INTERVIEW: The Creators of On The Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers

Recently, Lush, the beauty store known around the UK, released its very first graphic novel, as well as a related perfume. On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers tells the true tale of a pair of buyers who work for Lush, Simon and Agnes. We had a chance to speak to Simon and Agnes, as well as co-writer Matt Fairhall about this unique book.

How did you get involved with Lush?

Simon Constantine: My parents were part of the founding team so I have always been involved in some way. I officially joined the 12 years ago, in the fragrance factory. I learnt perfume from the ground floor up and now help create the fragrances for many of Lush and Gorillas scents.

Matt Fairhall: Luck. I’d known Lush co-founder Mark Constantine for a number of years and just before I graduated, he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I rambled on about publishing. He later phoned me and asked me to see him in his office. He didn’t say why. When I sat down with him, he handed me a book on birdsong he’d written and had printed himself, and told me that I was now a publisher. In shock, I started selling and promoting his book out the back of the Lush shop in Poole, not technically doing any work for them, but enjoying their staff discount all the same. When people started talking about doing Lush books, they turned to me for some reason.

Agnes Gendry: I had been working for a company which I absolutely detested for a couple of years. Lush had opened a store in my town and I had become a customer from day one. I loved the products, their stance on non animal testing and quality, their ingenuity and unbridled creative spirit. This was 15 years ago. I worked as a retail manager for about 6 months, met Mark Constantine who then asked me to get involved in Lush’s international expansion as “The lady who lunches”… meeting potential foreign partners for the business, visiting them in their countries… Mark then asked me to get involved in our essential oils purchasing to try and sort some sourcing and quality issues which had come up at the time.

What was the inspiration for the graphic novel?
Simon: Real life! Over the course of ten years Agnes and myself uncovered these different tales and experiences surrounding the illicit trade of sandalwood. Through travel and research we stumbled upon this trail of deception and sometimes even death. We ended up in illegal factories and far flung islands trying to find the truth behind some of these stories. 

Agnes: A year into my getting involved in purchasing we started having big problems sourcing pure, unadulterated Sandalwood oil. I started doing research on the “business” of Sandalwood, sources, tricks of the trade etc… I was working with Simon who at the time managed the fragrances manufacturing part of Lush, and is also a perfumer. Both pains in the ass really, and as a result we work well together. This is where the inspiration for the graphic novel sprang from: years of trying to find alternative, ethical, sustainable, clean and clear sources of Sandalwood oil. Digging for information, travelling around the globe, meeting all sorts of surprising (!) people and getting into rather odd situations. We had so much to share and we had been talking for years about making a book of it all and finally we found our artistic “soul mate” in Plastic Crimewave and had a great time writing the book and working with Steve.

Why did you decide to tell the story as a graphic novel instead of in prose?

Simon: Through collaborating with Plastic Crimewave and Gorilla perfumes we realised what a fantastic storytelling medium a graphic novel is.  This story was disparate and spread over a ten year period so we drew on Plastic Crimewaves skills to craft that into a single home for these adventures.

Agnes: We all love graphic novels, I am French and I was brought up on Tintin (probably also where my dreams of adventure came from) so really it was a no brainer. This absolutely felt like the right medium for our adventures. It is also a much more cooperative and ex,citing way of working: several can write and contribute and marrying this up with Steve’s brilliant illustrations was a great ride.

What was it like to work with illustrator Plastic Crimewave?

Simon: Plastic Crimewave is one of a kind. His inimitable style and easy going attitude helped enormously. We did our best to be difficult, changing narrative and the like and he handled it graciously delivering page after page of fresh, witty content. He was able to add humour and depth to the story through his illustration. Plus he was quite kind in his graphic depictions of us both, I certainly shaved a few pounds as my illustrated self!

Matt: Working with Steve was great fun. We’d quite often give him vague direction on certain pages, and he’d just take that and come up with something brilliant. He was over in London a couple of weeks ago and we all got to catch up and celebrate
Agnes: A delight! Steve is so full of ideas, he is steeped in the history of graphic novels, he is a completely fascinating character and an artist in multiple media. For me, who had never worked on anything like this it was a real treat and, once again, a great source of learning. I absolutely loved working with him and I love the resulting novel.

What is it that makes sandalwood so valueable and why is it so appealing to smugglers?

Simon: You’ll have to read the book… 😉

Agnes: Sandalwood has been over exploited in India for many years. The wood itself is used for sacred carvings in temples, for incense making, for funeral pyres. The oil is used in perfumery of course but also in the flavouring of tobacco. The demand for Sandalwood oil both in India and around the globe is huge. Although the Indian Government has systems in place to control the over felling (quotas of trees allowed to be cut every year) there is a whole “grey market” in existence, run by shady characters intent on wealth not sustainability!

There is a whole Mafia of the Sandalwood. The wood is expensive, the oil even more and there are many people looking to make a quick buck. Trees are cut indiscriminately very often undercover of the night, even ripped out of private gardens.
Fast cash is what appeals to the smugglers!

Can you tell us about the fragrance Smuggler’s Soul that was inspired by the graphic novel?

Simon: It had always been in the back of my mind to create a fragrance around sandalwood but I had never been able to quite get it right. Once the book was ready it gave me inspiration to create a fragrance with sandalwood at its heart. Its a fresh fragrance drawing on patchouli and some marine notes but warming to a heady sandalwood heart.

Are there any plans to do more graphic novels like this about the unseen side of the perfume industry?

Simon: We’ll see how much trouble this one gets us in first!

Agnes: I sincerely hope so! We have had so many adventures and insights into the essential oils and perfumery industries, it would be a shame to keep it all to ourselves.

Plus I love the way Plastic Crimewave draws me, in fact I would like to just live my everyday life as my pen and ink alter ego!
And I’d love attendees at Comic Con to start dressing up as me, any chance of this happening?

Matt: We’ll see…

On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers is available now in all Lush Stores and online here

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.