I’ve met some pretty amazing women over the years. It’s part and parcel of my job. Meeting the brains behind the brands is what gets me excited about the world of beauty. And whilst many have left a lasting impact, there’s only one whose story never ceases to both inspire and shock me. It’s also the only one that’s ever made me cry. Just listen to her reveal the soundtrack to her life on Desert Island Discs. You’ll be sobbing into a tissue by the end – guarantee it.
It’s not just that she started one of the world’s biggest and most successful fragrance brands ever. Nor that she was awarded both an MBE and a CBE by the Queen of England for her services to the beauty industry. It’s because of her humble beginnings, the almighty challenges she’s overcome, and her infectious, pioneering spirit. Yes, I’m talking about Jo Malone – a woman who is so much more than cream boxes adorned with black bows and basil-infused scents.
Despite severe dyslexia, dropping out of school with zero qualifications, enduring huge financial hardship, and overcoming aggressive breast cancer, Malone went on to sell her namesake brand — which she started in her kitchen, no less — for “undisclosed millions” to beauty conglomerate Estée Lauder Companies. She singlehandedly changed the way in which the world wears fragrance by putting layering on the map, and she went on to create a second best-selling brand, Jo Loves. Which – exciting news – is now available in the Middle East.
So, without further ado, this is Jo Malone on the power of perfume, overcoming adversity, and why she might one day call Dubai home.
On Seizing the Day
I’ve always lived each day as if it’s my last. I’m always ready for a new adventure, and every day I get up and wonder what life will hold. I think – as an entrepreneur – that’s very much that pioneering spirit.
I cut my teeth in retail. I learned how to be a shopkeeper, how to be a businesswoman. I didn’t go to university – I left school when I was 15 and had no qualifications. But I can create fragrance like no one else in the world. I believe everyone has a jewel within them, and I was lucky enough to find mine aged 16. I made sure I held onto that preciousness of creativity.
On Beating Cancer
When I sold Jo Malone London, I thought I was going to stay with Estée Lauder forever. But two years into our buy-out, I got breast cancer and was given nine months to live. My little boy was only two years old. I moved to New York and was one of the first women in the world to have pioneering chemotherapy treatment for a year.
I came out the other end, and — thank God — I survived. But I was different. I didn’t tell anyone at the time, but I couldn’t smell. I felt like a fraud. Here I was heading up this global fragrance brand, and I couldn’t smell anything aside from the chemicals they had pumped through my veins to save my life. Little did I know that my sense of smell would return, and with a vengeance.
On Leaving Jo Malone London
I walked away from that business because I didn’t feel connected to it anymore. I give everything 100 percent, and I just wasn’t 100 percent in the moment with Estée Lauder and Jo Malone London anymore. I knew it was wrong, so I left.
But the minute I put the bottles on the shelf for the last time, I knew I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. Why? Because I realized that fragrance wasn’t a business, it wasn’t a career – it was my best friend. I’d walked away from something that had given me so much pleasure over the years. That five-year lockout after I walked away was excruciating. I learned more about the negative side of Jo Malone [the person] in those five years than I ever have.
On Seeing It Now
Seeing Jo Malone London today doesn’t bother me at all. I love that I created something at my kitchen sink, with four plastic jugs, and the biggest corporation couldn’t mimic it, so they had to buy it! How can I not not be happy about that?! I get that sense of pride, but recently something happened (I’m sure you know what I’m referring to…) and I got very cross with them because it’s still my name. We share that name, and we share a responsibility, so don’t muck it up! I said my piece, I turned the page, and I moved on.
On Starting Jo Loves
I had no dreams of creating another global brand, I just wanted to create fragrance again. The love I have for fragrance consumes me. Jo Loves is so different because I’m a completely different person. I’m creating with ingredients and notes that I’d have never used before. It’s like an artist or a painter – their work evolves.
The two journeys have been very different. The first time, I was this young kid married to another young kid. We were two naïve people who jumped off the edge of a mountain. We were living our dream. Once you’ve done it once, you know how hard it hurts when you make a mistake. Whereas the first time around, there was a whole heap of naivety and youth, that was not on our side the second time.
I thought the second time would be much easier, but it was so hard. The world hadn’t realized that I’d left this brand, and I had a legal, moral, and business obligation to make sure that the two businesses were not connected, despite them having the same mother.
On Not Giving Up
For two years, no one would distribute Jo Loves, but people were buying. Consumers found it through social media, influencers, and the power of the press. That’s what kept us motivated. But it was really hard. I wanted to quit, every day, for about a year. Then suddenly, something shifted. You look down at your feet and think, “I cannot see a way out here,” but then you take one more step, and then another, and suddenly you look up and you’re in the clearing. That’s what happened with Jo Loves.
The turning point was this place I’m sitting in right now – 42 Elizabeth Street in the heart of Belgravia, London. Let me tell you the story. I love stories! Really what I am is a scent storyteller – creating fragrance and telling you the stories of life!
Never run away from your past, it can teach you great things.
It was my birthday, and my husband handed me a key and said, “Go be a shopkeeper again, because you are an absolute nightmare just sitting at home”. As I put the key in the door, I realized it was the first shop I ever worked in when I was 16! I had returned full circle. I’d come all the way back to where I first started. I learned so much in this place, and it was here where I learned to be a shopkeeper. Never run away from your past, it can teach you great things.
I had a tough childhood and I came from absolutely nothing. Reinvention is all about the hope that life can be better tomorrow, and that you can change the world. I think reinvention is what we need more than ever right now, and it’s what life is about. Believing that every day there’s more to learn, something to build. This past year, the world has gone through such a chaotic, challenging time, and reinvention is the hope that we have to come out of the other end. It’s time to dream again, to build again. Stop looking down, look up! We need a lot of blue-sky thinking for 2021.
But reinvention often comes with insecurities, because you’re challenging yourself and who you are and what you want to be, and some people feel very uncomfortable with that.
Jo Loves is a love affair between me and fragrance, but it’s also about creativity. For example, when we created our fragrance paintbrush, it was the first in the world. It allows you to become the scent artist, and you can use it all over your body.
We also built fragrance tapas bars in Bloomingdale’s and Harvey Nichols – during lockdown! I remember saying to my husband, “I want to build a tapas bar,” and he almost divorced me on the spot [laughs]. But that’s exactly what we did – we built a tapas bar for the nose. You sit down, you have a menu, and you order four courses of “tapas”. Your shower gel comes from cocktail shakers, your body lotion comes from velouté… it’s all about this passionate experience and looking at fragrance like art. I wanted to create that unforgettable “first kiss” moment. When you walk away from a brand and think, “I’ve never experienced that before, and I’ll never forget it”.
Creativity doesn’t have a formula… It’s that moment where you fall in love with something and it grabs all your emotions.
Creativity doesn’t have a formula, and when I seek it, it doesn’t happen. It’s that moment where you fall in love with something and it grabs all your emotions – be it a piece of music or even something you’re eating.
I’ve layered fragrances all my life. It’s something I probably picked up from my Middle Eastern clients! People are so scared to experiment in case they don’t smell good, but that’s the worst that can happen. The best that can happen is that it opens up a whole creative palette. That’s where the paintbrush is so exciting, because you can use it to paint through another scent. Paint it through your hair, along your arms, down your back – anywhere! It’s color for your nose. I love that the Middle East already embraces that.
On the Middle East
The Middle East has always been important to me. When, as a young woman, I had a skincare clinic, 30 percent of my clients were Middle Eastern women.
I fell in love with Dubai when I visited friends living there. I felt more at home there than I did in any of the other cities that I’d lived in. It intrigues me. I love the culture, I love the hospitality, I love the potential. I feel like I’m going to live in Dubai one day. I don’t know when, I don’t know why, I don’t know how. But I feel like it’s meant to happen at some point. My family and I visit three times a year, and I create fragrances there with the fragrance houses. I was even inaugurated into Dubai’s Hall of Fame a few years ago!
If you go to Europe or the Americas, fragrance is very much an accessory. In the Middle East, it’s part of the culture. Scent is so much more powerful in that part of the world.