Lush. The most fragrant place on the high street. And somewhere I have completely written off for its whole pungent life.
Once upon a time, the founders of Lush had a mail order business called Cosmetics To Go, which I absolutely loved. It was a quirky offering, unlike anything else around at the time. This was back in the late 80’s, early 90’s so it was well before brands like Benefit and Soap & Glory cottoned on to the fact that beauty could be fun. Their brochures were a joy to read and their products were interesting, bonkers and somehow loveable: things I’m sure lots of people feel about Lush now.
I particularly remember a ginger scent I bought from there that would have people following me down the road to find out what it was; a papaya face mask you had to keep in the fridge which produced a movie star glow and a soap with sand in that could have made a Komodo dragon look like a freshly peeled lychee. Plus they used to send you sweets in the packaging. Business wise, it was ahead of its time. Eventually it was sold on and as often happens, without the founders involved, the offer lost direction and petered out.
Then Lush appeared and for some reason I just didn’t get it. Maybe I had grown beyond bath bombs (always disappointing) and bar shampoos. It felt frivolous, homespun, teenage. And that smell. Wow! It dives out of the store, flings itself at your head and duffs up your sinuses like an essential oil ninja and then, I suppose, strong arms you into the store.
But everywhere I go, there it is. Arrive in Rome Termini station? Sniff, sniff? There’s that smell. Hong Kong airport express terminal? Ah yes. There it is. Florence, amidst the beauties of the Renaissance? I’ll give you one guess. It’s like your nose is carrying a bag of chips and Lush is a particularly vicious seagull. You’re ambushed by it. Yet there they are, everywhere. They must be doing something right.
So in the spirit of a cultural safari, with a new year’s intention to spend less money and use less plastic I decided to hold my nose (literally) and take the plunge into an Oxford Street Lush to find out more about their new zero packaging range.
Stepping into a Lush is like walking into a branch of Whole Foods designed by Willy Wonka, but none of it is edible. The staff are professional extroverts and such eager beavers they make Mormon missionaries look like they can’t be arsed. (I’m guessing there are a lot of Drama and Theatre Studies degrees on that shop floor.)
What with the insistently nice staff, the smell and the soaps shaped like strawberries and milk bottles and liquorice allsorts, it’s all a bit over-whelming and trippy, as if The Magic Roundabout had a cosmetics sideline. I started to wonder if that nice barista in Pret had slipped half a tab into my coconut latte.
I really had no clue how to shop there. Reader, I can shop anywhere. I can binge buy in a hardware store. But I have seldom felt so out of my depth.
Well there was one other epic retail fail. Back in the early noughties, when I travelled a lot for business, I was despatched by eager teenager relatives to bring stuff back from Abercrombie and Fitch. Then you could only get their stuff in New York, which meant queuing on 5th Avenue for hours next to semi-naked male models (there are worse places…). Eventually you would be admitted to a dark, heavily perfumed world, where you were completely ignored by pretty young things dancing with each other to ear-splitting dance mixes, seemingly relieved of any requirement to serve. Even to see what colour an item was, let alone identify its size or price, meant finding a shard of light in the murk. It was the most unglamorous retail experience I’ve ever had. I felt like an old lady who’s forgotten her glasses, trying to buy boiled ham in the local CoOp. In the end it was best to grab a bunch of stuff and pay before the migraine kicked in.
Here it was the same story but with a very different vibe. Everything was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time like one of those dreams you have when you’re nodding off on a train. Hair custard? Shower jellies? Milk bottle soaps? I felt like a Martian. And a little old lady Martian at that.
Lush is clearly a company with a conscience. They have plastic minimisation, natural ingredients and ethical sourcing in their DNA and, I believe, have always offered a returns service on their packaging so the new “The Naked Truth” range is really just that taken to the furthest degree.
The Charity Pot below is a nice idea because it gives money to grass roots organisations. But I couldn’t tell you what the product in it is.
As I was flailing around trying to work out what products to buy a “sales ambassador’ came to my aid. I ended up with the following skin care haul, (do forgive the annoying names, they are not my idea). Tea Totaler is a bar form of another Lush product called Ultrabland, which I thought was an oil-to-balm cleanser but which it turns out is more of an old fashioned cold cream.
Ms Lamb and I both shared a bar on our week long holiday. It is a nice product with a tea tree scent and it left our skin feeling clean and soft but not tight. But it struggled to deal with the industrial levels of mascara we like to wear. And after a week there was very little left. It is a titchy little product, 15g and fits easily into the palm of your hand, so perhaps it’s not intended to last more than a couple of weeks. It probably needs some kind of storage tin as wrapping it up in paper all the time was a little unglamorous Would I buy it again? Probably not.
To go with that, because I am an ardent fan of facial oils, I opted for the Argan oil Naked facial oil bar. I found this quite difficult to use. I only use a drop or two of rosehip oil on my face before bed and I found this solid form very difficult to gauge. Did I smear it on my face? Warm it between my hands? Ach! Whatever. Anyway I used way too much because, despite having skin a rhino would envy, it actually made me break out. Seven spots on my chin! (I kidded myself made me look younger).
But the strangest product I used was the 7 to 3 cleansing pad. I think it’s a biodegradable wipe. Wipes are the devil’s doing. They clog up the sewers and are hugely un-biodegradable. Not what anyone wants. This is an alternative. You wet it and wipe it across your face and it releases a surprisingly creamy lotion which I liked quite a lot and which I found better at removing my make up than the cleansing bar.
The idea is you buy a few of these and use them consecutively. But, man, you’d have to move fast. The texture of these babies defies description. Very quickly, after contact with water, the stiff little disc becomes as slimy and gelatinous as a wet snail. After a couple of days, the whole thing had started to biodegrade all over my bathroom. Once it became slimy it was both difficult and slightly repulsive to put on your face.
I bought a couple of other products when I was in the store. I had read about Blousey, Lush’s banana based moisturising shampoo as something of a miracle product. Back in the day the Body Shop used to do a wonderful banana shampoo and conditioner and so I was curious to try this. Like most of the Lush collection, I struggled at first with the unfamiliar form, but it is a really great shampoo, particularly for someone with over-bleached hair like myself.
I also bought a blonde conditioning bar which I took away on our break. Again, using it involves relearning how you apply conditioner. We couldn’t work out whether we would rub it all over our heads like soap or lather it up in our hands. In fact we ended up doing a bit of both. It worked like a dream on Ms Lamb’s highlighted locks, but left mine strangely brittle and flyaway.
All in all I was interested to try Lush and I thought, as a brand, it has a great heart. The products weren’t really my bag (except for that aptly-named ‘Blousey’ shampoo) but they’re trying, at least they’re trying. I imagine there is quite a high premium on novelty in Lush, so they are probably more likely to put something out there and see what people think than spend years in a lab. It’s all part of the slightly homemade, we-cooked-this-up-in-our-kitchen vibe. I can see why people love it so much, but will I be a regular? Not unless they change that scent!