Meet the Makers Behind the Best Independent Fragrance Brands

We scoured the indie scent scene and cherry-picked their most covetable colognes

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Goest Perfumes, Commodity Fragrances and Abbott NYC / Sarah Jacobs / ONE37pm

Remember the days of Axe body spray wafting out of high school lockers? The pungent nature of Old Spice after a middle school basketball game? The adult equivalents, like Bleu de Chanel and Davidoff Cool Water, are just as nasally offensive. To stand out, ditch the duty free brand names and opt for a handcrafted version. Go boutique, my man. With a scent created in an artist’s studio by a small business founder, you'll stave off the lovers of eau de toilet and people will thank you.

Buyouts of hip fragrance houses by larger manufacturers that churn out department store scents are on the rise. Though brands like Byredo and Le Labo—which we love, to be clear—are touted as indie, they're manufactured by private equity company Manzanita and the beauty giant Estée Lauder Company, respectively. In order to find individuality, turn to independent perfumers.

Some small businesses are doing everything right: Hand-pouring scents in artisan studios, crafting fragrances with unique ingredients and drawing on personal experiences are only some of the benefits of shopping small for cologne. We scoured the landscape to discover these four self-supporting brands and smell-tested their lineups to discover the most alluring scents.

Skip the airport duty free. These selections exemplify the reasons to leave your Axe and Old Spice to the middle schoolers.

Goest Fragrances

Jacqueline Steele, 29, is the self-proclaimed nose and founder behind Goest Fragrances (pronounced "go-est"), founded officially in 2014. She is passionate about her work and the unisex perfumes she creates reflect her adoration.

Each fragrance is made in-house, by hand, in an East Hollywood studio in Los Angeles. This process grants ultimate control over what goes into each of her fragrances. The precision difference between a mass-produced product and one tenderly filled by hand is palpable. Steele studied fragrance-making in Grasse, France.

Her precision and dedication are evident in the tiny details—hand-drawn, charming illustrations cover each bottle; each fragrance has a poetic explanation of its inspiration and the experience is incredibly thoughtful. The concise line of six fragrances—Dauphine, Lartigue, Grand Tour, Realism, Silent Films, Jackal, and Smokers' Perfume—strike a chord for every kind of person, but two, in particular, stand out, wherever "thou goest."

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Smokers’ Perfume

Packaged in a cigarette box, Goest’s Smokers’ Perfume, if combined with cigarette smoke, creates a cacophony of scent, stealing all the best elements of the smoke while adding its own seductive notes. But you don't have to be a smoker to enjoy the scent. It generates memories of my boarding school in the woods, when teenagers would sneak into long-forgotten cabins through cracked windows. It smells like Girl Scouts huddled around a campfire, roasting s'mores and telling tall tales. This perfume is childhood distilled, but better. 

Each "hard pack" box of Smokers' Perfume contains five mini spray tubes which perfectly fit into your standard cigarette box. Once a few cigs are gone, slide in a mini tube of Smokers' Perfume for ultimate portability. 

Steele declares, "The ideal response to someone wearing our fragrance is a full-body response. It isn’t necessarily an intellectual 'Wow, where did they buy that fragrance?' but a subconscious, 'Wow, who is that?' Our goal is to offer people fragrances that aren’t too perfumey; nothing cliché or overly-faux smelling (anything that reads department store)."

"What’s sensual about people is not that they smell like roses, it’s that they smell like people,” she continues. "If you’ve ever been really attracted to someone and even liked the way they smelled after the gym, you’ve noticed this firsthand. Our fragrances preserve your secret weapon—your identity and unique sensuality—instead of deodorizing you into oblivion.”

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Grand Tour

Described as "sport, spirit and straight-out polish," Grand Tour recalls vintage cross-country trips in red convertibles down the California coast. You can smell the tanned leather, the reckless abandon and the welcoming allure of moss. I know this sounds like hooey, but it's true.

Choosing a fragrance can feel like a daunting task. If you're a fragrance newbie, heed Steele's advice. "Sample if you can. Everybody has their own smell even before they apply cologne—it varies from person to person based on your hormones, your habits, your diet, and even your laundry detergent. Once a fragrance hits your skin, it changes from what it smelled like in the air or on paper because it mixes with the smell of you. People often refer to this as 'fragrance reacting with your personal chemistry.' You’ll feel a certain way while wearing it. This is how you get closer to finding 'the one' without feeling overly influenced by the name of the scent, the price, and the marketing imagery.

And what about the search for the perfect, signature scent? She says, "Even people with a rock-solid signature scent should still have a scent wardrobe for different occasions. Sort of like how you might have the perfect everyday office suit, fitted with the right fabrication and the right vibe. But, sometimes life calls for a tux."

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West Third Brand

West Third Brand was launched in 2008 by a founder with 26 years of experience in fragrance. A creative director alumnus of Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Barney’s, Tommy Bahama and more, Michael Probst, 51, was tasked with traveling the globe in pursuit of other brands' scents. Born out of Probst's desire to create a niche fragrance company focused on "approachable, easy-to-wear scents," West Third Brand was a natural and organic progression. 

"West Third Brand is truly a labor of love, sort of a personal journey with my heart on my sleeve—my desire to create beauty and share it. It is a vulnerable place to be," Probst reveals.

West Third Brand hand-formulates and hand-pours each fragrance and bottle in Austin, Texas. The packaging is minimal and non-intrusive: Perfect for a man's bathroom shelf. With only one founder at the helm and "a handful of people creating a kind of magic," this self-funded business needs to be on your scent radar.

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Midnight Cowboy

In collaboration with perfumer Lynette Reed, a fragrance artist with 20 years' experience, West Third Brand created a simultaneously light but powerful fragrance with Midnight Cowboy. It's perfect for a man who confidently knows who he is and wants a scent to simply accent his aura. Notes of tobacco and sandalwood are most prominent with a faint follow of faded rose, vanilla and golden amber. It smells like a gin-drinking horseback rider from HBO's Westworld returned home for the day to relax on his wrap-around veranda in the summer breeze. It's light but strong and would suit most everyone. 

And really, who wouldn't want to be a Midnight Cowboy?

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Super Musk

Stronger forward notes of musk dominate this scent, but it carries West Third Brand's signature demure nature. With a follow through of creamy vanilla and touches of cinnamon, clove and sandalwood, this scent is layered and dimensional. It smells like a velvety speakeasy hidden in a locked vault, brimming with beautiful women and mystery. Similar to Midnight Cowboy, it is not overbearing, but instead lightly kisses your nose.

Per Probst's recommendation, you can always purchase some sample vials to get the full experience of a fragrance mixed with your daily life.

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Abbott NYC

Produced only in the New York City and upstate area, Abbott NYC draws inspiration from stimulating locations and imbues their feeling into a scent. “As a small brand, both of us end up wearing many different hats, which is a balancing act but a lot of fun,” co-founders Jose Alvarez, 36, and Michael Pass, 35, said. They treat fragrance like good wine: Delicious for all, appreciated by everyone and tested for perfection.

In addition to delivering a high-quality product, Abbott is sticking to a mission of offering clean ingredients, master perfumers and fair prices. The large-sized bottles retail for $65, a significant saving to its market counterparts.

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Big Sky

Abbott’s fragrances begin with a beautiful and inspiring destination that the founders want to capture and “create aromatic scents that are very interesting but also clean and concise.” Noted as their most popular current scent, Big Sky is “inspired by Jose’s trips to Montana over the past year," according to Pass. Dried vetiver, grass, cool water, some spice and fresh cypress exemplify Montana's lake and glacier terrain. "It’s this frozen, crisp sensation that we strived to recreate in every bottle, but with a hint of a campfire, as a nod to the state’s ranching history.”

It really smells that way, too. Woodsy, but polar, the scent feels like a nostalgic day at a frozen lake, daring you to walk on the ice.

When asked what advice they'd give beginning entrepreneurs, the co-founders say, "Create a great product and keep refining it. Get as much free advice as possible from people in your space or adjacent spaces who are willing to talk to you. And be able to adapt, because things will go wrong and you’ll have to shift gears many times."

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Inspired by California's Mojave desert, this scent smells like dry sand baking in the hot sun for months. It is light and a bit citrusy, but with grounding notes of tobacco and bergamot. The box is inscribed with a latitude and longitude marking of 35°00'29.9"N 115°28'30.0"W, the coordinates for the exact middle of the Mojave National Preserve.

For these founders, being independent means saying no to consumer research, brand positioning and trends and saying yes to products they can be proud of.

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Commodity, a U.K.-based fragrance brand, calls upon the knowledge of master perfumers to execute a portfolio of unisex fragrances. The result is a cruelty-free, paraben free suite of fragrances sweeping the international smell scene, with their products in 300 Sephora stores, according to Forbes. The founder, Ash Huzenlaub, 42, is a self-proclaimed outsider of the beauty industry, which led him to assemble an expert team. 

With three distinct lines of fragrance, our team gravitated toward the Platinum Collection, described as rich, luxurious and indulgent. Both of our selections sit squarely in this category.

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When removing Tonka from its packaging, you immediately smell this fragrance. It is a dominant scent, with powerful forward notes of almond, magnolia and sandalwood. It smells like baby's breath, the tiny white flowers that fill your bouquets, and jazz music—a bit random, but intentional. 

Perfumer Guillaume Flavigny notes, “Rhythm and music inspire and help me create perfumes and play with sustainable raw materials to bring something different and meaningful to a fragrance. I love to play the piano, and the melodic, syncopated rhythmic patterns of jazz awaken my very personal and provocative style.”

The Venezuelan Tonka bean grants this fragrance its nomenclature and is considered "an ingredient so good, it has to be illegal."

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Stephen Nielsen created the fragrance Orris based on the orris root, the fragrant stalk of a purple iris flower (you know, the flower that Alice encounters on her way to meet the Caterpillar in Disney's Alice in Wonderland), calling it his muse. "When I contrasted it with floral elements like iris and combined sparkling aldehydes, an unexpected, cool effervescent effect was created—an inebriating skin-like sensuality," he says on Commodity's website

It smells waxy, recalling memories of art class in elementary school, packed with simultaneous artistry and abandon.

Sensual is the perfect word for this fragrance. It is spicy, velvety, and borderline irresistible. There are so many top, mid and base notes at play, but the general essence is one of luxury. 

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