Ramdane Touhami is not a person that is easily summarised – there is nothing about his career, life, or personality that is remotely linear or ordinary. A designer of cult streetwear in the '90s, branding maverick, product designer, creative director, serial entrepreneur, retail geek, occasional and a self-professed gypsy, Touhami’s trimmest title is, perhaps, nomadic polymath.
In recent years, the French-Moroccan mover-and-maker has arguably been best known for his transformation of French brand Cire Trudon, which he took from sleepy seventeenth-century wax manufacturer to hyper-fashionable candle and perfume sensation with a loyal, global clientele. After selling his stake in the business in 2011, Touhami unexpectedly found the inspiration for his next adventure, the revival of historic French beauty brand L’Officine Universelle Buly, lurking in the pages of a Balzac novel.
Since its relaunch in 2014, Buly 1803, as the brand is now known, has found an eager audience for its 700-plus products that include horsehair toothbrushes, a variety of beard combs and countless luxurious lotions and purifying potions. Here, we catch-up with Touhami – who currently lives with his wife and creative partner, Victoire de Taillac-Touhami, and their three children in Paris – about Buly 1803’s unexpected second act as the international beauty brand to know.
Natalia Rachlin: You’re a hard man to pin down – where are you right now?
Ramdane Touhami: I’m walking down the streets of Barcelona where I’m going to check in on a shop I helped design. Yesterday I was in Tokyo, and the day before that I was in Paris.
NR: You’ve worn so many different professional hats it’s hard to keep up. How would you describe your current job(s) to a stranger?
RT: First of all, what I do is not professional, it’s amateur. My career has been one big improvisation for the past twenty years. I don’t think you can call what I do work, it’s not a job, it’s just my life. It’s a very strange life and people don’t always understand it. In general, when someone asks me what I do, I tend to say I don’t know… I do this and that, and that, and that, and that… right now I’m doing Buly, I just finished a book with Random House, I just bought a coffee company and I have a tea brand. I have a Japanese restaurant and I have a TV show coming out in France in July. It’s complicated and people always think I’m a liar anyway, so I don’t really try that hard to explain.
NR: How did Buly 1803 get started? How did you even hear about the brand?
RT: It was very random and it could have happened to anyone. I was reading a book by Balzac called César Birotteau, and I began to wonder how he wrote the story, what inspired it. I started digging around and discovered it was inspired by this real guy, Jean-Vincent Bully, who had started a shop in 1803 on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, selling perfumes and scented vinegars for the hair. I researched him a lot, and la-la-la, boom-boom-boom, it took me a while but I found the archives, I found the brand, I bought the brand, which was just one product – a very classic kind of vinegar for the hair – and from there I decided to revamp it. I suppose for most people seeing a book and a name and a single product they don’t see a brand, but I saw a story and with the right products, I thought it would be perfect. I even went and bought the letters Balzac sent to his publisher when he was writing César Birotteau. I went super far, and finally when I had a clear picture, I said bingo! Let’s do something.
NR: The packaging of Buly 1803 products is distinct – definitely modern, but with a vintage feel. How did you strike the right balance?
RT: The design is completely new but, of course, inspired by some of the nineteenth-century beauty products and the language they used. I wanted to create something fresh and my own – it’s important to keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future. The packaging looks old in the sense that there is no plastic in any of it, we are the only brand to do that I think. But inside, the recipes are extremely modern, futuristic even – we have water-based perfume, for example. You have to keep this balance. Also, Buly back in the day was actually super ugly, now I hope that Mr Bully is proud of me, up in the heaven of beauty product makers.
NR: Do you think packaging and branding is as important as the product itself?
RT: I have a very clear answer to this: a beautiful product never has a crisis. If you make beautiful things, you always make money, this is clear. A perfect example: at the peak of the crisis in 2008, we all started seeing everyone with €600 phones because everyone wanted an iPhone. There was nothing logical about it, people were broke, but they still found a way to afford a €600 phone, which was the most expensive phone ever on the mass market. If you do a truly good product, people will buy it, it’s that simple. This is my philosophy: think beautiful. But, of course, what is inside has to be as good if not better than what is on the outside… Beauty inside and out.
NR: What about your own beauty routine – are you a man of many ointments?
RT: I have no hair, so I don’t use our combs, which is a shame because we do really a lot of them and they are so beautiful. But I use the oils, I am very proud of those.
NR: Buly 1803 is a collaboration with your wife, Victoire. How is it working together?
RT: Well, we are quite experienced at collaborating together, seeing as we go to bed together each night, and we’ve managed to make three beautiful children. The rest is really to do new things during the day. We are just trying to have fun; our pursuit is to never be bored.
NR: With so many beauty brands on the market, how do you make a new brand distinct?
RT: I don’t know what people do. I don’t look at my competitors, it’s not even in my mind, it’s not part of my process. I just do my own thing. In fact, I don’t even like seeing other things because I’m afraid it will convert me, and have an influence on how I work. Don’t ask me who, what, where because I don’t know. I’m over-concentrated on one person: myself. We’re all like that, but no one will say it. I love my life, I love myself, I love what I do – and when someone doesn’t understand what I do, I tend to not like them. I am perhaps too much a lover of my own work.
NR: What’s next for Buly 1803?
RT: We have new shops coming in Hong Kong and Kyoto, and we are opening a very big shop in Le Marais in Paris with a café. We continue until we are bored, then we stop.
NR: You’ve now successfully revived two historic brands – what are the biggest lessons learned?
RT: There is no recipe. Each story is totally different. You have 5% luck and 95% talent. And a lot of work – like, really a lot. But this 5% of chance is almost entirely about timing, which can change everything. Buly was risky, but we made it.
NR: You mentioned an upcoming book, a TV show and a coffee company – can you say a bit more about what’s on the cards?
RT: I prefer not to talk about what hasn’t come out yet. I want something to exist before I talk about it. I’m not superstitious, but I have my rules.