If I were writing a book on how to make it big in niche perfumery, I’d make Dusita a headlining case study. Even the most casual observer of the niche sector would tell you that Pissara Umavijani, the founder of Parfums Dusita, is probably the most astonishing success story of 2016. The niche sector is thick with the self-taught, entrepreneurs, amateur mixologists, and mainstream brands masquerading as niche, but in 2016, Pissara came out of nowhere, swept them all aside, and went straight to the top end of the market, charging between €300 and €400 for a bottle, and completely getting away with it.
Whether the perfumes themselves are any good is almost beside the point. Truth be told, I am more impressed with Pissara Umavijani’s business strategy than the perfumes themselves, but both are worth looking at.
The first thing that Umavijani did right was to align herself immediately with the right partners. The niche and artisan sector is rife with self-taught perfumers, but results are not typically the high-end, polished luxury perfumes that command Roja Dove prices. In partnering up with a very good team at one of the best fragrance labs in Grasse, she was able to ensure that the product itself was as polished as a Bvlgari jewel. And all credit due here – Umavijani is clearly an excellent creative director, taking the time to push her team to produce perfumes that are not commercially safe as Roja Dove’s perfumes, but important, artistic efforts in their own right*.
*Important correction, dated 13/06/2017: The above paragraph hypothesizes that, due to the extraordinary polish of the first three perfumes, it was the Grasse partner lab that formulated the perfumes. However, Pissara has made it clear to me since then that she is the sole perfumer behind the brand, writes her own formulas, and only uses the Grasse partner, Accords et Parfums, for European & IFRA compliance checks. My apologies if my editorializing implied, or led others to infer, otherwise.
From a commercial point of view – branding, product placement, bottle design, graphic design, copy, distribution, and so on – it is also clear that Umavijani knows what she is doing. Every single detail is haute luxe. But the most important thing that Umavijani seems to have understood is this: people need to smell the product in order to enthuse about it. 90% of success in a crowded market such as niche perfumery is simply access. Umavijani set up a very generous sampling scheme whereby for the price of postage from Paris, you would receive three large deluxe samples of each of the perfumes, housed in simple but luxurious black decant bottles.
The sampling scheme ensured that as many people as possible got to smell the perfumes. Since the perfumes are very good indeed, people enthused about them online, and the word spread – suddenly the name of Dusita was everywhere on the Internet. It was a canny investment, and other niche companies looking to enter the market should look to this example.
Companies always gripe about the expense of sampling schemes. And yes, at first glance, they are loss leaders. But Umavijani (or an advisor) had a clear vision as to the precise dividends such a sampling scheme would eventually pay out in terms of brand recognition and customer valuation. Dusita’s sampling program must have cost thousands and thousands of euros, but it was no after-thought. It was a deliberate part of the strategy to get Dusita perfumes talked about in the community, and I bet a large portion of the operational budget was devoted to it.
The second thing that Umavijani did right was social media marketing. Social media engagement is a very tricky thing for niche and indie perfumers, and few get it entirely right. Too much chatter with perfume fans runs the risk of cheapening a brand, and too little wins you a reputation for standoffishness. You want to be available to answer questions and do post-sales follow-up, but it is also important for a brand in the luxury segment of the niche perfume market to preserve at least a little bit of mystique.
Umavijani is always present on social media, always checking to see if she needs to say thank you for a nice review or answer a comment. She has aligned herself with certain influencers and prominent bloggers to help magnify and grow the brand’s presence, but has managed to make her online presence as charmingly non-commercial as possible. She is there to sell, yes, but she manages to make the seams between social media participation and selling thin enough that you don’t feel aggressively marketed to.
Only time will tell how authentic a voice Umavijani will prove to have on the social media networks and throughout the broader community. Authenticity always rings true: I think of perfumers such as Liz Moores, Sarah McCartney, and Andy Tauer who apart from handling all the onerous, day-to-day tasks of their businesses also engage meaningfully with their customers on social media, openly sharing the intimate details of their personal lives and their perfume business with joe schmoes like me and you. It feels like a privilege to be allowed this kind of access, but I know it can’t be easy for them either. Authenticity of voice on social media is very tough to develop and maintain. There’s a line to be walked, and it’s no joke trying to navigate one’s way to it.
One last word, on pricing. Many bloggers say that the only thing that matters is the perfume itself and that the price shouldn’t come into the equation. I think that price plays a very big role in how we (subconsciously or consciously) value a fragrance. Simply put, if something is cheap, we perceive its materials to be cheap. If a perfume costs almost €400, we assume that the very best materials went into it. It’s just the way our prehensile brains work, sorry.
Perfumers can price their products in two ways – production pricing or market pricing. In production pricing, you work backwards from the cost of the materials and man hours, and price the perfume at what it cost to produce (adding in margins for distributors, marketing, one’s own income, etc.). Andy Tauer recently provided an example of what goes into the costing his perfumes, and Laurie Erickson also published a post about the business costs involved in running an artisan perfumery.
On the one hand, this makes things quite clear – you know you are paying more if a precious or rare ingredient was used. On the flipside, exposing one’s own profit margins to your customers opens the door to discussions over how fairly you’ve priced your own talent.
Market pricing, on the other hand, prices a product at exactly what the market is willing to pay for it. A perfume priced at €400 ignores all the details and simply asks the question “Are you worth it?” If you feel that you deserve the luxury of an expensive bottle of perfume, then you will buy it. You won’t quibble about the perfumer’s margins, you know only that this perfume must be absolutely amazing because it costs almost €400.
People in the fragrance community talk grumpily about luxury pricing, but really, we all know that past the €80-100 mark, you are always paying for the prestige, the boasting rights, and not the actual perfume. No perfume costs more than €10 or so to make, anyway. But perfumes priced at luxury prices sell because they play into the perception that a high price means top quality.
Parfums Dusita didn’t play around – they went straight in at Roja Dove prices. That took some guts. But they held steady because they knew that the perfumes were good enough to stand up to the scrutiny of the few for whom the scent actually matters, and satisfy the desire for the exclusive, the pricey, and the haute luxe for the person also buying the $35,000 Rolex.
But Oudh Infini costs €100 more than Issara, so there’s a strange dash of production pricing mixed in there with the market pricing. The price difference is probably supposed to come across to the customer as the marker of quality for the real oud used in the fragrance. That gaping price differential makes me curious as to what they are actually using as the oud note, whereas had they priced it the same as the others, I wouldn’t have cared. But a €100 price difference? That kind of makes it my business, as a consumer. I could speculate that the oud is an expensive new oud captive developed by a laboratory like IFF or Givaudan, or real oud oil from the plantations in Laos (which I’ve been told is so plentiful and consistent in quality that it is sold in liter jars to perfume companies in France). Either way, I doubt that the cost differential actually amounts to €100 per 50mls of liquid.
From a market pricing perspective, though, pricing an oud-based perfume at this much more suggests to the customer that the raw materials are hellishly expensive. It’s a genius move because with a simple (and probably arbitrary) pricing adjustment, you’ve added value to the customer’s perceptions of your brand’s worth as they open their wallet.
Anyway, on to the perfumes themselves! They are all very good and interesting, although not half as interesting to me personally as the brand’s own stratospheric rise.
Oudh Infini has far more of the animal, furred warmth of a pack animal than a tree or resin, so at first my nose thinks it smells heavy deer musk, not oud oil. But then I’m reminded that there are a couple of pure oud oils out there that mimic the characteristics of deer musk, such as Ensar Oud’s Yunnan 2003 oil, which has a furry thickness to it that makes me think I can just reach out my fingers and touch the warm animal in front of me.
It is a brave act, you know, to launch a commercial perfume that smells like this. Those of you who have grown up on farms will not be shocked – neither will people who wear pure oud. But the rest of you? Prepare your nostrils, for Oudh Infini smells intensely of warm sheep, packed ten deep into a shed in winter, the warm (tallow fat) smell of their oily wool mixing with their shit-smeared backsides and the soiled straw beneath. I pick up a faint hint of roses, faded and sour like the emanation from a vase of roses in a locked room. It is not pleasant, it is not pretty, but it has impact.
Past the ferociously animalic, barnyardy opening, creamy sandalwood and vanilla turn the oud into a crottin of goat’s cheese. It’s refined and gentle – as I mentioned once to a friend, like dung strained through a silk stocking.
Oudh Infini does an excellent job of sketching out what one would smell in a real oud oil – evolving slowly from barnyard, feces, pack animals to runny cheese and flowers and herbs. It lacks perhaps only the more complex depth of camphor, smoke, sap, and woods that form the backbone of pure oud oil, but all the other markers are there.
However, and this is a big however, I am having trouble placing Oudh Infini in a hypothetical wardrobe. I love pure oud oil but I also love fragrance compositions that present me with a different, more artistic impression of oud. My trouble with Oudh Infini is that it smells too close to the real oud oil experience for it to succeed purely as an artistic interpretation of the oud theme.
In other words, if I want something that smells like real oud oil, why not (for reasons of cost and others) just go for oud oil? Naturally, personal preferences in terms of how we prefer to wear perfume come into it, but if you are thinking of a real oud oil experience, then there is little else as magical as an essential oil (oud oil) that can give the nose all the complexity of wood, fruit, flowers, dung, soil, and ozone without any help from a fragrance laboratory. If I want to wear a proper perfume based on oud, I’d go for more ambitious, complex perfumes such as Oud Shamash or Oud Osmanthus. They don’t smell as authentic oudy as Oudh Infini but verisimilitude is not what I’m seeking when I wear oud-based perfumes. I want the smoke and mirrors.
Mélodie de L’Amour is, to my nose, a powerful statement on jasmine, the filthy kind that drapes the insides of your nostrils in the matte black ink of pure indole. Very little to differentiate here at first between the flat wall of scatole that rises off a fresh turd and a jasmine decaying right off the vine, which is how all jasmines would be if I had my way. Boy, it fairly pins my ears back. There is the faint breath of rotting fruit to add moistness to the dank, flat tonality here, a peach or pear perhaps, with an undertone of acrylic paint or turps.
Later, it develops a green, rubbery, creamy cheese odor that I assume is gardenia, but it is successfully managed by that wall of jasmine and never approaches the rancid horror of Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia soliflore, which smells like black spots on butter taste in my mouth. Mélodie de L’Amour is the rare instance of a floral that smells more like an animal than a plant, joining the ranks of other bloodsucking florals such as Manoumalia, Rubj, and Une Fleur de Cassie, perfumes I never know if they going to wear me, eat me, or fuck me.
Issara is the most immediately likeable and wearable of the initial Dusita trio. For a fougere, it is surprisingly lush and sweet, deftly side-stepping the beardy, Brut-ish machismo of most of this year’s fougere revivals (I’m looking at you, Le Barbier de Tangers) and aligning itself with softer takes on the theme, such as Chanel’s Boy. The topnotes sparkle like sunlight on fresh snow – friendly, crisp pine mingling with mint and sage, faintly sugared with tonka bean and a starchy white musk. There is a beautifully fresh, green “salt” note here, reminiscent of beach grasses and sand dunes.
I only have two issues here, really – first, that the musky, tonka-ish drydown is rather synthetic in feel, in comparison to the more natural Oudh Infini and Melodie de l’Amour (I suspect a touch too much of either Ambroxan or Iso E Super), and second, fougeres used to be the unpretentious backbone of the male grooming world, so I’m not sure if putting it in extrait form or pricing it at €295 for 50mls isn’t missing the point somewhat. Issara is a very good fougere, but for that type of money I’d rather buy a 200ml vat of Chanel’s Boy and just splash it on with gay abandon.