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Once homeless on the streets of Paris, entrepreneur Ramdane Touhami now presides over some of the city’s finest addresses with his beauty empire, Officine Universelle Buly.

Ramdane Touhami doesn’t dominate the room the way some entrepreneurs do. He is casually dressed in comfortable trousers, sneakers and a warm-looking wooly sweater and hat. It is a contrast from the smart smock-like navy jackets worn by the staff at his Parisian beauty emporium, Officine Universelle Buly. Touhami, 42, seems a sprightly, nimble man who, one suspects, could quickly take you down in a boxing match. Certainly, through the refined spaces he is creating, he is hitting it big in the rarified world of premium cosmetics.

On the horizon is a new store in London (a 400-square-foot boutique in Selfridges), with locations in Milan and Los Angeles to follow. Touhami has launched an almost meteoric brand expansion; these new projects will join the 14 other outposts that have opened within just three years of operations. Can he divulge any details? “Erm, non,” he replies, a little tersely. “I prefer to speak about things when they are done.”

  • Words:
    David Plaisant
  • Photography:
    Marsý Hild Þórsdóttir

Each store has its own unique identity; from New York to Hong Kong, interior intricacies impart a mood or theme. At the store here in the Marais, for example, there’s a rectangular cast-iron framed pit, cut into the floorboards. Touhami gestures, “See that? That’s where Rodin cast his Thinker.” Indeed, we are in the workshop where the Parisian sculptor created his celebrated seated figure. For Touhami, who designs each space himself, paying attention to historical detail is almost an obsession. The more time that is spent with him, the more it becomes apparent that he too is something of a thinker. Far from the brooding, deeply pensive type immortalized by Rodin, however, this fashion designer, brand creator, businessman and occasional DJ is a man of action.

“I’m selling a fantasy image of Paris to the world,” he replies when asked to describe the Buly concept. It is a meticulously curated universe grounded in what he considers the heyday of retail: the 19th century, when, under the rule of Napoleon, the production and trading of crafted commodities became a Parisian specialty. In fact, the 700 products in Buly’s cosmetics range were inspired by 19th-century French apothecaries. Touhami revels in talking about the history of retail and likes to go into great detail when describing the Paris that once was—how Rue Saint-Honoré was perhaps the world’s first “luxury street,” and how Le Bon Marché invented the department store. “It was a golden era,” he says, his face animated.

Touhami’s own vision of luxury is based on a deep respect for quality. It embodies what used to be called recherché, in which all is researched and carefully realized. But the atmosphere at Buly is light years away from the stuffy, spotless luxury that often dominates the market. Luxury, in fact, is a word that Touhami loathes; the mere mention provokes spitting profanities. “This is not luxury!” he argues, using plenty of expletives to describe what he sees elsewhere as an uninspired and inflated industry. (He is no less scathing about the “boring people” who run some of Paris’ most famous houses by focusing on spreadsheets and margins.)

Indeed, Touhami is ardently unorthodox and happy to cultivate an outsider persona. He was raised in a Moroccan-French family in the countryside before dropping out of school at 17 to create Teuchiland, a T-shirt brand which parodied Timberland with a reference to cannabis. At the age of 18, he found himself on the wrong side of a Toulouse gang and escaped to Paris where, penniless, he lived on the streets for a year, seeking shelter in metro stations, under bridges and in public bathrooms. He was stabbed and bears the scar to this day.

Gradually, Touhami left the streets and created various streetwear and skateboarding brands. He began to build up his career with more business-focused ventures including L’Épicerie, a concept store he founded with designers Marc Jacobs and Jeremy Scott in 1998. He also hosted a television show called Strip-Tease, owned a donkey polo club in Tangier and spent time in Tokyo rebuilding fashion retail brand And A. He was menswear director at Liberty London and, in 2007, was in charge of revamping opulent Parisian candlemaker Maison de Cire Trudon.

Though the path from Liberty and Cire Trudon to Buly seems to show his progression toward historic brands, Touhami protests that his early career is not incongruous with what he is creating at present. “It’s the same,” he insists. “There’s a big connection between my skate brand and what I do now… My slogan was ‘French Savoir Faire.’ We created our own French style with a twist.” And that certainly seems to describe what Touhami is still doing today—albeit with the florid veneer of the belle epoque in his toolbox.

Although scornful of big luxury stores, he praises fresher, more urban retail brands such as Aesop. Touhami may flit from one subject to the next with sometimes confusing rapidity, but he is always refreshingly lucid about his modus operandi: “Those big brands make all their stores look exactly the same,” he says. “Then, there are brands like Aesop that ask local designers to come up with a new concept for each location. And then there’s me—I design everything myself. It’s a bit extreme. This is not a democratic company, eh!” As well as a vision of Paris, Touhami is either knowingly or unknowingly exporting himself.

His hyper-personal approach is clear when walking through the different spaces, rooms and back offices of the labyrinthine shop and workshop in the Marais. In one room, a row of five people are working at spotlit desks. Here, Buly’s chief calligrapher, Paul, teaches his craft to all of the retail assistants. Everyone is expected to do four hours of calligraphy a week to reach the exacting standards required to write personalized gift labels and book dedications, as well as notices and price tags. Asked why he invests so much time in such a seemingly minor task, Touhami responds: “I think in only one generation people will not know how to write by hand.” What if the staff doesn’t manage to execute such beau-tiful cursive? “They are fired!” Touhami says, perhaps only half-joking.

“I’m selling a fantasy image of Paris to the world.”

Another essential component of the Buly experience is gift wrapping. Buly’s head wrapper was trained personally by the only surviving family that practices Japanese origata—an exponentially more complex craft than origami that was traditionally reserved to service the paper-folding needs of the imperial court. There are some 3,600 different folds in origata; so far Touhami’s colleague has managed “only” 600 different pleats. Again, Touhami shows his love for specialized craft—the smaller and more niche, the better. “Origata is like a language—an aristocratic, Japanese language,” he says.

Touhami may seem to be one of a kind, but he doesn’t do it all alone. He collaborates with his wife, Victoire De Taillac, on developing and sustaining the brand. Their latest project is An Atlas of Natural Beauty: Botanical Ingredients for Retaining and Enhancing Beauty, a beautifully bound book featuring illustrations of plants and extracts, informative texts, historical anecdotes and related proverbs. From the almost miraculous properties of the lotus flower to the astringent, purifying powers of geranium, it’s a fascinating read even for those with little interest in skincare.

Constantly (but politely) fielding phone calls, including one from his boxing instructor, Touhami operates at a frenetic pace. Is boxing a way to relax, one wonders? “It’s a way to avoid killing someone!” he jokes, explaining some of the frustrations that come with success. “It’s more about speed. When you have so many things to do, you wish that other people were moving at your speed too.” With his Buly empire staffed by almost 100 people and shops sprouting the world over, it is becoming an increasingly difficult operation to micromanage. But it is obvious that Touhami would not (and probably could not) have it any other way. When he ponders how it might be to work with him, he’s self-aware: “My God, I am the worst!”

Touhami embodies all the bravado and banter of somebody who is both supremely confident and ambitious. When asked how it feels to be unrivaled in his influence on the Parisian retail scene, he scoffs: “Paris is just a village! It’s nothing.” The energetic creator and designer explains how the success of the business depends on the happiness of everyone involved, from his employees to the makers of the products—even to himself. Finally, he says, “The best is when the customer is happy and they think nobody screwed them over. When they agree the price is reasonable and the product is good.” He makes it sound simple, but Touhami’s constant quest for the highest quality is clearly hard work. His efforts, however, are putting the Buly name firmly in the history of Parisian shopping.

  • Words:
    David Plaisant
  • Photography:
    Marsý Hild Þórsdóttir
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