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The Stockholm Fragrance Start-Up Smart Money Is Betting On

Haisam Mohammed, a son of Eritrean refugees, has turned the aromas wafting through the stairwells of Sweden’s high-rises into a perfume business now backed by Frame co-founder Erik Torstensson.
Haisam Mohammed, a son of Eritrean refugees to Sweden, has turned the aromas wafting through the stairwells of his childhood housing complex into a perfume business now backed by Frame founder Erik Torstensson.
Haisam Mohammed’s perfume brand Unifrom is backed by Frame co-founder Erik Torstensson. (Niklas Marklund)

STOCKHOLM — On a chilly night back in 2019, Haisam Mohammed went to Sodra Teatern, a clubbing hotspot housed in Sweden’s oldest theatre. Amid flashing strobe lights and thumping beats, the then 22-year-old, in a sleek Scandinavian take on a 90s hip-hop look, opened a small glass vial and offered its contents to a handful of revellers who sniffed the substance with enthusiasm.

But Mohammed was no drug dealer. He was selling samples of his nascent perfume brand Unifrom’s first product: 10ml silver tubes of roll-on pure oil scents, developed in fragrance hub Grasse.

Three and a half years later, the company he started with $12,000 of personal savings has expanded its product offering to home fragrances and solid perfumes, built a direct-to-consumer channel that drives 65 percent of sales, crossed into profitability and attracted investment from Frame Denim co-founder and fellow Swede Erik Torstensson, who became a minority shareholder in 2021.

“I always look for two things when I help people or make private investments: I look for the hustler and someone who has a chip on their shoulder, which goes back to myself too,” said Torstensson.

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“He ticked all the boxes for us on new talent,” added Ida Petersson, buying director at Browns, which picked up the brand this week. “It was interesting; it’s beautifully designed, and it had a unique story.”

That story began in 1990, when Mohammed’s parents fled conflict in Eritrea, landing with four children in a refugee camp in Sundsvall four hours north of Stockholm. They quickly found work — his mother as a nurse’s aide; his father, who had studied theology at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, as a framer and imam of a local mosque. Eventually they moved out of the camp, relocating to Hudiksvall, where Mohammed, their fifth and youngest child, was born.

Uniform’s first product was a roll-on pure oil scent.
Uniform’s first product was a roll-on pure oil scent. (Kim Ihre)

In school, Mohammed was one of three immigrant kids in a class of over 300 students and occasionally suffered racist remarks. But he took inspiration from successful Black rappers like P Diddy and Jay Z, who he saw on MTV, and who made him feel good about his background. “I thought that I could also be somebody; that I could be like them,” said Mohammed. “They were being creative, doing what they wanted and just living this life where they had ownership of their story and themselves.”

Mohammed was 12 when his family moved to Stockholm, where he completed high school, graduated from university and worked in advertising before launching his brand. He had long worn perfume oils bought at mosques and “was always fascinated by scents.” But most fragrances were conceived with references far from his experiences. “I had never stepped foot in a botanic garden,” he said. So, like the rappers he grew up idolising, he drew on his own reality, taking inspiration from the smells of Eritrean food and frankincense which wafted through the stairwells of the high-rises he and his friends lived in.

“When you think about Sweden, maybe you think about typical functional, minimalist, Ikea and whatnot,” said Torstensson. “I think what was brewing in these areas is much more, no pun intended, flavourful or fragrant, if you will.”

Mohammed turned to the immigrant community for early support. “I knew that I would have supporters in some way because I knew that the diaspora was big,” he said. “I knew that in big cities — whether it’s in London or New York or Stockholm or wherever there are people who have fled from somewhere or are a part of the diaspora — my story would resonate.”

In spring 2018, after a failed attempt to find partners in Paris, Mohammed returned to Stockholm and joined a handful of Facebook groups for fragrance enthusiasts, where he met an industry veteran in the industry who introduced him to two French noses. Emboldened, Mohammed went back to Paris, and a few months later, three Unifrom scents were born: Maghrib, Cassis and Limbo.

A white Unifrom box being held against a black background.
Unifrom now has 14 stockists, including Browns and END. (Unifrom)

After the samples received favourable feedback in the clubs, he placed the smallest possible orders with his suppliers and, in December 2019, a week before Christmas, launched a website offering scents “conceptualised in Stockholm, developed in Paris and made in Grasse.” A few months later, he began selling at Stockholm boutiques Jus and Nitty Gritty, as well as department store NK.

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It’s not just Unifrom’s unique backstory that attracted interest. Mohammed has a sharp nose, said Petersson, as well as products that are small and spill-proof, making them ideal for travel.

Today, Unifrom has 14 stockists, mostly in Europe, but the business remains subscale: Unifrom will generate less than $1 million in revenue this year.

Torstensson, however, is bullish. “I’ve seen enough entrepreneurs and creatives over the years to know when it’s going to work,” he said. “I was just like, this is a guy who will succeed. If it’s not this, it will be something else or something else, and I should be around this kid one way or another.”

Mohammed, for his part, won’t have it any other way. “Listen, I need to fucking succeed. That’s the bottom line. And to be honest, I don’t need to succeed for myself. My parents have fled wars for me. And I’m sitting here in this comfortable place, so I need to take this opportunity. I can’t be a failure.”

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