How to Navigate the Endless Spiral Galaxy of Niche and Designer Releases

Ever go on Fragrantica, and wonder what the fuck you're doing there? You're not alone. I've done it many times, and every one of them leaves me with brain fog. The sheer magnitude of the spectacle makes me want to curl up in a fetal position and shut my eyes to block out the light. It's like how I imagine I would feel if I boarded a starship and traveled to the Andromeda galaxy: terrified and overwhelmed. 

Fragrantica is a fragrance database first, and an online "magazine" second. Its database is dwarfed only by NASA's catalog of observable stars in the universe. There are now so many perfumes, most of them new, that it's impossible to keep track of them all. It used to be just the perfumes that were infinite, but now even the brands themselves have grown in numbers that are difficult to parse. For example, the headline on Fragrantica when this article was written features a fragrance by the house of Gritti. What the fuck is Gritti? Whatever Gritti is, wherever it's from, it exists, and I had no idea until a minute ago. 

If you're a newbie to the fragrance scene, this universe of releases, new and old, is beyond daunting. Where to start? But if you're a seasoned enthusiast like me, you know some old tricks to help manage the onslaught of commercial releases that steadily flows past your computer screen and into your consciousness. There are ways to navigate this spiral galaxy of niche and designer perfumes, and I'm here to help you go about it. But first you need to remember something very important. You're not "smelling things" when you get into perfume. If you want to smell stuff, go to your local Converse-sneaker convention health-food grocery store and inhale deeply. That place has all the smells you need.

Your nose isn't the main instrument in this endeavor; your brain is what you must depend on. You discover a "fresh" fragrance, but smell musks and powders? Know what you're smelling, and learn to ignore the note pyramids they give you ('they' being the corporations). A fragrance smells out of balance, but still good? Learn to find and read batch codes to identify the year of release. A $30 scent smells as good as (or better than) something priced at $500? Get familiar with brand histories, brand legacies, and the power of subliminal persuasion. Perfume isn't about smelling. Perfume is about reading.

Once you learn that, you can navigate the world. Read first, then smell. Read about classical fragrance families, as they were defined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Chypre, Fougère, Oriental, Hesperidic. If you are in danger of being sidelined by "woke" railings against the oriental category, just remember this article, and that it told you to jettison any attempt to align the term "amber" with "oriental," as not all orientals are "ambery," and not all "ambery" fragrances are orientals. "Oriental" is not a racist term, it's an English word that Westerners developed to suggest that explorers of foreign lands needed to "orient" in a new direction to proceed, i.e., the East. 

When you've successfully pushed past linguistic misdirection, focus on what each category represents. Study the historical representations of each. For example, if you're interested in chypres, try to get your nose on the oldest available batch of Coty's Chypre, and then get a bottle of Mitsouko by Guerlain. If you're interested in fougères, get acquainted with Houbigant's Fougère Royale, Trumper's Wild Fern, YSL's Kouros, and Caron Pour un Homme. If you're into masculine orientals, look no further than a pristine bottle of vintage Old Spice. For a hesperidic cologne that has survived centuries, 4711 is cheap and readily available. All of the touch points for understanding these realms are at your fingertips with the internet, and if you're lucky enough to live in a metropolitan area, you can probably cross the street to a department store and find them behind the counter. 

After you've covered the basics, you're in a prime position to branch out. Understand and internalize everything you've learned, and follow your interests. Now that you've experienced the best exemplars of each fragrance family, you know what you love, and what you don't. You love chypres? There are survivors that were released in the last forty-five years that are still terrific chypres, and the fragrance forums will help you find them. People talk about the stuff they wear, not what Fragrantica puts on its front page. Get to know the community. Get to know the talk. Read what your fellow enthusiasts, many of whom are more experienced, have to say. Collect the aggregate data over the course of several months of reading, and recognize which fragrances are getting the most conversation, the most praise. Go from there.

Whatever you do, don't get stymied by incompatible data. For example, if a fragrance is getting overwhelming praise, and yet there's roughly 25% of respondents who say they hate it, don't let that minority percentage dictate your verdict. Pro-tip: there's always 25% of people who hate what the other 75% of us love. There are little "pro-tips" in the perfume world that you'll eventually figure out. Into Creed? Like how Creeds smell? Great, you're in the majority. But what are the majority of Creed lovers saying, vs. the legion of keyboard warriors who happen to know that Creed exists, and just want to spout off about the brand on the internet? Chances are a huge chunk of the Creed lovers are actually drifting toward an Arabian brand called Armaf, which sells Creed dupes that are deadly close to the originals for an appallingly slight fraction of the price. 

Follow that drift, don't fight it. Explore alternatives. Explore the "popular" stuff. Go ahead and try all the A*Men flankers by Thierry Mugler. Give Cool Water's 600 flankers a go. Happy with CK One? Get your nose on as many "summer editions" as you can. In love with Creed? Visit the boutique and sample every single Creed there is. When you've had enough, take a jaunt down a few lonelier paths, some unpaved byways that branch off of the food court at the mall and lead you to dusty forgotten shops full of junk, with the occasional hidden treasure. Indiana Jones that shit (without Phoebe Waller-Bridge). 

That's where niche is, real niche, and if you poke around long enough, you'll find that rare hidden gem by some unknown brand that even Fragrantica barely acknowledges. Take the highway to get to secret rooms. You'll find them faster, and you'll save gas. When exploring a galaxy, that kind of savings comes in handy. 


Eye, Hatshepsut (Charenton Macerations)

Charenton Macerations opines on its website that customers should "disobey the rules of olfaction," and that it strives to "create fragrances that make a statement . . . The final ingredient is always you." Yikes. Anyway, this conceptual perfumery has one thing on point, which is its interest in ancient Egyptian perfumes and smells, something that has captured my imagination since I was a child. When I was five, I had a View-Master with a color reel of King Tutankhamun's tomb shortly after it was discovered, full to the brim with every manner of ornate furniture, bottles and pots, and statues. For those who weren't around, the 1980s saw a huge revival of interest in King Tut and Egyptology, and The American Museum of Natural History led the charge with an explosion of shows around the lost civilization and its rulers. You never quite grow out of that. 

It was thus mandatory that I wear Charenton Maceration's 2016 release, Eye, Hatshepsut, which was composed by Cecile Hua. The brand says it's "an olfactive homage to one of history's most notable gender rebels: Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt." Good grief, who writes this stuff? The perfume opens with a dazzling snap of bright green and smoky incense notes, which modulate off of their opposing frequencies to create a bracingly resinous impression of a "fresh" oriental, something I typically enjoy. This accord is not unpleasant but contains a slightly pickled accent that makes me wonder if palo santo is in the mix, and it's a little distracting. Swirling around in the ether are hints of fruity and floral notes, which only increase the curious draw of Hua's composition. After fifteen minutes the incense backs off and lets a distinct labdanum and patchouli accord step forward, with a notably powdery orris and musk to balance the resins, and it feels rich and civilized, but also overwhelmingly masculine to my nose. I guess that's the influence of our gender-bending female Pharaoh? I get serious seventies men's cologne vibes here. 

Eye, Hatshepsut buzzes along on this trajectory for six or seven hours before the musk fades out, with only gentle spices remaining (cinnamon, coriander). This fragrance is traditional, but it doesn't make me think of ancient Egypt and its female Pharaoh glass-ceiling smashers. Instead it has me reminiscing about Jimmy Carter-era aftershaves, things you would've paid $1.99 for at Woolworths in 1979. It does have superior clarity and blending, which is good, because a bottle of Eye costs a C-note, plus tax, the price of entry for anything expertly crafted. However, I'm struck by a strong feeling that this one is riding the waves of its bizarre marketing, and I think it's an egregious example of an ad campaign/product misalignment. 


M for Men Eau de Toilette (Banana Republic)

Jean Claude Delville should be recognized alongside Alberto Morillas and Francis Kurkdjian as one of the three most influential perfumers of the nineties. Cabotine, Curve, Pleasures for Men, and Banana Republic's forgotten M are all noteworthy for shaping the olfactory landscape of the period. If you want a fresh and friendly fragrance to wear while kicking it at the mall, Delville's got your back. His specialty is sneaker juice. 

M for Men (1996) has been through several iterations over the past 27 years, and has currently settled on what appears to be an eau de parfum concentration, which is much lauded on the interwebs. I can't be bothered to go out of my way to drop coin on that, but recently I did stumble upon the EDT formula on a discount rack, and figured that a Banana Republic fragrance isn't the gamble I once thought it would be (thank you, Icon Collection). The box for M cites Gap EU as a distributer, itself a major nineties throwback. It turns out to be a pleasant valencia orange scent, an intense blast of sweet and juicy orange zest that skirts floor cleaner by dint of smelling surprisingly natural, followed by a mellow and unapologetically chemical woody-musk drydown, suggestive of department stores. 

M isn't the statement-maker nineties scent that Cabotine and Curve were, nor is it particularly complex and exciting, but it's an easy, sunny sort of smell that lifts spirits and conveys the neon-lit optimism of the time. I don't often encounter fragrances that focus on orange fruit, and when I do, the Italian in me perks up and gets excited, so I personally enjoy M as a gentle warm weather spritz for casual wear. For the bad boy version of this scent, try Juicy Couture's Dirty English, which adds terpenes and animalics.  


Moon Carnival (Vilhelm Parfumerie)

Vilhelm Parfumerie brands itself as a sort of nostalgic perfumery, one that builds fragrances elicited by memories, a worthy exercise. Founder Jan Ahlgren aims to capture the zeitgeist of the twentieth century's earlier years, and update it into fragrances to wear while listening to Miley Cyrus and Bebe Rexha on Spotify. 

Moon Carnival was released in 2018 and costs $2.45 per milliliter. My understanding prior to smelling it was that it's a modern white floral with a generous Ambrox and vanilla base, which has appeal. Wearing it, however, was a let-down. It smells like body wash. A good body wash, mind you, but body wash nonetheless. It opens with a citrusy pear and freesia accord that is very familiar (reminded me of Valaya) and quite comfortable, but unexciting. This segues into a decently sturdy structure of tuberose, gardenia, a hint of jasmine, tonka, with a skin-musky vanilla finish that we've all encountered before in far cheaper and better fragrances. Why belch out big bucks for this?

Niche brands need to remember something: we're not stupid. Yes, we overspend on perfume, and yes, we're willing to look past the cornerstone "crowd-pleaser" fragrances that every brand is compelled to release to secure their bottom line. But if you're charging $200+ for a bottle, it better smell mind-numbingly great, and not like the stuff we lather on and rinse off after work.


Club de Nuit Sillage (Armaf)

I should start with an updated review of Silver Mountain Water by Creed. I'm smelling the current iteration of that scent as I write this, and since it's from Lucky Scent and it comes in a carded Creed 2.5 ml spray sample, I assume it's the most recent batch, or at least one of the most recent. What surprises me about it is that it opens with a very synthetic and sweet accord that smells almost identical to the clones -- almost. The only difference is that it's noticeably smoother. But if I were to smell it in a hurry, I wouldn't really pick that out. I'd just assume it's another SMW clone. That's how unremarkable the top is. The real thing lacks "wow" factor, and that surprises me. I expected more citrus, more naturals. 

Silver Mountain Water rapidly dries into an "inky" blackcurrant note, and it smells dry, quite dark, and rather flat. My girlfriend thought it resembled cinnamon and vanilla, which is interesting. To me it smells like the many clones of SMW that I've owned over the years, only smoother, and not as sweet. It's nice, but that's it. So there you have it. If you want the "smoothest" version of SMW, get SMW. It maintains this subtle inky blackcurrant note for ninety minutes before fading off into a light musk. It's pretty linear, pretty soft, and just pretty. I guess I can chalk it up to BlackRock fucking with the formula, but to be perfectly honest, it smells almost identical to the last pre-BlackRock SMW sample I had, which was also a synthetic berry over musk, and as transient as a fart in the wind. 

This brings me to Armaf's Club de Nuit Sillage. I'll get the bad news out of the way first: It smells a little harsh in the first thirty seconds. But the more I smell it, the more I think that might be on purpose. Again, as I mentioned in the previous article, Armaf was supposedly aiming to clone a much earlier formula of SMW with Sillage, so the weirdly metallic citrus I get off its top accord might be how the Creed used to smell. It quickly segues into a more robust "inky" blackcurrant note, which smells to me like it has more depth, and also an undergirding of bergamot. My girlfriend confirmed it was "sharper" and "more citrusy" but felt she liked the Creed a little more (and confessed she wasn't wild for either of them). Maybe it's because I can smell it better, but I think Armaf, as it smells today, does a nicer job at rendering blackcurrant. A much nicer job. 

There's a hint of tea alongside it, which develops about twenty minutes into wear, and frankly I got zero tea out of the Creed. Literally none at all. The current formula is really basic to my nose, with just a soft blackcurrant that fades into nothing. Armaf smells juicier, richer, and a little greener, and it's silly to pretend that there's any serious attempt at a tea note, but that hint of greenness is probably it. Just like real SMW, Sillage remains pretty linear, with much better longevity and waaay better throw (one or two sprays will catapult eight feet across the room, easily), and the fact that there's no ambergris note isn't a problem, because the current Creed has no ambergris note in it, either. 

Let's be serious about SMW for a second: people, what I'm smelling isn't worth $500. It's synthetic, super-duper weak, and there's no reason to shell out for it. A more natural and realistic version is found in the $30 Armaf. Sorry guys. I said it. Verdict in. But with that said, I think Armaf's clone is the smoothest, the roundest, the deepest, but it's not wildly different from the other clones in my collection. It's definitely the most refined, and I can see how people would argue it's a SMW killer, because let's face it, it is. If you've smelled Silver Shade, Al Wisam Day, and Sun Java White, you're familiar with how ubiquitous this has become. This is the most cloned Creed in existence. Turns out the clones are pretty good. Club de Nuit Sillage just happens to be the best.