Ben Gorham, Perfumer

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"My mother is from India, and my dad is half Scottish, half French Canadian. I was born in Sweden—I lived there as a kid, and then I grew up in a few places. I spent a good portion of the time in Toronto, Canada. So I guess my accent is Swedish…or gypsy. [Laughs] It’s from everywhere. I finished my high school in New York. Then I studied at business school at Ryerson University in Toronto, then switched to politics, then switched to interior design. Then left college to play professional basketball. Then that didn’t really work out so I quit and went to art school in Stockholm. I did a degree in fine arts; I did painting and sculpture, history, photography and a few different things. I really got into painting—acrylics—so that was what I was thinking when I graduated. Then I met a perfumer for the first time. Right after graduating…and that was really my introduction.

I had heard about him in Sweden. He was living in New York, a French guy. He was a fragrance director at one of the perfume houses. I came to him and I had this idea, and he helped me translate it. It was really simple: I put together this creative project that was more about translating specific memories into scents…I was trying to kind of see how literal I could be with the translations. He showed me some stuff and it was very provocative, especially connected to memory. Like, I could get you to smell something and you would be like, ‘Wow…Troy…ninth grade.’ It could take you places—almost like music—in a very instant way. He showed me in his perfume lab, raw materials like chocolate, or incense, and it would very much be an experience I had. So it started as a creative discussion more about the possibilities—‘can I do this?’ ‘Can I do this?’ Then I started learning about synthetic and raw materials, and I was looking for limitations. I come from an aesthetic world—photography, painting, sculpture—it’s visual, you can touch it. But with scent it was completely different, it was very abstract, but it was evoking all these emotions of places and memories. So, not at all as a commercial endeavor, I created a project for him to translate very specific memories. And he did that. I couldn’t manufacture them in a perfume because it was too difficult, production-wise, with quantities and factories, filtering…the process was tricky. So I made them into candles. I Google-d how to make candles, and I made them myself in the kitchen. I heated the wax to the right temperature; I added the different perfume oils or essences. I was forced to make certain temperature adjustments because some of the essences would evaporate. I bought the glasses at Ikea. The first ones I didn’t make any labels, I just wrote what they were underneath. My friends started wanting them, and then people started calling who wanted them. And then my interest started growing into an obsession…that I wanted to do this full-time. I realized I had to create some type of commerce around it if I wanted to do it full-time. So I had this idea, of a brand…Byredo. It comes from Old English, redolence, which might even be Shakespeare, meaning sweet smelling perfume and reminiscent of redolence or redolent. So I did a short of that…and I was able to register the URL. [Laughs] So I guess I learned how to do business from…everything…if you want to do it yourself, you have to learn. And with the Internet, and people around you, most of the information is available around you if you want it. I think that’s one of the few things I learned at college…how to gather information.

I do have a very different approach from most perfumers…there were things I found out when I first started, that there is a pedigree in the industry. What people like Lili [Barbery-Coulon] expressed in my first press conference in Paris—I guess was maybe a frustration, like ‘What gives you the right?’ Because for one, perfume is very French—there has been this hierarchy in the industry for so long. Which is good because you have incredible talent, and a refinement, but it’s also become stagnant. So for me, it was all about simplifying, for better or for worse. So as opposed to working with fifty, seventy or eighty raw materials for a fragrance, I work with maybe five or ten. There are these beautiful raw materials—I fight with Chanel to buy specific Neroli—and I thought it was a shame to mask them and cover them with different stuff. Maybe it’s something to do with the Swedish ethos, the simplicity…it was just simplifying in terms of creating a clear idea. So when you smell Accord Oud, you get it. You like it or not. M/MINK is like that too: you like it or not. And that was really important for me, in terms of clarity. It could be complex in its simplicity. I want people to get it. The packaging was really the last step for me, because it was so much about simplicity, but it was very exciting to be able to build a world around that. I had a friend draw the typography with me—not the Byredo, but all the labelling that was on the packaging. We drew the whole alphabet and symbols from scratch. And then you have to get a program so you can use it in the computer. It’s cool. And it was because I felt there was nothing that really captured what I was trying to do.

So the first perfume I did was really a memory of my father, from my childhood. I had this idea about specific memories, and even though they were personal I wanted them to tap into some type of… I describe it as a collective memory. The idea itself I thought maybe you could relate to, because your father smelled a certain way, so I wanted to trigger people emotionally with this collective memory. So the first one was my father—he left when I was pretty young, so I had this very clear idea of how he smelled. It took some time thinking about it, and experimenting, but I guess I can visualize it. For me it was about awareness. If I took you in the lab for two weeks, and showed you a spectrum, you would probably be able to show me things that remind you of specific memories. You would be able to develop your vocabulary to create a perfume. And that was the first phase for me, trying to understand the possibilities. Now when I walk down the street I can smell a lot more—dirty laundry, etc. I don’t think it’s a heightened sense of smell, it’s just awareness. So it’s the same for the perfumers—their learning curve is to learn the raw materials they work with, like 2000-3000 raw materials. Because I didn’t go to school for this I had to catch up, but at the same time I didn’t want to become too technical, because I had this possibility to work with two very talented perfumers that do a lot of big work and are immensely creative, and I didn’t want to offset their process. So my idea was to push them in the right direction. I did that with words and raw materials, but also with images, emotion, music and poetry. My briefs were about sitting in a room and getting them to feel something. And hoping I would land close enough to.

So in creating the fragrance for my dad, I was surprised at how easy it was—and afterwards I kind of understand why—but I remember him smelling like this essence of green beans. I described this place where we spent a lot of time in Paris in the 1970’s. So there was a specific time period that was probably a perfume, so the perfumer was able to nail it quite quickly…it was Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel…and I thought, ‘This is easy, I can do this!’ But it was because there was a specific perfume reference, like if you say, ‘My dad smelled like Old Spice and cigarettes,’ then they can do that for you. So it was green beans, but there was also a softness to it and I think it had more to do with skin tones and soaps and stuff like that. In hindsight, I gave the perfumer a period, a place, and a descriptive element and he put it together. My fragrance was called Green, because that’s what it was, it was green. But when I give a perfume to other people to try, that’s when I realize how subjective it is. I will give something to someone and they will say, ‘Oh—that’s my boyfriend from five years ago,’ and someone else will say, ‘Oh—that reminds me of Mexico.’ It’s so subjective. I haven’t really tried to get you to say, ‘No, it smells like my father.’ For me it’s just been a trigger to start the thinking. I have been working on this fragrance that comes out in the spring, I’ve been working on it for a while, it has a raw material which is an animal note, so it’s quite potent. It smells like a goat—we joke about it, ‘More goat…less goat.’ [Laughs] But it’s a weird raw material by itself; you would never put it on the skin. The animal notes and the animal character, they have this facet of beauty and ugliness at the same time, so that’s quite interesting, because it’s disturbing in a way, but in combination with other raw materials it becomes very beautiful. It’s kind of like the synthetic notes for milk: by itself it’s quite disgusting, but add it in with notes of perfume and humans associate it with comfort…so there are a lot of those weird raw materials that people use.

I made M/MINK with M/M (Paris)—they are art directors and designers, image-makers. They do all the big campaigns that you see. I know Inez and Vinoodh through them; that’s how we met initially and now we’re doing a creative project together. But the M/M (Paris) project started because we had a common friend, I really love their work, and they invited me to their studio one day. And so we got to know each other, started talking. And we decided to work together. They showed me a block of calligraphy ink, which was very specific: it was one of the traditional ones that the Japanese and Korean artists use. I loved the way it smelled, it was very unique, and I said, ‘You know, this could be a good idea.’ That’s exactly what they were feeling. It is something that you either love or hate—M/MINK was about pushing the limits. I used a lot of a synthetic raw material in the top note, called adoxal, which you will find in a few perfumes—especially masculine perfumes of the last ten to fifteen years. But I used almost fifty times the quantity that anybody had ever used it. So there was also an element of comedy or irony, because when perfumers smell it, they would laugh. It’s absurd. It’s like a Lady GaGa version of something—maxed out. So the fans of that have been very specific; there’s an accessories designer in Paris—Yaz Bukey—she is probably the number one fan of that, she goes through, I think, eight bottles since last fall. I’m thinking about doing a big bottle for her. It does have that lovely relationship with the people who wear it…they wear a lot of it, and they probably will for a long time.

If I had to pick a favorite—I don’t know, they all have a special place—but I did, quite early, a fragrance based on a place in India where my mother was born and raised. It’s outside Mumbai, it was a place that was very green, I remember visiting it as a child—it was a picnic spot. And when I came back, semi-grown up, it was massively developed, but it smelled the same. So I became very intrigued, I thought—how is this possible? What has changed, what hasn’t changed? And the part that really resonated with me was incense in the Hindu temples. So I based a fragrance on that, and added certain elements. It is called Encens Chembur, incense from Chembur, which was the name of the place. My mom will wear it. My Dad wears my fragrance, though he tries to get me to change it a little bit for him. [Laughs] I think they find it funny. I moved out in high school to go to boarding school, then I went to college—I was always this jock…then I got into art school in Europe. I think when I first started Byredo, it was a bit of a shock for my mom and dad—especially my dad. Dropping out of school first to play pro-ball, and then doing fragrance. But they get it now, not just brand-wise or commercially, but they get why I do it, which is pretty cool.

Probably my greatest accomplishment—I remember creating this business plan when I started, people saying, ‘What’s your target group, who’s your customer?’ And it said, ‘It’s women and men between the ages of 18 and 85,’ and they said, ‘You cant do that!’ [Laughs] And I said, ‘No, that’s my idea in terms of accessibility, in terms of aesthetics—creating something that is timeless.’ That was a portion of the reason why everything became black and white. I go into stores, in twenty-four countries, and meet my customers, and get a lot of emails: it’s about forty percent men and sixty percent women, from grandmothers, to young models. My girlfriend thinks they are good, but she doesn’t wear any. And I made her one—I have one called Blanche that I made for her. She wore it for three weeks. She is very specific…she doesn’t wear any perfumes. I think I’m getting a good idea on how to turn her, though. But there isn’t really one particular scent that if I smell it on a woman I think, ‘That is really sexy.’ For me it is so much linked to character. I like when women wear a lot of perfume. Or strong perfume. I’m not really into when it’s discreet. So just like with clothing, if somebody wears it well, that becomes beautiful in itself. I feel that with perfume too. People always ask me, ‘What should I wear?’ It is really about finding something that you are comfortable with, that you can wear with a certain confidence. So I think it’s that; the way you wear it as opposed to what you wear. Guys just have to wear perfume. [Laughs] Guys are very spontaneous; they seldom sit down and think about things, so fragrance is very one layer for them. Through Byredo I have gotten guys really interested—to think about it, in terms of what it is, why they wear it and how it makes them feel. I think there’s an evolution there too. But right now, girls are way ahead. Guys just wear whatever. Like, ‘I gotta put shoes on today, because I’m going out; I gotta put perfume on too.’ It’s very functional. They don’t care what they put on as much as they should. But I think they get it when they see this big, straight man in editorials with tattoos. [Laughs] Which somehow makes it okay for a broader range of men and not necessarily just guys who are really into beauty or fragrance.

My first store was Colette in Paris, I just called them, I called Guillaume, head of press; we have a common friend. And then he gave some stuff to Sarah [Lerfel], and they were like, ‘We would like to sell it,’ and I said, ‘Cool!’ and then we started working together. And then I would just kind of pick stores where I thought people got what I was doing. Barneys [New York] is one of my biggest customers. I was a bit nervous when Mark [Lee] and the team came in at Barneys, but they completely got it, better than anybody at Barneys has before. It was very organic. We had these very long discussions about what I was doing and where it was going. So it’s been incredible. I would say it’s because of them I have stayed exclusively with Barneys in the U.S. I think we are the second biggest sellers for them in fragrance. And we opened the stand-alone store in Stockholm a year and a half ago. It gave me a chance to get back into designing. What I found interesting is that I could create an environment that was completely different to fragrances bought today. Because of the quality I chose to manufacture at, pricing became quite high on these fragrances, and I felt like I needed to educate people about what was different about the product. So the stores bare that function in a really interesting way. There are always people sitting; it’s a place where people can go and really learn. The idea is to also open stores in New York and Paris and London. So I’m looking at spaces. I guess Paris would come first because it’s probably easiest because of proximity.

But I’m in a good place right now. I have a new fragrance that just came out, Seven Veils. I really like the idea of doing perfume as a veil, in terms of security, and that feeling of covering yourself in something. There’s this biblical reference I remembered from Catholic school, ‘Salam’s dance of seven veils,’ that I thought was a very extreme tale of seduction. She dances, and she takes off these seven veils, and she is granted this mans head on a plate. So it’s like sex, and seduction and death. It’s a spicy Vanilla; it even has carrot in the top note. And these travel size perfumes will be out early December—it will be every perfume I have done, in travel size. I try not to discriminate. Also these purse cases will be at Barneys before Christmas; they were in development for a long time. I got the leather from different tanneries: one from the leather fair in Bologna; the tan from the place that supplies Louis Vuitton handles—it gets quite dark over time. I had this idea of it being round—because that’s been our geometric shape that we work around—but having one side flat so it won’t slide off the table. And we’ll have an initialing service at the store in Sweden.

It’s difficult to answer the question, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years.’ In regards to the business, if I feel like I get to the point where being independent is limiting me, I might consider selling it, but for now, we are growing at an incredible pace, we are profitable and it’s fun. I have about twelve people that work with me, which I would have never imagined would ever happen in a million years. It’s a bit of a trip. But I have a hard time seeing myself play basketball, even though I did it for fifteen years. It was my life since grade school, in high school and in college. So I am always kind of removed. I never see myself in that role; I’m always kind of on the outside looking at what’s happening, in a weird way.”

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Clemence

    Ben's story is inspirational. His products are aesthetically minimalistic and appealing to both men and women. Thank you Emily!

  • Micaela

    Such a babe!

  • http://www.365fashionandlifestyle.com/ Mioara Roncea

    Byredo ha so many amazing fragrances. My favorite one is Oud Immortel. I just love it.
    This one of your most interesting posts by far.
    Thank you.

    Mioara Roncea.

  • http://cclarebear.com Clare @ cclarebear.com

    Ben Gorham is amazing - I've just been looking at his perfumes at Liberty and I think a trip into the city is in order so I can have a smell (and a purchase!) for myself.

  • Fiona

    This was a great read. Byredo does get some flak for being the new kid on the block - with beyond-premium prices - so it's really interesting to read Gorham's story.

    I think most people who really get fanatical about perfume (like meeeee) really fall in love with the storytelling side of perfume, the link between smell and memory. Because olfactory memory is so personal, perfume becomes a talisman, a time machine transporting us back in a way that stories or photos or music can't.

    It is incredibly touching - almost unbearably poignant, actually - that the first fragrance he made was to recapture the smell of his father who had left him. Trying to bring back something lost, bring it back in the most personal way - in the form of perfume to wear on your skin. Heartbreaking, really.

    P.S.: that photo of him is fantastic! I think your photography skills are getting better and better!

  • http://www.theblossomshed.blogspot.com The Blossom Shed Beauty Blog

    I think I must be a serious perfume fanatic because I love reading ABOUT perfumes as much as I like smelling them. Lovely article, really enjoyed it!

  • http://dijonmusic.com Honey

    in love <3

  • http://ofstrangersensibilities.blogspot.com Joy

    Wow he must have an incredible job! Everything sounds so good!

  • Clemence

    What are people's favorite Byredo scents, out of curiosity? I would love to try one myself!

    • Capitalist Pancake

      I love, love, love Pulp. It's a fruity scent, but a rich, overripe, bursting fruit scent - almost indecent. There's a sort of notorious picture of Carla Bruni from her modeling days - it's a black and white photo of her, biting into a super ripe, bursting fig, there's juice running all over the place - in spite of the austere black and white, that picture seems full colour, alive. That's Pulp.

    • Liz

      Hi again, Clemence--

      I wholeheartedly agree with Capitalist Pancake! I wear Pulp every day, and I have never received more compliments on a fragrance. I was a major perfume junkie for years, and this is the first time I have been faithful to a fragrance for any period of time (well over a year). As a note of caution, it is quite sweet smelling so it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I adore it. Moreover, it doesn't "turn" on me, which a lot of fragrances do. Case in point Bal D'Afrique--another Byredo perfume. I desperately want it to work on me, but it doesn't. That said, it smells incredible in the bottle and on everyone else that I know who wears it. Several of my friends also swear by Palermo, and it is quite a beautiful scent.

      Barneys has been quite generous with samples in the past, so it may be worth your while to see if you can sample a few fragrances before purchasing, as they are a bit of an investment.

      Hope this helps,
      Liz

      • Clemence

        Thank you both Liz (again) and Capitalist Pancake! I'm very excited to check out Barneys this weekend and smell the different recommended fragrances. Lately I have a penchant for clean and fruity scents, which is why I have been drawn to the brand Fresh's parfums. I'm ready to invest in a more sophisticated fragrance and pulp seems to be the solution. Many thanks! Bisous.

  • http://taf.tumblr.com Teresa

    The classic jack of all trades. This was a really inspiring read.

  • Laura

    What a great and inspirational article. He followed his heart and his project became a success. It shows how important it is to have great and original ideas/concepts and the right connections to make things happen. What I missed a bit was he talks about wanting to educate customers in his store in Stockholm about the raw materials he uses etc but that aspect didn't really come through in the interview apart from that he uses less ingredients. But then le labo have been doing that for a while too...

  • http://www.calu.typepad.com marcela

    First of all this is a really long post, and I almost did not think that I was actually going to read all of it. I have had this page opened for over 3 hours now, mainly because I felt that I had to find the time to sit down and read it all at one go.
    I am glad I did. I like this post because it is useful, he tells his story, he explains what he does and how he does it. I am impressed and thankful for this post.
    I have to say that I have never used his perfume, but right now I am really curious.
    what else can I say, other than this is a great post.
    He had me hucked on every sinlgle word.

  • Elena

    Wow. This dude is beyond hot. AND - he makes perfume!!!! :::dies:::

  • sashi

    I feel I was holding my breath the whole time I was reading! Today I have just quit school, because it felt like so much money to pay for common sense that I just can't bear it. And everything I have come across today including this says- Do things your own way. Pretty cool. He is very very articulate which I think is important for explaining what you are creating as a perfumer. The STORY of the perfume is what gets people, hm? It makes you feel....it reminds you....it creates your character..

  • mlle p

    Loved this - sexy guy with a great name and smells fabulous - I'll buy his perfume! Also a great story of how smells bring back such memories and stories in your mind.

  • Nina

    I am overwhelmed...where else could one read something like this?? Your blog is a treasure, Emily. There should be a better word than "blog" for what you are doing for the fragrance, cosmetic, and skincare categories - you are elevating the conversation beyond what I could ever imagine.

  • http://chroniquesdelalunelo.over-blog.com/ lunelo

    Such a nice article & photograph (the model is nice as well^^). Always interesting to see the way inspiration can take...
    I really enjoyed reading it even if I was a little bit ashamed to not have heard before about him and his perfumes.
    But isn'it why articles are sometimes make for?

  • http://imakekimoralooksmall.tumblr.com Ploy Pirapokin

    What a wonderful article and subject you chose! My favorite part is when he talks about looking from the outside onto himself. Truly inspirational. You can set yourself goals but sometimes that changes and it seems he let himself be shaped by his heart rather than his motives. I too played sports in highschool and college, even on professional national youth teams and yet when I look back at myself, it's as if I were a different person!

  • Alix

    Truly outstanding post. This really is the kind of info/insight you can't find ANYWHERE else. And now to research Byredo scents...!

  • Marisol

    Have been intrigued by his perfumes for a while now - but the prices and the fact that I can't sample them beforehand has kept me away. If you don't live near a Barneys or a Colette - and do not have enough money to risk purchasing without smelling.. what are you to do? Are there sample sizes out there?

    • Capitalist Pancake

      first in fragrance in germany (the online shop) sells samples of everything and they stock Byredo.

      • chic noir

        Captalist Pancake, will you give me the web address for first in fragrance please. I typed first in fragrance into Google and got back a load of different sites that I'm not to confortable with.

  • daniele

    One of the best posts read on this site. And their have been a lot of great ones. Keep up the great work Emily!

  • didi

    Hubba Hubba!

  • http://www.modearchives.blogspot.com Julie

    Great read. Like Marcella, I had this page open for more than 3 hours because that's how much I wanted to read about the man behind Byredo. The wait was well worth it. This post was definitely an eye opener on so many levels, very inspirational and his concepts are something I really like/believe in. After reading this it makes me want to buy it even more (after having been contemplating on it for over a few months). Thank you

  • Ella

    Once again, a beautiful interview Emily.

    I remember I saved for aaaages to by Pulp (Byredo doesn't come cheap), but it was well worth it; a fragrance I think I'll wear for life. I love displaying the cute little bottle on my dresser too!

    Keep up the good work Emily; your posts make my long work days much more bearable!
    x

  • ELISE

    THIS was completely AMAZING to read and probably the BEST post I've read from this site. THANK YOU!

  • Isa

    Amazing post. Very organic and inspirational. I love his Byredo perfumes. They are so unique.
    It was very interesting to hear about the process. It makes me want them even more.
    And Ben Gorham sounds like quite an intriguing man.. I'm seduced if not sold.

  • Eva

    Capture his scent in a bottle and I would wear it, he is charming and beyond hot!

  • Rochelle

    I dreamt of perfume after reading this article. Great read; very inspiring.

  • http://goodbyesmallheart.com Jessica

    What a fantastic interview! His story is very inspiring, and I really appreciate his frankness and down-to-earth attitude. And I don't even like perfume!

  • cat

    Your blog gets more and more amazing each time, Emily. What a great, interesting compelling story. Loved Ben's story.

  • mj

    emily. EMILY. what a fantastic read--thank you. i love, love, love my gypsy water and am still saving up for a full-size bottle (god bless the perfumed court ladies and the magic of decanting).

  • Melanie

    What a great post! I look at perfumes in the same way - they are my souveniers from trips (that and scarves - they are so easy to pack :-). I buy them on my first day of vacation, then wear just that scent the whole time. When I come home, it's instilled - anytime I wear that perfume in the future, it takes me right back to that trip. Chanel 5 =Mexico; Elizabeth Arden Green Tea (the original) = Las Vegas; Carolina Herrera 212 = Miami. I didn't buy one on my last trip to Vienna and have regretted ever since. I really should have bought that Guerlain in Douglas.

  • http://cjvzheartsyou.blogspot.com/ Chloe

    Lovely post! I tend to stick to the same perfume, but this was such an interesting thing to me! How fun to make them souvenirs!

  • M Foreit2020

    i love byredo! i have two fragrances and i want the seven veils. i love how he speaks abour scents being extremely personal. You can tell he's very passionate about his work....and boy is he handsome

  • Colin

    Ben was always a different cat -- good to see him living his dream his way.

    The old Aquinas gym where I coached him was demolished last year. I wonder what fragrance would best capture it?

  • Emm

    Loved this interview! I realise this is completely besides the point, but I also Love the bedlinen featured in the pic. Can anyone tell me where I might find something similar?xx

  • Saehwan

    a gem of an article in the vapid world of fashion. the ethos and quality behind byredo are far supreme from its mass produced french house peers. i stumbled across the beautiful shop in stockholm full of mystique and intrigue..the shopkeeper telling me what she uses and what her elderly mother uses. it was such a personal experience. i hope byredo remains a profitable enterprise but one that maintains its secretive, low key cachet.

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