Perfume lovers have Nick Smart to thank for retail access to some of the oldest and loveliest fragrances in the world. So how did a property lawyer ended up shrouded in the mists of time?
Niche perfume is one of the fastest growing sectors of the multi-billion-dollar fragrance and beauty industry. Of the 2,240 fragrances released last year, 865 were in the niche bracket, up from 247 a decade ago. In Australia and New Zealand, Nick Smart heads up the niche perfume distribution company, Agence de Parfum, which has 18 brands in its portfolio.
Two luxurious newcomers have been launched this month: at the Langham Hotel in Sydney, Penhaligon’s Savoy Steam, which pays homage to the brand’s 1872 fragrance, Hammam Boutique; and at Nour restaurant in Surry Hills, Amouage’s Figment Man and Figment Woman.
To celebrate Excess All Areas sat down to shoot the scented breeze with the lawyer threw in the law to follow his nose.
Where did the love of scent come from?
I’d always been fascinated with essential oils and aromatherapy. I still burn oils every night. Usually geranium oil.
To put myself through law school in the 1990s, I had a business selling essential oils at the Brisbane markets. We imported bulk lemon and citrus oils from Italy and I had a friend do all the packaging up. I was discovered by Vogue which did a little photo shoot of my organic teas and organic oils, and from that I got stockists around Australia.
Throughout my legal career I had this passion burning on the side … I travelled a lot with my [then] partner to France, where we’d go to Grasse and were able to source really great fragrances and amazing raw materials.
So many of the perfumes we’d discover on my travels – like Costume National and Creed – you weren’t able to buy in Australia.
How did you move onto niche luxury perfumes?
I had purchased a commercial building in Brisbane’s West End, intending to put my law practice in there. But when we discovered it had been a tailor’s shop, it just seemed wrong.
So in 2008, we opened a perfume boutique called Libertine and I started dealing with Australian distributors, bringing in brands like Annick Goutal and Aqua di Palma. But they didn’t really seem to have their hearts in it, so in the end I approached some of the brands directly, said “I’m a lawyer, I know nothing about retail but this is my plan …” I sold the passion!
What was your point of difference?
Introducing fragrances that had a real story, and were not just marketing hype. Brands such as Floris or Lubin or Penhaligon’s and Creed, that dated back, in some cases, centuries. It was important there be an emotional connection to the fragrance, whether it was Queen Victoria’s perfume, Bouquet de la Reine, or Lubin’s Gin Fizz in 1955, or the Creed fragrance commissioned for Grace Kelly’s wedding in 1956, Fleursssimo.
Selling a commercial fragrance is completely different from selling niche. We saw that the only way we could do well was to have our own staff trained, make an introduction to one customer at a time. Sampling was key. We bled money for four years.
The thing that I really like about the perfumes we represent is that if you are looking at fragrances made in the 1800s or at Black Jade and Gin Fizz that are 50, 60 years old, they’re still relevant today. So few fragrances launched this year will be around in 50 years.
What brands do you have in your portfolio?
Amouage, Creed, Floris, Atelier Cologne, Juliette Has A Gun, Lubin, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Penhaligon’s, Helmut Lang, Lalique, Lubin, Dear Rose, Robert Piguet, Costume National, P Frapin & Cu, Miller et Bertaux, Mark Buxton Perfumes, Cire Trudon.
What makes a perfume niche? The brands we represent are not mainstream. They are actually making fragrances outside the norm, and being more experimental. For example, I wouldn’t suggest there are many fragrances that have top notes of pimiento and oregano, as does Amouage Interlude.
Everyone is looking for something different and “them”. Because the niche brands don’t have the big budgets for marketing and research, that demand return on investment, there’s more room for creativity.
What’s different about your perfume list?
Masstige brands sold in all outlets are essentially in the floral category – soft floral, floral oriental. We are heavily skewed to oriental, woody oriental (our most popular fragrance category) and then woods.
I don’t have a great nose, to be honest; I have always gravitated towards woody orientals, that’s why brands like Costume National, Lubin, and Amouage are perfect for me because those ambery-woody orientals just work on me. The other note I really love is vetiver. And I love geranium (which, as it happens, shares top note billing with lemon in the new Amouage Figment Man).
Why does what we like change over time?
Think of a spectrum of one to 10, one being “safe” in terms of what you grew up with – commercial scents like the smell of washing detergents and washing powders – and 10 being super niche. It’s like wine. If you’ve grown up drinking cheap wine and someone gives you a Grange or French Champagne, you may not like it immediately – it’s a process to get there. Your nose, as with your palate, undergoes an evolution that comes with connoisseurship.
And over time all those things like age, diet, stress levels and hormones affect how a fragrance wears on you. You can’t expect that what you wear at 20 will still be good on you at 60. It can be a mistake to never move on.
Related article: Confessions of a perfume addict
Do you have a favourite brand?
Creed. It’s one of the most coveted, special, to have been around for so long. I think it is incredible. The stories resonate, and the fragrances are amazing. From the whole collection I would probably wear almost all of the men’s – they’re really wearable, and have a great history.
Our top-selling perfumes for men are Aventus Man (Creed); Interlude Man (Amouage); Lord George (Penhaligon’s).
Our top-selling perfumes for women are Honour Woman (Amouage); Gin Fizz (Lubin); Lady Vengeance (Juliette Has a Gun).
Who are your favourite “noses”?
Olivia Giacobetti (Diptyque, Lubin) and Bertrand Duchaufour ( L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s). Australian perfumers to watch are Naomi Goodsir, Saskia Hevekes and Dimitri Webber.
Photos: Susan Skelly; Nick Smart, supplied