MILAN — Early April marks a lucky time of the year for Victoire de Taillac and Ramdane Touhami, founders of the prestige perfume and cosmetics brand Officine Universelle Buly 1803, which last year was acquired by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
The French brand’s founders opened their first store in Paris in April 2014 and that month, three years later, launched a successful unit in Tokyo. After cutting the ribbon of other doors across Asia over the past five years, this week they are planting the Buly flag in Italy, unveiling a store in Milan.
“We love Italy, of course, but my husband has really a special preference for Milan, so it’s been three years that we’ve been dreaming to open a store here,” said de Taillac in an interview ahead of the launch.
The cofounder recalled how several locations were scouted before the COVID-19 outbreak put the retail plans on hold. “We could have opened three years ago, it was a question of things that sometimes don’t go as planned. So that’s why when he [Touhami] found the store last summer and loved the location, it was obvious the first Italian store would have always been in Milan…There was really no other option,” de Taillac said.
The unit is nestled in Via Brera, which links the landmark Teatro alla Scala to the Brera artsy district and is a go-to destination for shoppers interested in art as well as niche beauty brands, with a concentration of fragrance and cosmetics retailers such as Campomarzio70, Montale Parfums, Olfattorio Bar à Parfums and Acca Kappa, among others.
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The Buly store should stand out with its signature aesthetic that evokes an old-school apothecary shop, here tweaked to “pay its respect to Milan and what we love about the local architecture,” said de Taillac.
A warm palette of beige and mahogany tones dominate the space, while the furniture’s lacquered wood is meant to be reminiscent of iconic Riva luxury boats, de Taillac said. The wooden display units are complemented by arch-shaped niches covered in plush beige velvet, dark marble panels bearing gold lettering or topping counters, and enameled plates with the name of the products in Latin appearing on drawers.
On the floor, beige and black travertine tiles create a graphic pattern, while diamond shapes painted in shades of blue and gray create a geometric motif on the ceiling, from which opaline glass chandeliers and wooden fans hang.
“The painted ceiling is a bit Gio Ponti-inspired in a way,” continued de Taillac, underscoring the importance of not having the same interior concept in all cities. “Otherwise you could be anywhere in the world… and don’t know when you enter in the store if you’re in New York or in Paris, which is something we don’t like… Of course, you know right away you’re in a Buly store but I think here you know you’re in an Italian Buly store, and that’s very important.” The same anti-standardization philosophy is applied to all the Buly doors globally, with the most daring and striking solutions carried out in the units in Tokyo juxtaposing modern design with a 19th century-inspired aesthetic.
The product assortment remains the same worldwide. The Milan store will carry Buly’s entire portfolio of 800 stockkeeping units, encompassing water-based perfumes, hand and body creams, oils, powders, clays, scented candles and matches, incense as well as high-end accessories such as brushes, handmade acetate combs and toothbrushes with silk bristles.
“Even if aspiration to beauty is universal… each taste is very personal and very peculiar and that’s why we want to offer our customer options,” said de Taillac.
Asked about which categories she thinks will best resonate with Italian customers, de Taillac said she was not sure, yet. “It’s nice to be surprised. From what I understand from the city, [the Milanese] is a very sophisticated customer,” she said, forecasting that perfumes and body care products will be popular.
So will Buly’s personalization services, which make up a large quotient of the brand’s experience. These include people’s names being written on products in calligraphy, initials being engraved on items such as lip balms and soaps, and a series of special wrapping solutions.
“The Italian team came to Paris to take some long-hour calligraphy classes,” confirmed de Taillac, adding that a sales assistant usually devotes two to six months to practice calligraphy. She credited the sales team’s competence and range of services offered as assets that help the success of the brand along with product quality, underscoring that this trifecta attracts a wide spectrum of customers in terms of age and nationality.
The Milan store’s location should attract both local shoppers and tourists. The whole area surrounding the Buly store is a retail hub for niche beauty brands, including Diptyque, Le Labo, Dr. Vranjes Firenze and Aesop. Also present is the 800-year-old Florentine label Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, which might represent a direct competitor to Buly given its shared focus on natural ingredients, attention to service, retro charm and whimsical packaging design.
Yet de Taillac sees differences between the two labels. “That’s a beautiful brand and its Florence store — well, nothing can compete [with it], ” she said of Santa Maria Novella’s flagship, known for its 14th-century frescoed ceilings, bronzed angels and aromas lingering in the air from potpourri made with local herbs. But de Taillac underscored the difference in aesthetic — with Buly irradiating a French aura — and in product, highlighting Buly’s wider selection, the more skin care-oriented focus as well as a more daring approach toward innovation.
To this end, the latest product launches included the Fragrant Lantern, “a lamp under which you put your candle and perfume will be diffused because of the heat coming from the bulb,” and the Eau Gymnastique scented spray for sneakers.
All Buly products are made in France, sans parabens, phenoxyethanol or silicon. Bestsellers include the water-based scents — which generate around 30 percent of the brand’s revenues — scented body oils and hand creams. A new scent collection of six vegetal perfumes will debut at the end of September.
As reported, de Taillac and Touhami decided to sell Buly with the goal to continue growing the company through the support of a larger partner. LVMH supported and assisted Buly for almost four years through its Luxury Ventures minority investment fund, before taking over the firm in 2021.
After the acquisition, de Taillac remained Buly’s director of product strategy, image and communication, while Touhami remained focused on the brand’s artistic direction of stores and products through his design agency Art Recherche Industrie, stepping down from the role of chief executive officer. Anne-Véronique Bruel was named CEO, joining the company from the LVMH-owned beauty label Fresh.
At the time of the Luxury Ventures investment in October 2017, there were only two Buly stores in the world, while now the brand has multiple doors in cities including Paris, London, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei.
After Milan, Buly will enter Germany with a store in Munich, as well as further expand in Osaka, Kobe — where the retail format will include a café like one of the units in Paris — and Nagoya Parco in Japan, which since the pandemic has become the largest market for the brand, followed by South Korea and France. Hence other store openings are in the pipeline also in South Korea, as well as in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.
E-commerce is another key channel for the company, not only in terms of sales but also as “a way for us to see where we could go if we wanted to,” said de Taillac. For example, she said 30 to 40 percent of customers shopping online are from the U.S. “where we don’t have any operation,” and there are no plans to open stores, yet.
Sharing a love for traveling and exploration, de Taillac and Touhami met in the early 2000s, with the former previously serving as head of public relations for Colette and the latter being an entrepreneur, designer and art collector.
Before Buly, in 2002 the couple launched Parfumerie Générale, their first concept store dedicated to niche cosmetics and perfumery, while in 2006 they masterminded the relaunch of French heritage candlemaker Cire Trudon. Seven years later, they designed and published Corpus, a biannual and bilingual glossy magazine dedicated to the beauty of the body and spirit before establishing Buly in 2014.
The brand has a fictional quotient: its idea came partially from reading Honoré de Balzac’s 1837 novel “César Birotteau,” which was inspired by a late 18th-century perfumer named Jean-Vincent Bully, whose signature brand helped establish French perfumery.
The couple’s beauty and business experience was turned into different publications, including the 2017 encyclopedia “An Atlas of Natural Beauty” in which they compiled natural ingredients as well as recipes for self-care. Last year Touhami published the “Beauty of Time Travel” book in which he explains his artistic and philosophical mind-set toward Buly and how to revamp a heritage brand.
“Now we’re quite focusing on Buly because it’s been a very busy year for us, but my husband has many projects on the design front,” teased de Taillac, hinting that one of Touhami’s initiatives might point toward fashion.