A revival of an ancient French apothecary beauty label is causing quite a stir in Paris. L’Officine Universelle Buly is a heritage brand repackaged for the 21st century.
Step inside the tiny, atmospheric shop that has just opened on Rue Bonaparte on Paris’ Left Bank and it’s like stepping back to a time long forgotten. Oak and walnut burl cabinets house coloured powders and jars of oils, marble counters display boxes of soaps and there’s a myriad of medicine-style drawers hiding creams, hand-crafted hair-combs and exotic clays. This is Buly 1803, the home of the newly resurrected beauty brand bought to us by the French-Moroccan entrepreneurial powerhouse that is Ramdane Touhami and his wife Victoire de Taillac.
The man behind the worldwide success and revival of historic candle makers Cire Trudon, Touhami came across the original archives of Bully (he’s since dropped the second ‘l’ for a fresh appeal) and was inspired to bring it back to life. Just like with Cire Trudon, the duo are tapping into the current love affair that consumers have with the authenticity behind old and established heritage brands. Joining the ranks of cult products from labels such as Italy’s Santa Maria Novella and the UK’s revered Penhaligon’s, Touhami believes that L’Officine Universelle Buly has a timeless appeal that fits a gap in the beauty industry today.
“Bully was once one of France’s leading beauty brands and only stopped trading around 10 years ago, but it had fallen out of fashion long before then,” he says. “I came across some of the original catalogues of products from the 19th century and I was enchanted. I could see a certain kind of magic about it. It was like discovering a whole new world of beauty. A treasure trove. Nowadays when everything is so fast – fashion, food, media – there is something inherently satisfying about reviving a label that has a solid past and a sense of history.”
Originally founded by celebrated Parisian nose Jean-Vincent Bully in 1803, (himself the inspiration for a Honoré de Balzac novel about a perfumer, César Birotteau, in the writer’s Comédie Humaine cycle), the revamped brand now offers a reinvented take on the original product line-up. New formulations are based on old recipes with a dedication to keeping the lines as natural as possible, with no parabens or silicone used in any of the products, and many items sourced from across the world. The range on offer is immense with around 400 products for sale. There’s skincare, such as the Pommade Virginale, a skin-softening ointment for the face, and Eau Rectifiee, a cleanser made with St John’s Wort extract. There are beautiful soaps, ingenious scented matches, candles (of course) and even scented dental opiates (rose, apple and mint tea) for fragrant breath. Most interestingly of all is the 100-plus collection of raw beauty ‘materials’ painstakingly sourced from across the globe and based on age-old beauty customs. Take the Baobab Seed Oil, for instance, from North Africa, – a lifesaver for very dry skin – or there’s the Pink Clay from Sardinia, ideal for restoring radiance. For the more adventurous, there’s the Bukkake Powder, made from the droppings of the Japanese bush warbler from Japan, used as a face scrub and known for making the complexion smooth and soft.
“Buly for me is more like a lifestyle choice,” says Touhami. “It’s a statement about how you want to live. We’ve rediscovered some amazing products and it’s like we are revealing old beauty secrets and rituals that have been forgotten. We’ve travelled all over, meeting people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. I think you can feel all of that intrigue and passion when you walk through the doors.
“The Bukkake Powder, for instance, was once used by the traditional Geisha in Japan,” he continues. “We’re one of the only places in the world that now stocks it and we have many Japanese ladies that come to us just for that. You can spend hours in the shop and spend just €2 on something that works for you – such as a gorgeous floral hydrolate. Or you can spend €150 on a rare hair comb. There’s something for everyone.”
Central to Buly are the eight newly invented Parfams a L’Eau, or water perfumes, with singular notes such as Damask Rose and English Honey. They are made –radically for perfumes – without alcohol or ethanol, and available in two intensities – Eau Double and Eau Triple. “These are undoubtedly our hero products,” enthuses Touhami. “There’s nothing like them anywhere else in the world and I believe once you try one, you’ll never go back to wearing a conventional perfume. They are not aggressive, like many modern perfumes, and they are very pure. They linger, but never cling and they have a quality that seems to adapt to each wearer.”
Touhami designed the shop’s interiors himself inspired by France’s old pharmacies and dispensaries. “I spent two summers travelling around on the back of a motorbike. I visited around 130 apothecaries, notebook in hand,” he says wistfully. Delightfully, the couple have also kept true to the brand’s original aesthetic throughout. There’s a quirky black and white illustrated catalogue advertising the diverse products on offer. Labels are authentically old-fashioned and the products are offered in an assortment of vessels – from metal tubes to exquisite water-coloured painted ceramic bottles.
“The aesthetic appeal certainly has one foot in the past,” Touhami reveals. “You’ll find no plastic here. But the contents of the products are very technical and state-of-the-art. Victoire has spent a lot of time researching what works for the modern customer; gathering lots of knowledge under one roof. We want to be known as one of the best beauty brands in the world. That’s the aim.”
With plans to open in Tokyo in 2015, a second Paris store in the pipeline, and sights on setting up shop in London for 2016, that day could well be within reach.
Officine Universelle Buly, 6 rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris.
Tel.: +33 (0) 1 43 29 02 50