Byredo's Ben Gorham Explains His Approach to Bespoke Fragrances

Just before the opening of Byredo's first U.S. store, founder Ben Gorham sat down to talk about where his business is headed.
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Eliza Brooke
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Just before the opening of Byredo's first U.S. store, founder Ben Gorham sat down to talk about where his business is headed.
Ben Gorham. Photo: Byredo

Ben Gorham. Photo: Byredo

Those immersed in the beauty industry — or who are students of Things That Are Cool and Hip Now — undoubtedly know Ben Gorham's story by heart. Raised in Sweden by an Indian mother and a Canadian father, he bounced from professional basketball to art school before founding his Stockholm-based fragrance brand Byredo in 2006. With its clean packaging and offbeat scents, many of which are based on Gorham's own memories, it didn't take long for the line to take off.

Now in its ninth year of business, Byredo has opened its second retail location — the first in the U.S., where it's otherwise sold at Barneys — on Wooster Street in Soho. The space, which sits at the intersection of minimal and inviting with its combination of warm-hued wood walls and glass, gives equal play to the fragrances and to the leather bags Gorham introduced in February. 

We sat down with Gorham on the morning of his store opening party to hear about the space, where his business is headed and how he tackles the question of bespoke fragrances.

You have one other store, in Stockholm. How is this one different?

This feels like my first. The Stockholm store was kind of a jewel box format, and we did it a few years back [in 2009]. This felt like the real deal, partly because of the scale and spatial qualities, but I was also able to have a decent budget to build the design and the furniture. So it really feels like my first.

It was a bigger budget, but [also] a real budget. I had very specific ideas of what kind of furniture to make and what kind of materials to use. So that was one aspect. And the other was that there was a large focus on the leather collection and all the accessories, so I had to rethink how those categories and how those products work together. 

You opened the Stockholm one before you took on Manzanita Capital, which also backs Diptyque and Kevyn Aucoin, as an investor. What's your relationship with them like?

It's the Fisher family, the family that founded the Gap, so they've grown up with retail in their blood. And they have this amazing art collection. [William Fisher, whose parents founded Gap, is the chief executive officer of Manzanita.] They have an appreciation for beautiful things. To me, it made sense to partner with someone on development to realize [my] vision. I met quite a few people, but [Manzanita] on a very human level really understood and appreciated what I was doing with the product and with the brand. That for me was the most important thing. They have a great taste level and a great understanding of how to build retail. [The store] couldn't have been done without them, in both execution and funding.

What have you learned about retail since working with them?

It's a lot of small stuff, but what they do really well [is help create] a very clear structure that allows us to efficiently execute these ideas I have. I never had a problem with ideas or vision, but I was running into trouble in terms of realizing them. I think what we spent the last two years doing was building systems and structures so I've been able to execute these ideas. Some of it's business, some of it's how I manage my time and what kind of people I have supporting me. And to be honest, I have a vision, but we're a pretty big team now, so it's really a group effort.

Byredo's Soho store. Photo: Byredo

Byredo's Soho store. Photo: Byredo

How big is the team? 

Nine in Paris, six in Stockholm. We're seven in London and ten in New York. Then we have a partnership with four in Tokyo. Then we have all the people working in the counters and the stores. There's a lot of faces of Byredo. 

Are you hiring in any particular areas?

We're always looking. Because the brand is growing so much — we're in 62 markets, I think — we're always looking for people, but we don't have a set agenda. We're not saying, "We'll be hiring in finance in the next eight months, and we'll be doing our sales team." It's really about the right people popping up. I'm always meeting people.

Tell me about the bespoke element of the store.

With the leather, it was important to me that it wasn't "fashion." It was more about timeless travel and leather goods. I felt at the same time that I was limited to what I would do on a seasonal basis in terms of color palette and materials. It needed to be focused, but at the same time people had a love of a purple bag or a yellow bag. I wanted to create the bespoke [element] partly to set it apart from fashion as an industry, which is always about newness. And I wanted to give people the possibility to get something truly custom for them.

What are the options for customization?

It hasn't quite been set; we won't launch it until late in the fall. But there will be materials, there will be colors, there will be stitching details. There'll be stencils, which is [our] new alphabet. We've created a modern take on initialing.

And how does that bespoke business translate over into the fragrances?

It's never really been announced, but there were loyal customers, people I knew, that really wanted their own fragrances and were willing to pay for it.

How much does a custom bottle cost?

I think it's $32,000, something like that. But it's not a business you make money on. It's a bit more of a service to a few customers. It's interesting to hear and see people give their take on what they would like their fragrance to smell like. And then we're looking at the launch of the bespoke home business, which I'm doing with a group of architects, people who build really specific houses.

What would that entail?

I can't talk too much about it yet. It'll be in conjunction with some amazing architects. It'll be an addition to what they've created.

Are you going to be building houses...?

I won't be building actual houses. But for people who build amazing houses, it will be an option to have it smell exactly the way they want it.

The back of the Soho store. Photo: Byredo

The back of the Soho store. Photo: Byredo

That's a whole business in itself, creating fragrances for commercial buildings. Have you talked to hotels about doing their scents?

Yeah, we're looking at some hotel partnerships. But hotels kind of makes sense and has been done. I think a lot of these architects have very specific ideas. Most of them have a smell in mind when they design a house, which I was surprised to see. They're extremely creative people, so it's nice to be able to realize that for them and for the clients as well.

Have you found any themes in what sort of smells architects are interested in?

I think some of the architects I've been in contact with are very much interested in geography and nature. Their philosophy is building houses that complement the natural landscapes, so it's very much about that — how you tie it all together as an idea, rather than putting a big house on top of a hill.

In terms of customization, brands like Le Labo have managed to do that on a large scale, by pouring the fragrance in the store and letting people personalize their bottles. Do you see there being a way to do customization for Byredo that doesn't require creating a $32,000 fragrance?

We've been asked about it a lot, but it's just a bit gimmicky for me. If it's custom for me, it's custom.

Like really custom.

Yeah. Something that kind of warranted the label. I think we have a pretty wide assortment. I like to feel like there's a level of customization in selecting something for you and understanding it, and knowing that fragrance is specific on everybody, the way it reacts on skin. 

In a recent New York Times interview, you said that you've gone from creating fragrances around specific memories to working with broader concepts. Can you explain that shift?

In the beginning, I didn't really understand the language of fragrance, so putting together a brief was challenging. I think my references were very specific at that point, and when I learned about perfume and the perfumer's process and raw materials, I was able to venture outside of this specific thing. I don't want to call it abstract, but fictional ideas and emotions. I was able to dive a little deeper.

How have your briefs changed?

Now they've become really quirky, weird pamphlets. In the beginning it was like, here's a picture, it smells like this, here are the raw materials I imagine, this is the nature surrounding that place that I'm referencing. Now it's like poetry, or here's a song and a picture and a quote. I've gotten to know the perfumers quite well, too, so it's a much more fluid process. 

They know me so much better, so me saying [gesturing to the iPhone on the table], "Here's an iPhone," it means something to them, even in the form of a smell. We've spent countless hours together. 

How does the process of developing a new fragrance go?

Mostly I work with Jerome [Epinette, a New York-based perfumer], [especially] in the last few years, and we've really found a pattern of working. I always start the briefings here in New York, because it's very personal. He needs to feel and get the energy of what I'm doing. Then we do modifications, which he sends back to me in Sweden. We meet a few times throughout the process, but that daily work of doing modifications, we're sending hundreds of bottles.