The Danger Of Misusing The Term "Niche"

A Niche Scent.

On a recent basenotes thread, the following exchange occurred:

Dougczar writes:
"Of course niche houses use synthetics, but designers seem to [generally] use a much higher concentration of the worst offender aromachemicals. The sharp screetchy notes and ISO-E that I smell in a LOT of designers, I don't usually detect in niche - and if I do, it's much more subtle."

Bigsly writes:
"Well, what I've found is that the 'super cheapos' I buy tend to be more natural-smelling than quite a few niche scents I've tried lately."

To which L'Homme Blanc Individuel says:
"I assumed you're so anti-niche because it's expensive. As you said, you're not willing to pay more than $20... but now I'm wondering if it's also that you're picking the wrong niche scents to try."

Bigsly responds:
"With niche samples, it's whatever comes my way. I don't go out of my way to acquire them. Stash is certainly an attempt at niche. You can call it niche pastiche, niche light, or something along those lines (as others have, though most seem to think it should be considered niche, in terms of smell, how it's constructed, etc.) but it's the kind of scent I'm referencing."

L'Homme Blanc Individuel retorts with:
"If you're getting niche bottles for under $20, your understanding of what niche is will be wildly skewed. It's a lot like trying to judge steak when your examples are $10 steaks you'd get at a pub."

And Bigsly parries with:
"I've found that some CK scents of recent years seem to be really loaded with some nasty aroma chemicals . . . If my choice was between this type of scent and niche of recent years, I'd say, sure, niche is a lot better (generally-speaking, obviously), but then there are the 'super cheapos' I've purchased that don't have any kind of 'synthetic' or 'chemical' element (or it's very minor). Just some I can remember offhand: Unbreakable, Cuba Prestige, Magnet for Men, Legend by Michael Jordan, and the aforementioned. For more money, but lower than designer, are Ferrari's Oud and Leather Essence scents, which are among my favorites of the last few years among any scent categories."

L'Homme Blanc Individuel dispatches this nonsense with:
"You complain about how expensive niche is, but look at how much money you've wasted on scents you're trying to get rid of. My entire wardrobe costs less than that."

Spoiler: Although the list is nine years old, it was updated as recently as February of this year, and most of the frags mentioned cost around $10 an ounce, or less.

When you use the term "niche," you're using a word for a sector of an existing commercial market. Most markets can be divided into two sectors: "mainstream" and "niche." A mainstream car is a Chevy. A niche car is a Tesla. A much larger swath of buyers are interested in the cheaper, easier to maintain Chevys than the smaller subset of buyers who prefer the esoteric battery-powered world of Tesla.

In this case, the initial purchase of a Tesla is far more expensive, and the cars are trickier to maintain (hello hi-end extension cords) than the lowly Chevy, but in terms of savings on gasoline and saving the environment, one can see why a sizable fraction of the population buys them. These long-term cost-savvy folks are the ones this particular niche is targeted at.

But guess what? Another niche (call it "new niche") is a car that cost less than $6K back when it was new: the Plymouth Horizon. Yeah, remember those? Little tinny hatchbacks with Volkswagen Rabbit engines and surprisingly fun rack-and-pinion steering. There's a small community of car guys who are devoted to them. They're a far cry from any Tesla, and yet they're a type of niche vehicle, particularly because they're no longer made and a tiny group would donate their left testicles to own one in pristine condition.

Fragrances inhabit the same cost spectrum as cars, and in many cases the spectrum is more elastic, since you can vary the amount of the same given fragrance you want to purchase (but you could never buy half a Tesla). If you want Green Irish Tweed, and can't afford a full bottle, you can purchase a sample of just a few milliliters. But my point here is to make the distinction between calling fragrances "niche" because you're addressing that they sell to a small share of the overall market, and calling them "niche" because you think this is automatically what any elusive or expensive fragrance is.

When Bigsly or anyone else says something like, "Stash is certainly an attempt at niche. You can call it niche pastiche, niche light, or something along those lines," they're misusing the term. What is "niche pastiche?" What is "niche light?" What are these invented names meant to describe? They suggest that niche fragrances all share a common olfactory quality, and that some are a mishmash of this and other qualities, presumably drawn from other kinds of fragrances that are not necessarily "niche." And "niche light" suggests that predetermined qualities are being scaled back, or "lightened" in a given scent.

Clearly this makes no sense. Scent-wise, niche fragrances are not products that you can pigeonhole as being any one specific thing. Xerjoff Dhofar and Harley Davidson Legendary are both niche scents, simply because they are both targeted at vanishingly small sectors of the buying public: those who enjoy expensive Italian perfumes, and those who love all things Harley Davidson. Would anyone say that these two fragrances share anything else in common, other than their both having tiny audiences?

If you doubt their audience size, ask yourself how many people you know who wear either of these brands. Then consider yourself in the equation. For example, I've never driven anything but GM cars my entire life. I've never owned or ridden a motorcycle, and have only known one person who had a Harley (and he didn't even like it). If I wasn't predisposed to trying as many different fragrances as I can get my nose on, why would I want to buy a bottle of Legendary? If I'm not interested in Harley Davidson, what would make me buy their scent?

When the term "niche" is misused, it leads to the assumption that niche fragrances are a type of fragrance, instead of a variety of fragrances that are sold in the niche sector of the fragrance market. It ascribes technical meaning to something that should only be considered in economic terms. Some of the "myths of niche" that I frequently see:
- Niche fragrances are "simpler" than mainstream fragrances
- Niche fragrances are more natural
- Niche fragrances are universally rare
- Niche fragrances are expensive
- Niche fragrances are hard to find
- Niche fragrances should be characterized simply as "niche"
- Niche fragrances are more desirable than mainstream scents
- Niche fragrances are more exotic than mainstream scents
- Niche usually focuses on specific aroma chemicals

Let me briefly rebuff each of these points:

- Almost all of the niche scents I've encountered had the same complexity as the average designer or mainstream scent.
- Niche fragrances use similar amounts of naturals and synthetics compared to their mainstream counterparts, and in many cases niche fragrances rely on synthetics exclusively.
- If you want a rare niche fragrance in the age of the internet, surprise! You can find it on the internet! Even if you can't buy it directly online, there's always contact information to discuss a purchase.
- Some niche fragrances are very, very expensive, equal to the cost of a new car. Some are dirt cheap: if you're a wetshaver, you probably own and use daily one of at least ten niche fragrances that cost $5 an ounce (or less).
- If a fragrance, any fragrance, is hard to find, you need to join the 21st century and get broadband.
- Just calling a niche fragrance "niche" doesn't describe the fragrance. It describes the sector of the market it is sold in.
- Niche fragrances are equivalent in variety and range of quality to their mainstream counterparts. Therefore they are interchangeable with mainstream scents, and should only be judged on individual merits.
- All niche fragrances are at least somewhat "exotic" in the sense that they are made for a smaller group of potential buyers than mainstream fare is. If you call niche fragrances "exotic niche" you're being redundant. You're also describing the exoticism of their fanbase, not the scents themselves.
- Some niche fragrances focus on specific chemicals; some don't. Ditto for mainstream.

With niche, the question to ask is always, "Which niche?" The word describes a very broad spectrum of subsets. Are we talking about designer niche? Wetshaver niche? Brand-name niche? Natural perfumery? Soliflores? Orientals? Chypres? Fougeres? More information is needed to understand what is being discussed. Just saying "niche" is like saying "perfume." The possibilities are endless.


Jil Sander Man Pure (Jil Sander)

Pure Testosterone

Whenever I encounter a chypre, I expect to only half like it. With the exception of Grey Flannel, I've never met one that I outright loved, although Mitsouko does give me a tingle now and then. Jil Sander's Man Pure (also known as "Man 1. Pure") isn't an exception, but it is an incredibly cool fragrance, its professed purity evocative of '80s Wim Wenders films, silvery and inky, weathered faces and smoke. It's the fragrance equivalent of a '70s BMW 2002 with all original 2.0 L. engine, brake failure light, and roughly 80 of its original 100 hp left at god only knows how many RPMs and foot lbs of torque. Man Pure still moves, still has a Neo-noire attitude, and oh by the way, it was manufactured in West Germany, so if you're looking for something with Cold War street cred, it doesn't get better than this. Even the drab, blocky, colorless bottle looks like a brick in the Wall.

Chypres like Man Pure make me daydream, though. Wearing it the other day, I found myself wondering what it would smell like if some contemporary shitkicker outfit tried to make it on a budget for the K-Mart crowd. It boisterous cistus labdanum, lemon, and castoreum opening accord would likely be reduced to some functional analog of "pine" and "grey citrus." Its sophisticated (but aggressively masculine) heart of kitchen herbs, frankincense, wormwood, and oakmoss would definitely be a fake cinnamon woody amber, with one of those annoying pencil-shaving cedar thingies buzzing off the tail end. The smoky musky-mossy finish would be a bland detergent musk mixed with a pinch of treemoss and treacle. It would probably impress me as a solid attempt at something genuinely old-school and unconventional that simply flounders on the basis of not having a skilled enough nose behind it, sort of like these films Hollywood keeps churning out that seem to be made by people who haven't seen any films. That is, it would be ironically weird, and a noble failure.

With this in mind, and remembering that there were no guiding light breakthroughs for chypres like there were for fougeres in this time period, there's nothing suprising about Man Pure. It doesn't try to have it both ways by tucking lavender in the mix; this fragrance has no fougere accord. The citrus note, which is not quite bergamot, but close enough, along with the potent punch of beaver juice and labdanum pretty much shouts "I AM MAN" from rooftops, traveling loudly alongside you everywhere you go. It feels similar to Halston Z14, Salvador Dali Pour Homme, and even a little like vintage Yatagan, with its burnt evergreen needles adding texture and rustic beauty to the proceedings. Released in 1981 to little fanfare, this incredible gem reveals just how ruthless and stark these bawdy Reagan era masculines could be.

If you're looking for a dry, dark, naturalistic chypre with a fresh, silvery incense note, good dynamism, excellent longevity, and an irredeemably macho bite, this is something you should spritz. Wear it to a late-night screening of Wings of Desire and blast Blondie tapes from your Beamer to get the full effect.