Every year, more than 30 billion dollars are spent worldwide on perfume. Is it any wonder, really? A few ounces of the right fragrance can make us feel alive, sexy, and confident. Worn in the right place and in the right moment, a favorite scent can change the course of our entire lives.
Anyone who’s into perfumes needs to know about the two major categories of fragrances—niche and designer—and the differences between them.
Which is why we wrote this guide.
Up until recently, it was easy to draw the line between the two. For example, you could buy designer fragrances in big-box stores, and you could only purchase niche fragrances in specialized boutiques.
Lately, the line that separates them has slowly but surely been blurring to the point that designer brands are now releasing limited editions to select audiences, and niche makers are releasing their scents in ways that more closely resemble mainstream brands.
So, what’s the main difference between designer and niche fragrances?
Designer and niche fragrances are typically created by the same perfumers. However, designer fragrances are sold by fashion houses and celebrities as part of a larger selection of products, while niche fragrances are sold by brands that focus exclusively on perfume.
Some designer fragrances are there to tempt you into becoming a fan of a designer brand and buying its other products, like shoes, clothing, handbags, accessories, and others. Others, such as those made by Channel, Dior, and Tom Ford, are works of art on their own.
But, to better understand the differences between niche and designer fragrances, it’s best to compare them by more than one criteria. Which is precisely what we will be doing in the rest of this article.
The difference in price tags is one of the first thing you’ll notice as you compare designer and niche fragrances. Where does it come from?
Though all higher-end fragrances tend to cost a pretty penny, no matter if they’re considered designer or niche, niche scents are generally costlier than their designer counterparts because they’re made in smaller batches, use higher-end ingredients, and are packed in expensive bottles.
That’s understandable when you consider that designer fragrances are mass-produced while most niche fragrances (but certainly not all) are made or bottled by hand.
As YouTuber Demi Rawling showed when she visited M.Micaleff, the owners of some fragrance houses pick the freshly-opened flowers for their perfumes themselves before noon, to extract the aromatics from them before the end of the day:
Some niche fragrances are more expensive than others.
Clive Christian’s famous limited-edition scent, No. 1 Imperial Majesty, was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006 for being the world’s most expensive perfume.
$215,000 per 17-ounce bottle, or 12,647/ounce, as reported by Reuters. But, hey, it came in a Baccarat crystal container adorned with a 5-carat diamond set in an 18-carat gold collar. And it was hand-delivered by a chauffeur in a Bentley, so there’s that.
When discussing the difference between designer and niche fragrances, another frequently asked question is, “Are they carried by the same stores?”
The short answer is “no,” unless you’re shopping online (where Amazon acts as the equivalent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and other perfume retailers, like Sephora, offer virtually everything in one place).
The widespread availability of designer fragrances kills the idea of exclusivity. Niche fragrances gladly capitalize on it.
Most well-known designer fragrances can be found in department stores, perfume shops, and duty-free shops at airports. Dupes—copycat scents that try to replicate their smells at a lower price, but at the expense of complexity and longevity—exist by the boatload.
Niche fragrances, on the other hand, are produced in small batches. Though you can find increasingly more of them in Sephora lately, and at well-stocked department stores, niche fragrances are generally a little harder to find.
Niche fragrances are mainly sold in high-end boutiques or private shops, so they’re not as easy to locate as designer perfumes. You need to know where to go—and what to ask for.
Simona S, Editor, Fragrances, recalls how she traversed the whole of Paris on a rainy September day to get a whiff of M. Micallef’s Ylang in Gold in a boutique before buying a bottle for the first time.
“Some scents,” she says, “you won’t find even in Galeries Lafayette. So we had to go to Jovoy Paris, a perfume store in close proximity to the Louvre’s Tuilerie gardens.”
“Mind you, this was our last day in Paris, and Jovoy Paris was completely out of our way. Yet we went for it… My fiancé and I felt like we were out on a treasure hunt! When I smelled Ylang in Gold, I discovered one of my most favorite perfumes of all time.”
Unlike designer fragrances, niche perfumes are not typically associated with well-known fashion labels or celebrities. Still, that doesn’t stop them from going out of their way to provide you with an out-of-this-world experience.
For example, most of the designer fragrances we’ve bought or tested come in boxes. The boxes are pretty, of course, but they’re nothing in comparison to what you get when you unpack a niche fragrance.
Niche fragrances come in cases, wear capes, and some even have their own stands. They’re wrapped luxuriously and have hand-written letters from the fragrance house’s owners. Buying them feels like becoming a member of a secret societé that most people haven’t even heard of.
Both designer and niche fragrances can be original. For example, we’re fascinated by the witchcraft of Dior’s Hypnotic Poison and the out-of-this-world nature of Mugler’s Alien.
Yet niche fragrances are even more elaborate and exotic than that—think of the most polarizing scent in the world, Baccarat Rouge 540 by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, or the infamous Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange—making them near-impossible to get right as blind buys.
When you come to think of it, there’s a good reason behind that:
Designer fragrances exist to appeal to a broader audience who love a particular brand, whereas niche fragrances are meant to appeal to a select group of connoisseurs.
Because niche fragrances tend to be so specific, they make tricky gifts. When buying a perfume for someone as a gift, it’s better to go designer. Learn what scents the individual has enjoyed in the past and start from there. A niche fragrance is a beautiful gift, but it’s definitely a risky one.
Taking everything into account, niche fragrances are made from higher-quality ingredients, and they tend to be blended better.
They’re known for using naturally-derived absolutes, essential oils, and extracts instead of lab-made molecules, whose complexity fades in comparison to the ingredients derived from the real thing (like synthetic vanilla compared to bourbon vanilla).
Because the ingredients of many niche fragrances are naturally sourced, they tend to have a more complex and captivating aroma than designer fragrances that rely on synthetic molecules. Understandably, these elevated ingredients are also reflected in a higher price.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Most animalistic ingredients, like musk, are derived synthetically to be cruelty-free nowadays. And some niche fragrance houses, such as New York City’s Nomenclature, are world-famous for their synthetic-molecule blends.
Designer houses not only use more synthetic ingredients, but release more flankers. They are producing for the mass market, which necessarily means creating faster, more affordable products consumed by the mainstream.
Another common question when discussing designer vs. niche fragrances is, “Does one type of fragrances necessarily last longer than the other, or is this specific to each product?”
Longevity depends on the fragrance itself, and—no matter what some will try to say—they do not necessarily depend on whether it’s a designer or niche fragrance. Some niche fragrances, since they are made in smaller batches by hand, can also be inconsistent in scent and longevity and between batches and bottles.
To learn more about the factors that affect longevity, check out our article titled, “How Long Does Perfume Last On Skin?”
Neither designer nor niche fragrances have better longevity simply because of the category they are in. It all comes down to the perfumer, ingredients, and formulation. Like anything—cars, clothes, food—good and bad examples exist in every brand or category, and not every fragrance by a single perfumer is a hit.
Similar to the difference in branding, designer perfume brands spend a lot of money on TV, radio, and billboard ads and celebrity endorsements, while niche fragrances need little-to-no air time.
People will often purchase a designer perfume without even knowing its scent simply because of who advertises it or what the name of the brand on the bottle reads.
That’s not quite the case when it comes to niche fragrances.
Since no known name or brand exists, individuals who invest in a niche fragrance do so because they like the smell of that particular fragrance. But they have been becoming more and more popular as of late. Some niche houses, like Le Labo, Kilian, and Nishane, have become trendy—and you can smell their perfumes at almost every cocktail party.
Where to Start
If you’re just getting started with fragrances, it can be tricky to pick out the right ones for you at first.
Our recommendation when looking for a new scent is to start with the more reliable designer fragrances and work from there. With designer vs niche fragrances, you can learn what you like (and don’t like) or what you’re looking for in a future fragrance.
Most niche fragrance houses have discovery sets, which allow you to sample their scents without having to buy a bottle of each and every one of them. This will enable you to test and see which scents you may—or may not—want to purchase.