‘Fragrance is one of the sectors in France where the strength of expertise and manufacturing is complete,’ says James Heeley, one of Paris’s leading independent perfumers. ‘Paris is still the capital of perfume.’
The city is home to many of the globe’s most famous fragrance companies, including,Guerlain, Fragonard, Creed and Chanel and is, in turn, associated with iconic products such as Jean Patou’s Joy and Chanel No 5. Alongside these, independent perfumers like Heeley are also making their mark, appealing to those who are seeking a less mainstream product – and an insider name.
That special something
‘The fragrance industry suffers from over-marketing and the constant re-releasing of the same fragrances, so more people are now after a smaller brand with a distinct point of view,’ explains Soulaimane Alaoui, retail manager for Serge Lutens, based on rue de Valois. ‘There is a demand for something special, as there is in fashion or accessories. And a boutique fragrance is a relatively cheap way of having something not many people will have. It’s not a couture dress, after all...’
The range of niche Parisian fragrance houses is growing with this new-found fashionability – Nicolaï, JAR, The Different Company, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier and Etat Libred’Orange are among them. Jovoy, on rue de Castiglione, brings together its brand along with fragrances from other independent makers under one roof.
Francis Kurkdjian, one of the most esteemed progressive fragrance designers in Paris, creates blends under this own name as well as for the likes of Givenchy, Roger & Gallet and Dior. A recent creation is the Jean Paul Gaultier hit, Le Male.
Independents produce their fragrances in much smaller batches than the large names and allow bespoke fragrances to be commissioned at prices which are more reasonable than those charged by the big fragrance houses. They also tend to have more creative freedom. Kurkdjian, for example, has recreated a fragrance worn by Marie Antoinette. Amyris, one of his key releases, is based on the orange-scented resin produced by the amyris tree. He has also developed a scented candle inspired by the 1920s, using a palette restricted to what would have been available during that period.
‘It was like asking a painter to work without primary colours,’ he says. ‘We had to remove around 80% of the ingredients we might work with normally, so it was a challenge and gave me great respect for the fragrance designers who were working then. When I work on my own fragrances it’s to explore the kind of ideas I couldn’t always explore under the big brand names.’
Similarly, Heeley has produced some free-spirited fragrances – unusual ideas include blends that have mint or tiger balm at their heart. He has also created others that aim to mimic the scent of sea air. ‘There is definitely an advantage in being independent,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to work to a marketing brief, so you can do things that are more interesting, quirkier and riskier than the big fragrance groups usually can. You don’t have to get caught up in trends.’
Kurkdjian advises that anyone who is interested in a boutique brand carries out some research to ensure that ‘the people behind it are real perfumers, and that it’s not just a marketing exercise’, but when you’ve found your personal perfumer, there’s no return. ‘Once you’ve switched to boutique fragrances it’s hard to go back to the mass-manufactured kind. When they’re good they’re a higher level of fragrance,’ says Alaoui. Such a blend will have a unique ‘sillage’ or ‘vapour trail’ – a hint of the fragrance that remains in the air as the wearer passes by. ‘You realise that the quality of the ingredients means that the fragrance changes on you. It becomes your own, even if it wasn’t made just for you,’ he adds, proving that Paris remains couture-focused in every sphere of style.