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Ben Gorham’s nose is big business. By following it, he’s expanded his fragrance brand Byredo into a global empire with a new store in Manhattan and a lucrative line of luxury goods. But Gorham was once an outsider in the world of beauty. A tall, tattooed and hard-working guy from the suburbs of Stockholm, Gorham tells how he built his business on nothing but gumption, good taste and a desire to bottle the essence of green beans.

“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.”

Almost eight decades after Daphne du Maurier first published this idea in her novel Rebecca, Ben Gorham has managed to achieve just that. Armed with a notebook, the founder of Swedish fragrance brand Byredo jots down his experiences and feelings as they occur. Later, many of those scrawls end up as fragrances neatly stocked on shelves around the world—fleeting thoughts that he tries, quite literally, to bottle up.

Take his latest perfume, which looked to the bloody battlefields of World War One for inspiration. Based on a story passed on by his tattoo artist, the fragrance, named Rose of No Man’s Land, is a floral-scented tribute to the nurses who served on the front lines. Rescuing wounded men who fell in the treacherous no man’s land between the trenches, these women provided medical care to soldiers regardless of which side they fought on. In commemoration, many of the men tattooed an image of a nurse on their bodies once they returned home.

“I thought it was a beautiful story of a selfless act,” says Gorham of his perfume, which has top notes of pink pepper and Turkish rose petals. “And I thought a fragrance would be a good way to tell the same story.” It’s a compelling insight into the process that transforms anecdotes drifting through Gorham’s mind into the products seen in Byredo collections, sold at retailers that include Harrods, Colette and Barneys. But it’s also a glimpse into Gorham himself—a man whose collection of tattoos (so numerous that he’s “lost count”) includes a nurse in a starched cap, inked across his chest.

Born to an Indian mother and Canadian father, Gorham made the improbable transition from professional basketball player to perfumer after founding Byredo in 2006. Despite his lack of formal industry training, Gorham’s idea rapidly metamorphosed from a passion project into a global empire: Today, Byredo is sold in 45 markets and has expanded into leather goods, scented candles and a sunglasses collaboration with Oliver Peoples. In 2015, Gorham opened his second brick-and-mortar outpost in New York City’s Soho, to join the brand’s flagship in Stockholm.

“Routine is a terrible, terrible word for me because I’m on and off airplanes so much,” he says. He’s just landed back in Sweden after a last-minute trip to New York, and he sounds tired: There are “a hundred other things” he’s working on. It’s a punishing schedule dictated by the scale of his ambition. “I have a hard time slowing down,” he admits. “It’s always this exploration of new ideas and products and things.”

Byredo’s headquarters—formerly those of the Swedish postal service—reflect the loftiness of Gorham’s aspirations. An elaborate, dark green fireplace sits opposite generously proportioned windows that welcome in Sweden’s scant sunlight. The ceilings are high; polished wooden wainscoting lines the walls. It’s a potent symbol of Gorham’s ascension from a boyhood spent in the outskirts of Stockholm (which he describes as “pretty poor, generally, lots of people in small apartments, lots of kids hanging out on the streets”) to a man sitting at the nucleus of his city’s fashion and design scene. “The level of ambition, it’s always been there,” he says.

The sense of grandeur could also, one suspects, serve as a visual testament to Gorham’s dogged pursuit of the ultra-luxe. While Byredo began as a perfume brand, the business is now a conduit through which Gorham can express ideas and experiment with new interests. When he began to feel confined by the beauty framework, he turned his personal obsession with leather into a business. Now, one of Byredo’s camel-colored calfskin wallets retails at $500; handbags sell for thousands.

  • Words:
    Pip Usher
  • Photography:
    Lasse Fløde

“A lot of my work has fictional components, but it touches bigger notions like love, loss or death.”

As a kid growing up in the suburbs, with an absent father and a mother determined to keep her son out of trouble, Gorham’s first enduring obsession was basketball. Recalling how he used to dribble a ball to school each day, Gorham says the sport was a vehicle through which he could define himself. It was “the only thing I wanted to do and the only thing I was good at,” he remembers.

When he was 12 years old, Gorham’s mother remarried and the family relocated to Toronto. There, Gorham was forced to confront some profound and unsettling differences in the way his new home viewed him.

“Even though Canada is tolerant and multicultural, there was still this notion of race that was very new to me,” he says, the curious timbre of his voice reflecting the years spent bouncing between North America and Europe. “In Sweden, you were either Swedish or a foreigner and that was the only divide. But here it was dissected into smaller groups.”

As an entrepreneur, Gorham’s diverse background has proved an enormous asset. The sleek modernity of Byredo’s branding references Scandinavian design, for example, while scents with notes of cardamom and incense nod to time spent in India with his mother’s family. Yet as a teenager transplanted into a new culture, he remembers only a sense of needing “to figure things out.”

Throughout the tumult, basketball remained constant. A sports scholarship at Ryerson University was followed by a return to Europe in the hope that he could play professionally. After fruitless struggles with the Swedish government for a passport that would entitle him to sign professional contracts, Gorham gave up his sports career. “I started to realize that it may not happen and, even if it did, I was at an age where the years of playing professionally were limited,” he says. “I made a decision to take all that energy and all that ambition and do something else.”

And so Gorham took his six-foot-five frame to art school. A life built on physicality was replaced with the more intangible world of creativity: painting and sculpture, history and photography. When he sat next to famed perfumer Pierre Wulff at a dinner party one evening, a conversation about Wulff’s line of work proved the impetus for the next decade of Gorham’s life.

“I met this guy and learned that smells, which I knew nothing about, were extremely powerful and could be used to evoke emotion in a very interesting way,” Gorham says. At the time, he was unemployed and living on a friend’s sofa. “I feel fortunate that somebody believed in my ideas and was willing to finance them,” he says without elaborating.

Gorham pursued Wulff, traveling to his office in New York to ask for assistance. He then recruited renowned perfumers Olivia Giacobetti and Jérôme Epinette to translate his ideas into scents. His first fragrance, based on an essence of green beans that he remembers smelling on his father as a child, was deeply sentimental. Throughout the experience, Gorham processed some of his own emotional history.

“A lot of my work has fictional components, but it touches bigger notions like love or loss or death,” he says. “But when that fragrance got to a certain point, it was like my dad was standing in the room.”

How does one convey their father’s scent to a perfumer who has never met, let alone smelled, him? Without the vocabulary of a perfumer, Gorham has been forced to get creative; over the years, his briefs have consisted of imagery, words, poetry and music. Lately, as his knowledge of the industry deepens, he has started to include raw materials.

“I try to get the perfumer to understand where I want to go,” he explains of a process that takes the fragrance from abstract idea to tangible product. “He creates a first version that is either close enough to the idea that we can modify it and reach the goal, or we throw it out, start again and I have to rewrite the brief.” He adds, “I have a thousand ideas about smells—it’s really become a way that I see things. Formulating that in a way that the perfumer understands is a large part of my work.”

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It can take up to six months before the first iteration of a scent is ready. But the modifications can be an even lengthier process, with Byredo doing anywhere from 30 to 200 modifications on one fragrance. They know when to stop, Gorham says, because “it’s an emotional process so you feel when it’s done.”

As Byredo mushrooms into a global brand, Gorham has come to accept that the business now has a responsibility that reaches far beyond his own needs. “I realized that we’re a commercial establishment that makes products for people,” he explains. “I didn’t engage in that thought for a very long time. I was self-indulgent—I was just making these products for myself. It was just me, me, me for a very long time. I started to realize that people were connecting with these products on an emotional level and that people were spending a lot of money. It made me feel some responsibility in my work, even though it’s just perfume or just a bag.”

Alongside these responsibilities, Gorham’s life has been turned upside down since the arrival of his two daughters; one is seven years old and the other is 18 months. “I’ve grown more in the last seven years than in the previous 32,” he confesses. For him, fatherhood has fulfilled “all of the clichés of not being the most important person in your life, how you react and prioritize things, even in how effective you are.” Pausing to think, he adds, “I’m a pretty goofy guy, especially around my kids.”

His family’s home is “filled with old objects and furniture from places [he has] visited.” A fan of mid- and late-’60s Italian design aesthetics, he treasures the Ultrafragola mirror by Ettore Sottsass that hangs in his hallway. Another collector’s item, the Screen 100 by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto, adds clean Scandinavian lines. But while he values art and sculpture, Gorham’s home is more relaxed, more nostalgic, than the sharp minimalism of his brand. “Since I travel so much, staying home in Stockholm is a true luxury,” he says.

On weekends, he and his family, in typical Scandinavian style, retreat to their country house in an archipelago just a 25-minute drive from Stockholm. There, they gather with friends and family, enjoying each other’s company amid Sweden’s striking landscape.

“It’s right on the ocean so you swim or go to the sauna or paddle,” says Gorham of his country pursuits. “It’s a really simple life, but very fulfilling.” Despite the frenetic demands of his business, Gorham tries to bring these values of simplicity into every area of his life. He limits the hours he works and the business trips he takes away from his family. When he is home, he focuses on being present so that his life “becomes less of a juggle and more of a balance.” Consumed by the intellectual challenges of leading a business, Gorham has recently returned to what he knows best: exercise. “I missed the physicality of the life I lived, so I’ve started running and lifting and boxing and wrestling and climbing and surfing and paddling and skiing,” he says. “There’s something quite meditative in that for me.” With a wry note creeping into his voice, he adds, “I’m trying to figure out if it’s some midlife crisis.”

As a teenager in Toronto trying to figure out who he was, Gorham did experience a crisis. A decade later, the identity he’d constructed was shattered all over again when he quit basketball. But these days, his life has many facets to it: that of an entrepreneur, leader and family man. It’s a sturdy foundation, one built to weather more than a newfound obsession with sport. As for his tattoos, he admits that the pain gets “worse every year”—although that hasn’t stopped him.

That’s the thing about Gorham: not much does. The tattoos continue to be inked, the business keeps growing, his ideas—so abundant that he jokes they’re “part of [his] curse”—are corked and distributed around the world. “You have to believe in yourself,” he says. “You have to realize that you’ll probably get knocked down 10 or a hundred times. It’s as much about getting up as it is about moving forward.”

This is one of three free promotional stories from Issue Twenty-Two. You’re welcome to choose three more stories from each print issue of Kinfolk to read for free.

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  • Words:
    Pip Usher
  • Photography:
    Lasse Fløde
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