When Mark pulled me aside at our international meeting last summer, I wasn’t surprised at what he had to say: “We have decided to close B.”
“I see,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. Perhaps he’d been expecting a stronger reaction. I had just spent a few weeks on the road, pouring my little heart out to the B Never Too Busy to Be Beautiful sales teams about the magic of perfume. “You guessed?” he said and I nodded.
“We have given it more than a fair shot. The business was never going to be profitable. It was time to do this,” Mark continued. “It’s very sad for all of us. Don’t worry though – we have plans. All your work won’t go to waste. And there’s plenty for you to do in Lush.”
“There are certainly many products that could come over...” I started.
“Bigger than that,” he said.
I smiled and hoped that he’d been thinking about saving the perfumes. “Whatever you do, please don’t discontinue all the fragrances. You could simplify the packaging and launch them in Lush.”
“And please let me be a part of it,” I added. Not that I expected him to be unclear about just how much I wanted to participate in whatever perfume-related project they were working on.
Besides a training road show, I’d been burying myself in course books and chemistry reading. I’d been so worried about my ability to properly grasp the science behind fragrances that my shelves were now full of books on organic chemistry – of both the Uni-student kind and the popular-science kind. Every chapter of my perfume course had included important new concepts, so I spent hours with the additional reading and exercises, hoping to find fluency and confidence. Of course, all the extra reading really seemed to accomplish was a delay in getting on with the course. Well, I did learn an extra thing or two.
Meanwhile, my husband and I had grown tired of the ‘charm’ of living in a studio flat with all of our worldly possessions (including 2000 books stacked in every available nook and cranny and my remaining essential oils stashed in brown cardboard boxes under the bed). We put the books and a whole lot of other stuff in ‘storage’ (read: shipped it off to my mother-in-law’s garage) and put the flat on the market.
There was another good reason to move: the three-hour commute to Poole. Especially when I did the round-trip all in one day. It had been fine occasionally, but my new job had changed that. Now I wanted – and needed - to be down there several days a week. The occasional overnight stay was fine, but I didn’t like the idea of spending most of my week away. So we decided to sell the place and move somewhere in-between Poole and London. My husband still needed to get to the Big Smoke. All this was right about when all the newspaper headlines were full of scary headlines about the stalling housing market.
By the time I had the conversation with Mark about closing B, I still hadn’t sent off my first course essay. We’d had some viewings, but no buyer. And I had no idea how I would manage the stress much longer. What if we couldn’t find a buyer? I wasn’t about to move to Poole and leave my husband in the studio. I love perfume and my job, but it’s not worth sacrificing my marriage for.
Now this. I was beginning to hope that I could sit in my little room full of books and absorb the knowledge within by some sort of osmosis; ‘enlivreage’, if you will. And that some fabulous investment buyer would snap up the cute little studio (it comes with a garden and everything!) for our asking price.
The international meeting was over quickly and left most people happy, but many with mixed feelings. The B managers were quietly told about the bad news. There was an unfamiliar melancholy in the air.
I had a welcome distraction in my work and I felt elated when some of my perfumery ended up in our Christmas range. Simon had made some beautiful soap fragrances, but they needed tweaking and the final release versions were the ones I’d worked on. There weren’t many people to whom I could express my excitement, because let’s face it, it isn’t such a big deal; so my husband and some long-suffering work colleagues got the brunt of it.
Both Simon and his dad had begun as perfumers by making up (compounding) fragrances, so it seemed a good place for me to be in the summer. I spent some time working with the industrial scales and big barrels. Because everything was still so new to me and because I am still very much the ‘fan-girl’, I couldn’t feel blasé about giant vats of guaiacwood, or about pouring perfume into canisters by the litre. It was also hard to get used to after delicate little pipettes and laboratory scales. Somehow the professional compounders had it to a tee. They could pour from a large jug and get the measurement right to fraction of a gram. I still had to use my pipette for the last few drops.
I hadn’t anticipated the new perspective this would give me on some materials. Tonka absolute is semi-solid at room temperature, but that doesn’t seem awkward to work with when you can heat it in a little water bath (or as I often used to do at home, on top of a heater) until it becomes pourable. Once you have a whole barrel of the stuff and you have to dig out enough for a 200kg order, it’s really quite a different process. Aldehydes are fun to work with, but less so when you have to pour a jug’s worth and end up with a dose of the fumes in your face.
Simon asked me to make up some fruity bases for him. I was very excited, but also wondered how I’d be able to squeeze myself into the 29 High Street labs above the first-ever Lush shop. That’s the father-and-son perfume lab: their place, their space. It used to be even smaller before they knocked a wall down between two rooms. Whilst popping in every now and then had never been a problem, I couldn’t imagine sustaining longer projects in there without getting in the way.
Since I’d been down at the factory with the compounders anyway, I chatted with the room manager about whether I could ‘camp’ there. One end of a Quality Control room seemed somewhat disused and had a convenient work surface, just crying out to be used for something other than storing bottles and boxes. I spent a couple of days clearing the space and asked our wood workshop guys to build a perfume organ. There’s a definite advantage to working for a company that builds its own shop fixtures and fittings! They promised to put something together over Christmas. I bought them a box of chocolates as thanks.
We had to wait until October to sell our flat. Every week cranked up the pressure just a little more: “what if it doesn’t sell at all? What will I do then?” In the end we decided to accept an offer just below our asking price and get the ball rolling. I found us a lovely little rented one bedroom house in Farnham. The paperwork and all other moving-related business took us into December. We moved on the 21st of December and spent Christmas unpacking.
After Christmas I felt tired, but released. The new home is perfect, except perhaps for its proximity to the train track, which vibrates the house every time a train goes past - lying in bed at night feels like being on a night-train. So my husband and I decided to close our eyes and imagine we were on a giant house-train on our way to some exotic location or other. This proved much more soothing than getting annoyed about the noise. Feeling rested and settled, I finally caught up on the course, sent off my homework like a good girl and even got a little bit ahead with my reading.
Meanwhile, it was time for our Christmas Mafia. The key decision makers in the company are, perhaps only semi-jokingly, called the Lush Mafia. Once upon a time, the group was formed from a handful of the founders around Mark’s kitchen table; now around forty people contribute regularly, though only the Christmas Mafia will usually see a full turn-out. Everyone is invited, we review the year and exchange presents. Mark likes to play Santa. This year he said: “Please don’t buy a secret Santa present. Make it yourself, using the skills you use at work.” This proved a problematic proposition for our accountants, less so for the product developers.
It seemed obvious that I should try to make a perfume. Except that this time I wouldn’t have to attempt it at home. When I mentioned this to Rowena Bird, she immediately made a request for a fresh grapefruit scent; hoping we could ‘fix’ the Secret Santa so that she’d get my contribution. I quietly worried that the main concern should surely be whether what I managed to produce at such a short notice and with my lack of experience would be up to the job. Maybe it’d be the booby-prize?
Having to focus on one raw material turned out to be the best thing ever. I decided to play around with the idea of vetivert oil – and how a touch of grapefruit is usually a welcome addition to scents based around it. I turned this idea on its head and made grapefruit the star. I added a healthy dollop of olibanum and aldehydes with a few delicate floral notes to form a simple, but surprisingly successful composition. The opening is exactly like cutting into a fresh grapefruit, after which the scent mellows to a fresh, fruity and light accord, turning a little green, a little powdery, and sweetening over time to a simple vanilla and musk drydown. It certainly wasn’t a finished ‘fine fragrance’, but it wasn’t thin, there were no gaps in it, no off-notes and it smelled lovely. It had to be enough because I only had two days to make it, so into the bottle it went!
I had made enough for two small bottles and two atomisers, so I was able to put one in a Secret Santa present and give the second bottle to Ro. No rigging required. To my delight and relief, the fragrance was well-received. Even Mark and Simon liked it.
Later, Mark made some suggestions: “It’s very nice. You could add some rose, but maybe not. I see it as two circles, or two holes at the moment. The rose might bring them together, or ruin it. Up to you. Sometimes it’s better not to mess with it. It’s very nice as it is.”
I wrote down the formula at home and worked out what would happen with rose in it. Maybe I could also add more vetivert oil? I re-formulated it with pen and paper and for the first time (but certainly not for the last, as I was about to find out), felt a nagging urge to jump in the lab and make up the new composition immediately.
The B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful range quietly closed its shops after the Christmas period with some stock remaining for sale on the website. With bittersweet delight, the first ever make-up colour I’d designed during a day with Rowena back in April, was released with the last batch of colours ever to come out from the range. It was a warm, reddish-brown blusher, which Charlotte and Ro decided to name Bookworm.
After the New Year celebrations, a small group of us gathered to talk about the future of our fragrance range. Mark and Simon explained their vision and it sounded different, exciting and a little bit loopy. In other words, perfect for Lush. We figured out who needed to do what, and set off on our mission to launch a brand-within-a-brand.
To be continued...
About the Author
Pia Long is a lifelong cosmetics and perfume enthusiast and has been involved in the industry for twenty years. She qualified from London College of Fashion in 1996 and currently works for Lush and B as a researcher, writer, trainee perfumer and a junior product developer.