Interview Paul Kominek
Portrait Marzena Skubatz
Interview Paul Kominek
Portrait Marzena Skubatz
Ben Gorham, founder and creative director of celebrated beauty brand Byredo is a man with big visions and even bigger ambitions. Born in Sweden to an Indian mother and a Canadian father, he grew up in New York and Toronto before returning to Europe to pursue a professional Basketball career. A twist of fate, mere legal matters (he was unable to obtain a European passport despite being a Swedish native), brought Gorham’s athletic career to a sudden halt. This adversity paired with the mindset of a competitive athlete would provide the drive for all of his future endeavours. Forced to reinvent himself, he enrolled at the Stockholm Art School where a chance encounter with perfumer Pierre Wulff sparked his interest in scents. Fifteen years later, his company has helped reshape the entire perfume industry, redefining the way fragrances are used and which ingredients are deemed desirable. Besides the hugely successful line of perfumes and candles, Byredo has introduced porcelain, leather goods and other objects that Gorham finds interesting enough to include in his ‘Byproducts’ venture. Amidst the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, while the entire fashion industry was virtually suspended, Gorham also made the bold decision to launch a new product line—a project several years in the making. His intuition proved to be correct, the new makeup range becoming an instant hit and propelling the growth of the brand yet further. We sat down with Gorham to discuss the disappearance of automotive scents, Alaskan surfing spots and his vision for a 4D sensory experience.
I wanted to start out by asking about your personal experiences during this last year of pandemic and restrictions.
For me, finding new routines was something quite interesting and positive at first. At the same time connections with my circle of friends, which has grown into a more of a global community in the past years, seemed like it could work on a virtual level. But one year later you understand that having a zoom call is just not the same as sitting down with someone to have dinner. I feel like it might not go back to the way it was, but there needs to be a balance. That idea of movement and culture is very important to me and I really miss it at this point.
Did you hold off on any specific projects because of the global situation?
You know, I envisioned a second leg for Byredo for many years, which was supposed to be focused on makeup. And at some point I was able to work with Isamaya Ffrench, a makeup artist who I admired. We worked on the project for two years and we were just getting ready to launch when the pandemic hit, so we ended up postponing it. Then six months went by and it became quite clear that there wasn’t going to be an overnight solution to the whole situation. At that moment no-one was really launching any products, brands were pretty much keeping everything on hold. It felt like a pretty gloomy time and I think part of our responsibility as a brand is to inspire. So in September, we decided to launch anyway and it turned out to be incredible, partly because there wasn’t as much noise. People were in one place and focused on, almost starving for inspiration and energy.
And in terms of logistics, this must have had a big impact on you too, with stores having to close down for an extended period.
Yeah, everything has become a bit more focused on the digital channels and E-commerce. But my initial instinct was that people were probably still going to buy perfume. We always found that people, specifically our customers, would wear perfume because of how it makes them feel or what it makes them remember. It was less about the projection aspect of going out and having someone tell them “you smell amazing!”. That is obviously a component, but I do think people have a very emotional connection to smell. I worried more about lipstick and makeup in general in the era of zoom calls and home offices. But surprisingly there was this polarisation even on that level. Some people turned to a very natural, carefree direction and others were saying how much they miss going out, dressing up, putting on a full face, feeling glamorous etc.. So we started to see these two camps growing in a very interesting way. And then, obviously with people being home so much, home fragrance, hand care, hand sanitisers, these things exploded.
Overall, what did those changes, the shift to e-commerce in particular, do for the development of the brand?
Initially it was a bit hard to say, because of the total closure of physical stores in most parts of the world. Fortunately China opened back up quite early. This combined with the fact that Chinese customers didn’t travel abroad meant the market for us went through the roof. That saved a lot of businesses; most beauty brands and certain fashion brands can probably attest to this. At the end of 2020, I was amazed that we had grown the business by so much. And I think that was relatively unique, because I know of a lot of brands that have suffered, who I feel really bad for. We were on such a momentum that we were able to push through. We started 2021 quite well too.
So you are hopeful for the time when life will hopefully return back to some new type of normal?
Definitely, yes. Not only do I think that people will carry on, but I think the comeback will also be really strong. You know, someone sent me an Instagram post from a concert in Orlando, Florida last week. It was 30,000 people screaming like they probably never screamed before.
I can totally imagine. All of those bottled up emotions.
Yes totally, 100%.
Actually, bottled up emotions, that’s sort of the tag-line for Byredo.
(Laughing) Yes, that’s exactly my business. But yeah, I do think this whole experience is changing us in terms of awareness. But at the same time, as humans we have these innate characteristics and emotional needs for connection and culture, joy and music. I don’t think this will ever change.
Going back to the beginnings of Byredo. I have been following your story for quite a while. I remember when we started to work on the first issue of the magazine around 2008, one of the first products we were considering to feature was Byredo.
Oh wow, so that was really a very early stage for us too.
I have always been really attracted to your very personal, curated approach and the connection to memories of specific places, which obviously really resonate with what we are trying to do with the magazine. So looking back at this early period, can you tell me a bit about how your creative process has changed over the years?
Yeah sure, so Byredo started out very much as a creative project. There needed to be a truly creative, original approach, very much like in art. From the beginning, I told very personal stories. And even though they were about me, the idea was that people could relate to them on some level. Eventually Byredo became this commercial vehicle and it has grown substantially over the last fifteen years.
Generally speaking, the companies I always admired had strong creative visions, who told personal stories. And my ambition as a strongly competitive person was to figure out a way to compete with those big brands. I think my strength was that I could tell a personal story in a truthful way, whereas big brands have to consider focus groups, their board of directors and their shareholders, etc.. I had this loose theory that I could compete by being concise and clear with one vision. And as that initial success came, we continued with that approach. Fifteen years later, being a much larger business, we are still a very product story oriented company.
And on a personal level, let’s stay with scents for a moment, has the process of creating a new scent changed over the years?
What has changed is that I’ve obviously learned a lot more about making perfume. The process with the perfumers has become more refined and has allowed me to tackle more complex ideas over the years, more complex emotions. In contrast to some of the more early tangible memories, I have been able to work more with concepts. Take ‘Mixed Emotions’ for example: this fragrance that we launched was about a very specific feeling that people could relate to. And the question was, what should it smell like? Obviously it could smell like a million things. For me, there was this juxtaposition of something pleasant and something less pleasant and how those things meet —how we are always on this rollercoaster of highs and lows. I tried to approach it more as an abstract idea when creating that smell. And I think that is part of the evolution for me personally.
Were there ever times when you had to pause or discard an idea, because you weren’t getting the scent the way you wanted it?
All the time, yes. There are smells that I have been working on for over five years. And because it is an emotional process, until you really feel the emotion you were going for, it’s not done. Maybe you find something else along the way, but that then becomes a separate project. It’s still challenging and keeps me on my toes. If it was all easy, I would probably have less fun developing it further.
It sounds like you tend to have a clear idea of where you want to end up with each new project?
When I start something new, yeah. Beyond the fragrance and the makeup, I have this little vehicle that I call Byredo Byproducts, which is shoes, bags, glass, porcelain; any creative idea that didn’t become Byredo Beauty, it usually becomes a Byproduct. And those things are a little bit more experimental as a process. They can examine, for example, a form of craft. It’s not necessarily that I know what it’s going to look like, but much more about learning. I think that relates to what I experienced when starting the company. This helps me to come back to this naive “I know nothing” mentality. Byproduct has become a very important outlet for those ideas. Whereas with the beauty products, there is a very clear vision. I know what I want to do and it’s about realising it.
Looking a bit further into the future now. I have been fascinated by how scents in public spaces have become more and more of a thing. The idea behind it being to create a stronger emotional bond between brand and customer by creating a scent that people associate with a place. I wonder how that will develop in the future. Most people are probably not even aware that there is this whole industry, which basically curates the scent perception of public places.
Yeah, definitely. I initially started seeing it about ten years ago. Suddenly there was this wave of hotels interested in it. There is this iconic place in Paris called Hôtel Costes. They had a smell made for them by one of our perfumers, a very talented individual. It became sort of synonymous with the whole experience. So the hotel industry was probably the first to embrace this idea of smell and the connection it has to memory. They understood they were in the business of creating experiences that would become lasting memories. Then I started to see it in retail, with brands creating signature scents for their retail experiences. There was a new level of awareness on the side of companies which was interesting. But at the same time, like you mentioned, it was something that wasn’t being spoken about, especially in retail environments. Even a chain like 7-Eleven, they started baking in their stores because they understood that most people would associate the smell of freshly baked goods with something safe, something pleasant, memories of grandma or home. I definitely think this is something that will continue to grow; it has a place within all experiences, but we are still very visually trained and focused.
I’m sure you have already been approached by many companies to create a smell for them.
Yeah, for sure. Right now, I am working on some concepts in the automobile space. That’s really interesting for me, because everyone has certain associations with, for example, the smell of a new car, of leathers, plastics and metal, etc.. But we also have this nostalgic idea of petrol and oil and that whole smell is about to disappear, because we are moving into the era of electric cars. So even the smells of cars will change, which will alter those entire experiences.
That’s a very interesting point, yes.
There is another really amazing project which will happen at the end of the year, which I am not able to talk about yet. It is about adding this 4th dimension, this 4D experience to an industry that is giant.
(Both laughing) I cannot tell you, but I know you are smart enough to figure it out. So yeah, this whole idea of innovation around smell and how it relates to our lives is at the center of what Byredo was always about. It started out with the idea of smells and how they make you feel. Perfume became a vehicle, and then candles and soaps and so forth. It’s nice not to lose sight of this initial idea that smell is a very important part of our lives.
It’s funny that you mention 4D. I have somehow always been obsessed with the idea of cinemas, where smells are added to the cinema experience.
Have you ever tried it?
I tried it in Seoul, actually. I went to one of these 4DX cinemas.
I think those are really amazing. I went to a kids movie with my daughter and wife in New York like ten or twelve years ago and it blew me away. A kids movie. (Both laughing)
It is such an unexpected feeling, how sound and vision and scents suddenly blend into this one targeted experience.
For sure, yes. You remember that scratch and sniff used to be a thing?
I do, yes. Those scented cards which were also used for some movies.
To create it in a seamless manner is definitely something I am very interested in. There has actually been a project I wanted to work on, but haven’t been able to realise yet. I once read that from a physiological perspective, the best way the human brain remembers smell is when it is linked to fear.
Oh wow, really?
Yeah. So I wanted to preview one of our perfumes during the screening of a horror movie.
That’s an amazing idea! (both laughing)
Finally, I wanted to ask if you have any very early scent memories that you could tell us about?
I am not sure I still remember the very first association I had with a smell, but I do have very vivid memories of India from my childhood. You know my family is from India.
From what age is that memory ?
I think I was probably around four. And that’s what’s so amazing about it. Because almost forty years later, you can smell these things and they instantly transport you back in time, across the globe and into the emotional state of a child. Another significant memory I have is around the birth of our first daughter. The smell of a baby, these things are just mind-blowing and something you could probably never recreate. And when I think about it, I could probably map out my life throughout the decades based on specific memories that I associate with certain smells. Actually, just before the pandemic hit, we launched an Instagram series called Smell Memory. We asked friends of ours to describe memories of theirs in relation to smells and I was surprised about the strong feedback we got. We reached out to numerous people, some of them very successful celebrities and everyone came back saying, I got one, I got one. Nobody declined. And that’s the interesting thing, to see that everybody has those strong connections between experiences and smells, but we seldom think about them or talk about them.
And a very last question, just to end on a physical travel note. What is your favourite place to travel to?
I think I’d say Alaska. I went a few years ago on a surfing trip with a bunch of friends. I was living there on a boat. We went to some very remote beaches you can only reach by bush planes. I surfed in these really cold waters and it was just a crazy, incredible place. If you ever get a chance, you should really go.
I would love to. Where in Alaska was it?
We flew into Anchorage and then continued South towards a town called Seward. And from there we took boats further down along the coast.
How were the waves there?
Amazing. I mean, when they were on. But the tricky thing is that it’s basically a twenty-four hour journey. So you obviously have to book your trip and just go, without knowing how the conditions will be. Usually in terms of surfing, you can look at the swell maps; how are the waves in let’s say Biarritz? When the waves look good, you just hop on a plane in Stockholm and fly down. With Alaska, you just have to go and hope for the best.
This interview is featured in TTA 19.For more information click here.
You have no items in your cart