It’s Buly’s World
Renaissance man Ramdane Touhami opens up about his cult beauty brand and his global plans.
“We are opening a new one every month,” Ramdane Touhami says of his expansion plans for L’Officine Universelle Buly 1803. He had just winged in to Paris the night before from London, where he’d attended the launch for his three-year-old Parisian apothecary brand’s outpost in Selfridges. “We also have six in Seoul, one in Taipei and one in Hong Kong on Wyndham Street, where the ornate floor tiles were brought over from Umbria.”
Touhami’s two 19th-century-style boutiques in Paris proffer lotions, potions, and perfumed soaps, all artfully packaged and finished with personalized, intricate calligraphy—a skill that every employee is required to master. Such attention to classical detail is no surprise, given that Buly is a revival of an 1803 French heritage brand, Bully. After reading Honoré de Balzac’s 1837 novel César Birotteau, Touhami discovered that the author based his protagonist, a Parisian perfumer, on Jean-Pierre Bully. Enraptured by the story, Touhami purchased rights to the businessman’s historic brand name, updated the spelling, and, in 2014, opened Buly 1803.
Born in France to apple farmers of Moroccan descent, the hyperactive designer worked in various industries—from creating skateboards and skatewear and hosting a reality TV series to reengineering the French candle brand Cire Trudon—before starting Buly. His wife, Victoire de Taillac, handles public relations for the brand and takes the lead on developing new products.
Together for 18 years, the ultra-photogenic duo move roughly every two years, these days with their three children in tow. Having lived in Jaipur, New York, and Tangier, they recently decamped to Paris from a minimalist yet colorful abode near Shinjuku in Tokyo. (The Buly outpost in that city’s Daikanyama district is divided—quite literally—down the middle, split-screen style; one half is in contemporary Japanese style and the other designed like a traditional French pharmacy.)
Speaking of their expansion plans—Los Angeles is next—Touhami promises “every shop will be totally different.” And while the original Bully brought the art of French grooming to the world, Touhami’s Buly sources its wares from distant territories. Touhami and de Taillac travel the globe in search of time-tested beauty secrets, from the Goto Islands west of Japan for “the world’s best camelina oil” to rhassoul clay from Morocco and shea butter from Benin. “We work in 54 countries, buying directly from farmers all over the world,” he explains. That means melon seeds from South Africa, fruit oils from Brazil and roses from Bulgaria. Eschewing industrial farms in favor of small-batch producers also makes the company “sustainable by nature rather than by design,” he says.
Last year, the pair collaborated on An Atlas of Natural Beauty, published by Penguin Random House. The exquisite, eminently readable tome details the natural benefits of botanical ingredients—everything from açaí to witch hazel—and offers practical tips for making a face mask out of Senegalese baobab, a slimming body toner from Central American cocoa, and a mood-lifting massage oil of Indian jasmine.
This global perspective on wellness makes luxury hotel collaborations a natural fit. “My wife and I made a wish list of ten classic, historical hotels around the world where we dreamed to see Buly products. Soon after, Jacques Oudinot [then hotel manager for Hôtel de Crillon, a Rosewood Hotel, and now Director of Operations] came to see us,” says Touhami. “That was big luck.”
The two-year collaboration with the hotel has resulted in a thoughtfully edited, exclusive product line, covering what Touhami calls “everything, head to toe,” placed in each of the historic hotel’s recently restored guest rooms. In select Crillon suites, visitors will find up to 17 Buly products, including engraved soaps, all in a custom heliotrope scent.
But Touhami doesn’t see Buly’s realm limited to exclusive hotels. His vision for the brand? “Inclusive luxury” he says, insisting that the couple’s far-flung travels help them source accessible products that he can sell for 20 percent less than the competition. A tour of Buly’s new boutique in Paris’s Marais district, housed in a former foundry, turns up treasures for all budgets. Alongside a €700 handmade comb from China and a Japanese perfumer for €3,200, a Moroccan pumice stone wrapped in wool goes for just €5.
“We don’t believe in anti-age creams and gimmicks,” Touhami states resolutely. “You choose your way of life to guard against the effects of aging.” He reflects for half a second, smiles and continues, “Really, the only truly anti-aging secret I can recommend is to get fat, which irons out the wrinkles!”
The conversation turns serious as he dives deeper into his underlying vision for Buly to deliver beautiful skin—“the best makeup,” as he calls it—naturally, affordably and sustainably. Behind the stores’ elaborate designs and impressive details, down to the last swirl of the calligraphy brush, the Touhamis’ real mission is natural healing. “We’re about diagnosing skin problems and fixing them.”
“I can tell you everything about you from looking at your skin,” the 42-year-old entrepreneur remarks, leaning in to take a look. Buly’s in-house doctor trains the staff extensively to diagnose and treat skin conditions according to natural philosophies, and herself works at the brand’s original outpost on rue Bonaparte in the Sixth Arrondissement.
“These are magic,” Touhami reflects with his arms outstretched towards Buly’s meticulous, hand-carved wooden walls lined with Buly products. He may be onto something. Picking up a vile of Egyptian Nigella oil on the counter, he puts his efforts into historic perspective. “In the Koran, the prophet says Nigella oil protects from everything but death.”