Ben Gorham doesn’t look like your average perfumer. His towering 198-centimetre frame and sleeves of 1920s-era tattoos don’t exactly fit the bill of bookish olfactory masters. In fact, when the former professional basketball player first debuted his fragrances in Paris in 2006, a French journalist scoffed, “What gives you the right to do perfumes?” But within a few years, Gorham proved his unbelievers wrong. His Byredo line, known as the wild card of fragrances, had garnered a devoted following that generated the company multimillion dollars in global sales.
Today, the well-connected perfumer collaborates with Virgil Abloh on limited edition scents and attends Takashi Murakami’s exhibition opening parties in Tokyo. His products have expanded beyond perfumes and candles to handbags and tchotchkes like pocket knives and combs. These are housed in Byredo’s beautifully designed shops, which are parked on the coolest streets of New York, Paris, London and Seoul with two flagships in Shanghai and Beijing which opened last year.
Inside Byredo’s new laboratory-like Beijing flagship, which was inspired by the idea of “a meteorite falling to Earth.”
In the middle of the store is a perfume testing space, constructed like a flammable goods cabinet.
“It's been more than 10 years of evolution, exploration, curiosity and expressions,” the 42-year-old reflects in his gentle Swedish lilt. Byredo began as a personal project when Gorham’s athletic pursuit didn’t work out as planned (the Stockholm-born sportsman couldn’t secure a European passport to officially play in their league). “I quit basketball when I was 25, and I went back to art school,” says Gorham. And upon graduation, a chance encounter with renowned Swedish perfumer Pierre Wulff led him to replace paintings with fragrances. “It was when I met him that I became interested in the creative expressions of smell.”
Gorham experimented in his kitchen, figuring out how to recreate his father’s scent. For most of his life, the memory of his dad, who left the family when he was a boy, lingered. It wasn’t until Wulff introduced him to two of the world’s most revered scent-makers, Jérôme Epinette and Olivia Giacobetti, that Gorham’s vision materialised. He registered Byredo, short for “By Redolent”, and his first cologne came to life: Green, a heady mix of sage, jasmine, violet and musk. (One of the scents he associated with his father was green beans.)
It was clear to him then: Byredo was to be his creative project, a commercial platform for him to translate specific memories into scents.
For decades, the world of fragrance had been so transfixed on the notion of sensuality and how gender roles fit into it. Eschewing all that, the vivid backstories Gorham weaved into his scents (described on little cards tucked into the packaging) lend them a cinematic poignancy that felt refreshingly new. “To talk about memory, to talk about other emotions, to talk about places, I think people needed that,” he says.
At Byredo, the art of storytelling takes centre stage. For instance, Gorham concocted Bal d’Afrique — a blend of bergamot, jasmine petals, and vetiver, among other essentials — after reading his father’s journals. “I have his diaries from the ten years he spent travelling in Africa. I kept wondering about his dreams, his fantasies,” says Gorham.
“For me, it's a very emotional process. I’ll have a very clear emotional idea in my head when I start, and then it’s really about chasing a [form of] truth in that emotion. I had to learn a certain level of perfume language to be able to reach that level,” explains Gorham, who has a team of trained noses to help him bottle his narratives.
“In the end, you develop tools to modify and morph things to fit your idea and it’s quite similar to how [an artist whose craft relates to] the physical or visual world works. I think the biggest difference is that because emotions are invisible people seldom think about it,” he continues.
One of these tools is Gorham’s knack for naming his scents. “The name is important because it becomes this initial spark of imagination for people,” he divulges. Byredo’s bestselling woody fragrance, Gypsy Water, is monikered after what Gorham envisions how “nomadism” and “gypsy nights spent in the forest” would smell like. His scent collaboration with Virgil Abloh in 2018, titled Elevator Music, is, as its name suggests, meant to exist unobtrusively; a fragrance for the background, as opposed to the foreground, explains Gorham back when the perfume was launched. “The names of the scents became a great tool for me to get people to start thinking as early as possible,” he says.
At the dawn of e-commerce, many fragrance houses had to answer the same question: How do you communicate to the sense of smell in a virtual world that’s so far removed from it?
It was perhaps slightly easier for Byredo. “A few years back when we were launching our e-commerce, we were curious to see how people would react to buying a smell online,” says Gorham. “But it’s been a great success.” Having always condensed his blends into words that painted visceral images, Gorham knew exactly what would make his customers tick.
“You try to find ways to get people to think about the scent and think about it from their own perspective. You can do it through words, pictures,” he continues, “but of course, sometimes, it’s as equally difficult as showing a picture of a bag and getting somebody to understand that seven Italian craftsmen have worked on this for two weeks.”
In a video interview with T in 2018, Ben Gorham talks about his transition from perfumes to leather bags.
The secret also lies in Gorham’s different approach to running his empire. His branding, multiple cross-genre projects and his shops feel more like an art project, rather than calculated business moves.
“Learning to gauge yourself and know that you do not have to spell it out for everybody, that people are intelligent, complex and emotional – that’s an important part of any experience,” he says. “There’s a part of me that wants to say, ‘You don’t know everything.’ I want to surprise, and I want to inspire.”
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