Last summer, in Granada, an instantly recognisable smell filled my nostrils as I walked past a building that turned out to be a perfumery. Like a cartoon character floating on air, I was drawn inside, my nose trailing the scent that had stopped me in my tracks.
The smell was storax, and though I couldn’t have named it, I knew straight away it was the base note of my beloved Chaos, a Donna Karan perfume that was gifted to me one Christmas and discontinued soon after. A complex, prickly, almost medicinal concoction, I’d spent years searching for something similar, but never found anything like it.
Unfortunately, what I smelled that day was not a perfume, but a home fragrance. I bought it anyway — not to burn, just to have — and every now and then I open the drawer I keep it in, breathe it in, and I’m 22 again.
While I miss the scent, what I miss more is the fact that, for a few short years, it was my scent. I never met another person who wore it, it never failed to arouse people’s curiosity, and anyone who tried it never liked it. Something about Chaos and me just clicked.
That’s the wonder of a great perfume. Powerfully evocative, it becomes a fundamental part of who we are, so it’s little wonder the niche fragrance market is booming, as we become ever more discerning about our fragrance choices.
While mass produced perfumes will always dominate, the future of fragrance is far more discreet. For the niche customer, it’s not about the lure of celebrity or satisfying a designer craving with a bottle of Miss Dior, it’s just about good scents; and a new breed of Irish perfumers are making scents that set their wearers apart.
“It’s an new era,” says Marija Aslimoska, a lifelong perfume obsessive who stocks some of the world’s finest niche fragrances in her shop, Parfumarija, in Dublin’s Westbury Mall.
“It used to be that if someone said, ‘Oh, you’re wearing Coco Mademoiselle’, it was a compliment. We were more brand obsessed. Now, if you go out and three women are wearing the same perfume, it’s like wearing the same dress — there’s no personality.”
A classically trained perfumer who studied in the famed Grasse region of France, when she returned to Dublin, Marija was constantly fielding recommendation requests from friends, often telling them that the world’s best perfumes just weren’t available here.
So she decided to change that. Now, she says, the growth of the niche market is reflected in the big brands like Dior and Chanel, all of whom are doing exclusive lines to appeal to the niche customer.
Five minutes in Parfumarija is all it takes to understand the appeal of going niche. “They’re not packed with ingredients like commercial perfumes,” Marija explains.
“Like taking a few steps back, they’re simpler formulas with better ingredients. My customers always come back because once they smell really good perfumes, they’re hooked.”
Beyond niche, there is bespoke, and Marija also creates custom scents to order. “People no longer want to smell like everybody else, they want to be individual,” she says.
For that reason, “Most of my clients, if you ask them what they’re wearing, will say they don’t remember the name. They don’t want to share it.”
For Danielle Ryan, founder of Dublin-based lifestyle brand ROADS, perfume is “not just about finding a fragrance you like, but also one that represents the person you are”.
Danielle felt compelled to add a fragrance strand to the ROADS offering when a theatre project inadvertently led her into the world of perfume.
“We were looking at introducing scents during the performances to enhance the audience experience,” she says.
“In order to create an atmospheric scent, we had to speak to perfumers.”
Her interest piqued, she has since worked with some of the world’s finest perfumers to create a suite of 14 scents inspired by “themes from everyday life”. It’s a process she describes as “very specific and collaborative. It feels like working with a great architect, where you have a vision and they create it alongside you.”
Stocked in some of the world’s most luxurious retail outlets, ROADS perfumes — based on concepts like Cloud 9, Flower Mountain and Neon — sit alongside some of the biggest mass-market brands, but Danielle says, “I think there’s space for both.
“Some people like buying the trends, others like the idea of discovering something unique.” What’s encouraging, she says, is that “more customers are finding the confidence to choose rather than just being told what to buy.”
Sadie Chowen of The Burren Perfumery also points to customer confidence when it comes to the growing market for niche fragrances. “Once people were keen to be associated with a brand, now they have confidence in their own taste,” she says.
Captivated by the Burren 25 years ago, Sadie bought a cottage there just three months after her first visit, and soon began working at the perfumery. Instantly, she says, “I had a very strong vision for it — I could see exactly what it could be.
That’s when I became interested in perfume.” To realise this vision, she undertook four years of perfume training in Paris, and returns every year to refine her skills. Inspired by her heavenly surroundings, she has since created over half a dozen fragrances for The Burren Perfumery, which she now owns and runs.
“There’s two sides to being a perfumer: the creative side and the scientific side,” she says. “Training is all about building your scent vocabulary; you learn 300 raw materials, which you have to be able to recognise without visual cues. These are your building blocks.
“When I’m creating a perfume, I tend to have the idea almost fully formed in my head. The scent is there; I just have to recreate it, a bit like painting a picture with smells.”
Far from finding the crowded fragrance market daunting, Sadie says working outside of the mainstream gives The Burren Perfumery “the freedom to follow our own star and create products we like rather than trying to compete with the multinationals or follow market trends.
“Some of the mass market fragrances are lovely, they’re created by fantastic perfumers,” she says. “But because they spend so much on marketing they can’t afford to have a perfume that doesn’t sell. They stay in a fairly safe bandwidth of what the last top ten perfumes were. We totally disregard that and do our own thing, and that’s quite liberating.
“The business has been growing every year, and what I’ve seen recently is a keen interest from Irish people in Irish perfume, which is fantastic,” she says.
Launched in 2016 by Joan Woods, Waters & Wild is not just Irish, and not just niche, it’s organic; but as Joan found when she went to France to train as a perfumer, there’s a resistance to that concept in the traditional perfume world.
“They were adamant: you cannot work with only natural ingredients,” she tells me.
“So I came home and spent three years training myself, but that’s what’s happening now in the world of perfume – the same noses have controlled the industry for so long; it’s the niche brands who are breaking the rules and doing something different.”
Joan’s interest in perfume was sparked by a move to West Cork, 15 years ago.
“There’s no air pollution here, so everything is very vital and intensified,” she explains.
“I just became interested in the beautiful smells and ingredients available here. We’re aware of what we eat and put into our bodies, and to me perfume is an extension of that. What we spray on our bodies has to be pure too.”
The rebel perfumer is now garnering accolades from even the most traditional quarters. At this year’s Pitti Fragranze, the fragrance industry’s biggest trade show, Waters & Wild was marked as One to Watch, but it was the reaction from fellow perfumers that most excited Joan.
“We were visited by a nose from Fragrantica, the perfume encyclopedia. He was very skeptical about natural perfumes, but he really liked them and how subtle they are. That was wonderful to hear,” she says.
“The market for niche perfumes is growing at 15-18% each year. Customers are looking for something special, something unique.” Marija agrees. “People are beginning to see fragrance as a form of expression,” she says. “The customer is changing. It’s no longer about wanting to be the beautiful girl smiling on the billboard; now it’s about people wanting to be themselves.”