‘We’re very, very unusual. Cosmetic companies don’t make perfumes. Perfumers in large companies like IFF [International Flavors and Fragrances Inc.: a brand which manufactures for the food, beverage, personal care and household products industries] make perfumes for everybody. We are very weird.’ declared Mark Constantine at the Lush Creative Showcase in September 2016.
The mainstream perfumery industry is manifesting the conditions for a perfect storm: shorter, pre-imposed timelines for getting a perfume to market; heightened emphasis on market research; and restrictions on potential allergens (many that were fundamental natural ingredients in perfume). It is originality that seems to suffer on the way.
Writing for Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, Simon Constantine said: “A pricing race to the bottom means that the fancy bottle you buy in an airport duty-free store is often the most expensive part of your purchase. The pale liquid inside that bottle is a mix of cheap synthetic chemicals that are nature’s photocopies, bearing little resemblance to the original. These chemicals are useful in moderation, but the modern perfumer’s dependence on them to cut costs means that most mass-market perfumes are thin in odour and in creative expression.”
In this creative drought, Gorilla Perfumes aims to be an antidote. The father and son duo are self-taught. At first this was a decision made out of necessity: when Lush began it did so without the funds to pay for ready-made formulas, meaning that blending and creating scents had to be done in-house. Yet, the experiments that were happening on a workbench above 29 High Street in Poole, England, soon took on a life of their own. For Mark and Simon, inventing perfumes has become an important method for articulating their feelings and meditating on their experiences.
“I can’t put it into words. I can’t put it into writing. I can only put it into the perfumery,” admits Mark. The first fragrance he worked on with Simon was the deeply personal Dear John: an ode to Mark’s own father who had abandoned the family when Mark was two. Imagining what he might smell like he says: “It’s burying your face in clothing in a wardrobe to get the smell of a person.” Later he would meet his father in South Africa, and go on to create the evocative tribute Dad’s Garden - Lemon Tree.
In the same way that Mark’s perfumes are informed by his experiences, Simon Constantine’s are infused by his work as the head of ethical buying. Simon’s passions mean he can just as easily be found sleeping in a hut in the midst of a 6,000 hectare forest concession in Peru, as he can in front of his perfumer’s organ (a perfumer’s workstation).
What’s more, the knowledge and expertise Simon has gained from buying is distilled into his perfumes in the form of a deep respect for the materials involved, which is probably most evident in the way he approaches the world of perfumery. He says “It is a rich, complex and conceited world of materials that are arguably more diverse and thrilling than the building blocks of any other creative industry I can think of.”
These unique olfactory beginnings come to fruition in Breath of God: a perfume based on Simon’s travels in Tibet. The scent combines smoky and enigmatic vetivert and sandalwood with floral rose and bright grapefruit notes. Tania Sanchez, co-author of the acclaimed handbook Perfumes: The A-Z Guide gave it a rating of five stars (the highest accolade) accompanied by a remarkable review: “Wearing it, I feel a sense of wonder that so late in the perfume game there still can be such profound invention.”
The link between invention and ingredients shouldn’t be scoffed at. Buying differently often means thinking differently. From practising permaculture to building direct relationships with both local and international suppliers, sourcing the finest ingredients ethically is a fruitful practise that benefits the creation of products that break the mould.
“If you take a Lush bath, you could be bathing in pure rose otto,” explains Mark. “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.”
The same is true of Gorilla perfumes: the world’s spectrum of essential oils are the stars of the show. Fortuitously, some of the principles of permaculture seem applicable to Simon and Mark’s work too. According to Simon, “From the permaculture side of things, there’s an edge principle; an edge is the most fertile place. So if you bring two different things together, you’re more likely to have some sort of fertility there, or a good idea.
“We’re really lucky that we bring in musicians, artists, ecologists, environmentalists, all these different elements and that creates quite a diverse environment, and from there you have many more ideas.”
In fact, music often seems to be the only component not mentioned on the ingredients lists.
While combining the layers that would eventually create Karma, Mark drew inspiration from bands such as Clem Snide, Radiohead and Massive Attack. Then, when he wrote his personal feelings for wife - and co-founder of Lush - Mo in notes of fragrance, he named the final composition after a complex Leonard Cohen song: A Thousand Kisses Deep.
The influence of music might be genetic; as Simon was working on the perfume The Bug, ideas of surveillance culture mingled inextricably with the dubstep song of the same name by Magnetic Man.
But the melodious accompaniments aren’t confined to the inventing stage. Sitar prodigy Sheema Mukherjee wrote a beautiful composition as a tribute to Sikkim Girls, and musicians John Metcalfe and Simon Richmond (who also help to compose music for the Lush spa) created a stunning avant-classical suite to accompany the six scents of the Set in Stone volume.
The idea of launching volumes like Set in Stone, can also be traced back to musical tradition: namely that of releasing albums...
Visitors to the Death and Decay gallery - held in a converted basement in Soho - were invited to ‘walk on the Mycelium’ by treading across a vast, woven carpet. If they took up the offer, an unmistakeable mushroomy scent peppered with the sweetness of churning earth rose to meet them. This scent represented mycelium: the mass of interwoven hyphae of fungi. Mycelium acts like a network in soil, demonstrating symbiotic relationships with plant roots and a remarkable capacity to regenerate soil.
The scent of Mycelium was never released to the public. It was an interlude in the album. But it was one that was inextricable from the rest of the Gorilla gallery experience.
Every Gorilla volume is sent into the public domain in gallery exhibitions. Essential oils are found within, offered up in isolation before they can be distinguished by tuned-in noses in the accords of fine fragrances. Perfumes are reimagined as pieces of art, like a father’s jacket hanging from a hook, or isolated violets sprouting through concrete pavements. A Gorilla bus tour included collaborations with musicians, poets, artists and dancers and both cinemas and songs have been scented.
Like mycelium, these galleries are a network of Gorilla’s seemingly disparate personalities: exquisite ingredients, the inspirations of two distinctive perfumers, and creative expression by the bus-, band-, and bottle-load. Is Gorilla capable of regenerating the perfume industry? Stick the record player on and let’s see...