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Ben Gorham: Inside an Iconoclast’s Mind

A chance meeting with a perfumer led him to launch Byredo.

Ben Gorham is an atypical beauty entrepreneur, having launched fragrance — the keystone of his blockbuster Byredo brand — only after a chance meeting with a perfumer.

Up until then, the Swede’s most in-depth interaction with scent had been the wafts of curry emanating from his clothing.

“When you become aware of it, fragrance becomes a pretty powerful tool, not only in how you perceive things, but also how you remember them,” said Gorham, during a conversation with Jenny B. Fine, executive editor, beauty, WWD and Beauty Inc.

Flashback even earlier, and he seriously pursued a basketball career in Canada. Then Gorham returned to Europe and in the years following earned a degree in fine arts. That was what led to the life-changing encounter.

“I became very fascinated by this idea that smell is essentially an invisible medium and evokes so much emotion,” he said. “It is so evocative.”

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So he founded a creative project, called Byredo, a name that is short for “by redolence,” Old English for “sweet-smelling perfume” and reminiscent of redolence or redolent. Storytelling was integrated into the brand from the get-go.

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“I began translating very specific memories into scents with the help of a perfumer, and that became the basis for Byredo,” he said.

Gorham began working with just one perfumer, Jérôme Epinette, for his collection of scents. That went against the grain, as most fragrance brands generally sign on numerous noses.

“I felt the dialogue between myself and the perfumer was extremely important,” he said.

That was 17 years ago and it was an idea that helped spark the birth of niche fragrance houses. “The only thing I knew in the beginning was that I knew nothing,” he said.

But that wasn’t totally the case, since Gorham did understand that the brands and products he loved and aspired to most had evolved over time.

“I realized from the beginning that it was going to be a long-term dedication and project,” he continued, of Byredo.

From the beginning, Gorham understood the power of an outsider’s point of view, and while today collaborations are common, Gorham has tapped  like-minded creators and companies from the beginning.

“Being an outsider, you can acknowledge other people’s greater perspectives,” he said.

Thus far, he’s partnered with everyone from Travis Scott and Isamaya Ffrench to Ikea and M/M.

“I’ve been lucky and am grateful that they’ve been able to contribute to Byredo,” said Gorham, who said it’s more of an art than science when it comes to deciding who to work with.

As far as who’s on his radar that he would like to collaborate with that he hasn’t yet?

“I’m not going to jinx that one,” Gorham said with a laugh.

To him, brand- and product-building has quality at its core and is engineered with a rhythm and cadence. So Byredo launched with fragrance, and has since expanded into leather goods, eyewear and makeup.

“It’s gotten to the point where I believe it’s just scratched the surface of what we’re going to do,” Gorham said.

Byredo’s evolution over time has been made while Gorham keeps a finger on the pulse of the world, customers and culture.

“That idea of constant movement was a challenge,” he said. But it’s also been an opportunity.

Gorham continuously infuses products with emotion. His plan has never been to have Byredo just be about perfume.

“I always imagined there would be more categories,” Gorham said. “It took me a few years to start realizing them.”

One reason to move beyond fragrance was to keep himself and the brand from being put in a box.

“I was able to disrupt people’s perceptions of what a brand could be,” he said.

Gorham launched handbags, and that laid the groundwork for color cosmetics, which came out years later.

“It seemed much more natural at this point,” explained Gorham, who said he has upmost respect for the category and its challenges.

The Byredo makeup line was released in October 2020 and cracked the traditional codes of color cosmetics. It includes unconventional hues evocative of emotions, clean formulas, plus iconoclastic packaging, product selection and imagery.

“It will continue to be an important part of what we do,” he said. “As we go, we learn more about the business. Defining that process is going to help us when we launch other categories, as well. Where we go — I try not to be definitive in that.”

Delving into makeup served another purpose, too. It brought back the feeling of launching Byredo — “that emotion of only seeing possibilities, fundamental to why I started,” said Gorham, who believes now, more than ever, brands must be able to move in multiple directions.

His mind is always whirring. Two days prior, he envisaged designing a Formula 1 car. It’s all part and parcel of a busy creative stretching his imagination in all directions.

“That is how we are wired,” Gorham said.

But — back to fragrance: He finds it a beautiful medium, as it can be formulated in endless combinations to evoke countless emotions.

“That’s what keeps me excited moving forward, and still telling these stories,” Gorham said.

His curiosity is boundless. Gorham gleans inspiration from travel and also explores ideas, then figures out their commercial applications — in other words, products.

The coronavirus pandemic was a shock. “You have to change culturally as a company. We had to figure it out and adjust emotionally,” Gorham said.

Ever the sportsman, he views his role at Byredo as somewhat like a coach’s. Still, Gorham’s desire to win remains. “I’m so fiercely competitive,” he said.

In the context of his brand, winning comes in the guise of continuously growing and competing. Gorham is ambitious, and sets the bar high. He considers Byredo to compete with the world’s largest groups.

Striving is continuous. “We still have a long way to go,” he said. “Winning along the way is really important.”

His perfectionist streak serves a healthy purpose, too.

“This idea of perfection is also somehow unattainable,” he said. “So that has me in a forward motion.”

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