Natural-feeling fragrances are increasingly present across household, personal care and fine fragrance categories. Why is this and where will it take perfumery?
Consumers are more informed than ever. The growing niche fragrance market owes much of its success to sharing through social media and blogs. Whilst this creates new pressures for brands it also drives trends: the consumer as discerning expert has led to a greater need for transparency in products. This appetite for knowledge has meant an appetite too to understand the ingredients behind certain effects in a fragrance. In turn, olfactive trends are often now driven by new uses of materials, as well as various extraction methods.
Natural ingredients seem to offer clarity and honesty. But whilst natural and eco-friendly products are gaining ground across all categories, particularly household, the need for natural does not necessarily equate to a completely natural product. What is striking too is the demand for nature-inspired fragrances in products. In fine fragrance, this translates as natural-feeling and aerated types of notes and accords – rather than actual naturals which, when extracted, often go against our ideas of freshness so associated with ‘natural’.
These natural-type perfumes give a natural impression, but are not all-natural. In fact, they make use of high-quality, cutting-edge synthetics that are essential in producing light and fresh effects. If natural scents are thought of as uncomplicated, natural-type scents offer this but in an instantly recognisable form.
In seeming streamlined, natural-inspired products make us aware of two things apparently compromised in our lives – our time and attention. In answer to this, a minimal approach is characterised by reduction and moderation. The brand Nuori create skincare that question the need for designing products that have a long shelf-life. By removing this aspect to making a product the formula is freed from preservatives. Using an on-demand model, the products are made in small batches every ten to twelve weeks. Each product remains potent and stable for nine months after blending.
Nuori has taken the concept of freshness and given it new significance. What is usually seen as an effect of skincare becomes the purpose and proposition. The brand understands efficacy in a product in terms of something being at its peak – like youth and vitality itself, the things we look for in skincare.
Giving this attention to the natural life cycle of a product is not only a kind of transparency, it also borrows from a recent focus on mindfulness and bringing our attention to the present. Natural concepts in products are often about connecting with something seemingly essential. Natural and botanical scents are evocative of the attempts we make to integrate the natural world into urban lives. But more and more technology is seen not as something that alienates, but something that could make us more present, aware of ourselves and our world.
The creators of the light phone – a phone that only makes calls – were motivated by this attention to the essential. They were inspired to “design beautiful objects that respect and empower” that “do one thing well”. Technology, they add should help us appreciate life more; it should find new ways to put us in touch with ourselves and others.
From the world of fashion and design, Pauline Van Dongen’s touch-sensitive Issho jacket combines conductive fibres with a series of sensors with motorised parts that stroke the wearer’s back in response to touch. Brand Stone Island are also experimenting with fabric treatments – their Ice Knit has thermo-sensitive yarn that drastically changes colour in the cold.
“We’ve never had the power and precision to manipulate living things the way we do today. By harnessing cellular and biomolecular processes, we are developing technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health and future of our planet”.
Perfumery is significant in this attitude, and may become ever more so, because it is both the harnessing of nature and technology. As an invisible signal, it gives us the feeling of being connected to both ourselves and others, to both imagination and sensation of things in the world.
It is not surprising then that coinciding with an interest in natural products is an interest in the molecules that are responsible for the effects modern fragrance is capable of. And, many of these molecules are indispensable to creating light, fresh and natural impressions – a particularly famous one being methyl dihydrojasmonate, the characteristic fresh tone of jasmine used to give lightness and smoothness to so many fragrance blends.
Simplicity & cleanliness
A focus on the molecules of perfumery is also another way to bring simplicity into a brand, to present it as essential. Simplicity can become purity, and this is where natural-types begin to collide with cleanliness. Green of course is also referred to as clean.
What will perhaps become even more significant in perfumery is how advancements in laundry detergents and fabric conditioners are driving our tastes of scents, and intersecting with our ideas of wellbeing. Consumers are increasingly looking for this all-encompassing experience of clean. Encapsulation technology was first used in 2007 to ensure a long-lasting fresh fragrance, and now microencapsulation appears in almost all fabric care launches to answer to what has become an expectation. Personal care microencapsulation is now being adopted, extending the search for the new clean even further.
In turn though, the household category, in particular fabric care, is more and more informed by ideas of nature. Historically, the traditionally clean ‘blue’ and aldehydic directions have driven new product development in fabric care, but botanical and floral influences are surpassing this for the first time. In North America, classic florals are now leading this trend.
In Japan too, laundry care references fresh blooming flowers. Botanical themes are also on the rise, with green and herbal takes on laundry care, such as verbena and eucalyptus. Of course, in fine fragrance, fresh florals and greens are often symbols of simplicity. This is while fantasy fragrances, with accords based on scents not easily referenced in the real world, have seen a decrease. It’s not that ‘clean’ no longer drives laundry care, but that nature has taken on a new meaning of clean.
But a dialogue between fine fragrance and laundry care is also having an impact on the texture and shape of fine fragrance. We are seeing fine fragrances are subtle, nuanced, and gentle – but without compromising on an enveloping pervasiveness, in part influenced by our expectations in laundry care. Many fine fragrances answer to this by joining fresh notes with a long-lasting, indelible but soft base. This is often achieved with modern musks – the often powdery, clean-smelling materials also used in laundry care for their hydrophobic fixative qualities.
Moods & signatures
When wearing a fragrance that offers this soft diffusiveness, there is also a greater feeling of interaction. It can seem to surround and cocoon the wearer, whilst also becoming a shifting atmosphere, often described as an aura.
This is a time when brands have become more aware of how fragrance can be used for its immediate effects and ability to transport us elsewhere. Many products are developed to accord with times of the day, certain rituals and routines, and, referencing aromatherapy, encourage certain moods. These ideas become a potent mix when seen in terms of personalisation, with younger generations requiring something to feel personal in order to feel invested.
How to personalise fragrance has not yet been fully explored, but a drive towards this has already had an impact on how fragrances are understood. The shape of the fine fragrance market too has changed drastically over recent years, with niche fragrances focusing on unexpected conceptual scents not typically associated with perfume, from flint and tennis balls, to vinyl and popcorn – and the bodily smells that for the most part seem to contradict fine fragrance. Niche fragrances are often also created rejecting assumptions of gender, and with a focus on ingredients, composition and style of the juice. All these things have given us the idea of a fragrance wardrobe, with scents acting like silhouettes, shapes and fabrics, manifesting parts of an identity that can be displayed and discarded.
But this idea of the olfactory wardrobe could also be returning us to something seen as essential, and sustainable. This is where traditional fragrance families have re-entered. Fougeres and chypres shift a focus to the ingredients that characterise their compositions. They allow for understated or elegant nuances, and most importantly carry the possibility of constant reinvention – whilst remaining recognisable.
It is also the case that, particularly within the beauty industry, luxury is no longer seen as mutually exclusive with eco-friendly concepts, with the terms such as sustainable luxe and eco-luxury enticing consumers. But what about fragrance? In making ingredients and materiality transparent via natural-type scents, have we set the scene to come back around again to the idea of the fragrance signature – with the one-of-a-kind luxury it implies?