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The Creative Class | Ben Gorham, Perfumer

BoF spoke to Ben Gorham of Byredo to understand how a former basketball player and art school graduate with no training as a perfumer founded a fashionable, cult fragrance house in which he sold a majority share to Manzanita Capital, owner of Diptyque and SpaceNK, earlier this year.
Ben Gorham | Photo: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
By
  • Rebecca May Johnson

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — The power of fragrance to trigger memory is what first drew Ben Gorham, founder of fashionable Stockholm-based fragrance house Byredo, to perfume. "Right after graduating from art school, I met perfumer Pierre Wulff, completely by chance, and it sparked my interest for a process that could translate specific memories into scent. I'd worked so much with visual media and my initial fascination [with scent] was that there was this extremely powerful medium that was kind of abstract in nature and which had this immense power to evoke emotion — and it still does for me."

But Gorham had a problem. Diverse though his experiences may have been — the lanky Gorham, towering 6 foot, 5 inches, was previously a professional basketball player, a supermarket clerk, an art school student and a construction worker — he was not a perfumer, nor did he think he had the talent or the patience for the intensive training required to become one.

“I never thought that I’d be as good as them,” he said. “There are very few perfumers that reach that level. There is a learnt aspect of what they do, which is quite tedious, but what sets these people apart and what allows them to do 90 percent of work in the market is the fact that they possess this unique talent and imagination.”

At the time, Gorham, who has sleeves of 1920s-era tattoos, had been toying around making scented candles at home in Stockholm. “I made them at night and sold them by day and they were terrible because all I had was ideas and a load of stuff.” But that changed when Wulff introduced him to Jerome Epinette and Olivia Giacobetti, two experienced perfumers. “It was a bit of an anomaly in the industry,” Gorham recalled. “What I did was to have them pitch on this brief that I had created.”

The two have crafted all of Byredo’s fragrances since Gorham first founded the company in 2006. “In terms of creating a fragrance, it starts with an idea and then a brief that I create and then present to them as a project,” said Gorham of their unusual creative process. “I don’t set aside time in my calendar and say ‘today I am going to create a new fragrance’ — it’s not that linear. For that reason, I sometimes also describe the process as self-indulgent and spontaneous. These ideas come all the time, from travels and trips and people I meet. I don’t know how artistic it is’ I am not an artist in that respect. I basically create a direction and an origin for [Epinette and Giacobetti] to work from in creating the fragrances. For Byredo, I set the creative direction and I control it completely, but they are the artists — they handle the actual translation.”

True to his claim about the captivating connection between scent and memory, the first fragrances that Gorham created with Epinette and Giacobetti reminded him of his parents. “Green,” composed of notes including petit grain, sage, jasmine, rose, honeysuckle, violet, tonka bean, almond and musk was his attempt to depict his half Scottish, French Canadian father in olfactory form.

“The first one I did was the smell of my father. But I found that even though this smelt like my father, a lot of people could relate to the smell of a father figure, whether a father or a grandfather.” The second, called "Encens Chembur," was inspired by his mother and named after the Mumbai suburb where she was born. “Although it is also tied to my memory, that idea of India was something that a lot of our customers could relate to.”

Indeed, much of Byredo’s unique identity stems from Gorham’s mixed heritage. The brand blends fragrances with spicy notes, such as “Black Saffron” and “Oud Immortel,” with pared-back European aesthetics, evidenced clearly in the company’s modernist typography. “I worked with Swedish typographer Moses Voight and we wanted to kind of the mimic of the fact that all the luxury houses create their own typography. It took a lot of time and it didn’t come out perfect, but it captured an old, new world feel that I thought was really important to launching this type of product and brand without having any history.”

"The modernist period was initially the origin of commercial perfume — the Chanels of this world — and for me it was that archetype that I felt people could relate to. I started out by asking: 'What is perfume to people?' And Chanel No. 5 is perfume to people, so that period was an important reference for Byredo's design, even though I wanted the brand to feel very relevant and very modern."

Gorham is something of a creative puppet master: his vision and ideas are at the heart of everything Byredo does, but the company’s creative output invariably emerges through collaboration. To create perfumes, he has Epinette and Giacobetti. Meanwhile, the company’s modernist branding is a result of his close collaboration with a few critical people: Moses Voight, but also Mathias Augustyniak and Michaël Amzalag, the design duo behind the creative agency M/M (Paris), which has worked for clients ranging from Björk to Balenciaga.

But, arguably, it’s a savvy alignment with fashion — and a series of fashion collaborations — that have been most instrumental in propelling Gorham and his brand forward. Indeed, since launch, the company has developed scents with the likes of powerhouse fashion photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, fashion magazine Fantastic Man, and fashion label Acne, which have all resulted in invaluable media exposure.

By February of 2013, Byredo was generating global sales of about $30 million, according to market sources, and was stocked in some of the world’s most influential stores, including Colette, 10 Corso Como, Liberty and Barneys New York. The company had also launched a standalone store in Stockholm. But Gorham had still bigger ambitions. “Expansion has always been part of the vision, I have never been scared of growing the brand — seeing people use the product and buy the product has become a big reason why I do it. Maybe this comes from sport, having been an athlete — I am very competitive, so growing this is a big part of what I wanted to do.

In May 2013, Manzanita Capital, owner of Diptyque and SpaceNK, bought a majority share of Byredo. “Manzanita was a natural choice for us due to their incredible retail experience, proven track record and long-term commitment to brand building," Gorham said at the time.

“We expect to provide the resources to Byredo and its founder, Ben Gorham, that will assist Byredo’s international development. Resources will include funding and, as appropriate, expertise from the other nine brand companies which are members of our group,” added a Manzanita spokeswoman.

Today, post-investment, Gorham remains in touch with most aspects of the business. “I am still very involved in the strategic work in terms of how we expand and where we place our focus. I am involved in everything visual, whether it's a little piece of paper on a counter in Isetan in Toyko or our website. I visit factories — not as much as I used to because I have production people now — but I always feel it’s important to do it yourself and it helps your creative work. But really, the idea is that under Fabienne Mauny [the company’s new CEO] I have extremely talented people to handle the day- to-day business decisions and I can go back to focusing on the creative side.”

The company plans to launch new stores and new product categories, including leather goods. But for Gorham, the root of Byredo’s expansion remains the creative process. “What I have found is that our process of creating can be applied to different disciplines very well. In the next year, you will see a lot of new facets to a brand that are, ultimately, a lot more about a process than a product.”

“For me, leather has been a work in progress and I have experienced a lot of the emotions I had when first starting with fragrance: not knowing much and trying to figure things out.”

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