As I’ve previously noted here, one of my favorite perfumes is Byredo’s Velvet Haze, and I also recently was intrigued by a floral scent (unusual for me!) in the line, Influorescence. Despite this, I didn’t actually know much about the perfumer, Ben Gorham, so I was very interested to hear that he was going to be interviewed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in confunction with its exhibit on artist and designer Virgil Abloh, with whom Gorham has collaborated. (I also thought there might be a gift bag of some samples involved, and I wasn’t wrong.)
I heard about the event through my friend Debra Parr, a professor of art and art history at Columbia College and a member of the perfume group I’ve been involved with–and she also happened to be the person interviewing Gorham on stage.
Gorham has an interesting background–he’s a Swedish national with an Indian mother and a Canadian father, and he grew up in Toronto and Stockholm. As a young man he played basketball in college and professionally, but when that fizzled out, he decided to go to art school. His career took yet another unusual turn when he met the perfumer Pierre Wulff and decided to switch from painting to scent.
As an aside, I’m always curious about how this happens. How do people have the courage, not to mention the financial means, to suddenly decide to shift gears and actually follow through with it? The latter is something that people, especially creative types, tend not to want to talk about, but I think it’s an important issue to discuss in the open. Gorham did note at one point that it’s hard to be entirely creative and run a successful business. It sounds like he had some constraints, at least, as he noted that when he began experiementing with scent, perfume was a very industrialized and therefore very expensive process, so he actually started out making candles.
Gorham is more of a poet of scent than a technical master, creating a concept that individual perfumers bring to life. He is intrigued by what he calls “collective memory” and narratives. One of his first perfumes was inspired by his memory of his father’s smell, while another was created for his wife, who doesn’t actually care for perfume. Called Blanche, it is his concept of “white,” although to me it smells like sugar–which is usually white, after all.
Scent, of course, is intimately tied to memory, as well as emotion. He and Debra talked about scientific research that explores smells’ relationship to emotion and how our brains process scents very differently from other stimuli. Gorham spoke of reliving his life though “milestones” of scent–something most people can relate to when they smell pencils, paper, and other typical school supplies in the aisle at Target come late August and early September. Andy Warhol used to hack this biological reality, only wearing a perfume for three months so he would forever associate the scent with that specific time in his life.
Finally, Gorham talked about the fact that people use perfume for different reasons today than they did in the past. Scent used to be (and still can be) a status symbol, but increasingly it’s becoming a much more personal statement. Certainly hunting down niche and unusual perfumes can be seen as its own kind of status symbol, but for others it’s a way to track down a scent that resonates on a very personal level. Witness the way more people are layering perfumes for a completely original effect–not to mention the way perfumes smell different depending on the wearers’ skin chemistry. For myself, I change my perfumes based on the season, what I’m going to do that day, who I’m going to be with, and of course my mood.
The best art, including olfactory art, tells a story. We may not completely understand it, but we can appreciate its depth and craftsmanship, or recognize some aspect of it in our own lives. Perhaps that is why Byredo is so successful.