Byredo founder Ben Gorham talks about his latest scent and what turned him on to the power of smell
The man behind the luxury perfume brand launches his new fragrance Super Cedar this March and talks about his collaboration with Inez & Vinoodh
“I started playing basketball when I was eight or nine years old. I was still living in Sweden at the time, but when I turned 11, my family moved to Canada. Somehow along the way, I eventually finished high school in New York, and then later went back to play division one basketball in Canada.
Playing basketball was really the only thing I did. I barely studied, it was all about the sport. I played professionally in Italy, Germany and then Sweden.
However, my career didn’t pan out, because I needed a European passport to play and to sign my contracts with these teams. I wasn’t able to get one because I’m Canadian. So at the age of 25, I quit basketball and went to art school in Stockholm.
Although I no longer play professionally, I now lead a luxury perfume brand, so there’s some level of leadership that I have developed as an athlete. I was immensely competitive in basketball and I’m immensely competitive as an entrepreneur. It drives everything I do.
My dad left when I was really young, so it was really just my mother, my sister and I. Back then, I didn’t know if I was creative. My mother worked a lot to support the family and basketball was kind of an escape from reality.
Once I graduated from art school, I met a perfumer named Pierre Wulff, and that was where my passion for fragrances began. The first time I met Pierre, I clearly remember him telling me what he could do with smell. I was asking him, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” And I felt like there were a lot of creative possibilities. So I asked him to help me translate memories into smells and he agreed.
I was fascinated by the fact that you could evoke so much emotion with something so invisible. This was a surprise, as I came from this visual training of photography. The world we live in is also very visual, so I was primarily fascinated by all these emotions I was experiencing through smell.
Green, the first fragrance we made, was recreating the way I remember my father smelling. And that was an “aha” moment, smelling that. I was blown away by that process, and that became my new obsession.
I started dabbling with scents. I initially wanted to make perfumes.
However, back then it was a very industrial process, which required relatively large minimums. I decided to make candles in small quantities by hand. I went to Ikea and bought glasses, wicks from an online store, and a machine where I melted the wax in my kitchen. The quality of the candles was not that great, but I learnt a lot from the experience.
Pierre helped me out and introduced me to Jerome Epinette and Olivia Giacobetti, two very talented perfumers. They said that anything was possible, and encouraged me to not see limitations. After five minutes I decided I wanted to work with them.
Jerome and Olivia are, in essence, the true artists. My role is really just to set the direction. I’ve learned much more, so I’m able to have a dialogue with them on a different level.
Nowadays, Byredo has more than 20 perfumes. Looking back, we made products based on whatever we wanted to do. It’s only been in the past two years that I’ve started looking at the collection as a whole. We now add facets that are completely different to what we have offered before.
That said, all the perfumes are kind of rooted in an idea. So it’s less about saying we need a floral scent or we need that, and it’s more about: “Here’s an idea, how do we realise it?”
For example, with Mojave Ghost, the brief was nondescript as to what the fragrance should be. It was about a flower, a place and a story. It wasn’t defined in terms of raw materials. It was more about the emotion.
One of my favourite collaborations was with Inez & Vinoodh to create the perfume, 1996. As photographers, they work in a very specific way.
So I felt photography should be a part of the process. They showed me an image they had taken in 1996. For them, it was all about beauty.
The image featured an angelic child. She was white, had red lips, and her eyes were rolled back in some euphoric state. But the more you look at the picture, the more disturbing it becomes. You realise it’s a kid with lipstick on, and she looks half conscious.
I also realised that 1996 was a really big year for Inez & Vinoodh, it was when they set up their career. So the fragrance started off as being very specific in terms of this image, and then evolved into being about two creative people that love each other.
At one point, I thought I could see a person walk in a room and I would know what fragrance to pick. It’s true that sometimes you know, but it’s also very individual and subjective – I’m surprised all
I have had old ladies come up to me and tell me that they love a fragrance we have called M/Mink, which smells like ink. Everybody has a very personal and subjective approach to smell.”
As told to Daniel Kong