Like Powell's Books in Portland, the Lush store on Robson Street in Vancouver, B.C., is a place I have to visit whenever I'm in that city. This U.K.–based skin-care retailer calls itself a "cosmetics deli" not only for the freshness, naturalness, and handmade-ness of its products, but for their farmers market–style presentation, inspired, legend has it, by a visit company founder Mark Constantine paid to the Pike Place Market. Big slabs of soap are arranged on butcher-block tables, "bath bombs" appear in vegetable baskets, perishable face masks are kept fresh in the refrigerator, and products are sold in bulk by weight.
With more than 300 stores worldwide, but just 23 in the United States, Lush has stepped only gingerly into the American market—an exclusivity that gives its products a definite cachet. Their Vancouver store was the first Canadian one, San Francisco has two Lushes, and even Portland got one before Seattle. But area Lush fans can now be happy. In mid-August, Lush's new Bellevue Square store (Belle-vue Square, 425-455-5874; www.lush.com) had fervent Lushies crowding the corridors.
Those chunky soaps are perhaps Lush's signature product. There are a few prewrapped hunks of each kind piled up like so many cheeses—or you can ask one of the employees to chip whatever size you want off the block. There are a couple dozen varieties— "flavors" seems a better term—including Sandstone, a citrus-infused soap on a base of sand (!) like a graham-cracker pie crust; Bohemian, a startling shot of lemon; the eye-opening Red Rooster, made with orange juice and cinnamon; or the ravishingly rich and smooth Figs and Leaves (yes, with real figs and leaves embedded in the bar) that will have your eyes rolling back in your head as you lather up (all $6.97 for 3.5-ounce bar). Especially for the holiday season, there's the white, marzipan-scented, "freakishly popular" Snowcake ($7.89 for 3.5-ounce bar). Their "bath bombs" ($4–$6 each), solid tennis-ball-size concoctions that burst into scent and fizz when you drop them under a hot bath tap, suggest that the Lush labs are scenes of gleeful, daring creativity, with recipes like Black Pearl (sea salt, lavender, black currant) and Bollywood (coconut, ginger, black pepper, paprika).
The Lush team plays with textures, too, and many of the products come in forms you wouldn't expect. The skin conditioners and massage bars, for example, start solid, like soap, but melt into light, silky oils at the touch (or caress, rather) of a fingertip. Buffy the Backside Slayer, their most popular conditioner, includes ground rice and ground almonds as exfoliants in a cocoa butter base. The solid shampoos puzzle some customers—they're little cookie-size cakes ($7–$8 each) that you just rub over your hair to start the lather. They're great for travel, says a friend—easy to carry in their own little snap-shut tins, and they last about a month. Then there are the solid shower gels: trays of translucent, neon-hued stuff that feels and wiggles just like semiset Jell-O ($7.20 for 3.5 ounces). Keep them in the fridge to make your shower extra invigorating.
Now that your basket is full of stocking stuffers, pick up a gift box for the true sybarites on your list. Among the 12 items in "Twas the Night Before Christmas" ($108.95), alongside bars of Snowcake and Buffy, is a bottle of Snow Fairy shower gel, a nose-grabbing riot of vanilla, banana, and cotton-candy scents. Their "Yule Dude" box ($24.95), wrapped in a black ribbon tied in a Windsor knot, is billed as "almost everything a dude needs when marooned in a girl's bathroom," and includes Ambrosia, their honey/oatmilk shaving cream, and the bracing grapefruit whoosh of Happy Hippy shower gel. Among Lush's other overtly manly products, my favorite is Ocean Salt ($13.95 for 4.2 ounces)—with lime, sea salt, seaweed essence, and coconut, it's as butch as facial scrubs get.