Five Minutes With | Jo Malone

One of the world’s greatest perfumers, London-based Jo Malone MBE talks to Jessica Jonzen about her autobiography, her new brand and triumphing over adversity

When you think of Jo Malone, you think of luxury. From the clean and unexpected fragrances to the cream-and-black packaging tied with grosgrain ribbon, the name is shorthand for style, comfort and good taste.

One rarely thinks of the person behind the brand. The facial therapist who started an empire from a tiny rented flat in Chelsea, changing the beauty industry forever. The perfumer, whose fragrances, candles and creams are found in homes across the globe. The woman who fought cancer and walked away from the brand she had built – and her own name.

It’s a surprise to many to learn that Jo Malone is a real person, and even more so to learn that she is no longer involved with the brand that bears her name. Malone, 52, sold the business in 1999 to Estée Lauder for ‘undisclosed millions’, but stayed on as Creative Director until 2006. Having battled breast cancer and undergone a double mastectomy, she left the business to spend more time with her toddler son, Josh – a decision she came to bitterly regret just six weeks later.

Another surprise is that Jo was not raised amongst privilege, but in a council house in Bexleyheath, South-East London. She is remarkably candid about her upbringing in her new autobiography, which is a heart-rending but inspiring read.

‘I wanted to write this book the way I create a fragrance; 100 per cent authentic and full of integrity, so I knew I was going to have to go somewhere with my emotions and unpack them, and that was probably going to be difficult,’ she says.

Jo left school at 15, with no qualifications and acute dyslexia. Her father was an artist and magician, and also an incorrigible gambler. Her mother worked at a beautician’s, and Jo went to work with her and learned her trade. A fall, resulting in a head injury, irrevocably changed her mother’s personality, and Jo became largely estranged from her parents and younger sister, who have all since died. ‘Because I’m a parent now myself, as I wrote the book, I realised that my mum and dad really had given it [parenthood] their best shot, and I fell in love with them again,’ she says.

What Jo lacked in academic qualifications, she made up for with a singular gift: her extraordinary sense of smell. ‘I would know when it was going to snow or rain. I remember standing next to one of my mum’s friends once and saying: “She smells funny, she’s really scared.” I could smell fear. I thought everyone could. My sense of smell is my compass,’ she says.

Jo, who is a committed Christian, and met her husband and business partner, Gary Willcox, at a Bible study class in 1984, had learned to make original fragrances and skin creams, and started a facial business from their small rented flat in Chelsea. Word of mouth spread and she soon had all manner of famous clients heading up her stairs, including Sarah, Duchess of York. Gary left his surveying job to help her open a shop in Chelsea and, within two years, she had made her first million.

The sale to Estée Lauder is every entrepreneur’s dream, but Jo never rested on her laurels. ‘You can’t guarantee that success is yours for the rest of your life, you have to get up and do it every single day,’ she says.

At 37, Jo was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. ‘You question yourself as to why it’s happened to you, and then you realise: “Well, why not me?”’ Jo lost her sense of smell during chemotherapy, and worried it had disappeared forever. She decided to leave the business and, as part of the deal, was obliged to stay away from the industry for five years – a period she found extremely hard. ‘I don’t live far from the [Jo Malone London] shop and I couldn’t walk past it. Every now and then, I would see something and think: “That’s not me, I didn’t do it.” There was no one to blame but myself, I’d chosen it. But I knew that I couldn’t stay in the place where I never got up and built again – that would have been very destructive for me. I knew I had to get up and start the fight again.’

Jo has had to reclaim her identity, and has done it the only way she knows how: through scent. A holidayin Turks and Caicos inspired her comeback scent Pomelo and, in 2011, she announced her new business Jo Loves, a name suggested by her son. In 2013, she opened the brand’s first store in Belgravia and has recently agreed a deal to be distributed through Net-a-Porter worldwide.

Would she ever sell her business again? ‘The answer today is no. I would never leave the business again. I’m going to grow old and grey making fragrance. This isn’t a job, it isn’t a career – it is the thing that makes me a whole person.’
✻ Jo Malone: My Story is published by Simon & Schuster, £20; joloves.com

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