Since selling Jo Malone London to Estee Lauder in 1999, perfume giant Jo Malone went on to launch Jo Loves in London, which ships worldwide.
Since selling Jo Malone London to Estee Lauder in 1999, perfume giant Jo Malone went on to launch Jo Loves in London, which ships worldwide. Contributed

Jo Malone: The scent of success

FROM cancer to career upheaval, and a set of decisions and dilemmas on a scale most of us are never faced with, Jo Malone has been through a lot these past 15 years.

The emotion of it all is evident when I sit down with the businesswoman who has become a byword for beautiful fragrances.

"Cancer definitely changed my perspective on life," she says.

There can't be many people who haven't had some Jo Malone in their home - one of her signature scented candles perhaps, or some fancy bath oil, or a crisp cologne. In all these ways Malone creates a kind of magic, but the idea that her life might have been as idyllic as the world she creates is some way from the truth.

At 52, Malone can look back on more than three decades of extraordinary achievement during which she built a staggeringly successful brand. But back in 1999 the sale of Jo Malone to the beauty behemoth Estee Lauder turned out to be a mixed blessing, for all the millions Malone made.

Jo Loves Pomelo Cleanser and Lotion, $136 (at time of print, plus shipping),
Jo Loves Pomelo Cleanser and Lotion, $136 (at time of print, plus shipping),

It presaged a period in her life that was professionally challenging to say the least, and when cancer struck, that challenge became even harder. But Malone - a woman of immense drive and energy - has come through the dark times and right now, with her Jo Loves range keeping her at the forefront of the beauty business, she is back to her true love, which is being creative.

There's a steeliness to Malone and there's no doubt that she had to learn to be tough from an early age.

"I grew up in a little two up, two down on a council estate in Bexleyheath," she recalls. "My father was a very brilliant artist, and I'd help him in the market selling his paintings."

Her father was something else, though - "a huge gambler". The matter-of-fact way that she refers to this seems to be testament to a reconciling with her past.

"I remember sitting in my bedroom, looking out and thinking, I don't want to grow up like this. I was the sole provider for our family from the age of 11, 12 years old," she said.

Her mother, a beautician, suffered a stroke, and Malone left school at 15 to care for her. She had no qualifications but the inspiration for what would turn out to be her career had already presented itself in the form of a woman called Countess Lubatti, for whom Malone's mother worked.

"I was eight or nine and I'd go to work with my mum and watch this incredible woman in the laboratory. I'd watch how face masks were made; watch Madame Lubatti grind the sandalwood," Malone says.

Malone's job was to pour the finished products into little pots for Lubatti's wealthy clientele, but she proved to have an exceptional ability for creating them too. She was on her way.

The Bexleyheath council house was left far behind with the clientele that she inherited from Lubatti becoming her first customers when she launched her own range of bath oils from her kitchen table in 1994.

That a company as big as Estee Lauder would eventually make a bid for Jo Malone was perhaps inevitable. Malone, by then in her mid-30s, stayed on as creative director, but it was now that her cancer was diagnosed.

"When I came out of a very drawn-out, excruciating year of chemotherapy, I suddenly felt like I could run at life again," she says.

And that realisation led, in 2006, to her next big decision - to leave the company that bore her name.

"There was a disconnect and it was to do with me. I started looking at it purely as a business, and I'd never felt that way about it before."

Jo Malone Lime, Basil and Mandarin Cologne 100ml, RRP $185 and Peony and Blush Suede scented candle, RRP $85. Available online and at leading department stores.
Jo Malone Lime, Basil and Mandarin Cologne 100ml, RRP $185 and Peony and Blush Suede scented candle, RRP $85. Available online and at leading department stores.

A new-found seizing-hold of life, coupled with a fear that the cancer would return, persuaded her to make the leap.

"I made the right decision for the business, and for Estee Lauder. But for me, as a creator, it was the worst thing in the world that I could have done," Malone says.

Under the terms of the deal, Malone was obliged by Estee Lauder to take a five-year hiatus from the industry, and she found herself with a lot of time on her hands, much of it spent miserably.

She kept herself busy, sitting on various boards, a role not suited to her given her fondness for plain-speaking and doing things her own way. She holidayed and spent time with her family, husband Gary and son Josh.

Finally, the five years was up, and as soon as Malone was free to work in the business again, she did, launching Jo Loves in 2011. It wasn't easy. She tells a story about her first scent - Pomelo.

"I really felt Pomelo was my voice. It conjured up exactly how I was feeling, the emotion of everything. We'd got right the way through the process - ordered the bottles and the compound, the labels even, and we were ready to launch as soon as I got back from our Easter holiday," she says.

"I was walking down the beach in the resort in Turks and Caicos, on my own one morning, and this stingray swam by the side of me as I walked up and down. And in that moment I knew in my heart that the fragrance wasn't finished, and I pulled it.

"It cost us nearly $200,000 and nobody spoke to me for a week - it was a really big deal. I was so desperate to get back to this industry that I'd been ignoring this nagging voice, but I knew I couldn't ignore it any more."

Malone is dyslexic, so she couldn't follow a formulation, but by watching the process she was able to "hook the various stages and then knit them together. I could make a face cream from the age of nine, and I could tell when it was ready by the texture".

When she had sold her company to Estee Lauder they, understandably, asked to see the formulations.

"I said, 'I haven't got a formulation, I make it from my head'. I sat in their laboratories and they'd ask me to make something, and off I'd go. They'd say, 'Stop, stop. How many drops was that?', and I'd say, 'I don't know. Until it feels right', and we'd have to start all over again."

This affinity for the ingredients is innate: "I could tell if the camphor or rosemary oil was past its sell-by just by the smell. I was taught from a really young age that what I saw and what I smelled were really valuable tools in the industry."

For a perfumer a sense of smell is obviously vital, but Malone's ability is rare even among industry noses. When she recently said that she could smell running water in her building it was laughed off by her family, until six weeks later a leak burst through the wall.

"I can smell anything. I could smell when my husband was sick, when there's something not right with the dog, when it's going to snow. I can smell all kinds of things that are normal to me, but not to other people," she says.

"But I didn't let cancer take anything more from me than it needed to. Chemotherapy takes a lot from you - but it gave me everything back, apart from my eyelashes. But my sense of smell has come back stronger."

She says she compartmentalises her life into "moments". That epiphany on the white sand of Turks and Caicos was a defining one, and another occurred in Montana, where she visits a horse ranch every year.

"One summer I wasn't back at work and I was very unhappy and I couldn't find who I was at all," she recalls.

"We went to the ranch and I took Josie, my horse out. I was getting these terrible anxiety attacks where my heart was pounding, and coming back down the mountain it was all shingle and every time Josie put her hoof down she'd slide. I could tell that she was frightened and I just burst into tears. The cowboy who we were with said 'Trust your horse Jo, she'll get you down'."

Nearly three hours later Malone was at the bottom of the mountain.

"It was as if life was saying to me, 'Every time you step somewhere something shifts, but you've still got to take every step'. From that minute I looked at life differently."

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