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Designer, Indie and Niche Perfume -What is the difference?

Perfume may be for everyone, but not every perfume is the right one for you. If you have exceptional taste, then indie perfume and niche perfume is where its at! Here is the key to discovering that unusual and hauntingly delicious perfume that you can’t find at any department store.

Niche Perfume is not Indie Perfume

First let’s get one thing straight, niche and indie perfume are not the same thing! These days the two terms are often used interchangeably, but they used to be more specific. Niche perfume and indie perfume tend to have very different olfactive profiles. To understand why, we are going to take a sneak peak into the mysterious fragrance industry.

Independent from what?

When we say indie perfume in the fragrance industry, we are not talking about some hipster patchouli potion. An indie perfume brand is one owned and operated by the perfumer independent from another fragrance house. A fragrance house is the industry term for a company that designs and produces perfume, often for other companies including niche perfume and designer brands. Some bigger fragrance houses include Givaudan, Firmenich, Symrise, IFF, Takasago, and Mane. Artisan perfume also falls under the category of indie perfume but generally refers to small batch perfume that is actually compounded by the perfumer or business owner as opposed to using contract manufacturing.

10 Indie Perfume Brands You Need to Know:

Designer and Niche Perfume

In contrast to indie perfume, you have your designer perfume and celebrity scents. These companies are not specifically dedicated to creating fragrance and often also produce other fashion and cosmetic items. As mentioned, they usually source their perfume from one of the large fragrance houses. Although, there are a rare few, like Hermes, that employ what is called an internal perfumer who only formulates for the specific brand.

Thanks to massive marketing campaigns, designer and celebrity perfume are what most people are familiar with, making them “mainstream” and naturally they tend to follow trends to appeal to the masses. With this goal in mind, they may take fewer artistic liberties, but the perfumes can still be fantastic. There is a reason they are so popular after all. The perfumers behind these types of fragrances often have to work with many constraints due to the budget allocated to the formula, and yet still manage to turn out some beautiful fragrances! Perfume is an art and the value behind art is not necessarily connected with the cost of the materials, so perhaps this point is irrelevant. This article is not meant to dis designer and celebrity fragrances, just direct those whimsical people looking for something more eclectic and challenging.

If you are looking for something different, but not too polarizing check out some niche perfume. Niche perfume tends to be less trendy, although you might pay a little more. On the bright side, with bigger budgets and a smaller audience, these brands tend to use more interesting raw materials. The word niche, which can be used to describe something specialized, might suggest that a niche brand makes specialized perfume, but it actually just means the brand specializes in selling perfume and only perfume. The perfume itself is still generally being formulated at one of the big fragrance houses. That's not to say that none of the niche perfumes are special, on the contrary, niche brands like Creed or Le Labo, have launched some truly inspiring, even trendsetting fragrances.

My Favorite Niche Perfume Brand

My personal favorite niche perfume brand is Frédéric Malle. This brand operates very differently from your average niche or designer brand and it shows in the perfume! Frédéric Malle, a "perfume publisher", operates his brand much like a gallery of sorts. He still contracts the perfumers from the large fragrance houses, but its done a little differently. Instead of giving the perfumers a budget, marketing and branding to consider, he gives them a topic, no budget, and all the freedom to bottle their hearts desire in a perfume! With no limits on their artistic liberties, the perfumers for this brand have made some of the most beautiful and even challenging fragrances. My personal favorites are Carnal Flower, Portrait of a Lady, Musc Ravageur, and Synthetic Jungle. In my eyes, this brand allows the perfumers personality to shine through the perfume.

The Secret....

Whether you are buying niche perfume, designer perfume, or celebrity perfume, the juice itself is likely coming from one of the top fragrance houses. So how does it work?

When one of these big brands (designer or niche) wants a perfume, they create what is called a brief, aka a description of what they want their fragrance to smell like. Then they send that brief to a few fragrance house. These fragrance houses are where the perfume is actually made. A fragrance house is the industry term for a company that independently designs and produces perfume using teams of perfumers to write the fragrance formulas. After receiving a brief, they will compete to win the business, sending samples of their fragrances to the brand until one is chosen. Then they simply sell the fragrance, but NOT THE FORMULA.

Indie perfume smells different...

I would argue that there are a few factors that give niche, designer and indie perfume different vibes.

Appealing to the Masses

When it comes to large designer perfume and celebrity perfume, it’s usually about appealing to the masses. For a perfume to have mass appeal, it generally will not be too far off the beaten path and is likely to be based on a previously successful launch to give it that element of familiarity.

Exclusivity at a Cost

Price is another factor. For the vast majority of designer brand perfume launches, affordable price tags are more heavily favored. For brands like Calvin Klein, Montblanc, Carolina Hererra, etc, their fragrances are typically priced in such a way that normal people, with normal salaries, can buy them without breaking the bank. This of course puts pressure on perfumers to develop less costly formulations. In addition to this, these brands put a large portion of their admittedly large budget into the marketing and product packaging. It goes without saying, these perfumers are less likely to go heavy handed on the rare and expensive ingredients (like the galbanum CO2 or Agarwood featured in Rose Deity by LabHouse Perfume).

Smaller niche perfume brands tend to be a little more artistic, perhaps because they are less limited by budget spent on marketing, not to mention they seem to double the price of a bottle, but hey, exclusivity at a cost. However, the perfume is still likely coming from one of the big fragrance houses.

The Perfumers Pedigree

Perfume can be olfactory art, and when it comes to art we need the challengers, like Banksy and Vincent van Gogh. I promise this is not as off topic as it seems…

Imagine for a moment that all of the artists in the world were trained at one of the same five big art schools. No doubt we would be missing out on all the Vincent van Gogh’s of the world. Artist with no rules, restrictions, and no formal training. Imagine for a moment that all the perfumers in the world were trained at one of the big five companies. While not all perfumers are trained at one of these companies, all the designer and celebrity perfumes you can find in the mall are likely coming from the same few fragrance houses, and all of the perfumers there (artist in this analogy) went to one of the very few and very selective fragrance schools.

I am not saying these schools aren't awesome, but just statistically speaking, there has got to be talent falling through the cracks! There are only a few choices when it comes to fragrance schools, the majority of which are internal to the fragrance houses mentioned above with ISIPCA being one exception. These schools are a part of the company and so they typically only accept students on an as needed basis. If you thought Harvard was selective, that is nothing compared to these schools. The Perfumery School at Givaudan for example only allows for an average of 2 new students per year out of 2500 applicants. That is a 0.08% acceptance rate! On top of that, the Givaudan program is one of the few that doesn’t require years of expensive degrees prior to entry. On the other hand, ISIPCA for example, requires a bachelor's and a masters in STEM before paying $11,101 to join their 1 year internship that does not guarantee you one of these highly competitive positions. All that to say that there are bound to be some fantastic perfumers out there without pedigrees and you will find their fragrances in indie brands.

Freedom in Fragrance

Indie brand perfumers work without the constraints of a brand that is not their own, a brief they did not design and a budget they did not set. With indie brands you are bound to find delightful fragrances off the beaten path. On the down side however, you may run across some “mud” fragrances. A term used to describe an unbalanced mixture of fragrance materials, often involving too many naturals and a lot of patchouli. With no pedigree there is no guarantee. In other words, some of these perfumers are self taught and the level of skill will vary, so sample first.

One might also argue that a background in chemistry is important as some perfume materials are harmful when dosed incorrectly and it is common to run across stability issues when formulating. As an indie perfumer with a background in biochemistry and toxicology, I take this very seriously and generally follow the same industry standards that most designer brands follow. Perfume is a perfect example of where chemistry and art intersect!

Final Thoughts..

Designer, indie and niche perfume brands tend to have different olfactive profiles and you can find great fragrances in all three. Perfumes coming from the large fragrance houses are great but, there are some hidden gems in the indie perfume market. I just want to open your eyes and your nose of course to some new and unique olfactive art and maybe the right perfume for you.

I hope you enjoyed the read and discovered an indie perfume brand for you! I try my best to be as accurate as possible, and I should note that this is mostly an opinion piece. If you would like to read more of my content follow me on Facebook and Instagram.

- Miriam Shechet

Further Resources

Fragrance Houses
Indie Perfume Brands
Other Sources

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