Start walking south on Elizabeth Street and you’ll run into the Scent Bar in a matter of minutes. The shop, with an all-white interior that reads more high-end weed store than bar, sorts scents by type: leather with smoke, incense with oud. (“The brands hate it,” jokes Vijay, the store manager.) Just across the street is Naxos Apothecary, a recent import from Greece, its walls of amber cylinders visible from the sidewalk. Le Labo comes next and, if you concentrate, you can probably conjure a figgy, woody hint of its once-cool, now-ubiquitous Santal 33. As you turn onto Prince you’ll find Aesop, Mizenser, and Diptyque. Circle back up Mott and there’s Olfactory NYC; head west instead for D.S. & Durga. This two-block rectangle in Nolita is what the perfume blog CaFleureBon termed New York City’s Fragrance District. Or as one retail worker at D.S. & Durga put it, it’s “the best-smelling street in the city.”
The rise of Elizabeth Street as a destination for niche fragrance in some ways mirrors changes in the industry itself. Before, perfume lived uptown, behind the counters at Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel, and Macy’s. These were places to pick up luxury staples like Chanel No. 5 and Miss Dior or mass-market pleasers like CK One. There’s a cluster of wholesalers on Broadway around 30th Street too. But consumers who wanted to smell like they knew something you didn’t had to look elsewhere. Aedes de Venustas, one of the first perfume shops to open below 14th Street in many years, was built for exactly this purpose. The shop arrived in 1995 on Christopher Street, offering hard-to-find fragrances in a basement storefront. “Back then niche was not even a term, it was just a feeling — like, That’s what I like, that’s what I’m going to sell,” says Karl Bradl, co-owner of Aedes. As the industry caught up, the bigger department stores started to bring artisanal fragrances like Diptyque and Creed to the front of the counter. “There was a switch at one point,” says Bradl. But even as uptown retailers embraced a little of the downtown ethos, it felt novel at the time to open a beauty shop outside of Manhattan’s central retail corridors. “Back in those days, it was definitely easier to do something like that. There really was no competition, and we always had unusual fragrances from around the world,” he adds.
Then Le Labo arrived in Nolita. The brand’s first shop opened on Elizabeth Street in 2006, its technicians blending scents right there in the store. “They were the leader in that area, but when Atelier Cologne moved in a few years later, that’s when I felt that 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 proved so successful that Estée Lauder acquired it for what some in the industry speculated was $60 million.)
Aesop opened its first U.S. brick-and-mortar shop on the street in 2011, and in 2013, Diptyque arrived. Two years later, Cire Trudon came, and by 2019, Scent Bar, D.S. & Durga, and Olfactory NYC had joined them. The migration was almost inevitable. When Le Labo came on the scene, Soho was well on its way to becoming the sprawling outdoor mall it is today, so neighboring Nolita was the perfect spot to catch the wandering consumer. (Fragrance is also a small business — in the literal sense, as even the largest bottles can still fit on your dresser, and so Nolita’s tinier storefronts were ideal.)
The phenomenon is called clustering, a term coined by economist Michael Porter. Like attracts like, whether in the Diamond District or Silicon Valley. The store owners I spoke to saw the concentration of competitors as helpful for their businesses. “Being in that area allows you to show the comparisons,” notes JJ Vittoria, founder of Olfactory NYC. “It becomes an afternoon,” says Franco Wright, co-owner of the Scent Bar, of the experience of hitting one spot after the next. A person goes to Elizabeth Street because they want their signature scent (or lost their way after leaving Everlane); there’s a sensory pleasure to the walk. And a certain practicality: You can’t smell the internet. “In 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 fragrance,” arranges twice-annual tours of perfume shops around Manhattan called Sniffapalooza. (Dubin tells me the event is now fondly referred to as “going on a Sniffa.”) Dubin can rattle off the names of businesses that have opened and closed on Elizabeth Street — Nest, Cire Trudon — and says that while she started with events back in 2002 in department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel, they now spend a “downtown day” touring shops in Nolita.
COVID put a dent in sales for retail stores in the neighborhood, but when I went on my own sweaty Sniffa in June, the block was busy as tourists and others were beginning to return to their respective commerce loops. The person working at Olfactory NYC told me that another customer that day had spent nearly two hours building a personal scent. After discovering a sunscreen-adjacent scent in Diptyque and watching a woman coolly refill her bottle at Le Labo for $172, I stumbled to the subway, a little dizzy from all the sniffs. The train offers its own kind of perfume in the summer, but my mask had absorbed hints of the scents I’d sampled. For at least that afternoon, the smells of Elizabeth Street followed me home.