Pia Long continues her Study Notes column, where we've been following her progress as a trainee perfumer at Lush. You can read the previous columns here.
The small, colourful room was full, with odds and sods of mismatching furniture, a bird clock on the wall and shelves creaking with pigments, glass jars and books. Mark, Simon, members of our design team and I had gathered in Rowena's lab to hear what Mark had in mind after B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful had been closed in December just gone. It was January 2010 and we'd only just returned to work after Christmas, ignorant of what would happen to the back catalogue of scents from the defunct sister brand.
"Si and I have been chatting about music a lot, and about how we'd like to continue to do perfumery. We like the idea of releasing new perfumes like singles and then releasing the full 'album' later in the year. I'd like to do a gallery show of them. We've been doing some new work and would like to do the gallery in July."
This being Lush, everyone was more than familiar with ideas that would have seemed off-the-wall somewhere else. The deadline was a little tight, even for us. Jo and Katie, our design team gurus, looked at each other and then to Mark: "Okay... so how do you see them displayed?"
"I don't know. If I had my way I would just have a plinth and the perfume there; like an art gallery. The perfume has to be the fucking point."
He explained that he was sick of the extra marketing and faff surrounding fragrances; he wanted as plain a bottle as possible (particularly since Tania Sanchez famously pointed out that smelling Superworldunknown coming from the B Never bottle with plastic jewels glued to the lid was "as if Venus were suddenly emerging from a Manila trash heap.").
It was clear that Tania’s and Luca’s reviews in Perfumes, The A-Z Guide of the B fragrances had influenced Mark and Simon (above) a great deal. Someone out there is actually paying attention! The delight of discovering that the Guide was merely the tip of an iceberg of an emerging movement of perfume enthusiasts looking for something beyond the mainstream was a massive eye-opener for them. Mark had already told me in an interview for Basenotes how they felt isolated from the mainstream industry and how they felt a little bit like the final exhibits at a shrinking zoo.
"I'd like to call the brand Guerrilla Perfume - the same as the title of your article, Pia," Mark said. "It describes what we're up to."
Later that week Jack, Mark's younger son, heard about the plans. "Guerrilla Perfume, Dad? That's a bit pretentious for you guys. I'd believe 'Gorilla Perfume', since you're both big and hairy."
"Well, it's certainly... unique," I said, when Mark told me he'd decided to go for "Gorilla" instead of "Guerrilla".
"No, really, think about it - the first brand name really would have been too up-ourselves. This one is much more true to us. It conveys that we don't take ourselves too seriously. And if you Google 'Gorilla Perfume' we'll definitely be the only ones coming up," he said.
In 2009 I'd seen Monkey, Journey to the West, Damon Albarn's Chinese-language opera at the O2 Arena. It was one of the most enjoyable spectacles I've had the pleasure of witnessing and one particular scene and its song stuck in my mind long after. The cheeky Monkey steals a peach of immortality from the Heavenly Queen's Peach Banquet and the accompanying song describes how sweet, blossoming and intoxicating the peaches are. I'd been working on some simple fruit blends that Simon had requested and without really realising what was happening, I had begun to tinker away at a peach and tuberose accord on the side. By January 2010, just after our first Gorilla meeting, I'd put together something resembling a fine fragrance, with notes of peach, mandarin, tuberose, osmanthus and oakmoss. I showed it to Mark.
"This is very nice. Do you want it in the show?" he said.
And this would be the time, ladies and gentlemen, THIS would be the time, the only time in my entire life that I was totally, utterly speechless.
So it didn't make it to the show. I just stared at Mark, completely not having expected his reaction and said bugger all. So he moved swiftly on and forgot about it.
The first gallery show was held in London's Shoreditch Town Hall in July 2010. None of us knew what to expect. The execution of interpretation - from the esoteric perfumes to a series of interconnected rooms, each with its own theme - was so smooth that it appeared close to miraculous to those of us who had the luxury of turning up on opening day. Mark and Si didn't want to see it until then either. That's the sort of thing the English call a "brave decision".
A week or so before the gallery itself, people dressed in purple t-shirts and covered in a brand new violet perfume suddenly broke into dance in various parts of London. Tuca Tuca was the first 'single' of the 'album' and this perfume interpretation of a classic Italian pop song was accompanied by an actual cover version of the track itself and the dance that goes with it. Our in-house songbird Mira Manga of festival-favourite Duloks was asked to record a modern version of Tuca Tuca. It blasted out along with the first launch in the Gorilla line.
People were admittedly rather puzzled at witnessing wriggling purple-clad mobs who completed their performance by handing out secret invitations to the London gallery. But people came to see what it was all about and the gallery was such a success that we immediately exported it to New York. I cheekily invited Avery Gilbert (since I'm a bit of a fangirl) and he not only attended, but spent a long time chatting with us and posted a lovely review at his blog, too.
We ended up transporting the cardboard cut-out orange-blossom trees, dressing tables, plinths, beds, fans, giant bottles of perfume, condom machines and all manner of other props around the world to Japan and Korea, too. The Japanese launch involved an impressive "fake" YouTube hack and a successful viral campaign and the Korean team built a mini Lush festival called Lush Land around a well-known concert hall; the event was a two-day live concert and a marketplace, which included a full re-creation of the Gorilla perfume gallery. Each night's musical offering was opened by a philharmonic orchestra and the songs played by local pop groups were loosely themed around the perfumes. I fell head-over-heels in love with a group called Jang Gi Ha and The Faces
Amidst the whirlwind of new perfumes, long-haul flights, events and meetings, I managed to eke a few more essays out for the IFEAT diploma course. I realised that the only way to get any of it done was to lock myself away from phones and emails and just devote a few hours at a time to the subject at hand. Index cards have been my personal saviour. To anyone having to study in fits and starts or attempting to weave together complex topics into a coherent essay or an article: get some index cards and learn how to use them.
When the essays came back with comments from my tutor, Tony Curtis, stating things like "another excellent submission" or "this is textbook quality", I felt a mixture of relief and hope and eternal, horrible guilt that I hadn't done more of the coursework. But then I'd have to pack for Korea. Or go to a meeting in Poole.
When the fragrance line launched in the shops, it was pretty obvious that not all the stores could hold up to twenty different perfumes on top of the full line-up of Lush stock. So a decision was made to hold some of the scents as online specials and open full-range perfumery stores in due course. We've now got a handful of perfumeries in Lush shops around the world that stock the whole range (but it's not been easy to explain to the managers of the smaller shops why they weren't given all of them, too).
Our customers were baffled by the brand name and the black bottles but they loved the scents; particularly Simon's re-work of Dirty (a scent from the B days, based on fresh, clean notes). He broke down the perfume accords into separate scents for toiletries and the novel toothpaste-tablets, so once you've brushed your teeth, had a shower, a shave, and styled your hair, you'll have built the fragrance up again and can finish off with the body spray or perfume. It became a real hit worldwide and at one point even out-sold the Lush staple, Karma.
Last summer, instead of staging our traditional international staff meeting, Lush held a music festival in a field in Dorset (as you do) and invited all our international partners, lucky staff members from around the world and a handful of customers to experience a few days of music, product-making workshops, presentations from our campaign groups and long, long queues for delicious vegan pizza. It seemed a little insane (and still does) but it was also a complete headrush, and staff begged Mark relentlessly for another Lushfest in 2012.
This year, the festival was opened up to a limited number of friends and family. A full recreation of the original London Shoreditch gallery was staged and there were several new fragrances, some of which may only ever make an appearance at our events. One of them was my first fine fragrance, called HQ. It was a Eurovision pop song next to Mark and Simon's Gil Scott Heron, but our visitors seemed to think there is room in the world for both and it was among the best-sellers at the 'fest
To Be Continued...
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 researcher, writer, trainee perfumer and a product developer.