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Every now and then a brand appears on the scene that looks like nothing else. That one-off entity is Officine Universelle Buly. The fastidious French company creates highly decorative, highly desirable soaps, scented oils, candles, toothpastes, perfumes and grooming accessories in the mode of a nineteenth-century apothecary in Paris. Arrayed with gilt embossing, religious iconography and sinuous snakes, its wares are the complete opposite of coolly minimal products that have become the norm. Instead, Buly creates Napoleonic beauty with an ironic twist. “I call it retro futurism,” says Ramdane Touhami, the energetic entrepreneur responsible for this artistic tour de force. “It’s old but with modern touches.”
The multitasking founder was in Melbourne recently preparing for his Mecca debut. Touhami is a ball of energy who speaks at such a rapid clip it can be hard to keep up with him. The day we meet he is sipping apple juice and animatedly recounting the steps that led him and his wife and business partner, Victoire de Taillac-Touhami, to hatching Buly five years ago. “We’re the opposite of cool, we don’t want to be cool. We’re classic,” he says in fiery bursts.
Cool or not, Touhami possesses an incredible eye mirrored in the brand’s 20 emporiums in Paris, Tokyo, Seoul and San Francisco among other cities. Fitted out with oak cabinetry, glass cloches, vintage accessories and teeming with over 800 products, they project an impossibly romantic version of Paris. “When you go to a Buly store it’s exactly as you would expect,” he says. “It’s this old shop with calligraphy, music, you are in a fantasy. I want hyperrealism.”
Mecca has transposed a slice of the Buly fantasy to nine stores around the country (complete list below). Customers will discover a tightly edited curation of around 100 wondrous pieces displayed in custom-made cabinets of curiosity. Unsurprisingly given its nostalgic vibe, the brand was inspired by a real-life historical figure, Jean-Pierre Bully, a master perfumer and cosmetician from the 1800s. “He was a genius,” says Touhami, who revived the dormant line (and dropped a consonant in the process). Buly combines old-school beauty secrets with modern-day advancements, as well as potent ingredients plucked from 50 countries around the world (including tea tree oil and clays from Australia).
Plus, they have a natural bent. Devoid of alcohol, Buly’s water-based fragrances are ideal for those with allergies to synthetic ingredients. “It’s extremely complicated to mix oil and water and make sure they stay together,” says Touhami, in reference to the delicate perfumes. “It’s basically a vinaigrette!” Can I add it to salad? “Well, put it on your skin first, then your salad,” he says, playfully. Similarly, Buly candles are free of paraffin, the toothpastes are sans fluoride, and its cleansers avoid parabens. There are also whimsical notions, such as porous stones on which you pour fragrant concentrates, and scented matches for deodorising small spaces.
Buly could only stem from a mind as sharp as Touhami’s. Born to a Moroccan-French apple picker father and housemaker mother, he dropped out of school at 17 to create a streetwear brand. For a period, he was homeless in Paris and he has the scars on his leg to prove it (from a knife attack). Bouncing back, he went on to find success in fashion design, retail and brand building—most recently he revived the French candle maker Cire Trudon. Now, he flits around the globe in search of rare discoveries he can adapt for Buly: the Atlas Mountains for incense, Greece for sponges, and Russia for a stone with possible health benefits—and that’s just in recent months. What spurs him? “Not being bored,” he says.
In 1999, he met de Taillac-Touhami, a French aristocrat and beauty expert. The couple has three children, and live in a vibrant two-floor apartment in the Left Bank. At work, they divide and conquer. She looks after product development, while he focuses on creative matters. Touhami has a habit of juggling myriad projects. When he discovers a small-scale company—a soap manufacturer in Normandy, a printer in Lausanne or the plaster maker in Paris—he invests in it or acquires it outright. His rationale is more poetic than mercenary. Touhami is intent on preserving craftsmanship; it’s the subject of a forthcoming docuseries he is filming for Netflix. “When I make a little money, I don’t buy cars, I buy companies,” he says, with a puckish grin. “I’m trying to save these things.” At its heart, Buly is an ode to artisanal beauty. It’s also the chicest (and coolest) way to upgrade your bathroom this season.
Officine Universelle Buly is available at the following Mecca Cosmetica stores: Emporium; The Strand; Claremont; South Yarra; Chadstone; Armadale. And at these MECCA stores: Bondi, Myer Melbourne, Myer Sydney.
Words by George EpaminondasFebruary 2019
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