Jo Malone on her fragrance empire and battling cancer

JO MALONE. What do those two words mean?

Jo Malone is back doing what she loves best. Picture: Contributed
Jo Malone is back doing what she loves best. Picture: Contributed

Beribboned cream boxes edged with black, nesting in black tissue paper drenched in lime, basil and mandarin that wafts up and surrounds you as it is released from the packaging on a birthday or Christmas morning?

Candles, fragrances, room diffusers, an aura of simple luxury that envelops you in a white-blooms lifestyle?

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There’s another Jo Malone, however: the one who sits in front of me. Jo from a council house in Bexleyheath, who struggled at school because of her dyslexia and then left at 14 to look after her beautician mother following a stroke. The one who started mixing bath oils and ended up with a multi-million-pound fragrance business that was bought by the world’s biggest beauty brand for undisclosed millions. This is the Jo who was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and had a double mastectomy, then had to take time out to recover. A Jo whose lifestyle is not quite as trouble-free as the image being sold in the cream boxes of the high-street brand. She’s a living, breathing woman who has something the brand that bought her name can never have, no matter how many times they stamp it on a box.

Warm, chatty, full of joie de vivre and ideas, the real-life Jo Malone has people skills and a persona that no amount of marketing can substitute. She has struggled and survived, been up, been down, and is now striving to build up a fragrance business again. She has loved and lost, lived and looked death in the eye and knows the value of hard work. This time round, she’s not selling a lifestyle – she’s selling a persona and a personality. Her own. A warm, funny, compassionate personality that has me laughing and crying in sympathy, all within the space of an hour.

Today she’s rushing between appointments, dropping into a Glasgow hotel to meet me for lunch between presenting awards to young entrepreneurs in Aberdeen and a Bill Clinton dinner in London. She looks the part, sliding into the booth in a simple black cashmere jumper, leather jacket, black lace mini skirt, kitten heels, blonde hair drawn up into a small ponytail and a diamond star necklace sparkling at her neck, the latter a gift from Gary, her husband of 29 years – “The person I respect the most in the business and I love him. He’s the real brain and makes everything happen.”

Her clothes murmur quality rather than scream ostentation and she bursts with health, fizzes with enthusiasm. If a multi-millionaire can be ‘just like us’, 49-year-old Malone is – she has a husband who has done his back in loading the washing machine and a son phoning to ask about his sports gear – except she has an extra glow, something special. If she could bottle it, she would make a fortune. Oh, she already has. And she’s probably about to do it all over again.

Malone sold Jo Malone to Estée Lauder in 1999 but stayed on as creative director. She gave them the benefit of her nose, coming up with new fragrances, and her loyal customer base, while they gave her the international distribution, research, development and marketing that saw the brand’s stores spread from Surrey to Sydney. Her son Josh was born and everything smelt rosy, but then in 2003 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s when she talks of crawling along the hall, convinced she was going to die, to touch her son’s cot that she has me welling up. “I thought that was it. I thought, not yet... Then something washed over me and it was gone.”

Estée Lauder flew her to New York for treatment and she recovered but later left the company in 2006. “There was no fall-out with them. Leaving Jo Malone was the right time to go. I knew it would cause me heartache and it did, but I found myself not identifying with the brand any more. That’s not a criticism of them or what they did. It was something in me. They were good to me and got me the best care when I had breast cancer. Gary always says, ‘Cut us down the middle and we will be cream and black’.”

When Malone left Estée Lauder, the golden handshake came with cuffs – she left her name and wasn’t allowed to make a fragrance for five years. She kicked back but couldn’t “just sit on a beach. I’d drive everyone mad”, so filled her time with a BBC1 show, High Street Dreams, where she mentored young businesses.

Then, when the five years was up in 2011, she immediately launched Jo Loves ..., an online business with a London showroom. There are eight fragrances and two candles, with “lots more products on the way”, and a shop due to open in London in September. “It’s not about creating another business, it’s not about money. It’s about loving fragrance. I would do it for nothing. I have an obsessive streak. It’s either black or white.”

Or cream and white, with a big black ribbon. Actually, this time it’s black, white and red, the colour of the bottles Malone uses for mixing up her new fragrances, and the name is Jo Loves... She does love. Her husband Gary, or Gazza, as she calls him, her son Josh, who is a talented fencing champion, her dog Terry, Gary’s smell, the aroma of a horse after a long ride in the Montana countryside.

She also loves meeting people and talking to them. But most of all she loves creating fragrances. “The upsetting thing about leaving Estée Lauder wasn’t the decision. I knew that was right, but the heartache was having to think about the fragrances.

“I’m very synesthetic, although I’ve never been tested. I do know I have a big hippocampus! That’s important for smell and memories. Also, I can tell if it’s going to snow or rain. Everything for me is about smell. That’s how I communicate. It just happens, it’s not something I think about. The sadness came through having something that is the thing that I did, but being locked out from doing it,” she says.

Synesthesia is a neurological condition where stimulation of one sense leads to experiences in another, and while there is a strong connection between emotion, memories, smell and sound in all of us, those with the condition feel it more.

Ask Malone about her favourite smell and memories tumble out thick and fast. “My dad’s shirt, Eau Sauvage by Dior, apricot roses, a labrador chasing a white rabbit in my garden [how does that smell?], my mum’s clinic sheets, newly washed. For me everything is linked to smell. I smell something and I remember.”

Does she smell things in her dreams? She pauses. “Oh yes. Yes, I do. Always, definitely. No-one has ever asked me that, but I do. Then I wake up with an idea for a fragrance. I’m in that half-and-half state.”

Barred from creating fragrances, Malone found an outlet in cooking for her family and fell in love with the aromas of food, now apparent in her new scents – there’s a zingy Green Orange and Coriander, while a night in the Four Seasons bar in New York watching a mixologist make cocktails led to her Mango collection with A Shot of Lime Over Mango.

“I had no intention of ever coming back. I left school with no qualifications and built a business from the kitchen sink with no money and sold it to the biggest beauty business in the world, who could not create with all their money what I did.

“Maybe if I hadn’t developed cancer I might have carried on. But I’m very much a realist. I can’t change the past but I can change the future.”

So now Malone is building her brand, happily admitting she may have launched it too soon. “I thought if I got to the age of 70 and had never tried, that would be sad. But I made wrong decisions launching before all the ancillaries, like candles, were ready. We also had to work out how to get people to experience the product, since it’s online, and offer free samples so people can try it,” she says.

“I feel pressure. The world is watching me. What has been so amazing is the support of people, but you can’t assume they will give you a second chance. Also, I was shocked that people didn’t know Jo Malone wasn’t me any more. Should I have assumed they did? So I knew we had to help people differentiate between me and Jo Malone. There’s a brand bearing my name that I started but that I have had noting to do with creatively for the past six years.”

Does it make a difference that Estée Lauder has her name? “Yes, there are times when my persona is used and it’s a strange situation. We are both learning how to be respectful. It’s quite common in fashion for people to sell their name, but not elsewhere. Jo Malone, the brand, is 20 years old – we are two. Once we open a store, hopefully all those aspirational people will come to me,” she says.

Meanwhile, the online orders are flooding in, especially from north of the Border. If Jo Loves, then Scotland loves Jo. After London, the Malone-mad Scots account for the next-highest online sales. Her communications director Charlotte McCarthy, who has been with Malone from the start, recalls how her boss was always “mobbed” at public appearances in Scotland when she came to the stores.

“She’s great with people. She just likes to chat to them and find out what they’ve bought in the shop and they like her back.”

“I love talking to people, which is why I can’t wait to get into my new shop in Elizabeth Street and be a proper shopkeeper. I’ll be there behind the counter, Terry will be there too, meeting and greeting. And Gazza does all the business side. I have a great team. But it’s time to bring the fun back into retail. I’m not saying what I’m going to do in the shop, but it’s going to be something no-one has done before,” Malone says, awash with anticipation and Pomelo, her fragrance.

“Another thing I want to do is get young entrepreneurs in to help them get off the ground. I wasn’t able to go on having children because of doing a year’s chemo, but I want to see other children succeed.

“We need young entrepreneurs and are given gifts to use them, not sit on them. I love making other people’s dreams happen,” she says.

And off she rushes, kitten heels tap-tap-tapping across the marble, leaving behind her the lime aromas of 
Jo Loves ... Pomelo – zingy, confident and bubbling with life.


• Jo Loves ... fragrances from £45, candles £75