Are Niche Brand Buy-Outs Really a Bad Thing?

Crowning Glory: Iconic Niche Brands
Crowning Glory: Iconic Niche Brands

The perfume community is very protective. All you need to do is search the subjects of European regulations, IFRA and reformulations on any fragrance forum to get an idea of just how protective perfume lovers are, and I’m right there with them. Heritage should be looked after, but at the same time, I think we all have to appreciate the fact that the world, and the industry for that matter, are ever-evolving. Things change, whether that’s because certain materials stop being available, regulations restrict their use, or because brands change hands. Change is inevitable but does that mean we have to accept it?

One of the topics that receives constant criticism is the fact that independent niche houses are being snapped up at rapid pace by big houses. So far we’ve seen Estée Lauder acquire By Kilian, Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, whilst Puig have acquired Penhaligon’s and L’Artisan Parfumeur. Most recently LVMH bought Maison Francis Kurkdjian and this certainly set the tongues of the perfume community wagging, and rightly so, because it’s a big deal (although MFK has always been positioned as more ‘luxe’ than niche). More often that not, people view these acquisitions as brands selling out or a pre-cursor to their spirit, and beloved fragrances being crushed by corporate greed.  But are they really a bad thing? Or are they just a reminder that, first and foremost, perfume is a business?

Niche Explosion
Niche Explosion

The first question is why are these niche brands selling? Well, as a small brand (and I admit that some of these acquisitions aren’t quite so small any more) there is only so far one can go without an injection of cash and that’s exactly what these houses offer. They have the power and the resource (and the cash, let’s face it) to really drive these niche brands forward. This leads to the complaint from perfume lovers that I simply cannot understand: the argument that these brand creators have ‘sold out’. My response is always the same: if you’d created and nurtured a brand, as if you wouldn’t be tempted by a big pile of cash and a promise to drive that brand forward. It makes commercial and financial sense, especially if one gets to stay involved with the business.

The battle between artistic and commercial interests is a longstanding one and as much as we can all pretend that perfume is solely an artistic endeavour, we all know that, in the real world, the perfumes that any brand makes need to sell. Shit’s gotta move for these brands to stay in business – there ain’t no two ways about it. Maison Francis Kurkdjian is a good example of this. Perfumistas adore the dirty honey of Absolue Pour le Soir and often complain about the commercialism of Aqua Universalis, but the latter sells much more than the former and for Absolue Pour le Soir to remain on the market, or the brand to stay afloat, Kurkdian has to make scents that resonate with a wider audience, and more importantly scents that sell. We all have to agree that perfumes like Absolue Pour le Soir are a little bit out there for your average consumer, so to make the weird stuff, brands have got to create things that people are actually going to buy because us weird-perfume-sniffing perfumistas aren’t in the majority and a lot of the time, we’re not the ones buying the scent. We’re the ones swapping samples, buying decants and writing about them.

The big fragrance houses like Lauder and LVMH know that niche fragrance sells and that’s exactly why they’ve gone out and scooped up an unprecedented number of brands. They know that people are looking to these brands for quality, artistry, and most importantly a unique signature – things they can’t necessarily find in the mainstream so easily. Perfume is the affordable luxury and with prices rising annually, these big houses want a big piece of that pie, and they want to eat it too. But will they treat their acquisitions with the respect that they deserve or will they try and squeeze every single bit of profit out of them they can by compromising the artistry, quality and unique signature of the scents? Will the pie still be as tantalising and delicious once they’re done with it?

Well, we can’t predict the future, but we can review their prior record to guess what they may do in the future – after all past behaviour is a good indicator for what’s to come. Let’s look at Lauder, as an example. What impression do they give us about the scents they make? Are they a brand who doesn’t treat their fragrances and brands with respect? I’d say quite the opposite. The Lauder fragrances have remained relatively true to their original formulas (as true as they can be in this day and age) whilst their endeavours within their brand portfolio have been impressive. Lauder grew the Tom Ford brand into what it is today (i.e. a massive success with some excellent scents) and has done many fantastic things at Jo Malone London, things that are very on-brand and incredibly on-trend (whether or not you like the scents, JML’s output is very much in line with the original vision of the brand). They’ve also created interesting things for designer brands such as Marni. So it stands to reason that Lauder would extend the same respect to the likes of Le Labo, By Kilian and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. In short: when it comes to Lauder, I’m not worried.

Will We Still be in the Mood for MFK? (Of course!)
Will We Still be in the Mood for MFK? (Of course!)

LVMH has somewhat of a more turbulent track record. Parfums Dior, one of the biggest brands in their portfolio, has reportedly suffered a number of big reformulations and the mainstream output of the house has very much become less adventurous over time. LVMH also owns Guerlain, which they purchased in 1994. At the time Guerlain was a failing family business that found security in LVMH. Since the purchase, Guerlain and LVMH have created a huge amount of perfume, some of which has been amazing and some of which hasn’t. But still, Guerlain remains on the market and as does their classics thanks to LVMH. Maison Francis Kurkdjian is now the most luxurious fragrance brand in the LVMH portfolio and one would hope that it will become the shining jewel in their crown, especially with the fastidious and idiosyncratic (let’s just say it how it is: genius) Francis Kurkdjian on board.

The way I see it, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, By Kilian at al are all successful brands with big followings. So it wouldn’t make sense for their respective new owners to change their fragrances or to mess with their brand identify. It would be commercially stupid to waste their money on niche brands and then remove all that is good and great about them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? What’s more, the figureheads for those brands are all remaining heavily involved and I can’t see Frederic Malle or Francis Kurkdjian allowing either of the brands they have built to be damaged. No Sir.

All I think we need to do is wait and see what happens. Look to the future and the prospect of exciting scents pushed by houses with the finance, clout and know-how to make them even bigger and even better. Let them bring these scents to the masses, after all, if more people get their noses on the likes of Portrait of a Lady, Beyond Love and Baccarat Rouge 540, that’s nothing but a good thing. Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and By Kilian are guaranteed to be around now for many years to come and I for one, am excited to see what they each have in store.

Join the Discussion

What do you think, are niche buy-outs good or bad?

Let me know in the comments below.


Images are my own.