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The Art of Scent – A New Business Model

10 October, 2014

La Basílica Galería

Niche perfumes are growing in Barcelona as an alternative that consumers are going back to in lieu of mass-marketed fragrances. Although the perfume sector has not posted positive results since 2008, different entrepreneurs are demonstrating there is a gap in the market.

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The woman holds a glass up to her nose and finds there is no liquid inside. She is surprised; her face lights up and she looks puzzled but pleased. The essences that pervade the glass have stimulated her imagination. “It’s like entering a church, isn’t it?” prompts the shop assistant, “the incense, the wax, the old stone, the smell of the sea.” So many scents inside the glass the customer is holding in her hand. One sniff has propelled her back in time – to her childhood, she confesses, when she used to go to church and those same smells would remain in her head for hours afterwards. She didn’t identify the scents when she smelled them, but her imagination and the words of the staff member at La Basilica Galeria, where the scene takes place, helped her locate the essences and oils of the perfume inside the glass.

La Basilica, together with The Cosmeticoh and Les Topettes, is one of the few establishments in Catalonia to offer niche fragrances, or author perfumes as the promoters of these unusual and yet, judging by the growing number of customers, highly attractive retail projects prefer to call them.

“People looking for independent perfumes want an alternative to the best-known brands on the market, the ones you usually find in a public space. They are after something that is hard to identify. Also, I would say from my own experience, men have a better nose for perfumes!” says the owner of The Cosmeticoh, Oriol Blanch. Niko Vetoshkin from La Basilica Galería sums up his store’s customers in similar terms. “Generally speaking, they are people trying to find something other than mass-marketed fragrances and who want something more intimate.”

“Indeed, the deeper you go into the world of author perfume the more it weaves its magic and the more you like it,” say the owners of Les Topettes, the Barcelona-based store started by Oriol Montanyés and Lucía Laurin which has more than 80 references and 13 author perfume brands. “One day we began devouring books on fragrances, we started to smell perfumes and the raw materials we found and to memorise them all. Our hobby ended up becoming Les Topettes and one decisive element was that we found it very hard to find perfumes that we liked,” Montanyés explains.

Context and opportunity

Business figures for the perfume and cosmetics sector have not been positive since 2008. According to the figures for 2013 activity, presented this year by Spain’s National Association of Perfumery and Cosmetics, the sector contracted by 3.5%. Overall revenue, which came to more than €6.4 billion, was again affected by the overall economic crisis that started in 2008. That was the last year the sector posted positive returns.

Despite that, the professionals behind niche perfumes are demonstrating that there is a gap in the market for innovating and experimenting with new products. This is the case of the people behind the three establishments in Barcelona and, overall, the designers behind the products they have on display, i.e., professional perfume-makers who have taught themselves the trade, learnt it in schools around the world or undertaken training while working in large perfume houses.

The Cosmeticoh is probably the city’s pioneer in the commitment to author perfumes. This Christmas it will celebrate its fifth anniversary. It is located in the centre of Barcelona, near carrer Enric Granados, close by a growing number of establishments where fashion and art come together in surprising and often high-end combinations.

In his shop, Oriol Blanch offers a large selection of vegan and niche cosmetics in addition to author perfumes – products by little-known brands “which save on advertising in order to invest in better quality,” Blanch says.

He knows the composition of all of his products and when he isn’t sure about what something contains he “analyses it”. In terms of the perfumes, he has more than 200 references from 13 different brands. He would like to expand his perform stock but says this is very expensive to do. “Perfume houses aren’t used to working with small orders and we feel that given the market situation we shouldn’t accumulate stock. However, it does seem that companies are increasingly accepting smaller orders,” Blanch says, after spending a few years building up knowledge of the niche perfumery sector.

When it comes to selecting perfumes for his store, proximity is very important. “I always try to source local brands or, if not, houses that have an interesting story behind their product.” He is referring to the collection of French-Spanish perfume-maker Beatrice Aguilar, who signs the brand Scent on Canvas, formed of five perfumes, each created by a different perfume-maker, including Catalonia’s Jordi Fernández. The bottles in the Aguilar collection come with a signed and numbered engraving created by various artists and inspired by the essences of the perfumes created for Scent on Canvas.

The links with scents

Our sense of smell is directly linked to our imagination and emotions. That explains the power perfumes have always had to seduce both the people who wear them and those who smell them.

That’s why the glasses soaked in perfume on show at La Basilica Galeria are more than a brilliant combination of olfactory stimuli – they are a journey to a place in the past or the future. This is a point also mentioned by Niko Vetoshkin who, together with Antonio Fajardo, spends every day attending customers in his store in Barcelona, promoted by the artist Piotr Rybaczek.

Together with wine glasses, the shelves in La Basilica Galeria are stacked with large coffee cups. “They help cancel out previous scents so you can continue to enjoy the next perfumes you try,” Vetoshkin says, after narrating the history of another of the 400 perfumes he has in-store, one by Andalusian perfume-maker Oliver Valverde, who puts his name to a collection dedicated to galactic nebula.

The oldest perfume in La Basilica Galeria is one by the Florence-based Santa Maria Novella, originally a pharmacy founded in 1612. The oldest perfumeries in Europe can be found in La Basilica, in addition to a representative collection of contemporary brands.

Another classic in this store is the Parisian company Isabey, founded in 1924 under the name “French Company of Rare Essences and Perfumes” and presented at the capital’s Decorative Arts Fair that year, where it won the gold medal for perfumes. “This was one of the first perfume houses to use a combination of amber, incense, cinder and a touch of vanilla,” says Niko Vetoshkin, perfume in hand. Since it was first released, the magical combination of its essences and the Julien Viard-designed bottles have made Isabey a volatile art concept behind the scents which won over the most discerning customers from around the world (the US was one of its main markets) in the few establishments where the collection could be bought.

Basílica Galeria has “one of the most extensive collections in Europe and the largest in Spain,” the team says. That is probably why another customer, in this case French, has today come in “specifically to try to find the perfume her mother gave her when she was a little girl living in Morocco”. She is holidaying in Barcelona with a group of friends and while her friends test out the different wine glasses and coffee cups on display, she knows that here she will find this memory, in the form of essences, which she was unable to source in France.

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