Byredo is a popular brand, just ask W editors. Its Swedish founder Ben Gorham is an artist-turned-nose who tapped fashion photographer Craig McDean to shoot model Kiki Williams for the visuals behind his latest earthy scent, Velvet Haze. Take one whiff and you'll get hints of ambrette, coconut water, patchouli, cocoa absolute, and wild musk—a captivating combo that could easily make a hippie out of the most corporate of suits. "What’s nice with being an independent company is I still get to do pretty much what I want. We have this kind of voice and it can be pretty much anything we want it to be," says Gorham. He breaks down the reason behind his age inclusive approach, how a fragrance brief comes about, a what a scented Coachella concert smells like, here.
Congrats on Byredo's 10 year anniversary. How did your 49th scent Velvet Haze come about?
I spent a lot of time over the last few years going back and forth to California. I had been a lot as a kid. I had family in San Diego and Pasadena. It was always part of my childhood, but in the last few years I’ve been going a lot partly for work but also a lot of friends, and California just has a vibe that’s really interesting. The air smells different, and the nature smells different, and I had all these fantasies about California in the late '60s—the amazing rock climbing communities, the camp fires, the incense and patchoulis, really everything tied to hippie culture. I believed I could capture that emotion in a bottle. And that’s essentially what Velvet Haze is. There’s a sweetness and there’s a playfulness to it. Not having lived that period, it seemed like people were free and there was a lot of love. They also had some harsh times, too. There was a revolt against the establishment that isn't so different from today, to be honest.
You were way ahead of the genderless trend in fragrance. Why did you choose to make your line unisex?
I initially wondered why male and female fragrances existed as separate notions, and after doing a little bit of research there was nothing genetically different for men and women in regards to the smells that we would appreciate or interpret in different ways. It was all programming. When I looked into it from a historical point of view, big perfume companies used marketing to tell men and women what to wear. The idea that men and women should have different scents or would appreciate different scents, would be like saying that there should be food for men and food for women. Smell is like taste because it was essentially invisible.
You have also made a point to make Byredo so age inclusive, 18 to 85. Can you talk a little bit about age in marketing and in fragrance?
I don’t know if it makes sense for anyone—from a business perspective—to define a group that large, but I had this ambition that many people do and that is also a bit of a cliché, but to be timeless in my approach, to be relevant as a brand, but also that the products were essentially timeless in the way that they were interpreted. It's interesting because that was tied to what kind of people I saw interacting with these products. If I could get a young girl or a boy to come in and appreciate the aesthetics and emotion of the product as well as their grandmother then it was a sense of timelessness.
In the United States, women over a certain age can be forgotten or they're put in a age box. Did you realize you were approaching your customer as individuals?
It’s a corporate approach to segment people. We see generational differences because of the world we live in and the evolution of the world we live in, but since I was targeting very fundamental emotions in people those things don’t really change or I haven’t seen those things change as much as kind of the world we live in. Yes, young people play video games on their iPhones more than ever or people live on social media. There are all these digital factors around, but people still feel love and people still appreciate the beauty of a rose. There were very fundamental ideas to how I wanted people to connect to this brand that really didn’t have to do with Generation X or Generation Y or Baby Boomers or Millennials. I still try to keep that as an important part of how we develop products for the brand.
When you set out to make a scent what are you looking at? How does that process start?
It’s been 10 years since I started, and since then smell has really become a facet of how I see things. It’s essentially altered my perception of things. Smell is always with me now just because of my level of awareness. I have a notebook and I write down ideas and experiences and things I smell and places I go and things in general that I see that translate to a smell. It’s quite fluid, and they could be very specific references, like the initial work was all tied to specific memories, personal memories. As I continued to learn and develop some of the smells, I would relate more to fictional ideas and fantasies. Some of them tackle emotions like love and anger. It really varies. Every project is very unique. When an idea becomes strong enough in my mind, I develop a brief, which is composed of anything from pictures to film to poetry to objects to things that smell to music. I present that brief to the perfumer, and then we start a process of developing a first sample with a number of raw materials, and depending on if that sample captures even a slight part of the emotion or idea, we will continue to modify it. And that’s the tedious process of back and forth, adjusting, adjusting, adjusting. It can take anywhere from 40 to 80 modifications on some stuff. We have projects we’ve been working on for three years that are still not done. The difficulty is that it’s essentially an emotional process. There’s no formula. You feel when it’s right or wrong.
In your stores, it's almost like going through a wine tasting. The customer gets time to experience everything and live with the scents. Is training a big part of your process?
I think it became more important for us to open stores and counters within department stores and train our staff and really control that aspect because as you’ll see with the bottles and the packaging, everything is quite simple. The focus is really purposefully meant to reflect what’s inside the bottle and also the origin of what’s inside the bottle. We spend a lot of time on the juice and we have amazing people working for the brand that communicate these origins of fragrance.
When people wear the same fragrance on a daily basis, they can lose their ability to smell it. Is there anything that we can do?
Don’t wear fragrance for a few days, because what happens is yes, your senses, your nose, adjusts. So people will smell it on you, but yes, it becomes less detectable because you’ve adjusted to the smell. And if you miss the experience of putting it on in the same way then wear something else for a few days or nothing at all and you’ll start to adjust back.
Do you have a favorite scent that you've mad or wear fragrance yourself?
You know what? I don’t wear fragrance, oddly enough, for two reasons. One, because I never really did, and then because I’m always constantly working on new fragrances, so I’m always trying stuff on skin almost on a daily basis. For practically reasons it doesn’t really work to get up in the morning and put fragrance on, and then go to work.
What kind of connection do you see with scent and music? Would you ever connect the two in a more direct way?
I scented an entire Coachella show a few months ago. It was an experiment that I did with an artist which was a DJ named Steve Angello, and he had this very gothic set and show that he was premiering at Coachella. We created this custom smell which was, it was kind of the equivalent of a big Catholic church. And then we scented an audience of 15,000 people.
What does a big Catholic church smell like note wise?
Well, it’s incense, specific incense. It’s old wood accords, wood benches, often a lot of wood, cold stone. It was really like adding another layer to that as well, interpreting the music and then adding a layer to that experience. It was amazing. There was one part that I didn’t really factor in, and it’s that people smoke a lot at Coachella which adds its own layer. But it was super interesting. We did some work a few years ago where we designed our first collection of sunglasses, which were built around the idea of synesthesia, the connection of senses. I actually sent colored lenses, the sunglasses, to the perfumer to have him redo accords by looking through different colored lenses to see if he has a form of synesthesia, to see how it altered his perception of smell with the connection of sight.
Watch: Fall Fashion Advice from a Very Young Stylist