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Where was the Lush chain store originally founded?

The Intergalatic Christmas range from Lush. (Photo: lush.com)
The Intergalatic Christmas range from Lush. (Photo: lush.com)

Helen Stiles enters the fantastical world of a global brand that started in Dorset as it gets into its festive groove

The ‘must see’ movie for Christmas 2023 is Wonka. It tells the backstory of eccentric confectionery creator extraordinaire Willy Wonka who introduced us to rivers of chocolate and fizzy lifting drinks in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But what if I was to tell you that there is a place just like that right here in Dorset; it has a Ballistics Department and a Bubbles Room. Its name is Lush.

Lush was founded in 1995 in a little Georgian shop on Poole’s Old High Street. It is now a global brand with over 880 shops across 48 countries and manufacturing hubs in Canada, Croatia, Germany, Japan, Australia and Dorset. I pitched up at their Poole HQ, on an industrial estate, for a behind-the-scenes tour of Lush in the run-up to Christmas. Believe me, Santa’s workshop has nothing on what is being created here. My tour began in the kitchen - but this isn’t any old kitchen, this is the Lush Fresh Kitchen where facemasks and eye pads are made.

Michelle Leahy, a Product Inventor at Lush, started as a Christmas temp in 1999 working in the Soap Room. ‘This will be my 25th Christmas here,’ she tells me, as I admire the gleaming row of professional Hobart mixers, which you would expect to see in food production. These are used to create a range of fresh facemasks.

‘There’s always been plenty of opportunity for any of the team to put forward ideas for potential new products. One of my earliest ideas was The Ex Factor bath bomb.’ This was in the shape of a blue voodoo doll, with a little red heart. ‘You dipped it into your bath and watched its limbs dissolve.’ she laughs. ‘I was in my early twenties, a time of boyfriends and break ups, it was a bit of fun.’ It became a limited-edition bath bomb for Valentine’s Day. Michelle is also the genius behind the cartoon style face stickers that are on all its products, telling you who has made them.

At present Michelle is working with Lush co-founder, and Manufacturing Director, Mo Constantine, on the Fresh & Flowers Subscription Box. ‘We take a different theme each month. We recently did one around Poole Harbour, so we had products that included locally sourced seaweed and sea salt as well as a boat-shaped soap inspired by the Brownsea Island ferries.’

I take a sneaky peak into the cold store. Alongside a bucket of red roses and punnets of fresh blueberries there is a bag of tooth wracked seaweed, gathered by local fisherman Pete Miles, waiting to be processed into the BB Seaweed facemask.

‘I have books from the 1960s and 1970s with recipes for making your own beauty treatments using simple fresh ingredients,’ adds Michelle. ‘And Jackie magazine always had ideas for facemasks you could make using ingredients from your kitchen or fridge; this is just a scaled-up version.’ All the ingredients and pigments used throughout the entire Lush range of products are food grade. The Mr Pumpkin facemask lists pumpkin puree, organic pumpkin seed butter, cinnamon and orange oil. It really is good enough to eat!

Great British Life: The Christmas Wow collection. (Photo: lush.com)The Christmas Wow collection. (Photo: lush.com)

‘We start planning our Christmas range for next year now, as we want to be inspired by being in the thick of the Christmas buzz. That’s why I’m already thinking about ideas for Christmas 2024!’

After 25 Christmases at Lush, is Michelle in danger of a festive burnout? She smiles ‘Never! Everything is constantly evolving. There are always exciting new products to create. Who knows what next Christmas will bring?’

Elena Gronland, Learning and Development Manager for Manufacturing, is my guide to Planet Lush. Her knowledge of the brand is encyclopaedic. When she said our next stop was the ‘ballistics factory’ I was seriously excited. This is where Lush’s legendary bath bombs are made. Mo Constantine made the world’s first bath bomb in her garden shed in Dorset in 1989. Mo, with her husband Mark Constantine, was one of six co-founders of Lush, with Rowena Bird, Helen Ambrosen, Liz Bennett and Paul Greeves. Inspired by watching the effervescent Alka-Seltzer tablets dissolving in water, the basic recipe Mo used for that first bath bomb remains the same today: sodium bicarbonate and citric acid, with specific additional ingredients. Since 2005 Lush has created over 500 different designs and sold over 350 million bath bombs globally.

As we walk into the Ballistics Department, I spot a fully working claw-footed bath where the ‘Bath Art’ can be appreciated; simply run a bath, drop in the bath bomb and watch the magic happen as it fizzes and the colours ripple through the water.

Great British Life: Making bath bombs in the Ballistics Room at Lush in Poole. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Making bath bombs in the Ballistics Room at Lush in Poole. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)

Inside the vast warehouse my senses are overwhelmed. Staff are standing at immaculate stainless-steel tables, creating bath bombs from a dazzling array of coloured powders. These come from hoppers with labels such as Lump of Coal Black, Snow Drift Blue and Sweet Pudding Pink. In the gallery above, the ingredients for each bath bomb are mixed by the compounders. Containers with names like Goddess, Snow Fairy, Black Rose and Sex Bomb line the shelves. These are the EC or Essential Component, created in a mysterious building known as Unit 17, no journalists allowed! ‘Unit 17 is the only place in the world that makes the EC fragrances that go into the Lush products,’ Elena tells me.

Every product has a compounder – like a head chef. Theirs is the face on the sticker on a Lush product. They know exactly what ingredients go into a product; whether atmospheric conditions can impact the mix, or if there is variation in the natural ingredients. ‘A compounder is a really skilled job,’ says Elena. ‘We currently have four Master Compounders who know how to make every single product across all our departments. We also have compounder trainers who skill up compounders in specific areas. In ballistics, it’s the compounders who create the powders that go into the bath bombs which include the pigments, scent and any other additional ingredients required.’

Elena then invites me to try my hand at making the limited-edition Snowdrift bath bomb which features a white snowflake design. These are handmade using plastic moulds, created in-house and then recycled to make more moulds. It quickly becomes clear that this is a skilled job, done at lightning speed by the ballistics team.

Great British Life: Adding noses to the Reindeer bubble bars.(Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Adding noses to the Reindeer bubble bars.(Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe) Great British Life: Making Candy Cane bubble bars in the Bubbles Room. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Making Candy Cane bubble bars in the Bubbles Room. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)

From September until Christmas, the ballistics department swells to 500 people over two sites with three shifts working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Last year they made 13 million bath bombs.

Our next stop is the Bubbles Room, which is where Elena started as a seasonal worker back in 2014. ‘I loved working here,’ she tells me. ‘It’s very hands on, almost like a bakery. There are rolling pins and cookie cutters, even paint brushes to add the red noses on the reindeer bubble bars.’

In a light bright room, the Bubbles team stand at stainless-steel tables making a variety of products. I watch as one of them effortlessly creates a red and white striped candy cane bubble bar. ‘We group products that use the same basic ingredients, or production processes under one roof,’ explains Elena. ‘The main ingredients used here in bubble bars are bicarb and cream of tartar –but in this room we also produce shampoo bars, henna, dusting powders and deodorants.’

Lush’s Ethical Buying Team has a global network that sources the best quality raw materials. These must satisfy three criteria: Fair Share – a fair price that goes direct to the grower or co-operative; Earth Care – regenerative to the environment; People Care – giving back to the community that created or harvested the product.

For example, the Fairtrade cocoa butter used in its bestselling Charity Pot Hand and Body Lotion comes from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in northwestern Colombia. The shea butter, used in body butters, bath bombs and massage bars, is from the Ojoba Collective in Ghana – a co-op dedicated to teaching women farming methods that don’t use harmful chemicals.

Great British Life: The Bubbles Room in full Christmas mode. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)The Bubbles Room in full Christmas mode. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe) Great British Life: Hoppers contraining the mixes for the different bath bombs. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Hoppers contraining the mixes for the different bath bombs. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)

There are Dorset-sourced ingredients such as the charcoal used in the Prince of Darkness facemask and Poole Harbour seaweed. ‘Lush may be a global brand, but all the invention still happens here in Poole,’ Elena observes.

My factory tour concluded, I met two of Lush’s ‘blue sky thinkers’ who blow my mind - Karen Huxley, Head of Global PR for Lush and Katrina Johnson, Brand Marketing Lead.

What, I ask, has made Lush such a successful global brand?

‘Efficacy of the products,’ Karen says. ‘We invent, manufacture and retail all our products, and the founders are very much involved in the business. They are still inventing products.’

Great British Life: Fresh and dried ingredients that are used in the facemasks and eye pads. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Fresh and dried ingredients that are used in the facemasks and eye pads. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe) Great British Life: Some of the range of fresh facemasks made at Lush in Poole. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Some of the range of fresh facemasks made at Lush in Poole. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)

‘The value and purpose of the brand and its ethics still resonates as much today as when they started.’ Katrina adds.

Mark and Mo’s offspring are all involved in the business. Claire is the Global Retail Director, Simon created Lush Gorilla Perfumes and set up the Ethical Buying Team, before founding and running regenerative companies ånd Fragrance and Careys Secret Garden. Jack is Chief Digital Officer and an inventor, his specialism is the bath bomb, for which he has introduced Hollywood bubbles, jelly centres and popping candy to the bath bomb mixes.

He has also combined cutting-edge technology with bath art for Lush’s latest invention, released just in time for Christmas. The Lush Bath Bot is an industry first. Conceived and created in Dorset, it’s a collaboration between the Tech Warriors, part of Lush’s in-house R & D team, and Jack’s vivid imagination.

Great British Life: Making Snowdrift bath bombs. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Making Snowdrift bath bombs. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe) Great British Life: Some of the range of bath bombs with the bath where they can be tested in the Ballistics Room. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)Some of the range of bath bombs with the bath where they can be tested in the Ballistics Room. (Photo: Lara Jane Thorpe)

About the size of a bath bomb, the Bath Bot is an interactive waterproof speaker with coloured lights. You put it into your bath along with your chosen bath bomb, then link it to the Lush app to pick up specially curated music mixes or soundscapes with a choreographed light show. ‘It’s a fully immersive experience as the sound waves travel through the water,’ says Karen. ‘You could have a meditative soak in the tub with your Bath Bot, or a rave and bathe before going out to a party. We’ve been working on this for a long time to get it right, and it’s fully recyclable. Now we’re exploring film or music collaborations for the Bath Bot.’ Lush has already partnered with SpongeBob SquarePants and Barbie this year with other products, so watch this space!

Staying with the futuristic vibe, Lush’s Christmas 2023 theme is ‘Intergalactic’, which is the name of Lush’s world-bestselling bath bomb, Jack was inspired by the film Guardians of the Galaxy. ‘Intergalactic even features popping candy for shooting stars,’ adds Karen. ‘He asked his dad Mark to create a fragrance that smelt like space.’ Apparently, space smells minty fresh with a dash of grapefruit and woody base notes.

 

Karen and Katrina then take me into reality hyperspace, where products become characters with a backstory. ‘The Lord of Misrule, one of our seasonal favourites, lives in a Gotham-style city which he is rewilding.’ Katrina says. ‘Then we started thinking, what if Snow Fairy (another seasonal fave) and the Lord of Misrule lived in our intergalactic universe, just off the Minty Way, with a Bath Bot space shuttle.’ Poole-based games publisher Realm Runner Studios have built fictitious worlds for these characters to inhabit, introducing the brand to a whole new fanbase of gamers.

‘The aim is to keep evolving these digital concepts, along the way creating new planets and breathing life into characters associated with products,’ adds Karen. Look out for Demon in the Dark, and Flying Fox on a space hover board. But behind all this fun and games, the brand message remains the same, says Karen. ‘Our whole mission is leaving the world lusher than we found it, and that manifests in different ways. We do like experiential stuff, and we love to welcome people to Planet Lush, just to see what they make of it.’

Beam me up to Planet Lush, Scotty!

See their range at the Lush Shops in Poole and Bournemouth or lush.com

Great British Life: Snowdrift bath bomb. (Photo: lush.com)Snowdrift bath bomb. (Photo: lush.com) Great British Life: Reindeer Bubble Bar. (Photo: lush.com)Reindeer Bubble Bar. (Photo: lush.com) Great British Life: The trailblaziing Lush Bath Bot. (Photo: lush.com)The trailblaziing Lush Bath Bot. (Photo: lush.com) Great British Life: Snow Dragon bath bomb. (Photo: lush.com)Snow Dragon bath bomb. (Photo: lush.com)

Counting up a Lush Christmas

- Lush produced 13 million bath bombs in the UK in 2022. Over 4,630,000 were for the Christmas range. Top sellers were the Snow Fairy Bath bomb (941,000) and Snow Dragon (480,000).

- The Bubbles department produced over 5 million products in 2022, including over 147,000 of its bestselling Christmas Bubble Bar, Snow Fairy Roll.

- In 2022 they hand packed over 2.2 million Christmas gifts. On their busiest day in the run up to Christmas 2022 the team prepared over 33,000 gifts in a single day.



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