Why are there so many perfumeries on Elizabeth Street?

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Photo-Illustration: Curbed/Getty Images

Start walking south on Elizabeth Street and you’ll come across the Scent Bar in minutes. The shop, with an all-white interior that looks more like a high-end cannabis store than a bar, sorts flavors by type: leather with smoke, incense with oud. (“Brands hate it,” jokes Vijay, the store manager.) Directly across is Naxos Apothecary, a recent import from Greece, its walls of amber cylinders visible from the sidewalk. Le Labo is next and, if you focus, you can probably conjure up a woody, fig-like hint of its once cool and now ubiquitous Santal 33. Turning to Prince, you’ll find Aesop, Mizenser, and Diptyque. Circle Mott and there’s Olfactory NYC; head west for DS and Durga instead. This two-block rectangle in Nolita is what perfume blog CaFleureBon has called New York’s perfume district. Or, as one DS & Durga employee put it, it’s “the best-smelling street in town.”

The rise of Elizabeth Street as a destination for niche fragrances in some ways mirrors changes in the industry itself. Before, perfume lived in chic neighborhoods, behind the counters of Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel and Macy’s. They were places to buy luxury staples like Chanel No. 5 and Miss Dior or fast-moving consumer goods like CK One. There is also a cluster of wholesalers on Broadway around 30th Street. But consumers who wanted to feel like they knew something you didn’t had to look elsewhere. Aedes de Venustas, one of the first perfumeries to open under 14th Street in many years, was built for exactly this purpose. The boutique arrived in 1995 on Christopher Street, offering hard-to-find fragrances in a basement storefront. “At the time niche wasn’t even a term, it was just a feeling – like, This is what I like, this is what I will sellsays Karl Bradl, co-owner of Aedes. As the industry caught up, department stores began to offer handcrafted fragrances like Diptyque and Creed on the counter front. “There was a change at some point,” says Bradl. But even as uptown retailers embraced a bit of the downtown ethos, it seemed new at the time to open a beauty salon outside of Manhattan’s central shopping corridors. “Back then, it was definitely easier to do something like that. There was really no competition and we always had unusual flavors from all over the world,” he adds.

Then Le Labo came to Nolita. The brand’s first boutique opened on Elizabeth Street in 2006, with its technicians mixing fragrances directly in the store. “They were the leader in this field, but when Atelier Cologne moved in a few years later, that’s when I felt something was happening,” says Micheyln Camen, editor-in-chief of CaFleureBon. Atelier Cologne closed earlier this year, but by then it was far from the only store that had flocked to Le Labo’s doorstep. (By 2014, Le Labo had been so successful that Estée Lauder acquired it for what some in the industry thought was $60 million.)

Aesop opened its first American brick-and-mortar store on the street in 2011, and in 2013 Diptyque arrived. Two years later, Cire Trudon arrived, and by 2019 Scent Bar, DS & Durga and Olfactory NYC had joined them. Migration was almost inevitable. When Le Labo came on the scene, Soho was on its way to becoming the sprawling outdoor mall it is today, so neighboring Nolita was the perfect place to catch the wandering shopper. (Perfume is also a small business — literally, because even the biggest bottles can still fit on your dresser, so Nolita’s smaller display cases were ideal.)

The phenomenon is called grouping, a term coined by economist Michael Porter. Like attracts, whether in the Diamond District or Silicon Valley. The store owners I spoke to found the concentration of competitors helpful for their businesses. “Being in this field lets you show the comparisons,” notes JJ Vittoria, founder of Olfactory NYC. “It becomes an afternoon,” says Scent Bar co-owner Franco Wright of the experience of hitting one spot after another. A person goes to Elizabeth Street because they want their signature scent (or lost their way after leaving Everlane); there is a sensory pleasure in walking. And a certain practicality: you don’t smell the Internet. “At Nolita, you can smell until your nose is finished,” says Vittoria.

Karen Dubin, who runs a mailing list of 20,000 people who she says “live and breathe perfume,” hosts biannual tours of perfume stores around Manhattan called Sniffapalooza. (Dubin tells me the event is now affectionately called “going on a Sniffa.”) Dubin can rattle off the names of the businesses that opened and closed on Elizabeth Street – Nest, Cire Trudon – and says that while she started with throwback events in 2002 at department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel, they’re now spending a “day downtown” touring Nolita’s boutiques.

COVID put a damper on neighborhood retail store sales, but when I went on my own sweaty Sniffa in June, the block was busy as tourists and others began to return to their respective shopping loops. The person working at Olfactory NYC told me that another client that day had spent almost two hours creating a personal scent. After discovering a perfume adjacent to sunscreen in Diptyque and watching a woman coldly fill her bottle in The Labo for $172, I stumbled into the subway, a little dazed from all the sniffles. The train offers its own kind of scent in the summer, but my mask had absorbed hints of the scents I sampled. For at least that afternoon, the smells of Elizabeth Street followed me home.

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