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A Nose for Niche

Le Nez fragrance bar focuses on niche perfumes, crafted for the joy of the scent
By Dominika Maslikowski 
Photos By Omar Mohsen

They’re called perfumistas: enthusiasts of scent who sample new releases and iconic classics, read perfume blogs and debate dozens of reviews with the same intensity of fashionistas who follow clothing designers. Perfumistas are passionate about pinning down the most beautiful perfumes to add to their sizable collections: whether the bottle comes from a discounter or an exclusive boutique, the scent’s wow factor is more important than its price tag. While perfume for some may be a status symbol or a way to smell pleasant to others, for the perfume connoisseur it’s all about following your own nose. Instinct is the ultimate guide, and the “juice” in the bottle is more important than the celebrity paid to promote it. Many perfumistas wear their favorite scents only for themselves, spraying them on even when they’re alone at home.

For many in this tight-knit community, who chat on perfume blogs and sometimes exchange fragrance samples through the mail, what’s offered in department stores by world-famous brands doesn’t always deliver quality or originality. There are exceptions like the iconic Chanel No. 5 or the more recent Prada Candy released in 2011. But many perfumistas claim that a big chunk of mass-produced fragrances are often crafted to bring in profits and appeal to everyone’s taste, while sacrificing creativity.

For an alternative, they turn to niche perfumery. The exclusive niche brands are often less concerned with creating a mass following than they are with crafting daring masterpieces.

In recent years, niche perfume houses like the French L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque have hit European and American department stores, suggesting that perfumistas weren’t the only ones looking for more uncommon choices. Blogs dedicated to perfume now number in the hundreds, while more and more people consider exploring perfume as a hobby.

In Egypt, it can be difficult to find niche brands and until recently, those who craved harder-to-find perfumes often did their shopping in Dubai or Europe. Mazaya stores offer a small selection of niche brands like Montale, whose perfumer Pierre Montale made fragrances for Saudi royals before launching his own line that often features oud or incense.

DI-LeNez3-OMBut now Egypt’s selection of niche perfumes has grown with September’s opening of Le Nez at The First Mall in Giza. Le Nez is Egypt’s first fragrance bar focusing on niche perfumes, scented candles and exclusive home fragrances. Here the five French brands on offer might not be recognizable to the average shopper, but Le Nez founder Mariham Habashy, 33, says they’ve already created a dedicated following.

“A customer bought two perfumes from me and returned several months later with the empty bottles and said she wanted to get the same two again,” Habashy says of the woman who re-purchased The Different Company’s spicy cologne After Midnight and the shop’s best-selling white floral Pure eVe. “There are two kinds of clients: those who prefer the mainstream brands, and others looking for something different. It’s very difficult, but […] I can suffer a bit while I make people aware of the [niche] brands.

“People in Egypt don’t have perfume background on how to talk about perfumes, but they want to know,” she continues. “They’re curious and fascinated. Some people may not like all the perfumes, but they agree that they’re different.”

The shopping experience itself is different in Habashy’s store. The perfumes are sprayed into tall wine glasses so the clients can get a whiff of the scent’s “heart,” or the main body that comes through after the “top notes” wear off. A scent develops from the top notes at the beginning to the middle or heart and then down to the base notes, which can sometimes linger until the next day. What’s smelled in the first few minutes at the shop can change — sometimes drastically. So it’s good to take the fragrance for a longer test-run.

Habashy warns against spraying a perfume on a paper blotter and then making an impulse purchase. Because everyone has different skin chemistry, it’s best to spray on skin because what smells great on one person may smell very different on another, she says.

DI-LeNez2-OMLe Nez currently offers Histoires de Parfums and The Different Company, as well as Paris’ first niche brand Jovoy; former Givenchy perfumer Mark Buxton, who now makes perfumes for his self-named brand with names like Sleeping with Ghosts; and Quintessence, which makes home fragrance and candles. All perfumes are unisex and range from LE 830 to LE 1,790 per bottle.
The stories behind the perfumes and the lives of the “noses” who create them are often as interesting as the scents. The Histoires de Parfums house takes its inspiration from historic figures: the spiced woody 1740 is a tribute to Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat notorious for his politics and libertine sexuality. The perfume 1899 is named after American writer Ernest Hemingway and aims to invoke the scent of Cuban bar tops and the Mediterranean with notes of vetiver and Italian bergamot.

The Different Company was established by Jean-Claude Ellena before he went on to become the in-house perfumer at Hermes. Ellena, considered one of the greatest living perfumers, later created Un Jardin sur le Nil for Hermes in 2005 after a trip to Aswan for inspiration. The brand is currently headed by Ellena’s daughter Celine, who crafted the classic Sel de Vétiver for The Different Company that some say perfectly captures the scent of driftwood and an ocean shore.

While Le Nez offers a good introduction into the world of niche, those who delve deeper will find that the niche industry can get crazier in brands not yet available in Egypt. Zagorsk from the Japanese house Comme des Garcons, for example, smells like birch, pine and frankincense, and is meant to capture the scent of old Russian Orthodox monasteries. Dzing! from L’Artisan includes notes of hay, leather and cotton candy, taking its inspiration from the smells of the animals and foods at a circus. Black Afgano, from the Dutch brand Nasomatto, aims to “evoke the best quality of Hashish” with notes of incense and oud.

Habashy fell into this creative, and sometimes strange, world while studying at ISIPCA, a perfume and cosmetics post-graduate school in France founded by perfume legend Jean-Jacques Guerlain. While pursuing an MA in cosmetics, the Cairo native found that the school was more known as a training-ground for the perfume industry. She took a field trip to the Paris flagship store of Serge Lutens, a French niche perfumer who perfumistas affectionately call “uncle,” and smelled his spicy, tuberose fragrance Cedre.

“I fell in love with niche, where you’re more into the juice than the package. The moment I smelled the perfume I changed my mind from cosmetics,” Habashy says. “I had a lot of dreams, but when I came back to Egypt I worked for another couple years to gain experience in the market. I worked for big cosmetics brands, and then when I decided I wanted to do my own thing I decided to do something different. I didn’t want to open just another perfume store.”

While niche may be new to Egypt, Habashy says the positive reviews and repeat customers are markers of her success. She’s planning to launch more niche brands locally and says she’s willing to tough it out until more Egyptians discover niche and the market grows.

“The big brands spend big budgets on celebrity faces and make something that everybody likes. Some buy something because of the brand name logo or because their friends like it,” she says. “Others are looking for something unique and different.” et

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