The world of Ben Gorham is carefully curated in every sense. From his perfume brand Byredo to his string of design collaborations, and his style-conscious public persona. We sat down with the Stockholm-based beauty entrepreneur to talk about why his professional and personal life are completely different things.
Words KONRAD OLSSON Photography PETER GEHRKE Styling URSULA WÅNGANDER
When writing a profile on Ben Gorham, it’s devilishly easy to make into stuff of legend. The story about the former basketball-player-turned-perfume-entrepreneur is now in its fourteenth year, and the ingredients are so juicy that it’s easy to understand anyone wanting to amplify them. The man with the multi-cultural background, who divided his childhood between USA, Canada, and Sweden. The failed basketball star who at the low-point of his life decided to start his own perfume brand. The bonafide socialite that built his reputation roaming the fashion weeks of the world, befriending everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Kanye West and Virgil Abloh. And then there is the aesthetics. The carefully curated setup with the beard and the braids, the tattoos and the t-shirts, the suits and sneakers, and that deadpan gaze from his many magazine covers and red-carpet snapshots.
Ben Gorham, the founder of Byredo Perfumes, has become a style icon and entrepreneurial star in the world of beauty and fashion. And he knows that projecting an intriguing image is good for business.
— It’s a myth!, he says when I ask about the public persona he has crafted thought his career.
— I’m a regular dude that lives in Stockholm and picks up my kids at daycare. I may sit front row at Chanel, but the first thing my wife tells me when I get home is, ”take out the trash.” I learned early that people found the contrast of my story and my image interesting. The tattoos, being tall, dark, and multicultural. Naively in the beginning, I didn’t understand how important I would be to get people to engage. But I took a step forward and I became that image.
In parallel to running a successful perfume business, Ben has been active in various side projects. Both within the confines of the Byredo brand, which has launched a collection of small leather goods and handbags, jewellery together with designer Charlotte Chesnais, men’s suits and sneakers under the name Byproduct, and, most recently, a makeup line. But he has also lent his talent to several collaborative projects, ranging from fashion (Frame Denim), furniture (La Manufacture), scented candles (IKEA), and outdoor clothing (Peak Performance), all done under his own name.
Originally, this interview was supposed to run in April of this year, but since covid postponed the launch of Scandinavian MIND, we had to shelve this story for several months. The first part of this conversation was conducted in the pre-covid days of January 2020. It wasn’t until early October that we could circle back to each other to complete the conversation. I’m glad we waited, because it allowed me to realise that the world doesn’t need another mythical Ben Gorham profile. When going through his answers again, it struck me how thoughtful and well-versed Ben Gorham is when talking about his life, his career, and the many projects, and the balance between his business life and his family life.
First interview. February 2020.
It’s been almost 15 years since you started. It seems like there is a parallel trajectory with Ben Gorham and Byredo. How much of it is your personal journey, and how do you balance that?
— A large part of Byredo’s journey relates to my journey as a person. It’s born out of some level of desperation. The seed of Byredo is one of the low points of my life, so in that way I’ve always been connected to this journey. At the same time I have become a father and a husband. That has also set me off in a different direction, you know. Byredo doesn’t have any kids or a wife. I think up until ten years ago when our first daughter was born, it was very much parallel. At that point, it became separate.
When did you realise that you were the face of the brand?
— Year one. I think it was even the first press article, because they asked me to show my tattoos for the pictures. And then the second press article they asked the same thing. I became the symbol for the disruption of the industry. Because they let people understand that Byredo was different.
Have you stayed true to yourself? Is the persona of Ben Gorham in fashion press the same as yourself?
— They are very different. Do I speak about how they’re different? No. I keep them separate. My social media is exactly that. My approach to social media kind of sucks, but it’s a very conscious decision to keep the idea of, ”Ben Gorham the Byredo guy” seperate from my wife and children.
But the interest in style must come from yourself?
— Yes, but style is like a hairdo. Do I dress in cowboy boots and suede pants at home? Not really. Style has been important as a tool to express myself at a younger age. I still enjoy it and I’m still a fan of fashion. But I don’t know if it’s a large part of who I am.
When I look at your career, it looks like you have been at the right place at the right time. Has it been a conscious thing to place yourself in the right crowd or scene?
— I think I’ve been lucky, that throughout my career I have been able to meet very talented people. Some of them have become good friends besides work, and some of them I’ve had the chance to collaborate with. Is it a conscious choice? I think I’ve made a conscious effort to surround myself with very talented people. I’ve done this since day one. A part of my formula was understanding that I knew nothing.
What do you mean by ’knew nothing?
— When I started I literally knew nothing about the fashion industry or about beauty. I didn’t know much about art, or even the world. I had some cultural knowledge, but that was tied to me growing up in Toronto and New York in the nineties. I was a stereotypical college athlete. Barely being able to read and not needing to take tests. I literally started this company not knowing anything, so I realised that I had to surround myself with people who knew things.
What drove you in the beginning?
— Just to be good at something. I lost basketball, which in my mind was 100 % of my identity. When you do something from age seven to age 25 and you lose it, you lose a big part of your identity. There was some form of existential crisis. I think as much as I was drawn into creative fields, and I had very specific ideas about culture, expression, and aesthetics, it was more about being good at something again. Building up that idea of Ben that I felt that I had lost. That was a very big reason for my drive and my dedication.
Why is it important to be good at something?
— It relates to insecurity, self worth, growth… Things that I valued growing up. I’ve always been immensely competitive. In my career as an athlete, I learned about dedication and hard work, and I learned about laser focus. I didn’t realise that I could apply them to anything else. But Byredo became that thing. I knew nothing, but I had the emotions and the tools to build something.
Okay, so you met the perfumer Pierre Wulff at a dinner party and got into fragrance because of that. If you would have met Philippe Starck instead, would you do furniture now? Was fragrance just a big coincidence?
— I believe everything is exactly the way it should be. I believe that had I not met Pierre that day I would have met him another day. I believe that I consciously made a decision to explore smell as a medium. I believe failing at basketball and ending up in Sweden is a part of my story. Is it religious or spiritual? I don’t know. I don’t question things, I’m very pragmatic and just keep looking forward.
”When you do something from age seven to age 25 and you lose it, you lose a big part of your identity.”
In the beginning, you had a place in a basement in Stockholm. You had already started experimenting with fragrance when Pierre came along.
— I started with some do-it-yourself stuff. When Pierre started helping me I rented a space in Telefonplan, at the University of Arts, Craft & Design outside Stockholm. It didn’t have a toilet or running water. I built a production line with candles first, because I couldn’t do perfumes. But I learned online that I could make candles myself. I bought tables and drinking glasses from ikea and starting making candles during the night. I bought a water jacket melter, which is like a melting tank for wax. Then I bought fragrance oils and experimented with dosage. I remember being very fascinated by a laser temperature meter to measure the wax’s temperature. It could catch fire or even explode if you poured the fragrance oil, which is flammable, into the wax.
So you were financing this yourself?
— No, it was funded by three tech guys in Stockholm. Somehow I convinced these guys to invest in my idea, Johan Bäcke, Anders Ullstrand, and Rikard Östberg. This is the big enigma until this day. I sold them the idea that building brand equity was the equivalent of owning a patent. I had nothing to lose. I was really on rock bottom. I was unemployed, I couldn’t even get a job in a clothing store in Stockholm… I applied to be a garbage man and I didn’t get it. I was working construction, getting up really early in the morning. I had lost everything. I was by myself, but I had friends from my childhood, so I couch surfed for a few years. I started this company living on my buddy’s couch.
I didn’t realise it was that tough.
— Yeah. When my grandfather passed I had to go back to Canada, so I booked this meeting with Pierre in New York. Meeting him and hearing him trying to convince me not to do this project. He basically said that that the world really doesn’t need anymore perfumes. My perception of the meeting was that he thought that everything I did was really shitty. Which was good, because it meant that he could do better for me. He is a good friend today, and a mentor.
How did you meet the financiers?
— I met someone socially, that said ”I know some people that invest in companies.” He set the meeting up and even though they only did tech, I felt that I could convince them. Somehow I did. It was the only pitch I did.
How much money was it?
— Maybe half a million kronor, maybe a million. I had to learn about doing rounds of funding and learn about business. I had to learn about structuring a business, dilution, working capital, cash flow, budgets, and p&l. It was all new to me. I meet a lot of young people today that ask for advice. The most important asset is still information. And the biggest source of information in the history of the world is the internet. It may not be easy, but the information exists. And to me that was liberating. In 2006 I felt like I knew something other people didn’t. I was calling candle companies and telling them I was a student that was making a project on how to make a candle. How much oil, how much of everything to make a candle. I was hustling to get this thing off the ground.
How did you come up with the name Byredo?
— In 2006 it was really important to own the .com address. Byredo was short for By Redolence which is an old Shakespeare phrase meaning ”reminiscent of’”, but also ”sweet smelling”. Because that initial body of work was all related to memory, Byredo became short for that. I was able to register Byredo.com and I was extremely happy about that.
Who were the first costumers?
— The candles were sold in [the department store] Nordiska Kompaniet, but also some international stores like Colette. Because I grew up outside of Sweden, I didn’t have that initial hesitation to go abroad. I set my ambitions really high from day one. If I was able to convince the best stores in the world, the level below them wouldn’t be a problem. And somehow I did that, and that became the start.
How much did your upbringing mean for you?
— I grew up with my mother and my sister. My grandmother grew up in a hut in rural India, and my mother grew up in a garage in Mumbai with six brothers. She came to Sweden and made a lot of sacrifices to support us. Then we moved to Canada. What happened in North America is I think they culturally sell you the idea that you can be whatever you want. And I think I bought into that. Maybe I wouldn’t have been told that growing up in Sweden. The idea of the American dream, I brought that with me. I didn’t have any of these hesitations because I truly believed that I could be anything I wanted. People ask me a lot of time how it all feels. And it doesn’t feel that crazy because I always believed that it would be this way. And I don’t mean that in a nonchalant or ungrateful way. I was so convinced that this would be my life. That’s a very un-Swedish thing to say.
Very. But a good lesson to learn. When did the branding part start. The bottle, the font and so on.
— I spent a lot of time on that. Even though it was simple, it was about perfection. We had a bottle that was 3 or 4 millimetres off in proportion. I spent half of our money on a new tool that would make a perfect proportion of a round bottle. It was on that level. Then I worked with very talented people. M/M Paris, who created the current identity, has been instrumental in the success of the brand. They approached me through a friend we had in common and we decided to work together. Shooting with photographers like Craig McDean and Inez & Vinoodh was a bit of a dream team for me.
How did you get access to these guys?
— If you want to be the best, work with the best. That was the formula. My ability to convince people is maybe different to other people. Not everyone can work with M/M Paris, but everyone can try to work with M/M Paris. That is my approach. Maybe you won’t work with them at first, but maybe one day you will. It’s all about aiming high.
You have sold parts of the company now.
— I sold the majority of the company. But I didn’t own the majority of the company at the time. So I changed a group of Swedish investors, for one American family. The Fisher family, based in San Francisco. And partly because I felt like the brand needed a lot of structure, a fair amount of know-how, and capital for the future phases. At the same time we moved the head office to Paris.
So it was more about the evolution of the company instead of an exit strategy for you?
— Yeah, I work more than ever. Some days I wish it was the opposite. But I still feel like I am the right person to run this company. I still feel like my singular creative vision of where we’re going is important. Maybe one the day that will change. But right now it’s 110 % sure.
”You know, that’s the beauty of Sweden. The idea of stability is very different in Buenos Aires where my brother lives or in Toronto where my mother and sisters live.”
I read somewhere that you were able pay off your mother’s debts?
— Yeah, I sold a few shares to create a cushion for myself and to take care of my family. These things were very important to me. Growing up without a father gave me this idea of assuming some early manhood. The thought of being a provider was really important to me.
More so than providing stability for yourself?
— You know, that’s the beauty of Sweden. It requires very little to live a stable life. Most of my family don’t live in Sweden. The idea of stability is very different in Buenos Aires where my brother lives or in Toronto where my mother and sisters live.
Do you think there will be a time where you leave Byredo and do something else?
— Maybe. I still enjoy it. And I still think smell is as important as sight and touch. And to be honest it’s a universe that has unlimited creative potential. So I don’t see myself in the near future leaving that idea. But if I wake up tomorrow and don’t feel like doing perfumes or candles, I won’t. That’s the beauty of still being in control. If I don’t want to launch a fragrance for two years I still have the possibility to do that.
Your company has had enormous growth, with many different collaborations that are not associated with perfumes. How much energy do you put into these collaborations versus the core business?
— It’s a good question, and it’s one that I reevaluate every year. I think there’s a healthy balance. Maybe one of the reasons why it took awhile for me to break out from fragrance was because I was fully dedicated to building a stable fragrance business, and that took some time. It was a competitive arena, we were fighting with big brands like Chanel and Dior. I currently split my time between the projects. They’re all creative expressions of the brand. Sometimes there is even a theme I’m exploring that’s not clear if it will become jewellery or fragrance. It could manifest itself in different categories and forms.
When you started the brand, did you have all these other expressions in mind? Did you think ’let’s start with doing fragrance and then perhaps bags and leather work’?
— Maybe the roadmap wasn’t completely defined. It wasn’t as specific. But at the time I was completely obsessed with smell, so I indulged. But yes, I always imagined that Byredo would evolve and that it would have many phases that could express my ideas. It took longer than I had hoped, but in hindsight we now have a really healthy business that allows us to do amazing projects.
When do you decide to do it as Ben Gorham and when is it Byredo?
— I would say that Byredo was initially a projection of who I liked to be. And at one point, it probably was who I was. But eventually I realised that the brand could become so much more than me. So I started to separate the two. That allows the brand to be more, and it also allows Ben Gorham to engage in things that don’t necessarily relate to Byredo. Outerwear and outdoor culture is one of those things that I personally obsess about, so I’m able to dip into that world under my own name.
Tell me about the Byproduct collection.
— I started to reflect for the first time in a long time. Realising that Byredo was essentially a by product of a failed basketball career I started to go back to that place. So I commissioned Fredrik Andersen and the tailors of AW Bauer in Stockholm to create a bespoke programme of suits made for a different body type. All the models were cast as basketball players, around two metres tall. Showing this in the context of Paris Men’s Fashion Week brought something completely different. Not just a silhouette, but a body shape and a context. I did a performance piece where these ten players reacted to whistles by sitting down and standing up, which was highlighting discipline and dedication.
How has the reception been?
— Mind blowing. And that’s very dangerous, because as you get into fashion you understand the power of it. People have screamed for more, and I’ve made a very conscious decision, even though hard, to not do that anymore. Some of the sneakers and accessories like caps and leather goods will continue, but getting into apparel and fashion is not what Byredo is about.
Is it a slippery slope?
— No, it’s just that Byredo as an idea is to realise a notion over a long period of time and perfect it. And that process is kind of the opposite of fashion, which is about renewal in a really short period of time. Byredo as a rhythm is not built for that.
So why do it?
— If you do it once you’re not constrained by a cycle. The cyclical nature of it is the challenge.
Was it important to emphasise your Swedishness or Scandinavianness in the beginning?
— I don’t know if it was important. I spoke very little about my origin or even the brand’s origin. It obviously shone through in the media. Fifteen years ago, I don’t think that the notion of being Swedish was very clear to people. I’ve tried very hard not to get people to put me or the brand into boxes. That was my approach to building the brand from day one.
But has it made a mark on the brand that you are from Sweden?
— Definitely. I founded the company in Sweden. Geographically it’s important to be out of the mix. I think it has helped me to not be in New York, Paris, or London. Because it allows me to focus in a different way. Because we’re not influenced by everything that’s happening in the world on a daily or weekly basis, it allows us Swedes to develop something unique. When you look at successful entrepreneurs in tech or music there’s an overrepresentation per capita.
You’ve said that being a father is very important to you.
— It’s the most important thing to me in my life.
What’s the most important thing to teach your kids?
— Maybe kindness. I think it’s something that I learned from my mother. She was a single mother in a foreign country working two jobs and raising two kids. But always kind and generous. I have a long list of things I want to teach them, but that’s one thing I often remind them about.
You mentioned that you have nerded out on outdoor culture. When did that start?
— Five, six years ago. I was born in Sweden and grew up in the suburbs of Akalla and Husby outside Stockholm. Then I moved to Toronto, and New York after that. I always lived in cities. Culturally, the outdoors was not part of this environment. The kids that I grew up with did not go skiing, did not go surfing, climbing or hiking. Five years ago I was invited on a ski trip to Switzerland and I was just blown away. After my basketball career I was on airplanes and laptops for ten years. Learning to discover nature, the impact of nature on the self was mind blowing. I felt like I had lived 35 years without knowing that this was so amazing. Like always, I started obsessing about it. It became a release. Skiing, surfing, climbing, trail running, and hiking.
So what do you like to do here in Stockholm?
— I paddle board a fair amount. You can climb indoors or outdoors in many places. In the summer I go to Nyckelviken in Nacka where there’s great bouldering. For skiing it’s mostly Åre, which is not that far. I’ve also been to Riksgränsen for hiking. I’ve done snowboarding collaborations in Canada as well. And surfing in Torö, of course.
What does it give you?
— It’s like a reset button. Cold water surfing is bizarre at first, but after I’m completely reset. It’s a great feeling.
Fashion is in turmoil right now. Is it more stable in your category?
— It is way more stable in my category. At the same time you still see young brands disrupt the market in incredible ways. Directly to consumers, online. You see the big groups being scattered to renew themselves. But the business of beauty is much more stable. It is more static. Some of my bestsellers I made twelve years ago.
How is the approach to sustainability in your field?
— Not so much, to be honest. I think chemicals is one question that we’ve been working with in the last seven or eight years. We have our own framework, it’s more rigorous than legislative frameworks that exist in the different markets. What needs to be solved in the beauty industry, which is a big problem, is virgin plastic. Very few people talk about it, but it’s a big problem. We have a project that has been running for seven months that tries to solve this issue. I seldom talk about it because we don’t think we need to talk about it, but we spend a lot of time and resources figuring out how to be more sustainable. I believe it’s directly linked to the future existence of the brand, it’s not purely ethical. It also relates to longevity.
How does the advancement in technology change the fragrance world. Can you make perfume from an AI, or do you need a human nose?
— You can probably develop algorithms that can create commercially viable fragrances. The industry is essentially copying copies. So that’s not completely inconceivable. But I think art lies in the human approach and engagement to things. That’s where people connect to it. I truly believe that our success is rooted in that.
”You can probably develop algorithms that can create commercially viable fragrances. The industry is essentially copying copies.”
What are you most excited about right now?
— It’s an exciting time because we have the ability to grow, primarily through our retailing channels by opening stores in different parts of the world. I think that the cornerstone for the company are the stores. This year we will open in Los Angeles, another one in New York, in China and Dubai. We have also worked for two and half years on makeup that launches this year, which will att another dimension to the brand.
Second interview, October 2020.
I wanted to talk to you about this strange year we’ve been living since the last time we talked. What are some of the changes you’ve had to make this year?
— The first that one that comes to mind is really leaning in to e-commerce and the digital part of our business. There’s been some emergency measures taken considering we have offices in eight countries, stores and a lot of staff. Beyond those initial measures, it’s really been an exercise in shifting resources into this new format. One of the luxuries of being relatively small, is an agility. You can pivot and make changes relatively fast. We’ve been able to do that with great success, and we’re grateful for that. As you know, Sweden has been the only place in the world that hasn’t quarantined at all. So we shifted a lot of our content creation to Stockholm during this period.
— Also, the home has become even more important. We’ve seen an acceleration in the products that relate directly to the home, the soaps and candles.
Was there an initial panic of sorts? Were you worried about the future of the brand?
— Maybe, but I was more worried about the future of the planet, to be honest. It could have been naive, it could have been shock, but I didn’t really worry about the company. I became quite aware of the volatility in which we live. The clichés about taking things for granted. I think it was more of a philosophical reckoning, and an existential one for me.
There is a lot of talk about an acceleration in transformation. Companies like Amazon grew as much in three months as they did in the past 10 years. Do you see something positive in the fact that you have to take these dramatic steps forward?
— The idea of time machines is awesome. To get a glimpse into the future. But I also think that the physical component of the world will change to a certain degree. There are pros and cons. I think everyone can agree, even the people at Amazon, that this is not an ideal way to live your life.
Speaking of living your life. You’ve built your brand travelling the globe. When we talked the other day, you said you haven’t gone anywhere since March. What’s that been like for you?
— The downside has been not being friends and family and colleagues. That’s been hard. But rediscovering my hometown, establishing a different level of routine around my family and socially in Stockholm, that’s been awesome. Will I go back to travelling the way I did? Probably not. There will probably be a balance between the way I used to live and the way I live now.
Since we talked, you’ve also launched the Byredo makeup line. What’s it been like, finally launching it?
— Above expectations. It was beyond my wildest dreams that it would be received the way it was. Our e-commerce crashed twice the initial week. We sold out of most products almost immediately. I was a little bit surprised. I’m very happy with the products and the design. The work we’ve done makes me proud. But I do think the launch has been amplified by the current conditions.
— I think most companies and brands have, you know, but their foot on the brake, when it comes to launches, and maybe even development. For us it seemed like people needed to be inspired and see beautiful things more than ever. So launching this year, in a landscape of very few launches, where most companies put out new iterations of existing products, coming to market with something creative and impactful has been amplified by the way things are.
Has it reinforced this idea of Byredo being this universe of other types of products. It seems to be that the makeup line is the biggest pivot from where you were before.
— Yeah, but it relates to the world of beauty. I think Byredo historically has been successful in that space. I think the other projects were difficult to understand initially, but makeup related to our customer, or at least the 80 % that are women, in a very direct way.
The Peak Performance Collection is now out. How has the reception been?
— So the first one came out with a big bang, sold incredibly well. And then after a week of sales, covid hit hard. Sales kind of halted, but then picked up again. Because what ended up happening, midway through covid, was people started going into nature. Stores and restaurants and bars and nightclubs were limited or closed. So you saw a huge surge of outdoor activities, and people hiking. People were venturing out in nature in a completely different way and finding peace of mind and solitude. So that was again unfortunate fortunate timing.
— The Ben Gorham projects are a way for me to learn, a way for me to express other ideas that don’t directly relate to Byredo. But they are very much about my personal curiosity for the world. I was curious about the ikea business model and processes. I was curious about outdoor culture and the development and manufacturing of technical garments. There has been a fair amount of Ben Gorham curiosity.
What are you curious about now? Is there a car coming up?
— I’m curious about the car industry, yes. Maybe more from a culture perspective. There is a huge movement from fossil fule to electric. The emotion of the car is changing somewhat. We’re also on the verge of self-driving cars. What happens to the idea of freedom and control? I’m quite curious about the automotive industry and how they are approaching these kind of great questions. So I’ve engaged in a few dialogues that I might be pursuing?
What are you most looking forward to right now?
— Being able to see friends and family. I’m also looking forward to getting the teams sitting together and interacting more. The silo effect of covid damages the culture to a certain degree. So I’m looking forward to coming out of this and getting that flow of information back into the company again.