Lush has gone from cottage industry to international name, writes Meg Carter
It's fast becoming known as the Nineties Body Shop. Lush, purveyor of fresh and handmade cosmetics, bath and body products, already has seven branches in the UK with four more opening in coming weeks and a growing presence overseas. Paris is next on the cards following successful openings in Vancouver, Toronto and Sydney. Lush has even reached Croatia, too.

Not bad for a team who just three years ago were out of work (and pocket) following the collapse of their previous business, the mail order operation Cosmetics to Go. With little else to do, they gravitated back together and began mixing cosmetics by food processor in the Poole kitchen of Lush's managing director, Mark Constantine. In 1995, the first store opened in Poole. With its striking displays of soap hunks piled high like cheeses, fresh face packs served from mixing bowls, deli-style, and bath salts and shampoos stacked like rows of cannon balls, Lush quickly caught on. A debut in London's Covent Garden followed soon after.

Growth since has been rapid - fuelled by the founders' commitment to hand-made, fresh produce. Enzynamite, a Papaya cleansing treatment, Aroma- Bread, a bread-based face mask, and Red Rooster, orange- and spice-based soaps, are typical creations. No ingredient has been animal-tested, most are fresh. Packaging is kept to a minimum. Visiting the stores is more like popping down to the local bakery than shopping at Boots or even Lush's closest spiritual rival, Body Shop. Constantine and his colleagues are, in the truest sense, a cottage industry. So how will Lush retain its unique style in the face of such dramatic growth?

Constantine affects reluctant acceptance of the chain's dramatic growth, suggesting consumer demand rather than barefaced ambition is dragging Lush into high streets across the land. However, he is wise to be cautious. "We've been up all the ladders and down the snakes right back to the beginning of the board," he explains. "We've had our share of success." And failure, too. Having supplied the Body Shop for years with his own inventions, such as Ice Blue Shampoo and Peppermint Foot Lotion, his Cosmetics to Go became a victim of its own success when, unable to fulfil orders, it went into administration. It is now owned by someone else.

There may be little to prove, but they still have a living to make. Which is why Lush has already done things differently to Body Shop in its early days. "If you don't like the principle of packaging, you get rid of the box, cellophane and instruction leaflet - getting it down to the minimum bottle and labelling with a good product inside," Constantine explains. The next step? "Something solid, with no packaging at all." And there's more: "Next is no preservatives. But you can only do this if your products have no water content. So we developed solid bars of shampoo."

"Natural" is not the issue although it is important. Which is why Lush does use some synthetic materials: "People like their shampoo to lava," he explains. "My belief is when people ask for `natural' what they really mean is `safe'." As no ingredients or products, for that matter, have been tested on animals, all rely on simple, basic ingredients. "If you want to stick to this it's simple: you choose materials that are known quantities, like bananas."

This is underlined in the Lush Manifesto, reproduced in every edition of the customer newspaper Lush Times. "We also believe in making our fresh products by hand, printing our own labels and making our own fragrances," the manifesto adds. This was born of necessity rather than choice, retail director Rowena Hofbauer explains. "When we started up Lush we were broke. Labels were produced on our computer and, because of the paper we used, many disintegrated in the shower. While we have improved this, the principle remains the same - all products are dated and carry the name of the person who made that batch."

The back to basics approach extends to self-promotion, too. Wary of the hard sell, Lush prefers to stress the unassailable facts of its products - mostly natural and always fresh. Even the no animal testing stance doesn't get a look in. "No one really likes the hard sell, do they?" Constantine observes. "`Natural' and `fresh', is all we really need to say. Other cosmetics can be up to two years old by the time you buy them. `Fresh' is a significant differentiator. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years' time it really catches on."

So how will Lush reconcile this with expansion overseas? The UK shops' 110-strong product range is still produced by hand in Poole. There is talk, however, of setting up a second production centre to supply the Glasgow branch and future shops in Scotland and northern England. No problem, Constantine says. Lush recipes have already been successfully exported abroad.

"We never actively decided to go international - at least not this soon," he says. Overseas branches came about only when local entrepreneurs approached him to copy the Covent Garden store. They are not franchised, like Body Shop, but the result of one-to-one deals which involve training in the Lush art of fresh cosmetics production. Constant- ine likens it to a network of local bakeries. The only exception is in Croatia where the owner makes regular trips to England with an empty van and pockets full of cash.

"We're probably the only people who could have done it - after all, we did start making all our products from home," he claims. Which is why Lush remains confident that no matter how large it grows, it will keep the faith - with its founding principles and its cottage industry roots. "We're not going to be as large as the Body Shop, ever. But we do think we'll appear in almost every country, eventually," Constantine says. So long as it continues to be fresh. "And fun."