Niche Obsessions: China’s Perfume Market Boom


Niche perfumes, or what Chinese shoppers refer to as “salon scents,” are having a moment as younger consumers look to stand out from the crowd.

Even though global players such as Chanel, Dior and Hermès still dominate the market, niche perfume brands such as Documents and To Summer have captured a new crop of shoppers who crave scents that reflect Chinese traditional culture, which is in sync with fashion trends like New Chinese style.

“Finding the perfume which would make you empowered at work or being a very strong seductive person or expressing wealth or [being] perceived as a cute friend, or this unique concept of cold seduction, are a few of the rationales behind buying a perfume,” said Luc Berriet, senior fine fragrance development director in Asia for DSM-Firmenich, who has spent more than 10 years in Asia. As the world’s largest fragrance, beauty, well-being and nutrition supplier, DSM-Firmenich established Villa Harmony, a local research firm in 2023 to explore home-grown perfumery ingredients, one of the first in the market.

Berriet observed that the internet and local social media platforms made it easy to seek out niche perfumes, which, like designer fashion, can satisfy more personal needs. Users might not necessarily take an olfactive approach, but one focused on creating “a persona” for themselves.

One of the most talked-about local players is Documents. This January, the company received a multimillion-dollar investment round from Ushopal, a Chinese omnichannel brand partner. In September 2022, Documents secured a round of series A funding led by Shanghai Meicifang Investment, L’Oréal’s China Fund and Cathay Capital.

Founded by Gentle Monster alum Zhaoran Meng in 2020, the brand melds futuristic elements with oriental flair. It currently counts more than 15 retail outlets and pop-ups that act as canvases for high-impact visuals. Retail concepts such as “Dark Temple,” “Secret Cellar,” and “Whale Alter” are also ways for Meng to experiment with mythical themes and justify the brand’s lofty price tag, which ranges from 850 renminbi to 1,750 renminbi.

Meng, who is often seen in tracksuits that make him look like a tai chi master, said that the use of Chinese ingredients, such as star anise, mugwood, yulan magnolia and walnut, is meant to help “our customers stand out from the crowd, to be ‘documented.’” 

Chinese fragrance brand Documents' campaign shoots often incorporate fashion editorial elements.

A look from Documents’ latest campaign shoot.

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“We focus on physical retail because we also want our shoppers to remember our retail spaces, to easily ‘document’ their experience here, so we created an aura in our stores by adopting a ritualistic and spiritual experience,” added Meng.

Similarly, Estée Lauder-backed Melt Season is another local fragrance brand known for its take on New Chinese aesthetics. Also founded in 2020, the company recently launched a see-through temple as its first pop-up in Nanjing, a port city close to Shanghai and an ancient Chinese capital. Branded as an “oriental salon perfume,” Melt Season’s site-specific pop-ups will be planned based on each city’s seasonal quirks and cultural backgrounds.

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Melt Season’s pop-up in Nanjing.

In a similar vein, To Summer, which evokes the lifestyle of an ancient Chinese literati, was one of the first brands to explore Chinese aesthetics in fragrance in 2018. Billed as an innovative and modern Chinese fragrance brand rooted in traditional Chinese heritage, the Beijing-based company recently received backing from L’Oréal this January, cementing the appeal of local niche players.

Another fragrance brand is 7-year-old Aromag, known for its intricately oriental scents created by master perfumers. Its scents Wild Garlic, which smells like a green pasture, and Miko, a fruity cologne, quickly sold out.

“We want to use singular and signature scents to solve a linguistic problem. In Chinese, we are kind of stuck with a good or bad smell dichotomy, yet we lack the vocabulary to describe how a scent makes people feel,” said Hong Zeng, founder of Aromag. “So much of our creative process is based on fostering cultural resonance: Miko might seem personal because it was dedicated to my dog, but it also reflects how people in their 30s are having pets instead of children.”  

Aromag‘s recent pop-up at a tea shop in Shanghai.

Aromag‘s recent pop-up at a tea shop in Shanghai.

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Aromag, which retails from 230 renminbi to 850 renminbi, is keen to explore the delicate balance between mass and niche markets. Like Documents, it’s for shoppers who want to leave an impression, “but not a very fragrant one,” added Hong, who said the brand has found a crowd of avid fans who work in finance or academia.

For William Lau, Ushopal cofounder and senior vice president of brands, local brands not only honestly reflect shifting cultural trends, but have expertly instilled a sense of community in the local market. For example, Documents has become strongly associated with the creative and artistic type, according to Lau.

“In China, perfume acts as an easily recognizable social label, it’s especially attractive to young people who are often grappling with issues like anxiety and personal identity, so they naturally gravitate towards a community that helps them solve the question. It’s an implicit way of declaring: I’m more than someone’s daughter or son, I’m more than my job or my school,” said Lau.

Inside To Summer's new store by the Bund in Shanghai.

Inside To Summer’s new store by the Bund in Shanghai.

Courtesy

Another factor is user habit.

“On average, Chinese consumers use up to 25 milliliters of perfume annually; that’s a far cry from 200 milliliters in Europe and 400 plus milliliters in the Middle East, which means most Chinese shoppers are willing to purchase expensive bottles because it can last for a long time. Most shoppers also end up becoming what we call casual collectors; they might have a shelf of over 10 bottles that goes with different outfits,” added Lau.

Inside Notes Shanghai, a perfume fair in Shanghai.

Notes Shanghai

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“The younger generation of consumers are more courageous and constantly want to try new things, so the pressure is on for mainstream brands,” observed Yue Wu, founder of Notes Shanghai, a biannual perfume fair that made its debut this April. 

With a background in the fragrance supply chain, Wu is also the cofounder of the Golden Osmanthus Awards, the first fragrance competition focused on promoting Chinese fragrance brands, backed by the China Household Chemicals Industry Association.

The four-day fair, which attracted more than 11,000 visitors, was partially inspired by Milan’s Esxence fair, according to Wu. 

“We want to promote artistry fragrance brands and break down information gaps for brands that look to enter the Chinese market,” he added.

“Chinese consumers are actually not very good at distinguishing between niche perfume, salon perfume or mainstream perfumes, because this market has leapfrogged and has skipped a lot of perfume history,” added Wu.

For investor Isabella Wang of Citic Capital, a Chinese investment fund, the market is still in its nascent phase of growth. A cooling investment market coupled with prudent shoppers meant that brands that can stay on top has to be “highly differentiated.”

“Financial investors are willing to bet on high-quality assets with big bucks rather than cast a wide net, which was the case a few years ago, while strategic investors, such as L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, are looking to round out their brand matrix with these Chinese aesthetic-related brands,” said Wang. “The takeaway is that the local market infrastructure will soon catch up to the global market, which means that a highly differentiated local player can one day have a place on the global market,” said Wang.

For Lau, successful brands are the ones that jump on new retail trends. “The market is coming back from 2023’s slumber — some of it I would contribute to new channels such as influencer livestreaming, but primarily through luxe content building and retail storytelling,” said Lau.

On the product development front, Berriet said brands have so much to play with, as the Chinese market tends to defy conventional wisdom. 

According to a recent blind test conducted by Berriet, the Chinese male consumer preferred scents that were all traditionally feminine perfumes, which could pose a tricky issue for prestige brands looking to launch in China. “Local brands are more into genderless scents which cater to male and female consumers,” added Berriet.

“Sometimes, a trend in lifestyle, beauty, bars, and restaurants can influence the fragrance industry, either in the creation or in new storytelling. It is fascinating the freedom and creativity you are allowing the perfumers to have on Chinese projects. This permanent search for creativity and new trends is exciting,” added Berriet.



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