Luxury fragrance brand Byredo has captured the hearts and imaginations of both Londoners and the fashion set. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the city who hasn’t smelt one of the brand’s cult fragrances like Gypsy Water, Bal D'Afrique or Blanche.
“I always found London to be very progressive and quite unique in terms of cultures and subcultures. Historically, it’s been a place where things are born,” Ben Gorham, Byredo’s founder, tells me. “We launched in the UK early in the brand’s history. We had a great following and saw great success.”
It’s Sunday afternoon and we’re sat on the first floor of Byredo’s pristine new London store ahead of its launch party. In case you were wondering, I wore Byredo’s Velvet Haze for our meeting; it’s a blend of coconut water, patchouli, cocoa and musk. It smells much more mellow than you’d imagine, and the same has to be said of Gorham: He’s soft-spoken, incredibly friendly and full of wisdom. In all honesty, I could have chatted with him for hours.
Despite the brand having stores in Stockholm (where Gorham lives) and New York, he tells me, “London was top of my list.” Though the launch party is just hours away, Gorham sat me down to talk to me about his inspiration, his hopes for the brand and the one Byredo fragrance everyone should smell.
You’re a native Swede, your mother is Indian and your dad is Canadian. You grew up in Toronto, New York and Stockholm. How have these different cultures/places moulded you as a person and a creative?
Big question. I think that as a person, I feel comfortable in every environment, but that later translated into an interest in travelling and different cultures. It’s definitely shaped who I am, and as a creative, I try to be very subjective in my work. It’s definitely had a big influence.
For anyone new to Byredo, how would you like them to first experience it?
Right here [in store]! I truly believe this is the apex of how I envision the experience. It allows us to control every aspect of the experience. I think that because of the nature of the brand, it requires a fair amount of knowledge and explanation. I don’t think everything we do is super obvious, so I always envisioned it in this type of environment, partly because of the emotion but also because of the staff who can really speak to the origin of these products. That in-depth understanding helps people connect in a different way to the brand.
Most of the business over the last 10 years has been in department stores, where there’s energy, crowds, noise and lighting. All these things obviously influence the way you perceive products. I always envisioned somebody in this type of environment trying a bag or a fragrance. We work a lot with the fragrance, and encourage people to take home samples and wear it on the skin for a day. I think we initially called it “the long sale” to motivate the commercial teams, but it really is. If people make a true decision of what fragrance to wear, they will keep coming back.
The Byredo London store in the making.
Is there a fragrance from the collection that you think everyone needs to smell?
Only one? That’s a good question. I truly respect the idea that smell is subjective; it’s very personal. But from a technical perspective, we have a scent called M/Mink that smells like ink. I encourage people to smell it because it’s so creative. Whether you like it or not (and honestly, most people don’t, in terms of wearability—it’s very specific), it really shows the creative depth of what we can do.
How does the process of a fragrance going from idea to shop shelf happen? Do some fragrances take longer than others?
Yes, definitely. Each project is very individual. And because it’s an emotional process, there’s no saying, you know, 10, 20, 30 modifications is going to get us where we want. We really feel when it’s done. That makes it difficult.
I create a brief, and I show it to the perfumer. Imagery, film, poetry, music, words, objects, other smells… That’s where it becomes very individual. The perfumer then creates a first version of the fragrance. From there, we start a process of modification—“less like this, more like this.” That’s the tedious part. So the fragrance can easily have 100 modifications because it’s gone back and forth to get it to that place. If that first sketch doesn’t relate to the initial idea, you throw it out and start again.
I’ve trained my nose. In the beginning, it was completely abstract—me being able to modify. I had to learn another language and vernacular to communicate with the perfumers, but with time, I’ve built experience. I have also worked with the same perfumers since day one. With Jerome, there’s a dialogue and an understanding. I never understood why companies making perfume would go out to 10 different perfumers and let everybody interpret. I’ve always felt our work became more interesting and more efficient in the relationship between Jerome and I over time.
On your website, it says you were inspired to launch Byredo after your trip to India. Is travel the thing that inspires you most when creating a fragrance?
Indirectly, definitely. I think the relationship to culture, nature and geography [inspires me]. You see it in some of the colour schemes of the leather and in some of the fragrances. The literal translations of places and people is definitely still a huge source of inspiration.
Do you travel a lot?
I try not to travel a lot, but I travel a ton! That’s the paradox, but I still enjoy it. I may enjoy cities less, but I enjoy getting out a bit more. I also see that behaviour [of wanting to escape the city] in young people.
Where or what is the most unusual thing to have inspired a fragrance for you?
I thought it was odd that I was inspired by my Catholic upbringing—the church and incense—because I was never very religious, and it was kind of this forced element. But I also started to realise that those things had an influence on how I see things and relates very much to what we do around memory.
You know, from a more technical perspective, I became inspired by individual raw materials that didn’t smell great, and I started to understand why. For one of the projects, we used an ingredient called costus that smells like a goat (a very animalic character). With another ingredient—osmanthus—it truly became interesting. It’s also quite interesting that we all have these smell banks and memories. The good and bad smells are both very important for how we perceive things.
I’ve tried to create interesting work that takes that into consideration. India is like that for me: You step off a plane, and the Indian urban environment there has all kinds of smells and reminds me of my childhood. Family and people say, “How can you stand this?” “How can you stand that?” However, it’s because they’re associated with positive memories—love and family.
Your handbag designs are incredible. What inspired you to move into leather goods?
I think right at the inception of the brand, I thought about many different objects. I spent a fair amount of years building the fragrance and a platform—a business that would allow me to do different things. Leather was very much tied to travel. The first collection I did was a travel collection for myself, and then I started to play with scale—a travel bag for a man scaled down to a size for a woman. Then I started to look at the functionality, and then more importantly (which was the tipping point), the emotional connection that women have to bags. It’s quite similar to that of perfume. I thought the process of creating products, the attention to detail and the tactility lent itself well to this category.
Much like with the fragrance (and much like the rest of our work), it’s about this idea of creating something truly timeless, which I know sounds like a cliché because I’m imagining a lot of people say that. But it’s really about looking at what a 100-year horizon looks like. We apply that approach to everything we do. We try to stay away from trends as a driver—not to say it doesn’t influence us. I’m super interested in what young people wear and like—especially now with smartphones. How we perceive information, how we take it in… It’s super interesting. But Byredo has this ambition of creating products in a slow, meticulous way that we can sell for a very long time.
What do you do on one of your rare days off?
In the last few years, I’ve become very active again. I used to be an athlete, and then I became a studio-office rat. A few years ago, I started realising I needed a little more balance. So I do a lot of outdoor activities—trail running, climbing, surfing and skiing. I’ve got into new landscapes and environments. It has become my release.
What does the future of Byredo look like?
It’s more about not limiting what we do. We live in a world where people like to put others into categories and brands into categories. What these stores allow us to do is create a universe where you don’t have to consider department stores, although they’re a great and important part of what we do. The Byredo stores allow us to do other things. We even built a gallery on the second floor so we can express really creative projects. In the future, you’ll see all kinds of different projects within the beauty sphere—accessories and other things that we’re working on.
You’ve created a world of sorts.
Well, I’m trying. It’s the beginning of something.