perfume has risen 500% in cost? Their handbags are the cost of a house now. There is a 'class' they are targeting, and it's not those who hem and haw about a split of a Roja Dove extrait. The new target audience spends that out on lunch.

  24. I didn't "grew up" - literally or figuratively speaking - with any of the two brands, I do not even really like either of them beyond 2-3 perfumes from each) but still I felt sad when I read the news. In my opinion, it just cannot get better. It might stay the same, at least for a while, but it won't be better: big companies are buying small but popular ones not to improve anything but their own bottom line - which never comes with an improved quality or increased creativity when it comes to mass market.

    On a separate note, I realize that you don't like changes (In general, I'm with you on that!). But is there any good reason why you, using blogger, do not switch to the option of nested comments? It has been available for several years now and works fine on most blogs. It doesn't make difference for reading the post itself, but in cases of such dialogs it's much easier to track comments and responses to them.

  25. Miss Heliotrope05:44

    Another Australian who fiids that it's only when trying to go mainstream/big market do I get more access to perfumes - even in today's interwebbed world.

    The whole niche/indie vs mainstream debate seems to be happening in so many spheres. In music it's the "I liked your old stuff better than your new stuff" syndrome - we like that band/song until it's on mainstream radio & the supermarket is playing it. There, also, becoming more popular & being noticed by the big businesses in the field does result in broader airplay & concert tours of such out of the way places as Australia. But it often results in a blanding of music style. There are musicians who stay in control of their output, who sell cds from their websites, and raise money through various online & interactive prgrammes. It must be hard for them to do so, and take away time from their music.

    But few people can support themselves - however many exclusive online releases of footage from the recording studio they release. So do they give up or sell out?

    Perfume has a history of big companies, and while we might not agree with them (all), maybe there is a stage when the effort, and not being at the front of perfume making, combined with a nice wad of money, makes it seems ok. & maybe they didnt mean to be niche & as we saw them - maybe they wanted to grow up to be a big mainstream perfume company & we just got it wrong?

    There is also the use of niche as a marketing tool, when what they really mean is we use the styling of niche to make you feel cooler, without actually being anything other than a mega-mart. Again, some musicians are pretend indie, when they have sony indie written on the cds...

    I keep being too long, but cant figure where to cut without becoming even less comprehensible...

  26. Anon #2

    [see how difficult it is to see who I'm talking to?]

    Incredible break-down. It does have to do with timing and timing is crucial in many things, that's true. The whole paid blogging thing is so destructive I can't even begin to touch it, it puts a shadow over everyone and is one of the issues that had been discussed in great detail (more as a form of swag than straight out cash) even back then when us oldies started. I don't know...Too much hype and one starts doubting themselves.

    It always felt like Bertrand (brilliant though he can be) has been in a position to be "pushed" for other ulterior motives unrelated to his work and secondarily due to the sheer volume of his opus for different brands it risked appearing like he was re-arranging slices and putting things from column A to column B and so on....
    Still manufacturers have to go on faith, I suppose.

  27. Anon #3,

    astute observation and analogy. So true! Thank you.

    It is capitalism. I suppose it's only the cynicism of it that bugs me, because without a free market we'd all be stuck wearing those 2 staid Russian perfumes. :-/

    Re: the different market share, absolutely!! But when I was talking back in the day about marketing and about perfume nerds not accounting for a big share of niche perfume brands everyone was extremely annoyed and tried to disprove it. But indeed the facts point out to brands catering and aiming for the truly moneyed, increasingly so. No matter how many ways you split a RD extrait, or a Xerjoff or something, there is not much juice being pushed that way. People buying 50 bottles in a pinch as corporate business gifts though, that's something else entirely. ;-)

  28. Undina,

    thanks for chiming in.

    Yes, it is a little sad. And more so since back in the day everything they had on rotation was quite likable and I mean that from a perfumephile's point of view; not crowd-pleasing. They were dedicated to a specific concept and they followed it with an amateur's (in the etymological sense of the word) passion. Not anymore.

    As you succinctly point out, this buying up of companies heralds bad news for the actual scents. They can't possibly improve since the profit margins have to increase and the changing of the market pie (as discussed with Anon #3) means that the change of aim means also a change of scent profile.

    Re: Blogger nested comments. I honestly don't know how. I had tried in the past and there was no such option. I have tampered with my HTML so much myself that I like in fear of editing something and then never being able to make it right again.
    I have however noticed on a couple of occasions that a handful of commentators have been able to post just underneath someone's reply. But that only showed in the Comments section, not the natural scrolling beneath the posts.
    I will ask someone more tech-savvy though and see what they propose. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again!

  29. MH,

    you have been exceptionally comprehensible, no worries.
    I find your analogy with music not only spot on but seriously like a wake up call. Who wants to be the "perfume" equivalent of U2? There's this question.
    And there are a hundred different scenarios playing out for each small and bigger brand. Time will tell. But I do believe that we're seeing a change of guard. And few of the players will survive in the next decade.

  30. Not trying to push if you do not feel comfortable but if you decide to try, here's an explanation on how to do that:

    You won't need to change anything in the template - it's just a setting that you can change back and forth.

    1. I think I got it! (yes?)
      Thank you so much for pointing it out to me. Very useful indeed.


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