UK perfume's sweet smell of success

With independent fragrance stores blossoming around the country, the UK's artisan scent industry is experiencing its 'punk rock' moment. Oliver Bennett reports.

by Oliver Bennett
Last Updated: 11 Jul 2016

Lordship Lane, in East Dulwich, London, is the sort of thoroughfare that has become such a feature in affluent British cities: all sourdough, boutiques and beauty clinics. But perhaps its biggest 'yummy-mummy' magnet is a shop called Roullier White. Here, a general gift section at the front leads punters by the nose straight into a white-painted atelier where 60 independent perfumes shimmer and entice beneath spotlights.

Roullier White is one of a clutch of perfumers that have taken scent beyond the department-store, orange-faced spray mercenary into a glorious miasma of independent scents, artisanal perfumes and micro-fragrances. 'When we opened 10 years ago, we concentrated on hard-to-find brands,' says manager Lawrence Roullier White, who set up after a career in charities and retail.

'Now we're one of the biggest collection of independent fragrances in the country.' And he's being approached all the time by new scents, eager to join his fragrant fray. His shop attests to an 'indie' perfume boom, and perhaps it had to happen. Take a secretive industry waiting for a breath of fresh air, add the entry to market given by the internet, put in a pinch of hip artisan 'maker' culture and stir with a growing band of fragrance obsessives – anyone could smell it coming.

'We've had craft beer, coffee and cocktails,' says Lizzie Ostrom, who as 'Odette Toilette' runs a perfume events company, offering olfactory events called 'Scratch+Sniff' and corporate evenings such as a recent Renaissance-themed scent event at the Royal Academy's Moroni exhibition. 'This is the moment for niche British fragrance. In the next few years, anyone could be the perfume version of BrewDog. There's a burgeoning connoisseurship movement, and it's particularly grown in the past couple of years.' Ostrom – aka the 'Scentertainer' – adds that to her initiates, the big perfume brands and their marketing seems 'utterly tedious: models writhing around on chaises longues whispering nonsense about destiny'. This is more of a 'punk spirit', she says, and it's great for the industry.

Beauty writer and entrepreneur Josephine Fairley (she of Green & Black's chocolate) reckons that it's no less than a British perfume 'renaissance', and started The Perfume Society six months ago to chart the phenomenon, her own sobriquet being 'the scent critic'. 'The only problem is what to call us,' she muses. 'We called food lovers "foodies" in the 1980s. Can we call ourselves "smellies" or "scenties"?' Names notwithstanding, the outlets are growing. As well as Roullier White, there's Bloom in Shoreditch and Les Senteurs in Mayfair, there's Liberty, which is supportive of small perfumers, Selfridges' Fragrance Lab and niche fragrance sections at Fenwick and Fortnum & Mason, and perfumer Roja Dove's Haute Parfumerie at Harrods. It's happening overseas too, as niche fragrance shops such as Lucky Scent in Los Angeles and exhaustive websites such as Basenotes keep up the invitations for scent-lovers to wax Jilly Goolden about top notes of cardamom and wet dog.

The scenties rely on word of mouth and social media, and there's a clubbable atmosphere out there. 'There's a huge culture of people reviewing scents online that didn't exist 10 years ago,' says Ealing-based perfumer Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays (the new scents have creative names, too). 'Our customers don't want to smell like everyone else. They're bored of big perfumers playing it safe.' They've even moved beyond Jo Malone and Diptyque, which Roullier White calls the 'safe end of the market'. 

Sarah McCartney: 'Our customers don't want to smell like everyone else'

So, how many are there? A large handful or three, reckons Fairley, perhaps two or three dozen, many more if you include those from other countries, where a similar phenomenon has occurred. Some, such as Miller Harris and Angela Flanders, have been established for a decade or so, while in the past few years new makers have arrived including 4160Tuesdays, Tom Daxon, Illuminum, Papillon, James Heeley, Laboratory Perfumes and Ruth Mastenbroek. The energy in the market seems to have revived older brands too, including Floris (the UK's oldest perfumery, founded in 1730), Crown Perfumery and Grossmith, whose 1950s scent White Fire has been reissued to great acclaim.

The new perfumers have a lot of fun. They decant for one another, and as McCartney says: 'There's a huge helpfulness. We're a bunch of people competing with L'Oreal, after all. We're trying to get away from "my perfumes are better than yours". We want people to smell, then decide.' It's about mood, fun, curiosity. Fairley's Perfume Society offers 'discovery' boxes, and that spirit extends to the way niche scents are made. Ombre Indigo from Italy creates perfumes inspired by photographs. Imaginary Authors of Portland, Oregon writes a dust jacket of an imaginary book. Risque was launched with a burlesque dancer.

And the new perfume collectors are active, dynamic. 'If you're interested in good wines, you go and find good wines,' says Ostrom. 'Same with our perfume people.'

Purchasing patterns have changed too, with customers wanting occasion perfumes, which perfume promoter and PR Michael Donovan calls a 'fragrance wardrobe. You choose a scent based on season, occasion and mood. People now say things like: "I'm going to a meeting and want to be in control." Consumers are building collections.' Then there are fanatics and completists who buy everything, and a growing group of fragrant men. 'They want "animalic" scent that growls,' says Donovan.

As with wine, the connoisseurship extends to ingredients sourced globally, and expensively. Niche perfumer Ex Idolo makes a fragrance using a 33-year-old oud - the deep musky scent beloved of Middle Eastern clients - while UK-based Thameen uses taif roses from Saudi Arabia, said to be the best roses in the world. 'Put it like this,' says Donovan. 'We've moved from a world of Liebfraumilch and Black Tower into a world of varietals and named makers. The noughties and tens have been for fragrance what the 1990s were to wine - expanding the knowledge base.'

Donovan has helped launch several British perfumes, including Union, one of Roullier White's biggest sellers, and made entirely from ingredients sourced in the UK: bluebell, thistle, medlar. 'I felt that once we got the bit between our teeth, we'd make excellent fragrances,' says Donovan. 'The British are risk-takers, creative.' Still, there aren't many ingredients made in the UK apart from lavender (grown in Norfolk and Yorkshire) and a few herbs, but Union has managed to make scents from thistles, quince and bluebells. Donovan is now about to launch Electimuss, a new British brand inspired by ancient Rome. The British scents could smell of anything from badgers to rhubarb, and are driven by the muse.

'A Brit might say: "I want to make the smell of the seaside,"' says McCartney. 'My scents are influenced by the idea of a moment, a place.'

It's hard to nail the figures for niche perfumes. But the fragrance market in Europe is worth about £1.5bn in 2014 and about $22bn globally, including the huge and sometimes neglected role of fragrance in the wider scent market: household products and I&I (industrial and institutional) products. The perfume industry is divided up into five companies that have the vast majority of the market: IFF in the US, Takasago of Japan, Symrise of Germany and Givaudan and Firmenich of Switzerland.

Lisa Hipgrave, director of fragrance trade association IFRA UK and a perfumer, is not convinced that there are more micro-perfumery businesses than before, just that 'they're more visible, thanks to the internet'. But she's delighted that scent is coming out of the closet. 'It's been the invisible sense for far too long. Not only are more people talking about and enjoying fragrances but we can demonstrate the value of our sector.' There's also a very interesting realisation of the social value of scent, with initiatives, for example, to make scents that help dementia patients.

Mostly, fragrance brands are developed by a corporate and attached to a perfume from one of the big five houses. Everyone from Lady Gaga to Antonio Banderas has a branded scent, with the biggest hitter in recent years being Justin Bieber's The Key. 'A design is commissioned, a licence paid, market research done, then come the ads,' says McCartney. 'Nothing wrong with them. Unlikely to fail, but hard to distinguish from others.' But they're all mostly brand, with the 'juice' secondary. 'Niche perfumers are the other way round. They follow trends. We don't. We're making memories, they're making ice-cream.'

But can the Brits compete? As with English sparkling wine, there may be the residue of what Ostrom calls a 'self-esteem problem' that fragrance and Britishness don't fit, despite a history from Floris onwards. Donovan points towards 'a different tradition that will enable us to grow. The French industry was patronised by the aristocracy, the Italian by the monasteries. The UK hasn't had those traditions. Now it has the freedom to develop a maverick sense.'

Perfume's power base remains the French town of Grasse, where warm Riviera breezes catch the scent of its famous houses: Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard. But even in Grasse, things are changing. After the University of Porto in Portugal compiled an extensive list of scents, Firmenich opened its Natural Ingredients Innovation Centre in Grasse. The patron saint of niche perfumers is a Frenchman: Frederic Malle. He was the first to put the perfumer's name on bottles and has become part of Estee Lauder, which has just acquired New York niche scent Le Labo. Diptyque's owner, Manzanita Capital, meanwhile, has bought a majority stake in Swedish perfume house Byredo.

Chris Barlett: ''Perfumery's very secretive. I've worked in IT and government and I've never seen anything like it'

Grasse also holds the key to top training, although this is also changing. 'The key perfume school is there (the Institut Superieur International du Parfum),' says Chris Bartlett (left) of small British company Pell Wall perfumes. 'Something like five people graduate a year. Obviously, that's crazy.' Bartlett himself went to Cotswold Perfumery, run by John Stephen, one of the few places in the UK where you can learn the art of fragrance (Kingston University and Plymouth University have also launched new courses). 'It's great fun, but perfume remains an odd industry,' says Bartlett, who, after being made redundant twice eight years ago, decided to follow his nose into the business. 'Perfumery remains extremely secretive. I've worked in IT and government and I've never seen anything like it.'

The industry has other constraints. One, says Bartlett, is crippling regulations, with a lot of 'hazmat' - hazardous materials - and no fewer than 176 standards from IFRA, largely designed to avoid sensitisation (allergies etc). Shipping is a headache, although postal company Interlink has been helpful. The material costs are huge, too, and riven with bulk deals, so indies have to be creative. McCartney found a place in South Africa that handmakes tools to put pumps on and a west London plant that prints small batches of bottles. Bartlett, who lives in Shropshire, buys bulk and then sells smaller amounts to niche colleagues - crucial when ingredients such as jasmine and roses are more costly than gold. Running a niche perfumery is not a road to riches. Bartlett still does consultancy work and ex-copywriter McCartney, who started more than two years ago, has a turnover of £200,000, with most of it re-invested in materials, bottles, packaging and staff. But the entry point gets easier. Ex-property consultant and mother of five Elizabeth Moores launched Papillon in June from her New Forest base, and after spending just £20,000 ('And years of time, don't forget') has already secured overseas sales with her best seller, Anubis, composed of Egyptian jasmine and pink lotus alongside other ingredients. 'People said: "You're going to get eaten alive." But I've got the money back. We don't pay focus groups. We trust our own noses and judgements. It's now time for us smaller perfumers to start building our brand identities.'

One of the more experienced new perfumers is Ruth Mastenbroek, a perfumer for a big international company who went solo 10 years and is now a 'jobbing perfumer' who also makes fragrance for others. 'Perfume appreciation has moved from the brand to recognition of the craft,' says Mastenbroek, who is trying to keep her scents affordable at £80 for 100ml. 'It's part of a wider move away from branded culture. I want to remain a family business.' Small, beautiful and smelly they may be, but one suspects several of Britain's punk perfumers will mature into bigger players.

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