PARIS, France — On rue Bonaparte, between art galleries, antique stores and the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, stands a centuries-old-looking apothecary housing L’Officine Universelle Buly, the latest venture of entrepreneurial French-Moroccan polymath Ramdane Touhami, who made a name for himself by successfully rebranding Cire Trudon, a royal wax manufacturer established in 1643, as a globally stocked candle and fragrance house. Indeed, before Touhami sold his shares in the business in 2011, Cire Trudon was available at 600 outlets in 54 countries, including Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Lane Crawford, Le Bon Marché and Printemps.
On the look out for a “new legend” that could be transformed into a global business, Touhami toured France’s officines and apothecaries. London had Penghalion’s. Florence had Santa Maria Novella. There was an opportunity to create a “historical” French beauty brand, he thought. “I visited about 130 different old apothecaries dating back from the 15th to the 19th century,” recounts Touhami. “I found the Bully archives (at Les Archives Départementales de la Seine) and decided to awaken the past.”
L’Officine Universelle Buly taps into the legacy of famed Parisian perfumer Jean-Vincent Bully. “The ‘vinaigre de Bully’ was a patented aromatic lotion for performing ablutions and preserving skin tone; it brought the Officine a solid reputation and unprecedented notoriety across Europe for a hundred years,” says Touhami. “With my wife, Victoire de Taillac, we spent hours collecting everything we could on the history of Bully and 19th century perfumers. We bought archives and catalogues when we could, but mainly browsed through those held by institutions.”
“Bully welcomed scientific and cosmetic breakthroughs, invented new formulas and concoctions, which ended up being long lasting successes,” continues Touhami. “I was fascinated by the number of references listed in his catalogue: there were hundreds of lotions, vinegars, hydrating soaps, creams, powders, ointments, perfumes. In a sense, Bully was one of the inventors of modern cosmetics and perfumery. It seemed obvious there was more than enough to pursue that heritage and reignite it with state of the art formulas, all based on the properties of natural ingredients.”
“We formulated everything with a French laboratory and while the formulas are contemporary, we were able to stay faithful to old recipes,” he adds. “For us, building on heritage and old beauty secrets was key: back in the days, products were free of paraben, phenoxyethanol and silicon, to name just a few. We even developed perfumes without alcohol or glycerine, which can dry and irritate the skin.”
After three years of research, with an intial investment of €1.5 million (about $2 million) financed by France’s Banque Publique d’Investissement — the flagship on rue Bonaparte cost an additional €800,000 — Touhami’s plans have come to fruition. Officine Universelle Buly offers 15 product lines and over 400 total products, ranging from €2 to €150. According to Touhami, a second Parisian store, corners in luxury department stores and a line of luxury bathroom amenities for hotels are in the strategy.
Inside the rue Bonaparte store, cabinets clad in gnarled elm, burled walnut and oak cover three walls. The countertops are made of Bénou marble. And the turquoise and cream enamelled terracotta tiles covering the floor were cooked in old Etruscan stoves. Though the setup was done almost overnight, it looks as if the officine has been there for centuries, “[staged] like a cabinet of curiosities where we can unveil the world’s best-kept beauty secrets. The idea is to unearth beauty rituals and secrets from around the globe," says Touhami, who has gathered together the world's most complete collection of beauty oils and clay, some from the Amazonian forest, others from African tribes.
If his past success is anything to go by, the Officine Universelle Buly’s powerful concoction of heritage, staging, state of the art formulas and natural ingredients could well attract a global following.