Changing the Scent of the Fragrance Industry

How Byredo’s founder Ben Gorham is changing what we think about perfume.

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“I met Russell [Westbrook] through Barneys and I just wanted to challenge him one on one, but I didn’t want to damage his confidence for the season so instead we worked on a perfume collaboration,” says Ben Gorham jokingly. The 6-foot-2 ex-pro basketball player turned art student turned perfumer has reinvented himself many times but now he’s here to stay in the fragrance industry. However, he is not at all your traditional perfumer and has long maintained his unique and nontraditional place in an otherwise conventional trade. In short, Ben Gorham is here to change what we think about fragrances.

When Gorham ditched basketball to attend art school, he wanted to pursue acrylic painting before a chance meeting with a perfumer. This was Ben’s introduction to the world of scent, and it fascinated him. Coming from a largely visual world of photography, painting and tangible artwork, scent and smell opened up an an understanding of the abstract for Gorham — a sense he never truly explored. “Smells instantly evoked these specific emotions and memories, and so I was inspired to translate different memories into smells.” He started off with homemade candles and eventually founded Byredo as a project in 2006. Since then, the luxury fragrance brand’s first decade of business has seen its beautifully minimalist bottles line the walls of all the biggest high-end department stores, in addition to two standalone flagship locations in Stockholm and New York City.

However, Byredo’s road to success was not one easily traversed. A traditionally stagnant and hierarchical trade, he was met with a slew of doubters and cynics in the perfume industry that didn’t find him worthy. Perfume is very personal to the French, and it’s also very closed off. “Expert perfumers go to school for 10 years to amass a library of thousands of scents,” says Gorham, “I’m nowhere near there, but I’m learning, and at the time there wasn’t anything that captured exactly what I wanted to do with smell.”

Byredo’s brand of modern and anti-cookie-cutter scents have won over many fans, likely attributable to its honest pursuit in tying emotion and smell. With an approach that comes from the heart, Gorham’s idea of “creating scents from memories” recreated the smells he remembers of his father, or of his mother’s hometown in India and his grandmother. These translated memories are still dear to Gorham, and their humble beginnings have resonated with consumers. But his goal in making Byredo different was grander than just matching scents with various memories — he was tired of all the perfumes in the market smelling the same. After some investigation, he found out that this was due to several fragrance companies running focus groups with the same few hundred people — this made the industry focused on creating safe fragrances that a majority of people would like. “I wanted to create fragrances with so much clarity that some people would hate it but some people would love it. It’s more about making unique smells that would resonate strongly with some, but I’m not here to make generic scents for everyone.”

“When I started making scents it was also all about simplifying,” says Gorham, “For me it’s about a combination of raw materials — that’s where the illusion and magic of fragrance happens. I don’t think a certain material necessarily evokes a certain emotion, but combinations of scents do. Unfortunately there are such beautiful raw scents out there that are being masked by being combined with 50, 60 or 70 other scents. I only work with maybe 5 or ten.” Perhaps its his Swedish sensibilities — Gorham is based there after all, with his Indian and Canadian heritage offering a broadened sense of cultures and geography that adds a layer of depth in his creations.

While scents and smells are at Byredo’s core, Gorham is still focused on selling an idea. Byredo’s range of products has since expanded to include hygiene products, all of which are still based around the core line of scents including “Gypsy Water,” “Mojave Ghost” and “Rose of No Man’s Land.” “I put a lot of time into thinking about each name, especially considering that the bottles are semi-generic and everything looks the same, the name helps speak to people,” says Gorham. “It’s a very important touch point. If I can capture the idea or the origin of the fragrance in a name, then it helps people understand and interact with the fragrances.”

Gorham also carefully decides on who the brand collaborates with, which has included a high profile partnership with Russell Westbrook and another with eyewear brand Oliver Peoples. “All the collaborations are really organic. Oliver Peoples is run by a good friend of mine, and Russell and I got on really well, we both love basketball.” These collaborations also signify a huge reach into the burgeoning men’s grooming market. “I think men are becoming more aware of their hygiene in general and I think the whole macho idea is changing as well. A good part of our business already comes from men, and I think it will continue to grow.”

For men looking to get into fragrances, Gorham has a few wise words. “I think men are very limited in what the big companies paint as ‘male-oriented’ fragrances. The first thing is to completely disregard that and just realize that it’s completely subjective. There are no smells that are ‘manly’ or not.”

“It’s also a jungle out there, so it would help to learn the different fragrance families. For example, floral, woody, citrus. Find out which one you are drawn to, it’ll help with the selection process.”

“Lastly, this one is tied to the biggest misconception in the fragrance industry — which is when you walk into a department store and you smell a fragrance sprayed on a piece of paper. I always push people to get a sample and wear it on skin throughout the day. It’ll change as you wear it, and it’s important to live with the fragrance before investing in it.”

While Ben Gorham breathes a breath of fresh air into the fragrance industry, Byredo and its aesthetic will continue to grow and expand beyond the intangible realm of smell. Extending its ethos into the physical world, Byredo has introduced a line of eyewear, accessories and furniture that debuted along with its massive New York City flagship opened earlier this year. The brand’s growth worldwide has undeniably shut down doubters. “When I first started I really tried to disassociate myself from my life as an athlete, I felt like I needed to shake that in order to be taken seriously. As time has passed I’ve realized that my past as an athlete is inextricably tied to what I do now,” says Gorham. “Perhaps its helped me more in terms of being an entrepreneur than being a creative, but I do see the parallels.” And if you’re still wondering, he hasn’t hooped with Westbrook but we’re sure the Thunder locker room will be smelling much better this season.

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