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.