Listening to the deep baritone of Thorsten Biehl’s voice confirms what I suspected from wearing his perfumes: he does not take fools gladly, instead he takes his niche brand quite seriously, as he should. [and to find out for yourself, 10 deluxe atomisers in a draw for Perfume Shrine readers, more info at the bottom of the post!].
In an age of corporate marketing and conglomerates there’s something comforting about expressing one’s individuality via lifestyle choices. You can buy small batch organic produce at your local market or at the flick of the mouse. People on social media have lively discussions about unusual whiskeys or triple-milled soap coming from one specific village in the south of France. And you can try to smell smart and adventurous, instead of a “me too” clone, by opting for niche perfume brands such as Biehl Parfumkunstwerke. Based in Berlin, Germany, Biehl is no stranger to the best kept secrets of the fragrance industry, nor to the artistic temperament itself.
Thorsten Biehl had been working for German perfume giant Symrise (formerly H&R) for 17 years, inspired by his father, perfumer Henning Biehl, a man with the pensive profile of Herman Hesse and the first non-French perfumer to win a prestigious award for most innovative fragrance by the French Perfumer Association in 1987. It was this perfume which, reworked anew, became HB01 in the Biehl Parfumkunstwerke line and gave rise to the whole concept: an “art gallery” where artists (perfumers, artists for the nose) could exhibit their personal projects which would be curated by a decisive art director, Thorsten Biehl himself, to show off their different sides. The emphasis is placed on German-trained perfumers, who Thorsten has worked with over the years at Symrise, to showcase the singularity of their members compared to others from a different background, e.g. French-, Italian- or American-trained perfumers. “The first fragrance was the key driving factor for the creative process” says Biehl. “Who would buy the perfume that my father had created? It was prestigious but it lacked the exposure it needed. So I decided to launch it as a separate entity and from it sprang the idea of the Biehl line”. Kunst means “art” in German and “werke” means “works”, so in short “perfume artworks” is what Biehl stands for.
The official launch of Biehl Parfumkunstwerke came in the summer of 2007, but the backstage work was evidently going on for years before. Biehl has gathered a diverse mix of artists to begin with: Arturo Landi, Egon Oelkers, Geza Schön, Mark Buxton, Patricia Choux and his own father Henning.
Niche perfumery historically began as a legitimate approach to the problem of the mainstream, older houses degenerating into “pure commercial machines” as Thorsten puts it in no uncertain terms. “They are constantly putting things out, new things all the time, which has unavoidably brought the quality down dramatically in the last 30 years. Perfumeries themselves have become retail businesses, like super-markets, a location where you only go to buy, not experience. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they do not know what they’re selling, most of the time!” He references a popular fragrance (which shall remain unnamed) which is “just a trite eau de Cologne formula with some vanilla thrown in for good measure and it’s selling like it’s so novel!” In contrast, Biehl Parfumkunstwerke targets the discerning 10% of the population who want to find something special, something which sticks to a certain level of commitment and personal involvement from the creators’ side.
These more unusual scents were a welcome solace for the customer who wanted out of a rut. Niche perfumery is consequently experiencing a high level of attention at the moment, as people share their experiences online, go to perfume exhibitions, read and compare, whereas 10 years ago this was not possible; it took naked women and semi-naked men to create the image of a new fragrance to entice the consumer to pay enough attention. But no good deed goes unpunished, just as no good business idea is not fraught with pitfalls. The pitfall for niche came in forgetting its purpose, wanting to branch out beyond its scope, creating brands based on marketing findings alone (findings stating that high end niche is the only growing sector in the fragrance market), something which Biehl vehemently contravenes.
“Perfume can stand for big money in business terms. So there are some former niche brands which are becoming increasingly present in mass-market stores, such as Douglas or Sephora, retail giants, who focus on the commercial angles of perfumery. In a way it’s good for the niche, because they’re out. In another, it’s a dilution of the original idea of niche, and that’s bullshit.” Gotta love a man who isn’t scared to speak his mind!
Striving to appear a certain way, a few unscrupulous companies claim a work address in the Champs Élysées which turns out to be just an answering machine! This localized, specifically Frenchified end of the business is ripe for what the French themselves call a “bouleversement”; a dislocation, an upheaval. Brazil with its strong local market is a good example of the future ahead for the perfume business. “Sao Paolo is an emerging location for fragrance companies, as the production is now conducted within the country and answers to local needs”, clarifies Biehl.
Taking account of the local needs and context of a specific market goes a long way indeed, as in an anecdote that Thorsten Biehl revealed to me: “In the 1990s there was a huge trend on vanilla arising in the United States. On the heels of that knowledge, one of the leading multinational companies, Coty Inc., had launched Vanilla Fields, a fragrance heavily built on vanilla, also distributed in Mexico. But they were selling so little there that it became a laughing matter and a mystery at the same time. Turns out that the cheap Mexican taxis, small VW Beetles, are confined, with those cheap air freshener “trees” dangling from the rearview mirror, which were -oh coincidence of coincidences- aromatized with fake vanilla! So the reference, the association, was a deterrent, you see. One always needs to take nuances into account.”
Sometimes the damage is done in reporting instead. You have journalists incessantly repeating the PR drivel of fragrance copy writing, such as “the most expensive fragrance in the world” for a well known ware, which technically it is not. The bottle adorned with a crystal of 100% pure carbon provides all the bling-bling that the juice lacks and makes for the staggering asking price. But the tag line sticks; and sticks like a sore thumb at that, in a world where the customer is not required to be proficient in the makeup of a perfume formula to judge its legitimacy. Why the illusion?
Biehl differentiated himself and his perfume brand, Biehl Parfumkunstwerke, from faux hauteur early on, insisting on producing quality packaged in no nonsense vessels; he sends his fragrances on a journey to the ends of people’s hearts, rather than the depths of their pocketbooks. This is why when I ask him where he sees himself in 10 years’ time he confides he has no concrete plans. “I don’t think about the future too much; not in that sense anyway. Perhaps it’s due to bad past experiences, but I don’t see myself a certain way, nor do I envision 50 perfumes in my brand’s portfolio. It is a nice topic to discuss over a glass of wine with good company, but it doesn’t really have an effect in my day to day existence”, laughs Thorsten. “I live well, but I do not plan ahead”.
It’s all very well not to dwell on the future too much, but what about the past? To trace a man’s dedication to perfumery one needs to ask for experiences in his formative years, so this is what I did. Thorsten admitted to a soft spot for Paco Rabanne pour Homme, one of his first fragrant gifts from his father, a masculine cologne which was huge in the 1970s and 1980s. “I still think of it as special, I just don’t use it anymore”. In the 1990s Thorsten fell under the spell of Chanel’s Antaeus, a herbal fragrance with an evocation of a worn-leather-jacket that is somewhat of a contradicting enigma; pure sex id in a total class package. I can see what he means, my eyes all sparkle up when I catch a whiff of it myself. Thorsten is also taken with a fragrance by his good colleague, the olfactory artist Geza Schön, who composed GS02; spicy intrigue and warm sweetness infused with piquant essences evocative of absinth liquor and Campari bitters, it makes for an intoxicating cocktail for modern day poets maudits. Clearly Thorsten Biehl and his Biehl Parfumkunstwerke are far removed from the fate of accursed poets, but they have the talent, the forward thinking and the fertile imagination to ignite Rimbaldian epiphanies in each and any one of us; and that’s what artistic perfumery stands for, really.