Byredo's Ben Gorham: disrupting the business of fragrance
Gorham on his journey from playground jock to perfume revolutionary
When the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 devalued the national currency, enterprising blacksmiths found a new use for their Pesos: they were melted down to make chunky rings, then sold at a higher value. Post-war, the jewellery became more elaborate: coin rings were set with turquoises or onyx and engraved with snakes, crossbones and eagles. They caught the eye of tourists and also Californian biker gangs, who wore them in place of knuckledusters, which were outlawed in some states.
“All the [biker] clubs would cross the border and ll their knuckles with these rings,” says Ben Gorham, whose own rectangular model has a carved silver skull sporting a Native American headdress. “I have a few.”
Considering their rebellious legacy, Mexican biker rings are a fitting accoutrement for Gorham, who has reset the margins of a fragrance company. He founded Byredo – a reduction of ‘by redolent’, old English for aromatic – in 2006, and it has grown into a fully- edged luxury brand, visionary in its free- spirited approach to collaborations and inter-disciplinary projects.
The son of an Indian mother and a Canadian father, Gorham was raised between Toronto, New York and Stockholm. “I was kind of a typical jock most of my life,” he says. Standing 6ft 5in tall, a sporty young Gorham made his college’s basketball team; he later played professionally across Europe before enrolling at Toronto’s Ryerson University to study fine art. “It was painting, sketching, sculpture,” he recalls. “I think it was important. I’d been an athlete for so long, my references were very different.”
In his mid-twenties, Gorham met perfumer Pierre Wulff – an encounter that would pique his interest in scent as a cue to meaningful memories. He explored this further following a trip to India, where he visited his mother’s hometown of Chembur, a suburb of Mumbai, and experienced the subcontinent’s rich aromas, from exotic spices and sweetly scented flowers to dense incense.
Gorham’s original selection of scents – crafted by experienced ‘noses’ Olivia Giacobetti and Jerome Epinette – include evergreens Pulp, Gypsy Water, Rose Noir and Chembur, an Oriental perfume with notes of nutmeg, incense, ginger, and lemony elemi resin from the Philippines. Green, his debut scent, frames richly scented almonds and woody petitgrain with cooling sage; it's Gorham’s attempt at recreating his father’s smell, remembered from boyhood. In 2010, Gorham moved into skincare, launching Byredo body lotions, creams and soaps; five years later, he created an eyewear range in collaboration with Oliver Peoples. Last year, he developed a new luxury segment to his business: a collection of leather accessories.
“A lot of brands that identify as a lifestyle brand sell you a lifestyle,” says Gorham, whose inclusive take on branding prizes individualism. “Our idea is luxury in the sense of quality – which translates to price, obviously – and refinement. We’re not selling a lifestyle; we’re selling objects and ideas for your lifestyle.”
It’s September, and Gorham is in Paris to celebrate the opening of his first standalone boutique on the rue Saint-Honoré, a favourite location among luxury scent stalwarts. Byredo’s arrival in this storied milieu is significant: “I think because this industry has been fuelled by some level of pedigree and heritage, there was some initial resistance,” Gorham says. “But after breaking through that, we’ve established ourselves well.”
Paris’ now-closed concept store Colette and Barney’s New York were among Byredo’s early supporters; today, the brand is stocked globally and has agships in Stockholm and Manhattan. Shortly before unveiling his Paris pied-à-terre, Gorham opened a London store – a five-storey Soho townhouse built in 1885, with two retail fioors measuring 200m2 connected by a winding limestone terrazzo staircase. The interior is a collaboration between Gorham and interior designer Christian Halleröd: pale neon light tubes illuminate sanded wood ttings, raw concrete and cowhide-clad furniture. Byredo fragrances, in their emblematic bottles with black stoppers, are presented in glass-fronted anodised aluminium cabinets alongside scented candles in dark mouth-blown glass jars, and zebu-horn combs hand-carved in the French Pyrenees.
Gorham's love of the conceptual has been truly groundbreaking in the realm of perfumery. In 2009, he captured the scent of Japanese calligraphy ink for creative agency M/M (Paris); earlier this year, he partnered with Louis Vuitton creative director and O -White founder Virgil Abloh on the fragrance Elevator Music, their take on the background soundscapes of everyday life. To celebrate the launch of the project – which also comprises T-shirts, denim and canvas bags – the duo took over Paris’ Galerie Italienne, where their products were displayed alongside a new version of Carsten Höller's neon- lit 2004 art installation The Elevator.
September 2017 saw the debut of Byredo's leather collection: 54 bag styles, plus wallets and credit-card holders, made in Italy from prestige materials. “I often say we'll probably never go into fashion: rst because we don’t sell a lifestyle; and second because it's so fast,” says Gorham. “Our process is really meticulous and slow – one bag can take two- and-a-half years of development.”
Gorham’s much-coveted bag collection is a play on extremes: the top-handle Blueprint bag and its smaller sister, the Circuit bag, are boxy and geometric; the De La Sac dufflee is softly constructed. This season, finishes include spazzolato leathers, which require calf hides to be polished to a high shine. “A scent is a replenishable product,” says Gorham. “The idea of selling a bag that will last 50 years requires a different attention to detail.”
Gorham bookended his Paris sojourn with yet another surprise: the unveiling of a camping-themed pop-up shop in the Marais, complete with tents, sleeping bags, Leatherman tools, and even freeze-dried food by celebrated chef Jean Imbert. This was another artistic installation of sorts: the campsite provided a chic backdrop for his ‘apocalyptic’ new fragrance Eleventh Hour, inspired by the prose of Swiss explorer Ella Maillart, one of the first Westerners to reach Nepal. “A lot of these creative projects aren’t even product-related at first, they’re just ideas. Sometimes it will be a bag, sometimes a blanket, a set of knives, combs, a fragrance,” Gorham says. “And that’s the passion-driven part of this: I can explore anything I find meaningful.”
Photographer: Rachelle Simoneau