5/29/16

"Niche" Is A Broken Concept. How To Fix It? Start By Ignoring Michael Edwards.


Milan


This year at Esxence, the Milan-based fragrance industry trade show, Michael Edwards gave his annual talk on the recent explosion of niche brands and perfumes, which by his account is almost too difficult to keep up with. He said that he catalogues perfumes because "all brands have their own language," which results in "a cacophony" that consumers are often confused by. He pointed out that among fragrance types, "shared," or unisex perfumes have risen from 17% of the market in 2006 to 37% in 2015, which is a staggering statistic. The "artisanal" fragrance industry, mostly niche, has seen the number of perfumes quadruple in the last nine years, from 261 in '06, to 874 last year. This is mind blowing.

This explosive growth has resulted in "a generation of orphans," according to Edwards, with niche brands moving so quickly that they're passing their own creations by in the process. When executives push new products this rapidly, they unintentionally dilute their brands by intimidating consumers, many of whom refrain from making purchases. Buyers simply move on until they encounter a more accessible, user-friendly brand, presumably with fewer perfumes, or perfumes representing more mainstream ideas. This steady stream of "newness" in perfumery is a negative, in his eyes. Releasing a dozen perfumes within twelve or eighteen months does not denote quality, nor does it make buyers feel comfortable investing in a brand. Furthering the problem is the fact that only about 20% of American consumers buy and wear perfume, meaning a huge swath of the market is untapped.

Edwards suggested that brands look to a future of aligning perfume with everyday products, like clothing and other accessories, a suggestion that frankly made little sense to me. I have no interest in buying a pre-perfumed shirt, for example. I have something for that already. It's called perfume. Edwards also suggested that niche brands focus on flankers, instead of new perfumes. He pointed to J'Adore and its countless flankers, claiming they focus consumers on one Dior perfume, which thus lends the Dior brand a more coherent identity. That Dior's designer identity drives consumer interest in J'Adore seemed irrelevant to Edwards. Also, he said that niche brands usually use one bottle design for all their fragrances because "niche is an experience," and by focusing on scent alone and not packaging, buyers are getting the full "experience." He added that niche houses shouldn't market test anything, and should ignore marketing altogether. I'll touch on these points again a little later.

The most confusing thing he dwelled on was his contention that Giorgio, the original feminine by Giorgio Beverly Hills, was the first successful niche perfume. His facts are simply wrong there. Had I been in the audience, I would have called him out on that, and he would have argued with me in his irritating high-born accent (probably with an "I'm talking"), and I'd have insisted that, despite his best intentions, he's simply fucking wrong on that one. Giorgio Beverly Hills has always been a designer label, and their debut perfume was simply an underdog designer product that happened to catch on with savvy GBH customers. To call it niche is dumb, especially for Edwards. If anything, Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop was the first successful niche fragrance, and it was released four years before Giorgio.

His suggestions that perfume be mated to products, that flankers are good, and that Giorgio was the first true niche phenomenon gave me pause in considering Edwards a credible authority on the subject. He carries himself as an authority, and he's certainly an invaluable part of perfume history, as both a fragrance historian and perfume evaluator, but at 72 years old, I wonder if he's past his prime, maybe even a little out of touch with the reality on the ground. The malls of New Jersey are worlds away from those of Milan, and I'll bet John F. Kennedy was in office the last time Edwards shopped in Hoboken. Still, it was interesting to hear him speak about this subject, and it led me to consider my own views on niche perfumery, and what I consider to be the main problem with niche.

First, let's remember what the word "niche" alludes to in this context. A "niche" in perfumery is a tiny corner of the market that is meant to appeal to an equally tiny corner of the consumer base, usually by appealing to a subset of people who seek a very specific experience. That's what makes Tea Rose so compelling as the "first" super successful niche frag. The Perfumer's Workshop was a relatively small, obscure company in 1977. They specialized in simple compositions that could be blended by buyers into whatever they wished. Tea Rose was intended to appeal to people who love the smell of fresh tea roses. It was a composition, not an oil. The perfumer behind it was a woman named Annie Buzantian, and her work appealed to a new generation of buyers, those coming of age in the late seventies and eighties. The mark of Tea Rose is that it was a perfume that made its brand visible to the masses, which is essentially the only way niche companies find real success.

Designer perfumes embody the opposite effect; they are successful only after the designer becomes known, and designers specialize in clothing, not perfume. Giorgio Beverly Hills became an attractive new company to California fashionistas, with Fred Hayman's aesthetic gaining traction in fashion circles across Los Angeles. Eventually this visibility made his brand's first perfume a viable commercial effort, and after some struggle it paid off. But Giorgio appeals to millions of people. It has been available at department stores and discounters for decades. It has mass appeal, and always had mass appeal, especially in the bombastic eighties.

With this understanding of the difference between niche and designer, I must direct your attention to the paradoxical nature of a "successful" niche. For a niche fragrance to become "successful" means that it becomes a big seller. This in turn means that people outside the intended target demographic are buying the fragrance. When a niche fragrance is suddenly sought after by millions of buyers around the world, it is no longer by definition a "niche" fragrance. It's now a brand representative, much like Tea Rose is the flagship for The Perfumer's Workshop. Although TPW lacks a real follow-up for Ms. Buzantian's masterpiece, other niche brands are able to capitalize on the successes of one or two frags. Eventually, with enough exposure and cultural integration, a perfume that was originally created with less than 1% of the buying public in mind can make a fragrance company a household name.

This leads me to the state of the market today. Look at all these fucking niche perfumes. I look at The Different Company, and what do I see? I see a name (The "Different" Company), and about thirty bottles that all look the same, but have different names printed on them. I'm not getting a sense of difference, certainly no differentiation, in a range with "different" on its labels. And all I have to go on is whatever copy the company uses to describe each product. Maybe I have a few reviews on Fragrantica and basenotes. I certainly don't have any personal experience with the brand. So with no compelling image to attach to any one particular fragrance, and the hearsay of others, what reason could I possibly muster to buy, or even try?

The "niche is an experience" idea that Edwards touted in his presentation is the crux of the problem. A niche perfume is not an experience for anyone - not yet. In order for someone to experience a niche frag, they must be compelled to try it by something other than its scent. Its bottle is, for better or worse, the true representative of what resides inside. With their dull, uniform bottles, niche brands eschew this massive commercial ploy, one that is endlessly and advantageously exploited by designer brands. People experience perfume with their eyes first, and their noses second. It's no different with books. We initially judge them by their covers, and their contents either affirm or dispel these first impressions. Without covers, or with boring covers, books must rely on particularly inventive titles to gain any meaningful traction.

Right now, many niche houses rely on titles alone to draw buyers, and that's simply not enough. Perfumes are an experience, but part of the experience are the packages they come in. Show me why a perfume called "Adjatay" is any different from its older cousin "Oriental Lounge." I can read, so obviously that's one difference between them. But what else? Show me. They're in the same boring, colorless, rectangular glass bottle, for Christ's sakes. At a glance, I can't tell them apart on the shelf.

You can apply this issue to many other niche brands. Some have two or three stock bottle designs, which is better than having just one, but not by much. Look at Slumberhouse, Byredo, Lutens, Le Labo. Sure, there's a distinct company "look" for each, but that look merely says "we all come from the same place." If I'm a niche customer, I want something that doesn't come from the same place. That's the point of niche. I want something unique. Something specific. Something singular. Something that stands firmly and proudly alone. I want to see a bottle representative of a niche. If the bottle shouts that its contents are designed for me, and maybe a handful of others like me, then I'll be motivated to buy.

One might say, "But Bryan, obviously a brand can't tailor a bottle for you unless you're in the market for bespoke." Wrong. I'm a potential niche customer, and even though it isn't bespoke, a niche perfume should feel like it was made just for me. I love the smell of green, violet perfumes, loaded with galbanum, oakmoss, citrus, woods, and animalics. I just want a perfume that concentrates those qualities into something unwaveringly, menacingly green. The bottle doesn't have to appeal to my personal aesthetic bottle design tastes. It has to appeal to the idea that its contents smell intensely, without a shred of compromise, grrreeeeeen. But if the bottle is the same as eight or nine others, none of which contain anything that smells green, I'd have to be a bored, dawdling customer who accidentally stumbles on this unfairly closeted green monster. After all, it has nothing to outwardly differentiate itself as something green.

Does anyone suppose that Pierre Balmain made selling a green perfume that difficult for himself when his brand issued Vent Vert? Of course not. Balmain is a designer firm, and in the early twentieth century it was a highly esteemed haute couture designer label, with good commercial visibility, and the resources to release a few great perfumes. But these fragrances weren't issued in dull bottles. Vent Vert came in a beautiful bottle with green grass as a cap, tied by a cute green bow. It advertised itself as a grassy green perfume by looking like a grassy green perfume - literally. This is called "marketing," that other nasty word that Edwards stupidly denigrated in his presentation. Of all the hair-brained things to tell people who are getting into a commercial enterprise, "Don't market your product" might very well top the list.

Of course you have to market, and market aggressively. How else will your buyers know you exist? Without marketing, in a public that has thousands of choices competing with your product, and with a target demographic of maybe 1% of potential buyers, it's like trying to lance a flea by throwing a sewing pin at it. Good marketing switches the odds. If thousands of buyers become aware that one perfume is out there, one that might be appealing to them, you go from hurling a sewing pin to driving a Buick at eighty mph. I happen to drive a Buick. Every time I get home, I have to scrape dozens of dead insects off the grill. Like a good ad campaign, I'm hitting things that I had a one in a million chance of hitting, and hitting them again, and again, and again.

Sure, it's counterintuitive. But it works. Creed does it, and they do it ingeniously, by spreading fabulous lies about products housed in customized bottles (Himalaya looks distinctly different than Spring Flower, which looks different than Aventus, etc.), which are then slyly pushed in fashion magazines and general-interest internet publications. What would Creed be if they rested on the supposed laurels of "niche is an experience," with every bottle a dull, colorless clunk of square glass? They'd probably be almost as successful and sought-after as The Different Company's products. If I had to guess, I'd say Erwin doesn't envy Jean-Claude Ellena, Thierry de Baschmakoff, and Luc Gabriel. Their glory is split three ways; Erwin's, once his father goes, will be all his own, to the tune of about a hundred million dollars in annual sales.

To sum it all up, let me say that this blog post is not meant to impugn Michael Edwards' many contributions to our culture. The man has created a directory, an in-depth database of virtually every serious perfume in existence, and that is no small feat. But when it comes to following advice, if you're in the business of starting a niche perfumery, I suggest you ignore the wisdom of Mr. Edwards. His suggestions are in no way advantageous to heed.

The future of a "better" niche fragrance industry must see perfumers, bottle designers, marketers, and brand executives refocusing perfume lines on every conceivable niche audience, with improved aesthetics and marketing strategies pulling customers into boutiques. The distance between niche perfumes and customers' wrists is crossed by harmonizing company creations with the fluid, vibrant, ever-changing nature of the public's imagination.


5/22/16

Who Pays Over $50 For This? (Hint: Nobody.)

Worth waiting for.


In recent months, Perry Ellis has been attracting unwarranted attention for one of their "luxe" fragrances, a little thing called Oud Black Vanilla Absolute. This thread wonders where one can acquire a bottle, as it's been impossible to find lately, while this one celebrates its temporary return to stock. Meanwhile, most people have never heard of this fragrance, not because Perry Ellis has poor visibility among consumers, but because their "luxe" frags are oxymoronic products with a more limited distribution than their usual bargain-basement fare.

I'm not saying OBVA isn't worth the extra money (it's not insanely priced at seventeen dollars an ounce), nor am I suggesting that wanting this fragrance is in any way absurd or foolish. I'm sure it's a decent fragrance. However, I have to point out a phenomenon that I've seen many times before. This fragrance garnered little to no attention prior to its disappearance from merchant sites. Yet within a few days of its disappearance, people were pining for it. It returned to Beautyspin this week, and within 48 hours it sold out again. It was priced at $50.89. Prices on eBay are currently in the $90 to $200 range. This is insanity.

This is also the definition of "hype" in the fragrance world. We saw this with Red for Men eight years ago when it was unavailable and "discontinued". Bottles of vintage Red were going for anywhere from $150 to $300 on eBay. Then it was reissued at five dollars an ounce, and suddenly those inflated internet prices plummeted. Today you can get a 1.7 oz vintage on eBay for $30. And then there was Claiborne Sport, which was usually found at discounters for ten to twelve dollars for 3.4 ounces. It was briefly unavailable a year ago, and Amazon/eBay prices shot up to $100 a bottle. It suddenly returned to shelves at its original price point, and those inflated prices vanished.

Now with Perry Ellis we see the exact same phenomenon. The problem with OBVA is that it's a Perry Ellis fragrance. Quality-wise, this brand might, when standing on its tippy-toes, brush the Chanel Allure line, and just barely at that. PE has never been a very good brand. Its 360 line is generally forgettable sneaker juice. Its signature frags are highly synthetic. There's just nothing "luxe" about Ellis, which is why I said their perfume line is oxymoronic in nature. Yet people have subscribed to the notion that this particular fragrance is worth these prices. Why? And why now?

There's little doubt that basenotes fuels these strange moments. Conversations in its forums often creates the illusion of quality. People are looking for a fragrance. Therefore, it must be excellent. But if it's so good, why aren't more experienced senior members raving about it? Is demand really high for this stuff? If so, why hasn't PE jacked up the price per bottle? It was gone for months, and then it returns at the same price it was going for before. Perhaps this was just a random palette of bottles leftover from the first release of OBVA, and PE hasn't actually reissued it, which might explain why prices remained static, but still. Beautyspin could have raised the cost on their end by as much as they wished. They didn't.

The other thing I've noticed is that people are usually only interested in something like this when it becomes unavailable. If OBVA were always available, there wouldn't be this sort of hysteria over it. But because it's hard to find, guys want it. It's about supply and demand, but instead of demand overtaking supply and making something scarce and more expensive, demand becomes high only after supply has gradually dwindled, and non-auction merchant prices remain unchanged. Welcome to the twilight zone.

But bottles have always been available at auction. I used to think that eBay was where people went to get the stuff they couldn't get elsewhere. Yet basenoters are "waiting" for OBVA to reappear on Beautyspin, and largely eschewing those wildly-inflated bottles on eBay. They'd rather just pay $50 for it, and they're willing to wait a few months to do so. Ebay prices have gone down, too. It can be had for $150 and less. People weren't sustaining those $200+ prices we were seeing back in January, or we'd still be seeing bottles moving around within that price range, or even over it.

Back then, as chronicled in the "Perry Ellis OBVA Now Selling For $300" thread, the inflated prices were fishy. It was noted that certain eBay accounts were repeatedly bidding up various bottles, which vaguely supported my longstanding theory that such prices represent a vacuum of interest between merchants that never actually connects with the general public, i.e., buyers that want to wear an item, not just buy and resell it. Having read through the thread in its entirety, I'm astonished by how difficult it was for people to answer the simple question as to just who, exactly, pays more for something like this. Despite the question being posed by a couple of members, the entire thread consisted of responses that failed to coherently connect the logic of paying $300 (or even $120) for something that days ago was available for a mere $50.

The fact that nobody could answer the question speaks volumes. The members defending the idea of OBVA at $120 - $300 all said that they would never buy it at that price, but could understand why others might. This makes no sense. One guy, a member who appears to enjoy a minimalist view of capitalism, stated that something is "worth whatever someone will pay for it." Perhaps, but in this case, who is "someone?" Based on these threads, I think "someone" is whoever requests "availability alerts" on Beautyspin so they can pay Beautyspin's price for OBVA. It's clear that buyers are more interested in keeping OBVA's price where Beautyspin has it, rather than where anonymous eBay merchants have it.

One member compared it to paying retail for Tom Ford fragrances, which makes no sense at all. Another compared it to "good deals" for discontinued Stetson Country and vintage Escada, suggesting the market isn't generally unreasonable, and only the occasional scent gets absurdly priced, which are moot points. (Stetson Country wasn't popular, and I've yet to see reasonable Escada prices.) Some suggested it's a factor for people with "discretionary income" to consider, which is as broad and meaningless a point as one can make. Nobody could make a convincing case for spending any more than $50.89 for OBVA.

Remember, when people buy Perry Ellis on Beautyspin, they're already paying grey market prices for it. In the grey market, prices fall. They don't rise. That's the point of the grey market. Internet sales of OBVA are all grey market. You can see for yourself that many basenotes members don't realize this. It's this fact alone that nullifies the assertion that buyers really "set the price" for something like this. The price is always driven by market utility first, with concern for subjective value a distant second.

This is the latest case of newbies basing a fragrance's value on its availability, rather than on what they know about the actual fragrance itself. And I believe most of the basenotes members who want this fragrance and missed out on it the first and second time will wait for the next time it's available on Beautyspin to buy it.

Update: One of the basenotes members, on his blog, attempted to answer the question posed in the title of this post with the following:

"Two people did recently, about $100 total per bottle (see ebay item number 381628715126). Presumably, this was prior to the temporary restocking, but it’s out of stock again, and people spend money on all kinds of 'frivolous' things every moment of the day . . ."

I would like to point out that if you search that eBay item number, you merely find a current listing, (even when you check "sold items"), with no evidence of the item actually having been sold for $100. When you click on the seller and review his feedback on items sold, you can see that at no point did he sell OBVA for that amount. Sloppy investigative blogging on his part? I'll let you decide. People may make frivolous purchases all the time, but not for this fragrance.

I want to thank the blogger for continuing to provide clear-cut examples of why eBay fragrance sales should sometimes be regarded with the utmost suspicion, and for fortifying the idea that no assumptions about their legitimacy should ever be made.


5/18/16

Midsummer's Night (Yankee Candle)



One Hot '80s Fougère. Who Knew?


I never do candle reviews, but this is an exceptional candle in terms of burn quality and scent, so this post is commensurately exceptional. I generally have no time for Yankee Candle's products. I think they're sweet, synthetic, candy-like fragrances that become nauseating after two minutes. It's not uncommon to find a colorful array of battered wicks with blunt names like "Tulips," "Eucalyptus," "Bakery Air," all very clichéd and far from anything you'd want to fill a room with.

"Midsummer's Night" is the only candle in the line that stopped me in my tracks, and believe me, when it comes to Yankee, I've tried and tried. Yes, some are pleasant, and many aren't, but "Midsummer's Night" is different. With this one, a particular scent the company has kept in production for several years now, the game changes dramatically. There's absolutely no guesswork. No delay. No time lapse. My reaction to this is instantaneous, within a millionth of a second. I said it out loud immediately upon sniffing it: "This is Drakkar Noir!"

And my god, it is. It's so identical to Drakkar Noir that I'm shocked Guy Laroche hasn't sued them for it. It isn't rendered as a flat sweetness. It doesn't smell like candy, or a scratch-'n-sniff sticker. It's complex, with separable lavender, tonka, and woody notes lucidly blended together into a coherent, well balanced fougère. Of course, there's no real copyright laws governing the usage of a fragrance "type," and unfortunately for Laroche, Drakkar has been copied so many times over the last few decades that it's officially become a "type" of scent, rather than a specific one. But still. This is, out of all the "clones" that I've encountered, the only one that is 100% spot on. This friggin' thing is the candle version of Drakkar Noir.

I suppose there's a touch more sweetness in there when the candle is new, although Drakkar's coumarin note is no joke, so this is very debatable. However, all you have to do is light it, let it burn for an hour, and blow it out. As it burns, the dryness of Drakkar is conveyed via smoky vapors, tinged with a familiarly synthetic lavender analog that generations of men have come to love. Let the wax dry. Sniff again, and yikes. The scent is now infused with a dry, gentle smokiness. That little touch of extra sweetness is gone. It's even pitch black in color, lest there be any confusion here.

If you love Drakkar Noir as much as I do, and wish Laroche was upscale enough to candle it, I encourage you to grab a small "Midsummer's Night," which shouldn't cost more than eleven dollars. It's this brand's one and only masterpiece.


5/15/16

Exceptional Because You Are for Men (Exceptional Parfums)


Yes, this is retro now.

I'm reviewing this fragrance not because it's Fragrancenet's house brand, or because it's another "melon-aquatic," but because I actually like it. If you shop at Fragrancenet, you've received samples with your orders, but you've probably ignored them, as there's nothing unique here. It's a citrus top, followed by a watermelon mid, and an ambergris-tinged "sea notes" base. I mean, yeah, we're in this place again.

Except with this fragrance, it's all done surprisingly well. I think it's miles better than any of the known Millesime Imperial clones, stuff like Love & Luck, Unforgivable, Acqua di Gio, Unbound for Men, Perry Ellis 360 Red, etc. Its citrus actually smells like citrus, and not screechy metallic synthetics. The melons smell juicy and green, like overripe fruit dripping juices down your shirt. The "aquatic" element is restrained and balanced, a tasteful saltiness with hints of violet leaf for a floral countermeasure to the edible notes. It's easy to like.

Summer is right around the corner in the northern hemisphere, and if you're looking for that familiar nineties (now retro) melon-aquatic frag to wear to picnics, but want it from somewhere different, look no further. EBYA for Men is a beautiful take on this theme, a very direct, sturdy, fresh interpretation of summer in a bottle. Bear in mind that at twenty dollars an ounce it's a relatively pricey choice, but I'd rather spend the dough on this scent than Acqua di Gio for one reason: no Hedione overload. In my opinion, save for MI, this is the most vibrant and balanced composition I've smelled.



5/1/16

Pheromone for Men (Marilyn Miglin)





This 1980 release by Miglin was a surprise for me. Based on my reading, I expected to smell an aggressive green-woody chypre. Instead I got a musky, feminine, chypre-esque composition that loosely resembles Mitsouko. It smells very smooth, velvety, mossy, and classically French. (Oddly enough, it's from Chicago.)

Before getting into my review, I should mention that this stuff elicited effusive praise from an attractive middle-aged Ukrainian nurse I met at work. (Oddly enough, she lives in Chicago.) She made me nervous because she was more focused on the scent than on the massive needle she was about to jab into my arm. If I had any doubts that Pheromone attracts the opposite sex, lovely Nina from Belarus quashed them.

It's not a particularly complicated fragrance, so I don't have much to add here. The top notes are the most dynamic part; Pheromone opens with a piercing salvo of sour citrus and coriander, moistened with a urinous splash of honey. It's an austere and borderline unpleasant effect that fortunately burns away after a minute or two. Things get much friendlier from there, with an enveloping heart accord of soft beige musks. Occasionally I get a whiff of natural labdanum oil amidst a dusting of oakmoss, but neither of these two elements dominates, and I certainly wouldn't declare Pheromone a "green" scent. It's not even a "chypre" in the truest sense. It's a musk scent with chypre notes, and maintains its muskiness throughout.

There's probably a hundred different musks here, but none of them smell outright raunchy. They veer away from animalism and into refined civility, the smell of stale Mitsouko bar soap. Given its American pedigree, I want to say it's something Rebecca De Mornay's Lana from Risky Business wore while coercing high school studs into pimping gigs, but somehow this sardonic scent is more Catherine Deneuve's Hélène in Hôtel des Amériques. Why did Ms. Miglin need the feminine Pheromone if she had this stuff in her range? Anyway, to the ladies and germs out there, try this one. It's very nice. The 1950s quasi-Egyptian Hollywood Boulevard bottle is a nice touch.