Revived from the history books by Victoire de Taillac-Touhami and Ramdane Touhami, Officine Universelle Buly brings its French luxury rituals to Dubai.
For serial beauty entrepreneurs Victoire de Taillac-Touhami and Ramdane Touhami, the opportunity to revive the 19th-century bathing brand now known as Officine Universelle Buly was a serendipitous chapter for their own narrative. Known for their shared love of French heritage, the husband-wife team has made rediscovering the secret of the European apothecary into an artform. “Above all, it’s history that moves me. This passion produces happy encounters, and just as many creations,” says Touhami. Starting off in fashion as an underground designer, before a period as a creative director for Liberty, Touhami and De Taillac-Touhami, a former director of famed French concept store Collette, turned their attention to the world of fragrance and beauty. After developing their perfumery concepts, they then revamped candlemaker Cire Trudon in 2007. Reinventing the French brand to best-seller status, the creative entrepreneurial duo became known for their interest in beauty artifacts. “Whether with Parfumerie Générale – a confidential cosmetics bar opened in the 2000s on the Rue St Honoré – or with Cire Trudon, we’ve always had a love of phrasing, disruption, and human service,” explains De Taillac-Touhami. “The brand history is our creative frame. It’s important for us to learn from the past. We also enjoy sharing with our customers the beautiful history of French perfume brands from the 19th century, and traditional beauty secrets from different cultures – there is so much to discover and share.”
The decision to launch in the Middle East builds on this narrative of reframing history, in a way connecting Touhami’s past with his present. Growing up in rural France in a farming community, his French-Moroccan mother first influenced his fascination with beauty rituals. “Since I was a child, my mum used Rhassoul for our face, argan oil for hers, and black soap…a certain cosmetic madeleine de Proust,” he recalls. De Taillac-Touhami’s own heritage runs deep. Belonging to one of France’s oldest families, her storied family tree includes historical figures such as Porthos, one of Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. For her husband, Touhami says that part of the appeal to him was the enduring pull of Officine Universelle Buly’s original recipes and formulas from a by-gone era. “It’s not just a question of French heritage, l’Officine is above all a story of age-old secrets that work – otherwise we’d have forgotten them,” he explains. “Paris has been missing a beautiful old perfumery house with a human touch: a concept of beauty that takes a long time, in a polite, deliciously timeless way. A moment of poetry and fragrance in the effervescent bubble created by the institutions of beauty. The universality of making beauty, by the hand and magic of man.” This sense of wonder is captured in the brand’s global locations, with a revealing commentary on the host city. In the Parisian Marais store, the boutique arises from the original workshop where the sculptor Rodin shaped his masterpiece The Thinker, the casting pit sunk into the store’s floorboards. The latest launch, Officine Universelle Buly’s Middle East flagship is a highly glossed installation in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, adjoined to the Harvey Nichols department store. The shining emerald cabinets teem with tidy rows of bottles holding fragrance waters, body oils, face creams, and other bathing necessities. On display like pinned butterflies, perch carved toothbrushes and combs. “Everything flows from this, the boutique and its appearance, the catalogue and its offering. There’s the art of telling a story,” says De Taillac-Touhami. “I love the beautiful green lacquer and the traversin floor. The Dubai design is really expressing Buly’s philosophy of one foot in the past, one foot in the future.”
Officine Universelle Buly’s hero product, the vinaigre de toilette, was first created then patented in 1809 by father-son merchants Claude and Jean-Vincent Bully. Now, a similar water formula lives on in the modern-day concept, scented with bright florals and spices. “Our Eau Triple is a very peculiar water-based perfume,” says De Taillac-Touhami. “It’s really about perfuming your own skin; the scent rendering is beautiful and long-lasting.” The brand’s vast range caters for every step of traditional grooming ritual; the signature Eau Triple is joined by oils and milks for the body, with fragrances including Damask Rose, Medina Oud, and Peruvian Heliotrope, and each with a story of province. The facial collection includes a full routine from cleansing water and toner, to moisturizer and eye cream. A rich shaving cream, “pliable” toothpaste, beeswax floss, superfine soaps, marble-clad candles, and mineral-rich bath salts from the medieval village of Guérande round out the rituals. Presentation is given equal careful consideration by the founders – bottles are illustrated with scenes featuring the Ancient Greeks who inspired the anointing oils, toothpaste tubes are adorned with a toothsome coiled serpent. The pleasure of gifting these beautiful objects is ingrained in-store. Each salesperson is trained in calligraphy and is expected to practice for four hours each week the looping cursive used on the complimentary handwritten dedications offered with each purchase.
While the co-owners see the value in retaining the old ways, Touhami admits that he also strives to make the best of both the brand’s history and their future. “The Officine philosophy is one hand before, one hand now. The best of past discoveries combined with contemporary technology,” he explains. “It makes no sense to create a perfect replica of a 19th-century Officine; our cosmetic practices and customs have changed through history, discoveries, and hazards.” But, he says in contradiction, some of the original practices still serve well, like the adherence to glass vessels. “I’d rather see Officine bottles in antique shops than on the seabed in 50 years’ time! Why be modern? There’s always this absurd attraction to modernity and progress. L’Officine shows this protestation, this balance of times and techniques that we want to instigate.” With this, the foray into the Middle Eastern market seems to be more of a homecoming of sorts for Touhami. “Since perfume was invented by the Arabs,” he adds, “we needed a historical tribute.”
Officially published in the July/August 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia