Once upon a time in 1977 a beautician called Liz Weir and a hair doctor, Mark Constantine, were working at a salon in Poole. They decided to set up a company in their own names and opened a small suite of treatment rooms in Parkstone. And they lived happily ever after. But only after the firm they created, Cosmetics To Go, crashed and burned in a spectacular manner.
Now the story of that ground-breaking company; inventors of the Bath Bomb and Shampoo Bar, has been told in a new book, Danger: Cosmetics To Go.
The company, says writer Mira Manga, started off as Constantine & Weir and got its first big break when the Body Shop’s Anita Roddick placed an order for £1,200 worth of goods. “Production increased at lightning speed,” says Manga.
“Containers of one gallon soon became 25 litres” and soon they were producing such market-leading products as Ice Blue shampoo and Peppermint Foot Lotion.
Noting the success of the newly-launched Next Direct catalogue, Constantine & Weir decided to go one better. In an era when 28-day delivery was standard they launched Cosmetics To Go, a quick-turnaround mail-order operation dispatching old-style, brown paper parcels covered in bright stickers and tied up with string with, crucially, no postage to pay. On February 29 1988, the company opened for business.
It boomed. And so did the company’s cosmetics lines. They launched the Khufu range for men, featuring Egypt-inspired face-care products. The Poole factory was, says Manga, “the only factory in the world with an in-house pyramid” producing ‘mystical water’ for the product range.
They perfected fresh face-masks, Botanomancy, which listed every single product ingredient. They launched Baby Revels, at the time the only cruelty and chemical-free baby range available. Explorer Ranulph Fiennes took their Cold Comfort Cream on his Arctic expedition while the Forces Favourites line re-introduced Vanishing Cream.
Inspired by Alka-Seltzer they invented the bath bomb. Their famous shampoo bar was a soap which went wrong. And some products, such as Happy Hippy shower gel, are still selling today.
Wherever possible CTG engaged the services of local firms, including Christchurch graphic designers Clive Holmes Studios and Rogers Wrap & Pack.
Staff became used to the eccentricities of their workplace. Mark, a keen twitcher, had been known to leave meetings if he got a tip-off about a rare bird sighting.
One day, says Manga, he wandered in with a poem saying: “See what you can do with this.” But every Christmas Eve morning he would do a giant fry-up for the staff which complemented the policy of putting food in kitchens so workers could cook their own lunches.
The company lived by its ten rules which included ‘Develop and Promote talent from within’ and ‘Benefit from the use of new technology’.
Little did they know that it was in part due to new technology that it would all go wrong...
The end started innocently enough in summer 1993 when CTG decided to jettison a load of surplus old-range stock in a grand summer sale. At the same time it was running a promotion which promised each new customer a free gift.
“The summer sale was a huge success in getting those extra people ordering but money was pouring out of the company and operations were cracking at the seams,” says Manga.
“Twenty per cent of the recipients of the catalogue sent a cheque but the prices were so low there was no way to make a profit and CTG were swamped with vanloads of heavy mail sacks containing orders and cheques and lists of friends for freebies.”
They increased the number of phone lines from eight to 12 and then 24 but it was still not enough.
“Phone lines and computers would go down, losing whole tranches of orders” says Manga. Duplicate orders were sent resulting in some customers receiving their order twice. The factory ran out of sale stock which meant that new stock had to be sold at sale prices.
“At one point,” says Manga,
“Mark remembers realising that every parcel they sent out was losing the company a pound.”
Then CTG’s bank withdrew its loan facility. The company struggled on into the winter of 1993 as a recession struck the country and belts tightened.
There was hope that a financial white knight might help out. As the company shut up shop for Christmas 1993, to save money the heating was turned off at CTG’s Joliffe House in Poole.
Disaster struck – a disconnected radiator on the top floor started pumping out water and late on December 25, summoned by police, Mark and a colleague were called out to be confronted by a waterfall running down the walls, collapsed floors, and electricity shorting through the building.
“The whole building was a write off,” says Manga.
“Looking at each other they slipped out of the front door and quietly closed it behind them. It was the beginning of the end.”
After 17 years, Constantine & Weir went into administration on January 17, 1994.
In an interview in the Daily Echo, Mark said: “Building it was hard – watching it go even harder.”
But what came after is one of the most respected companies in Britain.
*Danger: Cosmetics To Go is published by Lush Handwritten