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.”