The guerrilla perfumers: An interview with Mark and Simon Constantine (Lush & B Perfumery)

Mark Constantine (pictured) is the head and co-founder of the cosmetics retail chain Lush, and also the co-founder of possibly the most awkwardly named perfumery in the word, B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful. He likes to call his business “guerrilla cosmetics” and has hit the headlines in UK this week for openly supporting a group of environmental activists, Plane Stupid. Mark trained as a trichologist and when working at a salon in the 1970s, he met Elizabeth Weir (now Bennett), with whom he started Constantine and Weir and subsequently opened a small herbal hair and beauty clinic in Poole. They made henna hair colours and beauty products based on natural raw materials. Mark’s wife Mo was involved in the business from its earliest days and several other people soon joined the team, which over the years grew to be one of The Body Shop‘s main suppliers. Anita and Gordon Roddick were a huge inspiration to Mark, but he was arguably an even bigger influence on their business, as the person who introduced the anti-animal testing policy to the brand. You could say that Mark and his team’s involvement were one of the keys to the brand’s meteoric rise in popularity.By the time The Body Shop had grown to a respectably corporate size and entered the stock market, C&W was responsible for around 80 per cent of its bestsellers. Anita’s business advisors suggested that over-reliance on an external supplier was not a good idea. The winning formulae were bought out and it was time to part ways, a process that included a non-compete agreement which forbade the opening of any shops for five years. With the money from this deal, the mail order company Cosmetics To Go was born to runaway success, with new inventions such as bath bombs and shower jellies. It seemed that the way in which the products were received by the general public they couldn’t fail. But fail they did, with poor business planning that lead to spectacular debts. The whole team was devastated, but remained determined to continue making cosmetics. Supported by external investment and the few remaining formulae they owned the rights to, in 1995 a new cosmetics business was born. Due to a combination of lack of funds and the lessons learned from Cosmetics To Go, the team chose minimal packaging and poured all the money they had left into the ingredients instead. The name Lush was chosen by a customer competition and it is a name now emblazoned above 600 doorways in 44 countries.In 2003 the sister brand B was born when  co-founder Rowena Bird’s desire to re-create her aunt Penny’s (apparently overflowing) dressing table met Mark’s wish to pay homage to traditional French perfumery. B is getting recognition for its vegan make-up range – although the products were originally not launched with that angle – but it’s the perfumes, which have until now almost been hiding behind the glittery lipstick pots, that are beginning to steal the centre stage. Their next big project is the launch of a new Lush Spa concept, due to be revealed in 2009. Mark has overseen the development of many unusual and innovative products, but he has gone on record saying that he’d most love to be remembered for his work on bird sounds. His own family history is painful and complicated, a fact that has undoubtedly influenced him a great deal. He likes to portray himself as a daredevil maverick, and he is certainly successful in doing so; with polemic TV appearances about how rubbish packaging is and campaigns that most businessmen wouldn’t dare to back up, he he is a self-declared “media tart”. A charismatic public speaker and presenter, Mark can seem almost intimidating. But there’s a less obvious vulnerable and sensitive side that comes out through his perfume work. 1000 Kisses Deep was created to celebrate 30 years of happy marriage and Dear John is a challenging but beautiful blend dominated by citrus and coffee that Mark says reminds him of his estranged father. The thick, magic-potion-like Icon fragrance is liquid Gothic poetry – the listed notes could include the poems of Byron and Shelley along with myrrh and orange blossom.

 PL: Which aromas do you most enjoy working with? MC: I think that’s sort of got another side to it, that question – it contains the question “what am I good at?” I think I’m good at jasmine, so therefore I like working with it, so you know, I almost have to wean myself off it because I think I’m good at it. Simon, you’re good with vanillas at the moment, aren’t you?SC: Yes.MC: I almost don’t go near them because you do really nice ones. Or maybe we did them together? We all laugh. SC: I had my lily of the valley-phase. MC: I didn’t really like that phase; I like the vanilla phase.SC: Yeah, the vanilla phase is more popular!MC: They can be very difficult to do well.SC: I’m not so into green smells like pine, you like those. MC: Well, yeah, I’ve just got this old habit of towering them up from the base up. It can sometimes create such lovely successes that you really go for it. Although we haven’t really got a very successful green perfume, but we have got successful green product fragrance which works extremely well. So therefore, what you’re good at is what the customers buy – rather than what you think you’re good at – and what you continue to go back to. But the problem is then that you can end up becoming rather like a musician who constantly uses similar riffs. You’re obviously trying not to be like that.SC: A bit like Status Quo.MC: The interesting thing about both of us is that – one time when I left the building to go the sandwich shop, I went right instead of left and Andrew [Lush’s financial backer] just burst out laughing because I never do that – and he says I’ve got goldfish syndrome. Every time around is a new experience. And when we went out with Simon the other day, Simon was doing the same. I think that my lack of clear recent memory has something to do with the way I work. When I go into the lab I’m always a bit concerned. I can’t believe I’ve done all the stuff I’ve already done and I don’t actually know how I did it, so there’s an awful lot of intuition going on and very little conscious thought. SC: and we have got long periods of time between creative streaks, so there can be four or five months where you haven’t been in a lab, so all of a sudden you’re like on your bike again or something like that, but when you get going…MC: But that’s a help – if you’re fresh each time, because you can’t even remember what you did last time and you have to fish out old formulas to see what you did. This is why when Simon and I have worked together, half the time we haven’t got a bloody clue who did what. I mean I can’t even remember whether I worked on the fragrance let alone the details. On some things you can, but on the whole you can’t because we’re not working on one fine fragrance for a year, we’re working on all sorts of things… we’re bloody lucky aren’t we. I doubt that there are two perfumers out there that work in a way we do.  We work rather like they would have worked in the 18th or 19th century. We’re bloody lucky.PL: I was actually saying to Simon earlier, when we talked about his book, that his environment seems more old-school than most. There’s the family environment and being brought up to understand raw materials from all aspects, working in the family perfumer’s lab – all those things.MC: Yeah. And what’s so glorious about it is that when Simon looked at his art he said, well, it’s good, but there are thousands of people out there who can do the same. But if you look at perfumery, you know, anybody out there? No? Now, can we do what we like? Yes, by all means, off you go. Right-o, thank you! We have to really, really look around, to fish out and visit the few remaining real perfumers – it’s like visiting a zoo. PL: Which other perfumers do you find inspiring?MC: Well, there’s a lovely lady Sylvaine DeLacorte (the creative director of Guerlain’s fragrances).  Every time I meet her, I like her as much for her perfumery as I like her for how she’s so seductive in her discussions about them. It’s just everything is so lovely about her. And, you see, you can’t help but go back to France in some way or another. I’ve always been inspired by the quality of the thinking of the French customer about perfumery. So that’s what I really like. It’s this whole thing with Emilie [who works for Lush in France] where each year we go over there and we visit perfume houses. She’s really interested in perfumery and when I suggested to her that she might like to train as a perfumer she said absolutely not and I couldn’t work out why. Then it just dawned on me that if you love fashion you wouldn’t necessarily want to be a dress maker. In Britain there are a very few women who would be so into what goes into their perfume and so interested in what perfume they wear in the same way they’d be interested in their dress.PL: Have any of the perfumes you have encountered over the years impressed you in some way?MC: I am a nightmare as regards to that. I smell stuff and it all smells the same to me. I can’t .. I’ve been through loads and loads of other people’s products and I really can’t identify most perfumes. The only perfume house that I’ve ever been really impressed with is Guerlain. SC: I also like Serge Lutens – their scents seem to have a different character and notes that are not conventional for a lot of the time – they smell like they’re using naturals as well.MC: I feel very much like a Luddite when it comes to all of that. I almost feel the baseball bat in my hands and I could smash my way through a lot of crap. It just doesn’t work for me. It just doesn’t. For me, it’s a method of expression – and it’s a method of expression I like because I almost feel like it is manipulative. I can’t express myself or be as clever in any other medium. So I really like it. It’s really personal to me. Other people’s expression, yes, I’m vaguely interested in it.Mark chuckles.PL: What are the main differences between creating fragrances for Lush and for B? Obviously for Lush, most of the scents are for functional fragrances/product fragrances, whereas for B it’s about developing more fine fragrances? What would you say is the main difference? Or is there one?SC: For me, I get really frustrated because I’m always making a fine fragrance and then they get taken away and put into a ballistic [bath bomb]. I just think oh God, not again. You watch the development through twists and turns and then your next one ends up in a soap or something. But then they can become best-selling products.MC: But that’s the whole point! That is exactly the point. If you take a Lush bath, you could be bathing in pure rose otto. Really, for the last, I don’t know how many, 100 years, no-one has done that. No-one has ever given you those sorts of raw materials to bathe in. I just think Simon gets up himself when he’s trying to do a new scent. Fine fragrances all the time! Pah! PL: Simon, you have just managed to create one recent fine fragrance, so tell me about that.SC: Superworldunknown. Yeah. That was more about – well, it was a bit of a slow burner.MC: A bit of a collaboration almostSC: Sure, but you didn’t do any of the work.MC: I did some of the work!SC: oh, yeah, sure.Simon is grinning.SC: Well, dad, do you want to tell the first bit?MC: It was a perfume that was inspired by a person – a beautiful Swedish singer (Karin Park) came to the shop about four or five years ago… so this is girls again… and she walked all around the shop and chose Ladyboy. I was so pleased she chose Ladyboy because the whole essence of that is that it’s slightly alternative and a very punk sort of thing; that was my idea when I was doing it. I was so pleased when she chose that. I talked with her and she started saying that she’d like a perfume that she could spray into the audience. I liked the idea, went away and started working on that. But with perfumes it can take years to get it done. Mainly it’s the gaps between the creativity that do it. You do it, it doesn’t work, you leave it, come back to it, it doesn’t work again, you leave it – and so on. And so you’re trying to express yourself, a bit like writing a book actually, and the more you work on that expression, the better it is. So I worked on that for, say two to two and a half years and did all sorts of things with it. And at the time Norwegian and Scandi bands like Kings of Convenience were producing a lot of good stuff, so it was listening to them, listening to her, and working on trying to come up with something. I wanted to do something for her without it being corny; northerly winds, that sort of thing because I’ve spent a lot of time up there you know, bringing in influences. But it didn’t work.SC: Then I had a couple calls with Karin and we went for a carnival theme.MC: She’s come back every year since, but now we’ve lost her completely. She’s got this lovely perfume, but she’s probably somewhere in Japan we think. We don’t know. SC: Anyway, then she came back and said that the new themes in her music were carnival-inspired fairgrounds, candyfloss and stuff like that, so I had to go back, but it didn’t really lift off at the time. It just sat there for a bit. And then earlier this year I was thinking of doing a perfume for my sister who had just turned 18 and I wanted something really lively and fresh and young but with a little bit of maturity – not much.Mark laughs.SC: And so I started working on it and thinking about what would be appealing to someone at that age. Obviously things like instant gratification, drinking a lot, and sweets and things like that. I started putting together some of these fragrance styles and then it turned into candy floss and toffee apples and then all of a sudden it pulled together and it was the perfume we’d been trying to make for all these years. MC: And Superworldunknown is the title of her first album and her most successful track, which in actual fact is not very cheerful. It’s about an uncle or her friend who lost his wife and she’s trying to persuade them to come back out into the world, and she describes it as the “superworldunknown”, this marvellous place that he could be in. She tries to entice him out with this song – so I suppose actually it is positive – as all great things, it deals with both life and death.PL: Mark, you seem to be particularly inspired by music. Can you tell me a bit more about how that works with you?MC: The interesting thing is the stuff we’re doing with all the spa work now. We’ve actually taken it a stage further in that we’ve taken words and tried to come up with oils that match the words in smell. It’s the same thing with music. You can get inspired if you’re struggling to make the perfume come alive. What I really like, for example is how I always find Mo, my wife, difficult to understand, but how that can then be expressed through music. I don’t really get her – she always leaves a little bit to be revealed. And you don’t actually know how to express yourself, so you’re in that bloke-state of mind. That was very well summed up by [Robert] Smith in The Cure when he wrote a love song and called it Untitled because he was trying to explain how he felt, struggling to do it, and there’s only so many words you can use to express love. It’s very difficult. I wanted a perfume that summed that up. I did call it Untitled for quite a long time. It expressed that rather enigmatic, rather difficult to pin down feeling, when you’re involved with someone else, but can’t put it into words. So that piece of music really inspired me. But when I heard Madeleine Peyroux singing Leonard Cohen’s Thousand Kisses Deep – there’s such wonderful lyrics in that; just a whole series of magical pieces of work – and it summarised the feeling for me for the first time ever. The whole concept of a thousand kisses deep is just such a lovely thought for someone who has been married for however many years.SC: Music and perfume are very similar anyway aren’t they – I mean none of us are at all musical but we all really like music.MC: I have thousands of CDs.SC: I took five years of guitar lessons and they didn’t go anywhere. But perfumery is a similar thing in that you’ve got series of notes and you can make so many different things from them. There is a definitely similar flavour to it.PL: Which of your scents are you the most proud of?MC: I’m always the most proud of whatever it is that someone’s just bought! If someone likes it, that’s good enough.SC: I’m proud of Breath of God because it was my first fine fragrance and the fact that it was really two separate perfumes that came together in the final product. And I was worried it was going to be complicated when it didn’t really need to be.MC: But that’s you – you’re very detailed. Incredibly detailed. Whereas I’m more broad. My work is more conceptual and fairly broad. I don’t even think we meet in the middle. I think there’s a gap in between those two points of view. Anyway, where were we? What am I really proud of? Well, I think, well, I liked Breath of God, that was a good one. Out of mine, nothing comes to mind at the moment. SC: Not even Dear John or anything like that? MC: Well, Dear John is just a shadow of someone. If you’re into expression as a form of perfumery then I’d be proud about a lot of my work. As a method of expression I like it. I wouldn’t say I was proud of Dear John particularly. I’m quite proud of when I noticed that L’Artisan had copied two of my products. Yeah, I like that. I do feel genuinely complimented when that happens. It would be different if an individual copied your work, but the industry being what it is, you don’t really know who did it. SC: And that’s the trouble with it, the perfume world is a bit self-eating. There are machines to check your composition and people waiting for someone to start a trend. Then everyone jumps on it.MC: I think I’m yet to make the perfume that I’ll be most proud of. Although I do like Cocktail, but it was an homage to Guerlain in the first place, so I don’t know if I want to say “yeah, when I did an homage to Guerlain I was quite pleased with myself, you know”. SC: It’s bloody popular. MC: It’s a slow burner. What I love so much about that is that if I wouldn’t have used the quality of the materials I had, it wouldn’t smell so good. It relies completely on the quality of the natural materials. And it just sits there, more or less as a big finger up to anyone who wants to primarily use synthetics. It is impossible to match; it’s just such a beautiful bouquet of natural materials, so heavy with ylang, ylang is just all over it. It’s weird, it’s essentially a bit like the feeling a musician might get about songs – I can hear the riffs and I don’t necessarily get the feeling of a whole perfume anymore, I can see the structure of it. So the thing for me with that one is that as long as the public haven’t been using too much Germolene, they like ylang ylang. And that’s a help. So the more Germolene falls into disuse, the better for me. The smell of wintergreens and the limes are all there. The thing I love about natural perfumes is that I use it always to illustrate why people must wear a perfume on their skin to experience it properly. I can put it on ten people and guarantee that they will all smell different with it on. I’ve smelled it on one particular girl and it was the best smell I’ve smelled ever, ever in my life! That’s stayed with me and I’m still having therapy for that.We all laugh.MC: So when you start with women, that’s where you end up “Ok, take me home, wear this every day!”PL: You have already illustrated this quite well, but what’s it really like working as a father and son team?MC: One of the things I really like about Simon and I working in this industry is that Simon gets to meet so many other people who are working in family industries now and can get a good idea of that. So we’ve escaped the English problem of families working together where people sort of look at the son as a reflection of the father – and it’s all crap – it’s not real. You get strong and weak all the way through the family. The stereotype is lost there. There’s a great comfort in working a as a family. If you like each other. PL: You constantly talk to your customers on your website. How do you feel that feedback is influencing you or is it – and what significance does it hold?SC: I’m not on the forum as much as dad.MC: I think you should listen to the customers then go back and surprise them. I think we listen to the customers in the same way that Merlin might have listened to someone’s wish for a spell. You’re hoping that when you go back to them that you’ve taken whatever influence they’ve given you, spun that and stood it on its head. It’s a surrealist painter’s thing – I remember a great TV program where artists were given the task of creating something to put on specific people’s walls. There was one where a lady that had climbed the Everest was matched with a female artist. The mountain climber said that she hadn’t brought anything back and she regretted that. So the artist took a feather from a psychoanalyst’s couch and a piece of feather from the down coat that this climber wore to the top of the mountain and she mounted the two together in a beautiful frame on her wall. It was just the most beautiful thing – the height of female psyche with the height of female physical achievement. And another girl – there was a dreadful piece of work where a load of bricks were put in the middle of the Tate gallery – she was put with a football fan. He said “as long as you don’t put a load of bricks in my living room I don’t care”. And the artist went off to his favourite football team and cast bricks with the feet of the players and the hands of the goalkeeper and she did a patio piece for him. And he cried when he saw it. And that’s what we’re talking about. That’s why we’re interested in working with the customers. They’ll come to you with their stereotypical wishes, which are dull on the whole, and then the fun is to take that and give them a new angle, to lift their spirits or to surprise or entertain them.B perfumes can be sampled at the recently relocated flagship store on 332 Oxford Street and they can also be purchased online. Mark’s new spa project is likely to keep him busy for some time to come, which might give Simon a chance to sneak in a fine fragrance or two, but both have made a preliminary promise to participate in the 2009 Basenotes London perfume tour. Whether or not their schedules will ever match again is another story!

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