It is Byredo’s crisp, unassuming packaging that first catches the eye, but if you chance upon a bottle of ‘Bal d’Afrique’, the contents will astonish you. Powerful, exotic layers of African flowers top the fragrance, which is balanced with earthy base notes of amber and dense layers of musk, vetiver, and cedar. Two worlds are represented in one small item, and they are the product of a man who is very much attuned to his own dual nature. Ben Gorham, a ruggedly handsome, half-Indian, half-Canadian former basketball player from Sweden, is the unlikely creator behind the niche perfume and leather goods company, Byredo. Like his creations, he is anything but what he looks like on the outside.
Much is made of his good looks, his tattooed muscles, and towering stature, but Gorham is a gentle, soulful person who pauses thoughtfully before giving a considered response. He’s a family man who eagerly shows off pictures of his daughters and dogs between interview questions. He is someone who is hard to fluster, even when issued a challenge, and quick to laugh when prodded with a joke.
Instantly likable but uncompromising in his vision, it’s easy to see why so many creative forces have flocked to Byredo, eager to collaborate with the brilliant young “nose”, who also exhibits a rare talent for leather bag design as well. One gets the sense that there is almost nothing that Gorham can’t accomplish once he sets his mind to it, and that Byredo’s expertly curated and highly sought-after selection of fragrances and leather products are only the beginning for the young talent.
In the illuminating interview below, Gorham shares rare insights into his past, argues for the inclusivity of his brand, and spills the details on some of his forthcoming projects with Savoir Flair’s Editor-in-Chief, Haleh Nia.
Given your age, background, and your multicultural heritage, it seems like you’d have no business being in the perfume world of traditional, old Frenchmen. You are a real anomaly. How did your incredible career come about?
It’s a really good question. It’s not completely clear how to be honest. I was an athlete most of my life. It came to a screeching halt when I was 24 due to legal passport issues. I needed a European passport in order to sign my contracts with a professional team. It didn’t work out. I had a Canadian passport even though I was born in Sweden. I drifted around in legal limbo for three years trying to solve this problem, and then ended up going to art school. I did a degree in Fine Arts. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew that I enjoyed exploring my creative side. Painting is probably what I did the most of, although I also did cooking, sculpture, and other things. I met a perfumer by chance and that was my introduction to “smell”, as I call it.
Physiologically, smell and memory share an intrinsic link. That’s science. Nostalgia is important.
So, growing up you never had an inclination towards scent?
No, and I never wore it myself. Shortly after meeting the perfumer, I went back to India for the first time in a long time and it was like my nose was turned on.
What happened during that encounter that changed your life so radically from one profession to another?
I think that connection between smell and memory became so clear. I felt like I could replay my entire life through smells.
Interesting that you mention replaying your entire life. I have asked a lot of perfumers whether scent is nostalgic for them, and they seem almost offended by the question. They say scent has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with the future, because if you’re thinking of memories then you’re creating something from the past — something that’s already been done. Personally, scent evokes such a sense of memory, and nostalgia is part and parcel of the process.
I think it’s a fabricated narrative. People are trying to be forward-thinking with a response like that, but it’s a fabricated narrative. Physiologically, smell and memory share an intrinsic link. That’s science. Nostalgia is important. The idea of origin, where you come from, who you are – that’s important. It doesn’t have to be recreated, but it is a component of most things that I do. Where I come from and who I am is a facet of what I make.
Did you have a mother that used fragrance a lot?
Yes, my mother did. I have very clear ideas of that. My father was in my life the first five or six years, and I have very vivid ideas of what he smelled like.
So, you didn’t have a male role model growing up?
No, but I had my mother.
You had a mother, who I often say plays the role of father and mother at the same time.
Yeah, especially for my generation. Most of my friends were the same. We all had very strong mothers.
I’m guessing you grew up with a stronger Indian upbringing than Canadian or Swedish because your mother was Indian?
It plays out in your fragrances. Your aesthetic is very Scandi and minimal, but your scents are quite evocative and ethnic. I don’t think of ‘Bal d’Afrique’ as a scent you would come across in Sweden.
Exactly, and very few people see that and understand that connection. I apply that dual approach to all of my products, bringing both sides of myself to the look, the texture, the tactility — whether they are fragrance or leather bags.
Where did the idea for Bal d’Afrique, my favorite perfume of all time, come from?
It originally started in nostalgia. I haven’t shared this story with too many people. My father left when I was young. When I was nearly 18, my mother gave me my father’s diaries. She thought I was of age and that there might be something important in there for me. I got to know my father through these diaries, which were written before he met my mother from a time when he spent 10 years in Africa studying for his Masters. He traveled up and down the East Coast and across Africa. He talked about hopping on freight ships to get a free ride up the coast and the people he met along the way. There was this nomadic, glamorous part of it that was quite interesting. That became my initial idea of Africa.
Had you been to Africa?
I hadn’t, and I still haven’t. As I hadn’t been to Africa, as there were these fragments of perception, these ideas and stories from my father’s diaries, in my mind I made up my own story of going to Africa, of arriving and being greeted by local tribes and chiefs, and all of the smells I would experience on this journey. It was mimicking my father, but in my own way. That is where ‘Bal d’Afrique’ came from.
Do you wear ‘Bal d’Afrique’ often?
Sometimes. It was part of my initial fragrance launch.
What were the initial fragrances you launched?
‘Green’, ‘Rose Noir’, ‘Gypsy Water’, ‘Pulp’, and ‘Encens Chembur’. Then came ‘Bal d’Afrique’ and then came ‘Blanche’.
Oh, they came out in that order? I always think of them as complete opposites of each other. ‘Bal d’Afrique’ is complex and layered and ‘Blanche’ is so clean. I think of ‘Blanche’ coming first and ‘Bal d’Afrique’ after.
I made Blanche after the birth of our first daughter. We have two daughters, nine and four. And we have two dogs.
Did you ever think your career would take off to the level it has?
No. As a basketball player and an artist from Sweden to this? No. There was resistance, there were challenges. There was an expected level of pedigree in the fragrance realm.
I truly believed, if we stuck to our guns and focused on the creative work and quality of product, that people would eventually get it.
I would imagine being biracial, with Indian heritage, being welcomed into the very non-inclusive world of French perfumery wasn’t exactly without its rough patches. Now you go into any department store in the world and Byredo takes pride of place, as a massive disruptor in the field.
I think that one of the initial challenges commercially was that department stores and buyers kept asking me, ‘What’s the catch?’ I said, ‘There is none.’ My scents are my idea of a collective memory that people can engage with. They would say, ‘We have Le Labo, which is a lab and they print a label with your name on it, and Frederic Malle has these scent tubes.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you mean gimmicks,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, what’s your gimmick?’ There are no gimmicks.
When I looked to launch in the Middle East, my packaging was criticized for being too simple, and for not having enough gold on it. Wherever I went, there was always some kind of pushback. I truly believed, if we stuck to our guns and focused on the creative work and quality of product, that people would eventually get it. It took a little longer, but when people got it, it stuck, it was solid.
It took longer because you wouldn’t compromise.
Yes, and the vision took time to develop. It was the same with the leather bags. I knew what I wanted to do, but people would come up to me and say it needs a big logo, for status. For me, it’s not about status. It’s about intimacy; it’s about choosing something that you will wear forever, something timeless, something that is close to you. It’s not about accessorizing your life; it’s about connecting to products that feel meaningful to you. It was inclusive in that approach.
Do you think of your brand as inclusive?
One of the first questions that came up when we were launching is what kind of brand we were. Where we a lifestyle brand? I would say no. All of the lifestyle brands sell you an idea of a lifestyle – you live here, you drive this, you eat that. Byredo’s approach is not to sell you a lifestyle. We want to make meaningful products, well-made products that can be integrated into anyone’s life, so yes, it feels inclusive. Our customers are 18-85, men and women.
I have to disagree with you.
[Laughs] Tell me why.
There is something innately exclusive about the brand. I don’t think it’s for your average consumer. The girl who is buying a mass-produced bottle of perfume from Sephora and wearing it all the time is not the same girl who would wear Byredo. It’s a different level of appreciation.
Do you know when it became clear to me that she would? When I launched in Sweden. Per capita, it’s the worst fragrance market in the world, afflicted with super price sensitivity. It’s a socialist system with a huge middle class. We opened a counter in the biggest department store, and we were twice as expensive as the highest-priced brand there. I implemented an educational program about the product, about the quality. Within six months, it exploded. All of the regular girls started buying it and now we are the number one brand in that department store.
How much of that do you attribute to you being from Sweden and Byredo being a Swedish brand?
Maybe me being in Sweden, and the accessibility of being able to work with the communications teams, might have something to do with it. But I truly believe that the average consumer will buy it. I think that girl, once she knows about it, wants it.
You’re probably the only person in the history of luxury who has gone from perfumer to bag designer. What’s next?
I have an eyewear project I have been working on for the past three years, completely in Japanese titanium, which comes out in spring. I’m not supposed to talk about it [laughs]. The other one is a Byredo color cosmetics project, which I am also not supposed to talk about. That becomes a very visual representation of what you’ve experienced with the fragrances. I am doing that in collaboration with a friend. Byredo welcomes others into the process through collaboration. There is less ego connected to this than people think.
Do you have any plans to create a fragrance for the Middle East?
I am, but in a completely unexpected way. I want to avoid clichés. Being multicultural, I think am sensitive to cultural appropriation, so I considered that very much in the creation of this scent.