Gorilla Perfume, an offshoot of Lush Cosmetics, have published their first graphic novel: On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers – a “true tale of deceit, duplicity and decapitation.” It’s the story behind the new Smugglers’ Soul unisex perfume, which uses the sought-after ingredient sandalwood oil and whose bottle features the image of notorious sandalwood baron Veerappan.
London lass Frances Carbines — a public sector worker moonlighting as a comic maker, who was inspired to start reading and making after seeing the small press and self-publishing section in Gosh Comics on her lunchbreak — stepped up for WWAC when none of our regular staff could make it to the launch party.
Through the novel, readers can follow Lush buyers team Agnès Gendry and Simon Constantine’s real-life investigation into the illicit sandalwood trade, undertaken when they discovered that some of the ingredients they were using in their perfumes came from dubious sources. They wanted to verify the authenticity of their ingredients firsthand, in an atmosphere of rumours about shady sandalwood oil dealings leading to murders. When the rumours proved to be true, they journeyed across continents to find an alternative, sustainable source of the essential oil for their perfume — and to raise awareness of the issues involved in commercial sourcing.
- On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers is printed on recycled paper (of course) and is illustrated by Plastic Crimewave, Chicago-based illustrator and musician.
- Crimewave worked very closely with the buying team in order to accurately portray what happened on the expedition. He also designs the labels for all the Gorilla perfume bottles and enjoys what Gorilla Perfume Islington Manager John describes as a ‘strong and consistent relationship’ with Lush.
- There’s a retro appeal in the design, calling the work of artists including R. Crumb to mind: thought bubbles and bold graphics with a distinctive lino-cut look evoke comics of decades gone by.
- All Gorilla perfumes are unisex — everyone is encouraged to give them a go and to find their own favourite. There’s no traditionally targeted marketing; no pink for girls and blue for boys, and traditionally “feminine” scents such as vanilla and rose are thrown in with earthy “masculine” scents like frankincense and myrrh to create multifaceted blends which defy prescribed gender norms. There’s no shaming or attempts to make anyone feel inadequate — instead, body positivity.
- Sheema Mukerjee, who performed her sitar songs, told me that she prefers mixed perfumes as they remind her of walking through Lake Market in Calcutta: an expanse of fish markets which you need to walk through to get to row upon row of flowers stalls. She said that the palpable sense of relief you get having rushed past the fish to get to the flowers is heightened by the loveliness of the array of blooms, in contrast to the surrounding fish and fowl, and that mixed scents evoke the contrast for her.
Perfumes, then, can transport you to different times and places — as can graphic novels.
On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers is presented as a kind of picaresque tale, with Veerappan proving to be a fearful villain with over 120 murders to his name. The narrative skips from the present day back, sympathetically, to Veerappan’s asthmatic childhood, before detailing his gruesome involvement in heinous crimes. These atrocities throw light upon our purchasing power as consumers; we can unwittingly bankroll terrible things just by buying everyday, so-called essentials, if we buy from companies who cannot or will not trace their ingredients to the source.
As with independent graphic novels, zines and comics, DIY culture, truth, collaboration and transparency are central to Lush’s company values. Each Lush product has a sticker with the name and face of the person who made it, as well as the date it was made. This makes them feel personal. Lush use sustainable, recycled materials and explain their ingredients to their buyers without hesitation. For example, their most recent brochure contains articles which voice concerns about the arms trade, animal testing and Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, and offer considered, researched opinions while suggesting further reading for their customers. No attempts to conceal the truth, but rather, a call to action: enabling Lush consumers with the knowledge to make their own decisions, and choose to make a difference.
Crucially, Lush also believe in supporting visual artists and musicians to create new works — without having to compromise their own visions. Both Sheema Mukherjee and Plastic Crimewave have said that their relationship with Lush has allowed them to do exactly what they want in terms of making their art — they’ve never had to compromise their ideals or pretend to be something they’re not. The company believes in longstanding and fruitful collaborations with artists, and that perfume should be used as part of a wider cultural lifestyle, e.g. linking scents to memories, perceptions, and musical tastes, rather than as a mere beauty accessory. Equally, Lush, like the underground comic scene, do not believe in advertising: their products earn their credibility through word-of-mouth, much like a new independent zine or comic. Products are reviewed and rated on their website, so buyers are fully informed as to what they’re getting.
Lush made the decision to move into graphic novels when the team wanted to showcase in a meaningful and evocative way the considerable lengths they go to, behind-the-scenes, to source the best ingredients. As Matt Fairhall, storyboard writer for the graphic novel, described,
Lush didn’t want to ‘blow their own trumpets about the efforts they went to to create their ethically-sourced products in a sanctimonious way, but at the same time, felt it should at least be known that Agnes and Simon put themselves in real danger when investigating the sandalwood. Lush aren’t cutting corners – they want to make the right choices and use ingredients from sustainable sources.’
By revealing the sustainability of their ingredients, Lush aim to celebrate their customers’ choices as well — demonstrating what their money is going into.
They’d previously considered a prose account of the sandalwood expedition, but found that they couldn’t generate the same depth of feeling In terms of excitement and evocation. Matt added that graphic novels were also “fun to do” – the resulting graphic novel is a thrilling visual account of true histories, whereas a long prose account of their journey and Veerappan’s worst excesses may have seemed rather dry. In a shop where soap is sliced and served like cheese, given witty names and decorated with both Pop Art and folklore references (not to mention glitter), fun and humour abound, and the graphic novel team wanted to continue this attitude in the storytelling of the sandalwood.
For me personally, Lush has always been the go-to cosmetics company for honesty and integrity. They support and speak up about ethical issues, such as animal testing and the arms trade, but in a way which is entertainingly illuminating — never sanctimonious or dry. The emphasis is on making a change through awareness and purchasing power. The honesty of the customer reviews goes a long way to build trust. When taking the contraceptive pill Cilest caused handfuls of my hair to escape down the plughole and dermatitis to appear on my skin, I, as a cash-strapped and cynical student, trusted the regenerative shampoo reviews on their site rather than the dubious pseudo-scientific claims made by oligarchical and chemically-laden mainstream haircare brands. The clove-scented New shampoo bar did result in less hair in the plughole — while my beleaguered body underwent trial-and-error attempts of finding a contraceptive which suited me.
As mentioned, scents evoke memories, and so do graphic novels. Both may reference other artworks and ideas. Gorilla Perfumes are dreamt up with personal stories in mind (such as when perfumer Mark’s bereavement period for his father led him to make a perfume with comforting notes of vetiver, tobacco, lemon and leather, recalling childhood memories of when he’d rest his head on his father’s leather jacketed shoulder on autumn days in the park), and the wealth of ingredients will mean different things to different people. The story belongs to the audience. There is also the element of escapism — wearing a heady scent with unusual ingredients may conjure up a Proustian Rush of times gone by, just as a graphic novel may transport you back to picture books you read as a child, novels you once enjoyed or scenes real or imagined that you glimpsed through the window of a moving train.