Innovation in a 19th century ambience: with their cosmetics brand Officine Universelle Buly, Victoire de Taillac and Ramdane Touhami combine antique decor with modern science. And in doing so, they’re causing a stir around the world.

Antiques with a modern twist

Roman plaster busts stand next to old brass jugs and an antique thermometer. A sign proclaims: “We serve hot and iced coffee.” The shop window of the Officine Universelle Buly in Rue Saintonge in Paris arouses curiosity. The same goes for the interior – richly decorated walnut furniture, a marble counter and shop assistants who, in their uniforms consisting of a white blouse and dark blue pleated skirt, look like they’ve come from a different era. 

On a warm late summer morning, we have an appointment here with Victoire de Taillac, who will be joined later by her husband Ramdane Touhami. The couple are the founders of this unique universe. This curious shop isn’t a museum of antique shop fittings, but one of a total of 25 Buly universal pharmacies. It’s a shop selling natural cosmetics, perfumes and special toiletries. You can also find Mühle products here.

With an unusual range comprising pomades, pastes, creams, candles and perfumes and an extraordinary interior, Touhami and de Taillac are causing a stir. There are now four Buly shops in Paris and 21 more around the world. They can be found mainly in Tokyo, where the couple lived for a long time, and also in Milan, London and Seoul. Not only has Buly become a brand with global appeal, but the couple themselves also enjoy a certain popularity – the two have mastered the art of social media. 

Co-founder of the Buly cosmetics empire: Victoire de Taillac in the Marais shop in Paris
Dried flowers, antique furniture and all kinds of curiosities create a very special atmosphere

The Buly range comprises a total of 800 products. The products can be found on Rue de Saintogne, a part of the tourist hotspot Le Marais that is frequented more by Parisians, wherever there is space for them. In between, there are exotic-looking objects whose purpose is unclear at first glance. Victoire de Taillac and Ramdane Touhami are known for developing retail concepts that are out of the ordinary. Touhami, for example, is responsible for the successful revival of the world’s oldest wax manufactory, Cire Trudon. Before that, the couple created Parfumerie Générale, which revolutionised fragrance retailing in Paris in the early 2000s with a range of niche perfumes. 

Although the Parfumerie Générale had to close after only three years, the idea of a curated assortment is still emulated today. “We were genuine pioneers back then. People still approach us about the boutique. If the Parfumerie Générale hadn’t existed, Buly wouldn’t be here today. Our vision back then of a close customer relationship and the idea of explaining products in detail laid the groundwork for Buly,” says de Taillac.

The ambience and aesthetics of the shops are carefully chosen, but are also a product of happy coincidence to some degree. A friend brought the couple a catalogue of 19th-century beauty products from an auction. “We liked the pretty porcelain bottles and the detailed product names, not to mention the era. In the 19th century, the myth of the elegant French woman was born. The whole world flocked to Paris to buy fashion and perfumes,” says de Taillac.

Sip coffee in style at the marble counter – it’s like everything’s from a different era
Old-fashioned flacons with very contemporary contents: the facial tonic with rose extracts is said to make your skin glow
The creative head of the brand: Ramdane Touhami is an expert when it comes to developing innovative retail and interior concepts

An art historian by training, she began researching, visiting libraries and studying the beauty industry during the reign of Napoleon the Third. Ramdane Touhami researched what shops looked like back then, how products were presented and the way customers were received. 

The concept took shape, but only the name was missing. That was until the entrepreneurs happened upon the novel “César Birotteau” by Honoré de Balzac. The work tells the story of a successful perfumer who meets his demise as a result of his own decadence and extravagance. The historical model for the novel’s protagonist was the distiller and perfumer Jean-Vincent Bully, who lived on the left bank of the Seine. Although his “Vinaigre de Toilette”, a cleansing vinegar for cosmetic applications, was a real bestseller, he went bankrupt in 1830.

The “vinaigre” (vinegar) wasn’t part of the range when de Taillac and Touhami revived the brand in 2014. Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial struck oil with their revival of the time-honoured beauty brand. The press reported that customers loved the concept, including a number of elderly ladies whose grandmothers had sworn by the vinaigre. “Ancient bottles are sent to us to this day. That’s amusing, of course. But it’s not just a nice chapter of history that attracts people. You need to have a vision.” 

Typical Buly: the fixtures made of carved walnut are reminiscent of an old pharmacy. But overhead?
With own emblem, of course: the floor tiles are also customised

De Taillac and Touhami, who have three children, had developed their own personal strategy for their new company long before buying the old brand. “The story of Jean-Vincent Bully is just the framework for us. Everything that brings the brand to life has been chosen in line with our taste and is very modern,” says 46-year-old Victoire de Taillac. “We’ve got one foot in the past and the other in the future,” her husband adds. By this, the 47-year-old is mainly referring to the products. According to Touhami, it was never their intention to revive any old beauty recipes but “to offer the best quality products drawing on cutting-edge science”. 

The fact that Victoire de Taillac had previously overseen the beauty segment at the legendary Parisian concept store Colette for years helped. So did the experience garnered at Parfumerie Générale and from the revival of Cire Trudon. “We already had a good network of experts, and they recommended us to the best producers. 

Today, the entrepreneurial duo works intensively with Cosmetic Valley, a scientific centre for innovation, beauty and well-being near Chartres. When Ramdane Touhami desperately wanted to offer perfumes based on water instead of alcohol, it was there that the solution was found: “Thanks to micro-encapsulation, the fragrance lasts a long time and doesn’t irritate the upper layer of the skin,” says Touhami. 

The perfumes, which consist of 98 percent natural ingredients, are a bestseller and now account for more than a third of sales. For all products, the formulas are kept as simple as possible and limited to five to ten ingredients. “With some, such as argan oil, we don’t want any mixtures; we offer the pure, unadulterated oil,” says de Taillac. 

The art historian de Taillac studied the beauty industry during the reign of Napoleon the Third
The Paris shop in Marais also features a spa area offering massages and cosmetic treatments

The pair combine these high quality standards for modern cosmetics with curiosities such as perfumed postcards and an Aker Fassi, a clay container with poppy flower powder that the Berbers use to moisturise and paint their lips. For them, these traditional beauty routines have a certain beauty. 

Buly is very dear to the couple’s hearts. The project is the symbiosis of Ramdane Touhami’s artistic creativity and Victoire de Taillac’s profound knowledge of the beauty field, influenced by the experiences of a shared life between Paris, New York and Tokyo, and implemented with an almost irrepressible joy in showcasing products. The two live their vision  – and sometimes pose for it in 19th-century style, or somewhat surreally with Ramdane’s head under a perfume glass bell, held by his wife.

The company was sold to LVMH in 2021. Despite a minority stake, the takeover by the luxury group came as a surprise to some. Victoire de Taillac had the following to say about this: “We love what we do, but with this success and with 200 employees on the books these days, Ramdane only had time to deal with management and finances. That frustrated him and he quickly got bored. Since the sale of the business, he can devote himself to new projects and is happy again.” His wife continues to take care of product information – like the brushes she now points to – which are made of birch wood and boar bristles. “We discovered these at a Korean hairdresser who had them made in Japan. We found out that the best bristles come from the spine of wild boars.” They are parts that you never give away. There’s still so much to talk about.

This article was first published in the Autumn 2022 print edition of 30 GRAD.