PARIS — Many so-called “niche fragrances” are gunning for the spotlight.

Although still manufactured by small, independent companies, they’re no longer tucked away on the back shelves of perfumeries here as consumers fan demand for more individual scents.

“An important change within the fragrance market is our consumer’s shifting attitude to scent,” said Caroline Hindle, buyer for perfumery and cosmetics at Harrods department store in London. “Men and women increasingly want the fragrances they wear to reflect who they are within. This has led to a surge in the demand for ‘niche’ fragrances. Consumers want scents to portray their own distinct personalities, and they have a genuine enthusiasm for unusual, interesting, quality ingredients.”

“Niche fragrances are truly a driver in the upper-scale sector in department stores, specialty stores and smaller perfumeries,” added Jill Hill, managing director of Sussex, England-based Aspects Beauty Co., a fragrance distributor and owner of the La Foret des Parfums concession in London’s Harvey Nichols department store as well as a freestanding boutique.

“There’s such a plethora of choice in fragrance that many consumers are bewildered,” she continued. “They’re looking for fragrances that are more interesting, more personal and that they can call their own. They’re looking for references to [the brands’] heritage, to pure natural ingredients, to a powerful nose or to a powerful historical heritage.

“Retailers have discovered this and are allocating more space in stores [to niche scents],” she said. Cases in point include Sephora, in addition to Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores, which have grown their niche offering exponentially during the recent past.

Hill added niche fragrances offer high-end retailers the possibility to differentiate themselves further from mass market retailers, which increasingly have been turning up the heat in terms of interesting product mix and presentation. “It’s a way to target customers who are ahead of the masses,” she said.

Plus, selling niche fragrances can help spur sales at the fragrance counter. “Twenty percent of the [fragrance] market is driven by novelty,” said Laurence Bacilieri, senior consultant for cosmetics at London-based tracking firm Mintel. However, she cautioned, “it’s a tough way to make business; you have to constantly innovate.”

This story first appeared in the June 30, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Her view is that niche brands often come upon the problem that packaging and fragrance suppliers can be uninterested in small orders, while many retailers charge huge amounts for in-store visibility. Massive marketing budgets need to be earmarked for any type of global recognition, as well. “We are seeing some fantastic concepts,” Bacilieri said, but she added there must be money there to back them.

Bacilieri maintains the swell of niche names has a negative effect on today’s business. “There are so many niche products coming from everywhere — the market is overflowing with them; it’s very confusing,” she said. “It’s like catching the wave; some of them do, and some of them don’t. Niche is really hard.”

That being said, new niche brands are being launched fast and furiously. In the U.K., reality TV star Jade Goody just introduced her niche scent. Cheese-maker Stilton has cooked one up. Royal Ascot is galloping ahead with its own eau, and Scottish Whiskey has something brewing.

Commenting on the general niche fragrance market, Bacilieri said: “I think the U.K. is really good. There are some amazing young brands, with funky ideas. England is more permeable, more accepting of new ideas. The French market is older; few people will try different things.”

But that hasn’t deterred brands in France. Among the newest, most outspoken — and creative — is one slated to hit the market in France in September. Called Etat Libre d’Orange (or Free State of Orange, in English), its name refers to a former independent republic in what is now South Africa. The brand’s founder, Etienne de Swardt (a native of that country), coined as its tag line, “Le parfum est mort, vive le parfum” (or “Fragrance is dead, long live fragrance”), a takeoff on “long live the king.”

With his new project, created with perfumers from fragrance supplier Givaudan, he wanted to break all traditional codes. (See related story, opposite page.)

“It’s a declaration of independence,” he said.

With contributions from Ellen Groves, Paris, and Brid Costello, London

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