Mr Ramdane Touhami
The brains behind cult Parisian grooming brand Buly 1803 shows us around his house in Tokyo .
Mr Ramdane Touhami is something of a legend in international fashion circles. Throughout the 1990s, the entrepreneur pushed France’s retail scene into the future with protean streetwear lines and one of the country’s first concept stores, l’Epicerie, showcasing work by the likes of Messrs Marc Jacobs and Jeremy Scott. More recently, Mr Touhami has revived two of France’s historical treasures: first, the candlemaker Cire Trudon, and more recently, the 19th-century cosmetics brand Buly 1803. He also somehow finds time to be a DJ, a writer, a designer and an artist.
Growing up in a French-Moroccan family in Toulouse, Mr Touhami, 42, stumbled into fashion simply trying to win over girls at his boarding school. “I started to do my own line of shirts when I was a skateboarder in 1992, when I was 18,” he recalls in a pronounced French accent. “There was a guy in my boarding school who was doing a line, and all the girls were in love with him. My line became much more popular than his – but not me. I realised it wasn’t the T-shirts behind his popularity. He was just very good looking.”
Mr Touhami may have lost that battle for hearts, but he won the longer war for cultural influence. That first streetwear line, Teuchy (later Teuchiland), took him to Paris, where he then started France’s first true skater brand, King Size. Soon work for other brands snowballed into a continent-hopping lifestyle. While the demand for his services has dragged him across countries, it was his own peripatetic tendencies that saw him pull up his roots at every opportunity. “We are gypsies,” he has said before of himself, his wife Ms Victoire de Taillac, and their three children. They will only live in a city for a maximum of two years. “We have moved nine times in 17 years. I don’t want to be stuck to a place.”
The timer has started to tick down on his latest home, Tokyo, where Mr Touhami, lives in the charming Kagurazaka neighborhood in a quiet patch of the city. Their two-storey, 11-room wooden house is large by Tokyo standards, constructed in a hybrid traditional-modernist style with paper shoji doors, two separate entryways, and ample views of its Japanese garden out back. The house has a long history, originally the property of the ship-building family responsible for the famed WWII battleship Yamato.
Mr Touhami has lived around the world, but he treats a new home as a blank slate. He has spent the past few months filling the house with elegantly minimalist furniture from all over Europe. But more strikingly, he has topped the natural timber tones in each room with explosions of pop colour in lime green, royal blue and cherry red throw cushions, low octagonal stools and curvy step-seats in the corners, all of which he designed himself. The walls are covered in street art and giant film posters of cult films such as Kids and Raging Bull. His bedroom spaces remain Japanese, however, with Mr Touhami and his wife sleeping on futons on tatami mats.
“We have moved nine times in 17 years. I don’t want to be stuck to a place”
Mr Touhami has a long history with Japan, first coming in 1996, following a chance meeting with a Japanese tourist in Paris, who casually told him he should visit. Mr Touhami departed for Tokyo that very day. “I asked, ‘Can I crash at your place?’ And he didn’t really understand what I was saying. I ended up arriving at Narita Airport before he did. He had to hide me in his garage and didn’t tell his family. The parents were very old people and shocked when they found me.” A year later, Mr Touhami made a better-planned return visit to help a French denim brand open a new store. But things went equally haywire. “At a dinner, I was talking to someone who said he came in a Ferrari. And I thought he must be kidding. I said, ‘Let’s do a bet. If there is a Ferrari in the parking lot, I get to drive it.’ We went out, and it was a 1970s Ferrari. But it was an automatic, which I had never driven before. And guess what happened? I crashed the Ferrari.”
Unsurprisingly, he never hit it off with the Ferrari owner, but kept coming back to Japan five to eight times a year on other assignments. In 1999, he moved to Tokyo for two years to remodel the popular retail chain And A. Now he has again chosen the city to act as his base of global operations. Contrary to the city’s reputation as our Blade Runner future, the appeal has nothing to do with speed and technology. “Tokyo doesn’t change,” says Mr Touhami. “It’s crazy how it doesn’t change. I love the calm of the biggest city in the world.” His children go to school on the city’s last trolley line.
Perhaps this calm is necessary for Mr Touhami’s intensive work for Buly 1803. The polymath made his first step into cosmetics in 2002 with the opening of the Parfumerie Generale in Paris. There he became obsessed with providing customers with an endless variety of products. “We had 145 brands, which was absurd in this business,” he says. He brings the same approach to Buly 1803 – taking a store established in 1803 on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris that only made fragrance, and turning it into a 21st-century global brand selling 700 items.
Mr Touhami says he loved having to create within the “frame” of a historic brand. “We had a template,” he explains. “We have to create a 19th-century brand as if we’re in the 19th century.” That meant limiting packaging to materials from the era (no plastic), but also paying tribute to past cultural standards. His men’s goods, for example, are made for an age when gentlemen were gentlemen. “In the 19th century, there was no ‘men’s grooming’ other than shaving and toothpaste,” he says. Being conscious of the brand’s heritage, however, has not stopped Mr Touhami from inventing completely new categories of products – most notably his water-based perfumes in 12 different scents.
“I am pretty proud that we have the largest selection of combs in the world. I don’t want these kind of things to disappear”
Buly 1803’s combs also reveal how Mr Touhami has discovered novelty through tradition. Using acetate from Italy’s premier manufacturer Mazzucchelli, Buly 1803 produces them at Europe’s last true comb factory in Switzerland. Unimpressed with the limited selection of present-day styles, Mr Touhami pushed the factory into full-scale revival. “I asked them to show me what they made in the 1950s, because they seemed to only make five kinds of combs right now,” he says. “They said, ‘We used to make all these kinds of combs,’ so I said, ‘Let’s make all of them!’ A very stupid idea, but I am pretty proud that we have the largest selection of combs in the world. I don’t want these kind of things to disappear.”
Preservation of lost culture is Buly 1803’s most crucial mission. Mr Touhami proudly sells minebari wood women’s combs made at the same shrine in the Kiso region of Japan that makes them for the Emperor. The production process takes an absurdly long time: 300 years for the minebari trees to grow, 100 years for the wood to dry, and then three years for the artisans to carve the combs and bathe the wood in camelia oil.
While Mr Touhami has found this particular treasure nearby in Japan, he is always jetting off to discover other forgotten “beauty secrets”, personally meeting the farmers around the world who provide the raw materials for Buly 1803’s oils and clays. No part of the process is easy. The water for Buly 1803’s toothpaste comes from a single well in the southwestern France, famous since Roman times for its miraculous powers of dental hygiene.
A lifetime of work in the fashion industry may inform Mr Touhami’s obsession with details, but Japan has pushed this mania into overdrive. He looks to the Japanese ideal of honmono — the idea that there are “authentic things” that tower in quality over the cheap, mass-produced items from most modern companies. Mr Touhami also takes lessons from the “customer is God” school of shopping culture in Japan. “You always think you are the best, but then you go to Japanese shops and, in terms of service, the way they display things, you’re like, ‘Oh, we have so many things to do!’”
Despite having spent so much time in Japan over the years, Mr Touhami is far from being bored. “I know Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Nakameguro, Daikanyama and Ginza by heart,” he says. “I have done them so many times. But there is no limit to discovery in Tokyo. You think you know something? You know nada.” And living in northern Tokyo means it’s fast to get out of the city for explorations of the countryside. At the weekend, the family heads out to the mountains near Minakami Onsen or the beaches in Zushi. On a normal day, however, Mr Touhami finds pleasure in the basic Japanese lifestyle. The first thing he does upon returning to Japan from his travels abroad? “I eat 300 yen soba [buckwheat noodles]. And then I go to work.”