Welcome touch of luxury – Monocle Spring Weekly, June 2018
Striking a strong first note with a range of understated fragrances, Byredo has seamlessly expanded its offer to include candles, leather goods and eyewear. As its third flagship prepares to open in London's Soho founder Ben Gorhan tells Monocle about creating a friendlier luxury brand and his eagerness to learn from the best.
With Ben Gorham’s current status as one of Europe’s most talked-about perfumers and, increasingly, designers, it’s hard to believe this man was once intimidated by the thought of stepping into a luxury store. But one of the things the Swede mentions when asked about his idea of luxury is accessibility: specifically, his wish to take a different approach from traditional luxury brands, which often cultivate an air of unattainability. Gorham, dressed in a white T-shirt and black trousers with his long hair tied back in a neat braid (a look as clean as the design of his perfume bottles) explains that he wants Byredo to be a friendlier brand.
“It’s about how you’re welcomed, the way we speak to you. And the fact that we don’t define a specific customer,” he says in his soft-spoken manner, as he folds his long former basketball player’s legs underneath him on the sofa. We’re in Byredo’s slick office in Stockholm’s hip Södermalm district, surrounded by art books and handbags in all shapes and sizes. “When I started, there was a level of intimidation in luxury for me – from the way you’re greeted in these stores to the way they are built and the neighbourhoods in which they’re located. Our idea was to be luxurious in the sense of quality and attention to detail but to be inclusive as a brand.”
Later this month, Byredo will open its first London shop, a towering flagship occupying a five-story townhouse on Lexington Street in Soho. It is a vast space but it needs to be: Byredo is expanding its product offerings at quite a pace. In the past few years it has launched leather goods, eyewear and one-off collections of everything from blankets to jeans. This Swedish player is a luxury dark-horse – and not just in the field of fragrances.
Gorham was very particular when hunting for a location for the London shop (it took him two years to find the right spot). “London has established luxury shopping destinations. But those neighbourhoods and streets really didn’t speak to us as a brand, and I think this idea of having a new, inclusive approach to the luxury segment partly meant we had to go off the beaten path,” he says. “Soho, which I remember 10–15 years ago as being a very buzzing place, is still buzzy. I looked around there for quite some time to find the place where creative people worked and socialised. In the end I found this building which I fell in love with.”
Being able to take over an entire building was especially attractive. The premises will give Byredo the chance to present its merchandise in an environment created solely by and for them. While the company continues to sell its products through stockists – having grown quickly, they are now represented in 50 countries – flagship stores are becoming increasingly important. The London one will be Byredo’s third, after Stockholm and New York.
”Two years ago, we opened in New York. We had expanded into leather goods and eyewear, and because we were primarily working with wholesale accounts and department stores, which are often sectioned by categories, I found it hard to express the brand in its entirety through those channels,” he says. “So there was a practical reason for our own stores: to capture the universe of everything we do.”
The London shop will feature two floors of retail, with the third floor functioning as a gallery dedicated to Byredo’s art projects and collaborations, such as the recent capsule collection of perfumes, denim, T-shirts and bags created with US streetwear brand Off-White. The two top floors will house staff offices. In each flagship, Byredo stocks products that can only be found there, in order to add local flavour to the stores. It’s a sensible way to entice shoppers into bricks-and-mortar spaces.
“Something that’s changed so much in this industry over the years is that the same products are available everywhere. One of the things I enjoyed most 10–15 years ago was going to Paris and buying things that were only sold at this store or buying something from a certain store every time I was in Japan,” says Gorham. “It’s this idea of scarcity and local emotion that used to be a significant part of the luxury experience. I still like the idea, and I know our customers enjoy that sense of discovery.”
Byredo has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It was founded by Gorham as a fragrance house in 2006 and, since then, has amassed a cult following thanks to its understated approach to perfumes, using simple compositions such as flowers combined with berries, spices and herbs; immaculate branding; and the concept of stories or memories to accompany each scent. A niche brand in the crowded perfume market, it has managed to carve a space by attracting customers looking for a more unusual, personal, “boutique” scent than the ones offered by large fashion houses. Gorham’s image as a cool outsider has certainly helped.
He was an unlikely candidate to start a perfume brand: born in Stockholm where his parents had emigrated (from Canada and India), he had played basketball professionally before enrolling into art school. While there, a chance encounter with Swedish perfumer Pierre Wulff sparked his interest in scents, although it was only when he travelled to India a couple of years later and experienced the intense aromas of spices and incense that he decided he had to create a fragrance. Completely new to the industry, he created his first scents with the help of French perfumers Olivia Giacobetti and Jerome Epinette.
Last year, Byredo expanded into leather goods – a category that might seem far removed from fragrances and requires a completely different skillset. But Gorham says he used the same approach to this line: learning by doing and getting help from experienced craftspeople. Before launching, he spent a lot of time in Tuscany learning the process that goes into making a luxury leather bag. “Beyond having to learn the craft and materials – visiting tanneries, picking skins and sitting with Italian craftsmen – one of the challenges was to learn how to design the bags and understand their proportions and the functions. It took a few years, but I’m pretty stubborn,” he says, smiling.
It seems that having a range of products under the Byredo umbrella has been in the back of Gorham’s mind all along. “Byredo was always a notion much bigger than a smell; it was about telling these stories. So I always imagined there would be other things. And unlike many brands, we do all these categories ourselves, in-house – they’re not licenses with other groups.”
Looking ahead, eyewear will be a big focus. Three years ago Byredo launched a sunglasses collection in tandem with US giant Oliver Peoples but now it is working on a line under its own name. Gorham, naturally, is very much involved in the process, from finding the best Japanese craftsmen in Fukui to designing the frames. “There’s something really thrilling in introducing new categories. I like not being great at everything. It keeps me curious and motivated.”