I recall when I was studying at the University how a fellow student suddenly started wearing Opium by Yves Saint Laurent to my great surprise. Formally a member of the "watery florals" brigade sporting L'Eau d'Issey, the change was comparable to the epiphany of St.Paul on the way to Damascus. But the vexing question was: why has she picked MY fragrance, for Pete's sake?
The answer to that question is irrelevant.
What counts is it irrevocably turned me into a detailed search of fragrances in limited availability. At the time a handful of perfume makers, going by the names of Diptyque, L'Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Penhaligon's, Floris and Creed were starting to become more obvious, mainly due to expanding into the international market through a very limited distribution channel. In fact that is the original definition for "niche"; limited distribution.
The term comes from economics, but it fit the student of luxury and fragrance market to a T. Things with an exclusivity cachet, thanks to their scarcity, their non ubiquity, their requirement of being a connoisseur, became exactly what people eager to differentiate themselves from the masses were seeking. Niche fragrances are fragrances in limited distribution, requiring to know where to find them. Therefore you won't smell yourself coming and going.
Niche perfume brands really came into their own when Shiseido maverick art director, photographer and former Dior makeup director Serge Lutens inaugurated his personal fragrance line at Le Palais Royal in Paris in the early 1990s. The French were already ripe with a huge selection [Learn 4 Secrets of French Women & Their Perfume on this link] but Lutens put the finishing touch: a uniform looking line with distinctive style and a unique concept, translating Arab tradition into western perfumes, inspired by his stay in Morocco.
The next defining step into the evolution of niche fragrances came in 2000. Frederic Malle, another Frenchman, grandson of Dior perfumes founder. You might have been buying your Armani or Oscar de la Renta or Estee Lauder perfume faithfully, but what was never mentioned in the promo was that neither Armani, nor de la Renta, nor Lauder herself, had been mixing essences themselves. Perfumers working stealthily in laboratories were responsible for the fragrant liquids you put on your neck and wrists. Malle gave perfumers front page exposure, so to speak, by issuing a perfume line with bottles bearing the name of the creator most clearly on the label. For himself he kept the title of an "editor", naming his line Editions de Parfums.
The evolution of the Internet and the opening of specialized boutiques on non French and non Italian soil (places where specialized perfume shopping traditionally existed), such as Aedes de Venustas in New York, The Scent Bar in Los Angels and Les Senteurs in London, meant a dedicated audience could go in and be specifically addressed by knowledgable people who could guide them according to their taste rather than to the marketing or promotion department store sales assistants are paid to heed to.
Some of the first niche companies have since changed hands, being sold to greater corporations, but the ball was set in motion. Nowadays the selection is greater than ever! With every genre covered, from all naturals lines like April Aromatics, cult projects such as Escentric Molecules or A Lab on Fire, truly luxurious, exotic offerings like Amouage or avant-garde brands like Comme des Garcons, Biehl or Etat Libre d'Orange, there's a niche scent for everyone!