From underdogs to cult favorites: The rise of niche fragrances in China

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Going from underdogs to cult favorites, niche fragrance labels across the globe are quietly crafting their own empires. 

Last year, over 20 niche perfume brands took part in China’s 618 shopping extravaganza for the first time, with most increasing sales by over 60 percent.

One such label is Parisian perfume house Maison Francis Kurkdjian, whose Baccarat Rouge 540 has become a worldwide sensation thanks to social media virality and the seal of major celebrity approval. Rihanna’s endorsement propelled the perfume into mainstream consciousness, while the hashtag #baccaratrouge540 has garnered over 393.1 million views on TikTok. 

Its widespread success is also taking over China’s retail seasons. Besides ranking in the top-20 fragrances during this year’s 618 pre-sales period, after opening its official Tmall flagship in July 2022, the online store’s sales increased by 104 percent in a time when the overall domestic beauty market was declining.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Baccarat Rouge 540 fragrance has grown from cult player to hero product. Photo: Luxferity

Niche fragrance market and strategy

Launched in 2009 by Francis Kurkdjian and Marc Chaya, and bought by LVMH Group in 2017, the Francis Kurkdjian label was one of luxury’s most low-key players for its first 12 years of existence, before taking the internet by storm with its hero-product.

“We are a very confidential company with no advertising or point of sales, but people loved the fragrance and it’s now created a legend,” Aurore Dubois, International Education and Customer Events Manager tells Jing Daily at the brand’s Paris headquarters. 

Maison Francis Kurkdjian isn’t an anomaly – it’s one of many indie perfume brands rising from the underground fragrance world to the mainstream.

Unlike mass fragrance labels, which are often sales-driven and funnel huge resources into marketing campaigns and celebrity ambassadorships, these dark horse perfumes cater to their enthusiasts via a more hushed approach.

Gabby Chen, former Head of Beauty at Lane Crawford China, outlines that these lesser-known players are flying off the shelves due to more customers “exploring and establishing personal tastes and gradually deepening awareness, knowledge, and sophistication.” 

This includes Loewe perfumes and recently launched home fragrances. Now globally recognized as one of the most on-the-pulse brands in luxury, the house’s Creative Director J.W. Anderson is eschewing the typical big fashion fragrance strategy in favor of one that veers away from the mainstream.

The label’s perfume and home arm focuses on targeting olfactory aficionados and breaking sensorial boundaries. Scents don’t arrive in the form of your typical floraly or woody smell, but court the next generation of enthusiasts through unpredictable, evocative formulas. And in a move signalling huge potential of this sector, Loewe Perfume’s first-ever dedicated store opened in Nanjing, China, in January 2022.

Loewe Perfume’s first-ever dedicated store opened in Nanjing, China, in January 2022. Image: Courtesy of Loewe

Going viral

Swedish fragrance house Byredo is another case in point. Its sleek, well-designed packaging and premium unisex notes have cultivated domestic success. During this year’s 618 pre-sales period, the brand ranked as the 13th top-selling fragrance, trouncing the likes of Gucci, Creed, and Lancome.

In 2020, Byredo’s Rose of No Man’s Land and Juliette Has a Gun’s Not a Perfume ranked among young consumers’ top-10 niche fragrance brands on Tmall. 

But scent makers like Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Loewe are achieving mass appeal thanks to the indomitable influence of social media. 

A new wave of TikTok trends, including hashtags like #perfumetok, are catapulting fragrances from if-you-know-you-know products to sell out scents in a matter of days. 

Baccarat Rouge 540 was one of the first to achieve such virality. The scent, which actually launched in 2016 (only 250 crystal bottles were originally produced), gained cult popularity across the video-sharing platform last year. 

Despite Baccarat Rouge 540’s blockbuster product, Maison Francis Kurkdjian hasn’t shifted perspective. Even after becoming an LVMH-owned label, it has shied away from adopting a sales-first roadmap, or prioritizing expansion over quality. 

“All of our scents have beautiful stories. We are happy to have this icon, but each individual fragrance is a beauty in itself that we would love to share with our customer,” Dubois says.

Swedish label Byredo’s fragrance division has gained huge appeal thanks to its products including perfumes and hand sanitizers. Photo: Byredo

China’s changing consumers

The success of niche fragrances has slowly spread from the West to mainland China, in large part due to domestic Gen Z shoppers leveraging the trend. 

The country’s consumers are rapidly leaning further into the world of niche perfumes, propelling rapid market expansion over the past two years, as noted in our market report, How Niche Fragrances Are Winning Over Young Chinese Consumers.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian, in particular, has been accelerating its growth across the country.

As well as its store on Tmall, the brand opened two offline retail destinations, one in Beijing, the other in Nanjing’s Deji Department store. The plan is to slowly develop a presence in the segment. 

“We want to take the time to fully understand the market and get to know its customers better. We are focused on diffusing our DNA and sharing our vision, while remaining faithful to our roots,” Dubois says. 

Distribution across the mainland isn’t huge, but Dubois believes expansion will happen in due course through organic growth. 

Brands like Byredo and Maison Francis Kurkdjian represent the new wave of smaller overseas fragrance names breaking into the Chinese scent market. It’s a segment that’s growing at around 16 percent a year, and is forecast to reach $3.1 billion by 2025, according to Alizila, Alibaba Group’s English news hub. 

Xiaohongshu’s cultural reach is also a catalyst for exposure. Loewe’s 001, known also as ‘the morning after the rendezvous,’ has become one of the most-recommended niche fragrances on the social platform over the past year. This online word-of-mouth marketing is powering a huge proportion of the brand’s sales across China.

Beyond the bottle

With independent perfumers, creative efforts extend beyond what is contained inside the bottle. Last year, Maison Francis Kurkdjian became a patron of the Palace of Versailles to create the Perfumer’s Garden, a space that’s home to hundreds of different plants used in perfume-making. 

This week, the label celebrated the grand opening of the long-awaited olfactory paradise, which opened its doors to the public on May 30. 

Meanwhile, Loewe recently co-hosted an intimate garden event in Dorset with esteemed gardener Charlie McCormick (who appears in the campaign) with the likes of Alexa Chung in attendance, to celebrate the label’s new home scent collection, and McCormick’s tie up with the campaign.

Experimentation over duplication

For indie labels like Loewe, Byredo, and Maison Francis Kurkdjian, championing olfactive modernism is in their DNA. Same for Margiela, whose Replica line featuring the smoky aromas of ‘Jazz Club’ and ‘By The Fireplace’ have generated huge appeal across China. 

“Consumers are looking for gender-neutral products that don’t have such a feminine style. They are choosing fragrances that are not very strong and not sweet, but ones with more personality,”  founder of Clean Beauty Asia, Allie Rooke, told Jing Daily in 2021. 

Besides performing well in China, the niche name is rapidly extending its cult status across the West too, as global perfume preferences evolve and demand for more nuanced notes increase.

Crowd-pleasing isn’t the goal. Instead, it’s about remaining curious and exploring the boundless possibilities of scent without the pressure of market demands and fierce competition. It’s this mindset that makes their fragrances stand out from the crowd. 

As Francis Kurkdjian himself says, “the wish of every creator is to find his audience. For us, it’s about creating a collective house that brings joy, dreams, and happiness, and I think that’s exactly what we do.”