© Officine Universelle Buly / Photography: Marsý Hild Thórsdóttir

With a career marked by the proverbial from-rags-to-riches dynamic, Ramdane Touhami may very well be the quirkiest entrepreneur operating in the realm of beauty, lifestyle and design. Born into a family with Moroccan roots in Toulouse, a provincial town in the south of France, Touhami started out dabbling in a line of T-shirts with a whimsical cannabis-inspired brand identity. The promising success of his first endeavour was short-lived as an encounter with local thugs forced him to flee penniless to Paris where he faced the dangers and hardships of living on the street. However, Touhami’s resilience and resourcefulness proved to be quite exceptional, and eventually, he managed to get his life fully back on track. The City of Light offered fertile ground for both his creative output and private life, and in between an array of stints in fashion and lifestyle, from skatewear designer and shop keeper, to TV host and Liberty of London‘s menswear director, he wed seasoned fashion professional Victoire de Taillac. As a power couple, Touhami shifted gear, and first revived Trudon, the planet’s oldest candle maker, before launching the ultimate Parisian fantasy by way of an olfactory venture embodying his passion for tradition, artisanal craft, history, and last but not least, sophisticated retail. Indeed, we’re talking Officine Universelle Buly. Very recently, Superfuture sat down with the outspoken retail aficionado to chat about his work, creative vision and what’s next.

You’ve done so many things and achieved quite a lot in your professional life, and as far as I know, without any formal education. Where do you think your exceptional sense of aesthetic comes from? There are many things, actually. I grew up in the countryside, and my father was a farmer, but on the side he also took care of a 19th-century castle, and because of that I also had frequent access to this wonderful building when I was a little boy. So, very early on I was exposed to old architecture, beautiful old floors, wallpapers, furniture, basically all of its history. And as a matter of fact, much of these references I’m using for the interior design of my Officine Universelle Buly shops. But another one of my biggest inspirations, in terms of graphics, has to be skateboarding. I started skateboarding myself when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. At the time, each brand had its own distinct design and marketing, and they were all fiercely competitive. In a way, you simply had to pick one which resonated best, and as such, I was heavily exposed to pretty much all of the skateboard designs, graphics, videos, and other creative output in the 1980s, and I mean in the same big way consumers are nowadays immersed in imagery on every level. However, my sense of aesthetic has evolved quite a lot. For instance, if I look at what I created twenty years ago, or what I wore, I just don’t like it as much as I did back then. It’s usually the case when reviewing earlier work, I think ‘oh, fuck!’, I could’ve done things better! It’s an obsession, do you know what I mean? Japan is also a major inspiration. I first arrived in Tokyo in 1995, and after going back and forth for a couple of years, I lived there for a while because of work. In terms of design, both the IDÉE furniture shop and the first A Bathing Ape store had a huge influence on me. Actually, when worked for Japanese fashion brand And A, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Masamichi Katayama, one of the designers of the A Bathing Ape store. You know, the city was booming back then, I mean, it was as if everyone was creating their own brand.

There’s no denying Japan is a huge inspiration to you on different levels. Could you please elaborate on that? It’s not inspiration, I’d say Japan is a part of my life. Japan gave me the opportunity to become what I am now, and that was at a time when my home country France basically said ‘fuck off, you’re an Arabic guy, we’ve got nothing for you here’. To this day, 90% of my clients, also of the agency that I manage, are from abroad. Only very recently, the number of French clients is slowly picking up. I think it also has got to do with the business culture in my homeland. Here, I need to talk to marketing people whereas in Japan, creatives deal and communicate directly with creatives. I’m actually commuting to Tokyo every month for business.

So, you’re born and bred in France, but you have a Moroccan background. Has this cultural legacy shaped your sensibilities, or influenced your creativity in any way? Not really. My family has been in France for a hundred years, so the Moroccan cultural element is quite distant and in the past. That said, those roots may pop up in my way of doing things, in my moods, when I start screaming, ha! But then again, I think that temperament is also very Mediterranean. Yes, I’m very Mediterranean. However, my Moroccan roots may have influenced my sense of smell and food palate. I grew up with certain scents and flavours, for instance, I like orange blossom, certain roses, and specific types of wood. One’s palate is very much influenced by smell, especially when eating.

Let’s talk about taste. Do you think there’s any good taste or bad taste? Is it important for anyone to have taste at all? Hmmm, good question. Well, first of all, taste isn’t about money. You can be rich, but have a bad taste. Also, you have it, or you don’t have it. Someone can be a friend of mine simply because I think he or she has good taste. Taste itself is very hard to explain. From a taste point of view, I consider myself very posh. Because of the work I do, I think I have good taste. But you know, I don’t follow trends. I never look into fancy design magazines, mind you, I’ve never heard of the Superfuture website, ha! That’s where I’m at. I know what I like, I have some rules that I apply for my designs, but these evolve all the time. I never wear hoodies and black clothes, but look at what I’m wearing today! Actually, I bought this one because of COVID-19, now I can easily wipe my nose with it, ha! Anyway, some people may have a very different taste than myself, but I can still find fantastic because it suits them so well. For instance, Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, is a good friend of mine. I’m not much of a fan of his brand’s aesthetic, but I think he’s a genius and he does brilliant things. To me, taste is rather tribal as it creates a specific following. My own taste is quite random, by the way, but has a following too. Mind you, Officine Universelle Buly is the opposite of my personal taste, but it very much resonates with that of my wife Victoire and her aristocratic heritage. However, I wholeheartedly devote my time and efforts to the brand and my clients. I know the brand very, very well, and I’ve gone the extra yard – mind you, I still do! – to meticulously develop every aspect of the company. I’m obsessed with creating fonts, designing bottles and store interiors, pretty much everything. Let’s just say, my team and I are the North Koreans of the design world, we decide on every little detail in the world of Officine Universelle Buly!

What’s your take on luxury? You seem to dislike the word but yet Officine Universelle Buly operates within that specific segment. I don’t like the word and what it describes. It’s simply not interesting. Also, I’m anti-globalisation. The luxury business tends to do what McDonald’s did when expanding worldwide. I think that if you set up shop in, say, Japan or Hong Kong, you need to embrace local culture. Look at the Louis Vuitton stores and windows, they basically look the same everywhere you go. I once had a meeting with a big luxury brand to create a scent for their boutiques. I proposed five different scents, simply because the smell of Japanese, Chinese, British and French consumers are different and they prefer different flowers. The reply was quite surprising: ‘No, thanks. We’re like McDonald’s, we deliver the same product everywhere’. Well, I instantly lost all interest in the job. This brand gave customers the sense of creation, but they were instead only selling a product. What we do at Officine Universelle Buly isn’t luxury, we’re simply doing the basics in our business. As a retail guy, I want the highest level of service for my clients regardless what you’re buying. When you enter any of our stores, you enter a bubble of ‘wow!’, from the products and the packaging, to the staff, service and complimentary calligraphed messages, it’s all a ‘wow!’ experience and makes you smile! We aim for the next level of service, and as and example, we send our customers a calligraphed birthday card. It costs us money, but it’s part of that same ‘wow!’ experience. It’s how I’d like to be treated when I go out shopping. Every time when I see someone walking in the street carrying a bag of our store, whether it’s Paris, London or Tokyo, I’m like, what the fuck? It blows my mind, and instantly, a lot of questions pop up in my mind. What did he buy? How did he get to know the brand? You, know, the sales staff are so important, they’re the last but very vital element of a successful sales process.

In a previous interview you said that the maximum amount of time you’d spend on a project is five years. However, you’ve been working on Officine Universelle Buly since 2003. We take it this company is the exception to the rule? Ha, I’m much older now. It has been a while since I said that. You know, it’s like a love story, you meet a lot of people in your life, but in the end there’s one person you’re going to stick with and marry.

What makes Officine Universelle Buly stand out in the beauty industry? Also, how would you describe the customer profile? Well, we have a philosophy in our company that makes us different. Basically, the person who designs is happy, the person who produces is happy and the person who sells is happy, so the client is happy. If this wouldn’t have worked, we wouldn’t be making a good product. I’m proud to say that we stand out because all staff are enthusiastic and happy to contribute. As for the Officine Universelle Buly customer profile, I’d say people who are very curious and also educated. In Japan they’re around 30 years of age, and here in Europe definitely older, 45 or so, around my age. My target demographic actually is people of my age. It’s not a cool brand, you know, but more an ‘old lady’. But the company has one foot in the past and one foot in the future, there’s some kind of balance, just like the age of our European clients, and that’s exactly what I want. At the moment the company has a staff of 300, it doubled in the past year. We’re going to open seventeen new stores worldwide in the near future, from Paris, Milan and Zurich, to Dubai, Vancouver, Jakarta, Manila and additional stores both in Tokyo and across Japan. Actually, we’re also going to open a spa in Kyoto and a hammam in Marrakesh. The majority are fully owned and for only a few we’ve partnered with local companies. It’s exciting, but also a nightmare! I design the stores myself, but since I also like to reflect local culture in the interior design, I suddenly have to ask myself ‘what exactly is the culture like in Manila?’.

Next to Officine Universelle Buly, you’re also heading your own creative agency Art Recherche Industrie. Could you tell us some more about this venture? I created the agency two years ago because more and more people wanted my opinion on many a subject, but also because we came across many of our ideas in what our competitors were doing. So, instead of letting other brands just copy you, they can now knock on our door for advice. Another reason for setting up Art Recherche Industrie was that I got somewhat bored and wanted to explore other horizons far removed from Officine Universelle Buly‘s 19th-century bubble. You know, there’s also a significant modern element in that bubble, and I wanted to offer that to other clients. We at Officine Universelle Buly and Art Recherche Industrie are very specific about doing things, and as such, everything is done in-house, from graphic design, videos and photography, to texts, typography, printing and architectural design. We even do translations. So, contrary to Officine Universelle Buly, my wife Victoire is not involved with this agency. At the moment we’re working on the design of three hotels for a big luxury brand, perfume creations for three companies, a caviar brand, two beauty brands, and a snail brand. Yes indeed, the latter one is very French.

© Officine Universelle Buly – The perfumer’s boutique in Tokyo’s Aoyama district