Traces of lotus, aromatic fumes of myrrh, soft cinnamon and sweet wine, all distilled into moon-white alabaster flasks. These details of Ancient Egyptian perfume-making can be deciphered from hieroglyphs inked in tombs, 5,000 years ago.
In the twenty-first century, perfume is a huge global industry, and it’s continually transforming. As well as technological innovations, such as the recent introduction of brush applicators by Byredo and Jo Loves (the former dispensing scent in a powder form, the latter gel), an estimated one hundred new fragrances hit the shelves each year. The flood of new products reflects the massive scale of today’s perfume market. As consumers we tend to imagine scent in highly individualised – even romantic – terms, fantasies rooted in Proustian memories and encouraged by advertising campaigns in which image reigns over ingredients. This blurs our recognition of the economic forces that produce these bottled dreams: the industry was worth $36 billion worldwide in 2016.
In a ‘have all’ world, the flirtatious way in which we now wear fragrances has boosted profits. Rather than sticking loyally to a signature scent, or perhaps having one perfume for day and one for the evening, we increasingly tend towards ‘olfactory wardrobes’; whole swathe of bottles on our shelves that allow us to choose a spritz as our mood dictates. One survey found that among women who wore perfume, 79% own between two and ten bottles, while 8% owned eleven or more.
Furthermore, some of the scents that used to clutter our dressing tables and bathroom cabinets are being phased out. Sales of celebrity fragrances in the UK fell by a massive 22% between 2015 and 2016. This was mirrored by a shift towards designer and fine fragrance: the top five US best-sellers in 2015 were made by Chanel (No. 5, Coco Mademoiselle, Chance Eau Tendre), Marc Jacobs (Daisy) and Dolce & Gabbana (Light Blue). These firms have the biggest promotional budgets, as well as prestige and a clear sense of identity. Still more importantly, these brands are synonymous with luxury, and allow the buyer to align easily with a coveted lifestyle.
But the big names aren’t the only big hitters. Niche perfume brands have begun to trickle into our cultural consciousness, and are taking up an increasingly significant market share. So much so, that major beauty conglomerates have been buying up these boutique fragrance houses; Estee Lauder, for instance, has acquired Le Labo, Frédéric Malle and By Kilian. The financial and marketing clout of these parent companies has in turn driven sales of these specialist products. But what first piqued the buyers interest in these little players of the perfume game?
The growing awareness of small fragrance ateliers reflects the broader shift in the zeitgeist away from the mass market, towards notions of individuality and authenticity. One could draw parallels to the independent coffee shop scene, or the rise of craft breweries. It isn’t simply that we don’t want to smell like everybody else, although that’s certainly a factor. It’s also that we want our choice of scent to reflect what we believe to be our unique style (imagine the ‘branding’ scrabble sure to ensue when Instagram introduces a smell function!) When we buy perfume, we buy into the narrative of the product. This is why memories of what scent we wore at particular stages of our lives resonate so strongly; Exclamation!, Charlie Red and The Body Shop’s White Musk tell us about who we were and who we wanted to be at that time. Just remember the cloying sweetness of body sprays picked out as teenagers in Superdrug to feel grown up. The heavy, amber liquid on your Grandmother’s dressing-table that seemed so sophisticated. The rhinestones embedded on the Britney Spears Fantasy bottle, which we believed gave us some of her star quality. Undoubtedly a significant part in the success of the world’s best-selling perfume, Chanel No.5, comes from its rich folklore of apocryphal tales (not least that it was Marilyn Monroe’s saucy answer to the question, ‘What do you wear in bed?’).
Lesser known scents offer a fresh set of stories for us to buy into, and a smaller platform of buyers to share that story with. Most importantly, they can feed more detail into the personas we’re trying to project to the world. Art de Parfum, for example, is a perfume atelier that caters for the rising number of ethically-minded consumers with fragrances that are cruelty free, environmentally sound and absent of a number of potentially harmful substances including nanoparticles and GMO ingredients.
Double royal warrant holders Penhaligons, on the other hand, emphasise their nineteenth-century history along with a tongue-in-cheek Victorian British identity in their marketing. This treatment extends to the styling and scents of their products, as well as their shop decor. Two of their classic female perfumes, for instance, are Juniper Sling and Blenheim Bouquet – respectively referencing the British icons that are London Dry Gin and Winston Churchill (Blenheim Palace is a world heritage site, and his birthplace).
Perhaps Penhaligons will experience a further boost in popularity as Brexit forces us to rethink our place in the world as we cast about for a new, or at least revived, understandings of national identity. Alternatively, 2018 may see trends veer towards the kind of cutting-edge niche fragrances featured in the ground-breaking ‘Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent’ exhibition held at Somerset House last summer. Deliberately chosen to push boundaries, these included evocations of charcoal, ink, deserts, Catholic mass, sexual pleasure – and a water theme park. After all, if a designer perfume can say ‘chic’, or ‘grown-up’ or ‘wealthy’, then why can’t new perfumes say ‘fun’, ‘sporty’, ‘religious’ or ‘adventurous’? Perhaps in a post-Grenfell, #MeToo, Trumpian universe, these topsy turvy ingredients are a just the right reflection of tospy turvy world.