A wave of exciting niche perfume brands is turning the French fragrance industry on its head, offering an exciting alternative to mass-produced products. Discover the contemporary brands breathing new life into France’s amazing tradition of fragrances
France has a renowned olfactory heritage, symbolised in particular by the town of Grasse. This long-standing tradition is currently facing a period of change as, in contrast to huge cosmetics companies which seemingly churn out endless amounts of products, niche French perfume houses offer a breath of fresh air.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian, founded in 2009, is at the forefront of this movement. With eight boutiques worldwide, it has recently joined the LVMH portfolio while successfully preserving its status as a unique, specialised perfume house. As shown by other niche brands, such as Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle or Juliette Has a Gun, the key to success has been in establishing a distinct DNA that sets the label apart.
Having a well-defined objective is essential and something which, in the case of Maison Francis Kurkdjian, was clear from the very start. ‘The Maison started out with a disruptive yet necessary vision: to allow Francis Kurkdjian, the man behind numerous creations with global success, to step from behind the curtains and express a genuine, unbounded and free-spirited creative vision,’ says chief executive officer Marc Chaya.
Perfume house Mad et Len, based in Grasse, also demonstrates a clearly defined stance. ‘When we arrived in Grasse, we found a few partners who were not afraid to work with young dreamers,’ explain the brand’s founders, Sandra Fuzier and Alexandre Piffaut. ‘They were not looking to sell raw materials to make big money – they were just curious about our idea of perfumery. We still work with them in a very unconventional way.’ Having grown the brand slowly, step-by-step, Fuzier and Piffaut’s vision is set to continue in the same vein. ‘We don’t want to go quick and loud, we just try to bring something different,’ they say.
The brand has become renowned for products that combine fragrance and metalwork in a unique way; hand-poured candles, for example, are presented in handcrafted steel canisters. Mad et Len goes back to the roots of perfumery, with a focus on raw materials and quality ingredients. Craftsmanship is also an essential part of Fuzier and Piffaut’s creative process: ‘We try to preserve it, to teach techniques to the young before these techniques disappear.’
Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s ethos revolves around a celebration of quality and beauty. ‘We actually share the same values as our clients – the faculty to be amazed by simple but still beautiful things, a sensitivity to aesthetic codes and attention to detail, a sense of balance and, of course, the craftsmanship,’ says Chaya. ‘Wearing a scent from Maison Francis Kurkdjian is a promise of wearing a state-of-the-art scent, crafted in the heritage of French perfumery.’
Alongside its respect for artisanal traditions, the house showcases new creations to distinguish itself and Chaya believes this lies at the very core of the company. ‘Creation is welcomed and encouraged at all levels. Everything is made in-house; we don’t use agencies, whether it is for photo shoots or marketing. Our creative product development is 100% in-house and the art director is Francis, with my support. We’re very complementary — he works on the artistic side, I work on the business side and we meet in the middle,’ he says.
Mad et Len operates according to similar principles. ‘All Mad et Len fragrances and products are created in-house, from the perfume to the iron vessels,’ say the founders. ‘This allows us to be totally free in terms of creativity and finances.’ It’s clear that creativity remains a central value for these niche perfume houses.
Each of these labels has its own strong identity and they are united by a common thread: recognition of the perfumers behind the fragrance. ‘Today, as marketing and storytelling reaches near saturation, luxury houses are starting to seek perfumer legitimacy and creativity. Gradually, star perfumers are being put back at centre stage,’ says Chaya. Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Frédéric Malle’s Editions de Parfums are obvious examples, along with names such as Ex Nihilo, founded in 2013. This Paris-based brand focuses on putting the perfumer in the limelight, turning to the industry’s best noses for each of its fragrances and giving them creative carte blanche.
For these niche houses, stores add to the overall brand experience. Mad et Len’s Parisian store opened in October 2017. ‘The boutique itself shows our universe, not just a perfume or candle,’ say the founders. These spaces are carefully curated to perfectly communicate the brand identity and bespoke services, and are a way of taking the experience a step further.
Ex Nihilo, which describes itself as a Parisian custom perfume house, offers visitors the chance to customise fragrances from the collection. Further personalisation options include laser engraving for the glass bottle and customised caps. The resulting perfume is beyond niche: it is unique.
France’s niche perfume houses have carved out an exceptional space in the oversaturated landscape of commercial fragrances and Chaya predicts that ‘demand for unique scents and a better experience will continue to soar’. In other words, this is only the beginning of a new chapter in perfumery, one where niche brands reign supreme.