On the scent of a winner

A couple of generations ago, owning a scent - any scent - by Calvin Klein was the ultimate sign of taste for the aspiring luxury consumer. From the Christy Turlington-fronted, Bruce Weber-shot Eternity ads to the ck One campaigns starring Kate Moss and Jenny Shimizu, buying a Calvin Klein scent was owning a whiff of the brand's sexy, cool DNA.

While celebrity scents may be losing their cachet - after all, why would anyone above the age of 13 want to smell like Taylor Swift - major fashion houses are maintaining their hold on the perfume industry with big-budget advertising and cool-name endorsers. Burberry, for one, will be working with British actress and star of Downton Abbey and Cinderella, Lily James, for its My Burberry fragrance campaign, her first global advertising gig. Meanwhile, Chanel has named Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of French actress and long-term Chanel ambassador Vanessa Paradis, as the face of its new No 5 L'Eau fragrance created by famed nose Oliver Polge.

This summer, fans of blockbuster fragrances aligned with luxury houses will be able to spritz on new releases from Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Dior and Salvatore Ferragamo. Parfums Christian Dior's latest scent is La Collection Privee Christian Dior La Colle Noire, inspired by a chateau of the same name owned by the house's late eponymous founder.

It is situated in Montauroux, not far from the world's capital of perfumery, Grasse, in France. Perfumer-creator for Parfums Christian Dior, Francois Demachy, who has been the nose for the brand since 2006 and was born in Grasse, created this new fragrance to pay tribute to the region's terroir and heritage of the label. So dedicated is he to the flower farming industry of Grasse that he set up exclusive partnerships with local flower growers to cultivate rare blooms such as the delicate May rose for the production of the perfume.

"I wanted to pay tribute to a place that is important not only to the house of Dior, but also to me personally, as the Pays De Fayence (a community of villages in the heart of Grasse) is a region I know very well," says Mr Demachy.

"I wanted to express all of its warmth and beauty as well as its ardour. It is a micro-valley where the mistral blows, and is either very hot, or very cold. The May rose is the fruit of all this."

However, for every major new designer fragrance launched, there seems to be a niche scent concocted by an independent perfumer with minimum budget for splashy ads or snazzy bottles. Just like how discovering a little-known cafe tucked away in an old housing estate is a sense of accomplishment of sorts for the java addict, uncovering an exotic scent by a tiny perfumery is also a sign of being in the know.

"The niche perfumeries are putting creativity in the forefront, above financial and marketing considerations," says Sandy Blandin, the founder of Nose Who Knows, a fragrance studio based in Singapore dedicated to olfaction.

"The big brands, however, face lots of financial pressure for every perfume they launch so will try to minimise the risk of failure by spending a handful of million dollars in consumer testing, advertising and marketing, prior, during and after the launch."

For perfume geeks who plan pilgrimages to La Maison Guerlain in Paris to build their fragrance collection, discov ering an obscure scent by an indie perfumer means being able to smell nothing like the over-perfumed receptionist in the office or the atrium of an upscale shopping mall. And there are plenty of options with retailers such as Escentials (located in Paragon and Tangs) curating a mix of the top niche scents.

"Consumers nowadays seek more and more unique and exclusive products, therefore cult and independent perfumes are on the rise," says Luciano Bertinelli, chief executive officer of Salvatore Ferragamo Parfums.

"But this is a general trend that the global brands are also aware of and have been responding to. The fragrance market is extremely diversified with a variety of olfactive proposals and targets, therefore I do not see them as a threat, but an opportunity for fashion houses."

In town to launch the Italian brand's Signorina Misteriosa fragrance, Mr Bertinelli explains that Ferrgamo has also upped its exclusivity factor with haut de gamme fragrances such as Tuscan Soul and the Tuscan Scent Quintessential Collections, which are only distributed in its Salvatore Ferragamo Boutiques and selected top department stores.

"If you look at what's happening today, it's all becoming very blurry," says Ms Blandin. "Traditional brands have launched their 'niche' lines while niche brands such as Jo Malone, Frederic Malle, Le Labo and By Kilian now belong to Estee Lauder. Penhaligon's & L'Artisan Parfumeur were acquired by Puig, and Serge Lutens went to Shiseido."

La Collection Privee Christian Dior, for example, is a line of 12 fragrances targeted at fans of artisanal perfumes. Each is created with precious raw materials sourced from all over the world, including iris from Florence, Grasse jasmine and oud wood from Indonesia, then handcrafted with traditional methods by Mr Demachy.

"Not every brand has an in-house perfumer," says Shaoyuan Han-Montillet, general manager of Parfums Christian Dior Singapore.

"Francois Demachy has been the nose at Parfums Christian Dior for 10 years. He lives and breathes his metier with a rare passion and engagement, whether surrounded by the 2,500 samples of essences and raw materials in his creative laboratory, or amid the precious flowers of Grasse."

Certainly, the allure of exotic ingredients, A-list endorsements and celebrity perfumers who have lived and breathed the craft for decades is a compelling reason for snapping up a major beauty-hall brand scent. But when picking out a signature scent, being able to smell like no other is key.

"I don't think there is a huge difference between the quality of the fragrances, because the legislation and regulation are the same and so the choice depends on your personal preference," adds Ms Blandin, who has a Masters in the Chemistry of Perfume and Aroma and has worked closely with perfumers to create fragrances for global companies including Procter & Gamble, Unilever and L'Oreal.

"There are good and bad fragrances in both worlds, in my opinion, and I think what matters is how much passion is put into creating the scent."

Perfumistas' top notes

Salvatore Ferragamo Signorina Misteriosa Eau de Parfum Spray

From S$111 for 30ml

Signorina Misteriosa is a daring fragrance with a strong gourmand core, inspired by high fashion and mysterious shades of black. The unexpected scent of wild blackberry and neroli opens this seductive new scent, which unfolds into a nuanced note of orange blossom and opulent tuberose at the heart, before drying off into a sweet black vanilla mousse accord with an elegant touch of patchouli. (An "accord" is a balanced blend of scents which lose their individual notes to create a completely new fragrance impression).

Part of the Signorina collection targeting the chic and young women, the campaign stars one-time muse of Hedi Slimane, US model Grace Hartzel.

Les Exclusifs de Chanel Boy Chanel Eau de Parfum, from S$310 for 75ml

Available from June 10

A tribute to masculine-feminine ambiguity, this new play on the fougere structure (a traditionally masculine aromatic family derived from the French word that means "fern-like") is inspired by the dazzling love of Gabrielle Chanel for 12 years, Boy Capel. Chanel perfumer Olivier Polge blended lavender with geranium, coumarin and moss to form this classic structure in perfumery, taking it a step further by imagining the mark of a man on the skin of a woman and zoning in on rose geranium, an androgynous flower with equally minty and rosy facets.

La Collection Privee Christian Dior La Colle Noire

From S$390 for 125ml

"The Grasse rose is unique, piquant and potent," says Parfums Christian Dior nose Francois Demachy. "It is never insipid; it expresses all the raw and radiant beauty of this region." And hence, the perfumer built this new scent around an intense, expressive and rich Rosa centifolia (or May rose) absolute. The result is a bold floral with notes of rose, wood, amber, spice and musk.

Polo Blue Eau de Parfum

From S$109 for 75ml

An elegant interpretation of the familiar Polo Blue scent, this fragrance for men is a contrast between the freshness of bergamot and cardamom and the intensity of vetiver and ambery woods. The fougere woody eau de parfum balances a textured combination of spicy, floral and woody notes, including spicy top notes that lead into a blue orris (the fragrant root derived from several iris species) accord, basil verbena, clary sage; before drying off to a base of vetiver, a suede accord, patchouli and vibrant woods.

This article was first published on June 4, 2016.
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