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Best niche fragrances 2020
Best Indie/Niche Perfumes of the Last Decade
Best in Show
How do you choose a favorite between your children? That’s not a totally impossible choice, but a difficult one – perhaps just slightly easier when pondering the topic of perfume. Niche and indie perfumes exploded in the fragrance world at the dawn of the current decade.
From 2010 – 2019, hundreds of new perfume houses were born and thousands upon thousands of perfumes were created and launched. A number of trends had a tremendous impact on how perfume was worn and understood:
Niche began to inform the tastes and value propositions of designer perfume houses, offer up unconventional scent profiles, and re-imagine the kind of stories that perfumery tells us. Sub-genres within niche emerged like luxury niche, artisan perfumery, all-natural artisan, and experimental concept perfume.
An overriding idea permeated the beginning of the decade: the notion that there is room for everyone, where the boundaries could be as wide apart as possible.
Some perfume houses set the stage for all this to happen: Comme des Garçons, Frederic Malle, Pierre Guillaume Paris, and Nicolaï Parfumeur Createur had been working outside the traditional “lines” before this decade and served as inspirations for many perfumers yet to come. Frederic Malle, in particular, suggested a new model for how perfumes could be made:
He, as creative director, designated the parameters of a world in which guest artist-perfumers could enter and generate their own special palaces of fragrance. This is the larger globe of perfumes that all live with the Frederic Malle kingdom, unified by artistic vision, but distinct with their own architecture and landscaping.
Other independent perfumers, like Josh Meyer of Imaginary Authors, chose the metaphor of a library into which he’s added curious backstories of writers and their novels as the vertebrae of his perfume creations. This decade saw his bookshelf of fragrances grow wider and richer in its depth and expanse, a seemingly boundless arena to explore.
Meanwhile some perfumers, while remaining independent, took on the luxury market with elaborate scent profiles and bottles, like the curious and provoking perfumes of Stéphan Humbert Lucas 777. The manner in which niche and indie perfumery opened up the options by which it could express itself were imaginative and daring, bucking traditions like “gendering” perfumes or relying on traditional top-middle-base note formulas.
Certain trends clearly impacted niche and indie perfume. Something that nearly everyone points to is the west’s “discovery” of oud – that precious agarwood that emits a whole plethora of scents from woody to animalic to foul to floral.
What it did do, however, is add an extremely powerful new profile to the perfumer’s palette, and also expand what perfumer wearers consider “worthy of putting on skin.” Additionally, it suggested that perfumery of the east was not so far away, and its influence was quickly drawn into the hearts of independent perfume makers.
So great was this influence that perfumes from all over the spectrum, from designer brands to celebrity perfumes, all started to feature oud in their output. This is a perfect example of how 2010-2019 had such an enormous impact on the culture of perfume and continues to do so.
Fragrantica authors were naturally challenged to think of one perfume from this rich world that could sum up the best, the brightest of such a diverse field.
What we present here are choices, not monolithic or definitive, but informed and important – works that we each feel represent something vital about the progression of perfume over the past ten years, its high points, its noted achievements.
For many, our “honorable mentions” are just as praise-worthy and could easily be final choices in their own right. The decade presents us with so much creative exploration and genre-defying new ground to cover, what do you believe best captures this previous decade in niche and indie perfumery?
It’s not very hard to figure out what the most popular or influential perfume of the decade in the niche-indie sector is. Just look at the Fragrantica Readers’ Choice Awards “Best Niche Of All Times” category, choose the perfumes launched in the period you’re researching, and then find the fragrances that were copied the most (or – the fragrances you encounter the most).
You’ll be left with Aventus Creed, Baccarat Rouge 540 Francis Kurkdjian, Portrait Of A Lady Frederic Malle, Interlude Man Amouage, Irish Leather Memo Paris, and the list is done.
But when it’s your subjective opinion that counts, then you have to consider which niche fragrances of the last decade you’ve got in your own wardrobe, and which one you wore most often. In that case, for me, it’s Music For A While. A perfume that fits most situations: summer and winter, fitness and relaxation time, mental and physical work.
It starts powerful with an accord of fresh lavender and citruses, sweetened by fruity pineapple, followed by energetic hot spices in the heart, and a patchouli-based amber-fougère drydown. So it’s a patchouli-fougère with a pineapple accent, you say, where’s the magic?
What is it that drags me to the bottle every time I think of it? I figured it out when I compared it to my beloved Jicky Guerlain. Let me simplify their connection like this: Music For A While is the Jicky of the XXI century; pineapple infused, enforced with clean patchouli and with Veltol.
Somehow its style is not evident – I personally always smell a new Siberian wood sauna in it; a fresh woody-resinous smell with some slightly camphorous Siberian pine nuances, branches, cones and nuts.
But I’m sure that Frederic Malle and perfumer Carlos Benaim never aimed to embody a taiga sauna smell – for them, Music For A While is a perfume for a dinner party on the left bank of Paris. And still, there’s a certain magic in the juice. The magic of a balanced composition that is bigger than the sum of its parts. The magic of quality that is timeless.
I believe Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle is one of those niche brands that never compromise on the quality and originality of their perfumes, being a beacon and role model for the perfume industry. Quality and slow perfumes is what we need.
When thinking of the decade that has been the 2010s, niche and indie perfumery truly grew up, and became the viable artistic medium that it is today. Instead of being an outlier of the fragrance world, it now informs major fragrance lines from traditional designers.
Some brands have punctuated this decade with consistently fascinating releases, bucking trends (or spearheading new ones.) Masque Milano is such an enterprise, a niche brand that has combined the model of guest perfumer as artist for each release, along with innovative scent stories pulled together into a kind of extended perfume opera.
And although each of Masque Milano’s fragrances have had something important to contribute to niche overall, it’s 2017’s Mandala that represents one of the greatest fragrances of the decade.
Riccardo Tedeschi and Alessandro Brun started Masque Milano in 2012, at the cusp of this new decade, and chose perfumer Christian Carbonnel as the creator for Mandala – a perfume of incense, spice, and air. Masque Milano said of the perfume at its release, “Light, rarefied air. Utter silence. Cows lazily lying on the grass stare at you, while you start spinning the prayer wheels…”
What fascinates about such a description is the simultaneity of sensations (air, silence, and the whirl of motion.) Although incense had started to make itself known in perfumes prior to 2017, it was usually with a firmer hand and in whopping doses, so much so that you’d never forget it. Comme des Garcons’ Series 3:
Incense was a progenitor of this genre in niche perfumery, where different incenses of the world were explored in detail, to show the power of incense, but also the huge range of smells that could come from within that aromatic family.
Masque Milano added their own particular voice to this emerging niche family with the creation of Mandala. It punctuates the air as an incense perfume of ancient resins, green leaves, aromatic spices, and airy, smoky ambergris.
Mandala balances wood and spice on the center of a circle much like a Tibetan mandala, full of color and pattern that cascades around it. Sandalwood, nutmeg, myrrh, and ambergris take on a kind of oak-like quality, the hull of an earth-bound ship. Stored inside are chests of cloves, cinnamon sticks, angelica seeds, cardamom.
Swirling around this strange vessel is a wind punctuated with spiky hints of oakmoss, labdanum, olibanum – all those heavy resins that add bits of frost and flame to dry tinder. Soon this imaginary boat in the Himalayas is slowly smoldering with a lovely, sweet, camphorous, cedar-infused smoke that trickles across the horizon. We are transported in space, our minds beckoned to drift between peaks of a cool, calming, humming refrain of distant bells.
Mandala, as with many of Masque Milano’s perfumes, suggests that perfume can evoke a place, a ritual, a time, but with such specificity, and intentionality, that the idea of incense is not just about smoke and ritual, but the silence of burning and its trickling shapes.
The contemplation of balance that the mandala itself offers us to contemplate. It’s what niche perfumery is best at: bringing us to an imagined place through fragrance that isn’t designed to be everything, but something poignantly singular.
Looking back at my experiences in the niche segment over the last decade, one house truly stands out for me: the niche/indie perfume brand ZOOLOGIST. Curated and led by Victor Wong, this Canadian brand has captured not only the imaginations, but also the hearts and noses of the worldwide fragrance community, and for good reason.
Niche brands are often criticized for not really offering the anticipated “something new under the sun,” but by creating a perfume brand and aesthetic inspired by the vivid diversity and inherent beauty of the animal kingdom, all the while collaborating with a line up of very talented perfumers, Zoologist continuously has exceeded all expectations.
Connecting perfumes to animals is not new, of course, but in the mainstream perfumery this has been merely a marketing connection, using the image of a panther to imply seductiveness and mystery, or a horse for strength and freedom. The animals chosen by Zoologist shy away from the cliché choices.
My first experience was a sample of Bat, and the idea of smelling a damp cave where hundreds of bats live together really frightened me, even though the brand ‘s description speaks more favorably about an unique olfactory experience that carries you with the fruit bat to a sumptuous feast in a lush tropical jungle, before whisking you down to the recesses of its cavernous home. I remember nervously postponing smelling it for weeks!
I like many of the Zoologist line, but Hummingbird is the creation that, in my opinion, portrays the animal it refers to the best, while still being a highly wearable, happy spring and summer perfume choice. It’s a lively floral that starts off on a high vibration, full of sweet fruit and an abundance of spring flowers.
The feverish energy of the tiny wings of the miniscule bird, creating this low humming sound which announces its arrival, is especially evoked in the beginning stage, after which some honey comes in, as well as cream, amber, a bit of moss, and subtle hints of sandalwood and musk.
The drydown in the end is gentle, tender, and completely different from the temperamental top of flowers and fruit jumping up and down. A quirky, compelling, intriguing creation by perfumer Shelley Waddington that keeps surprising me whenever I smell it.