From facialist to fragrance icon, Jo Malone built her beauty empire based on luxurious bath oils and scented candles. Now 21 years after starting, she is blazing a new fragrance trail
For someone who has created one of the best-known fragrance brands in the world, Jo Malone is terribly self-deprecating. “I’m a shopkeeper and always will be,” she says of her career, this year marking 21 in the business. “It’s the heart of everything I do.” In fact, you are just as likely to find her behind the till of her London boutique as you are in the boardroom. And it’s this grounding that makes her such an icon in an industry notoriously known for its divas.
Meeting Malone is a bit like being given a golden ticket to the chocolate factory for fragrance fans. Astonishingly honest; she’s dyslexic, can’t swim and describes herself as “computer illiterate” and fiercely passionate; she lives and breathes fragrance. Even her dog gets the Malone treatment, a spritz with her favourite scent (Pomelo in case you were wondering). She is best described as a fragrance maverick, turning her name into one of the most iconic brands in the industry.
Fragrance has been at the heart of the Jo Malone brand since its creation as a small project between Malone and her husband, Gary Willcox. He remains the driving business force behind the label today. “He is everything I am not. He takes what is in my head and makes a business of it. I couldn’t do it without him,” she muses.
The brand’s unique positioning and enduring scents attracted the attention of the beauty giants and in 1999, she sold the business to Estée Lauder for “undisclosed millions”. She remained as creative director but found the transition hard. “When you sell a brand with your name attached to it, you don’t realise that it’s part of you as well. I could travel first class everywhere and stay in the best suite in every luxury hotel, but I wasn’t happy without a business of my own. I felt like I was a stranger.”
Doubly difficult was the discovery she was suffering from a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer; so in 2006 she made the difficult decision to part ways with her brand. Her exit included the agreement that she would not create or endorse any beauty products for a five-year period, something she struggled with the most.
“I was utterly miserable and felt a huge part of me was missing,” she explains. “I thought I could stay away from fragrance but it’s part of me, it’s who I am.”
With this sentiment, JO Loves was created, a fragrance brand based on the ‘real’ Jo Malone: her life, her loves and, most crucially, that streak of creativity and innovation that catapulted the fragrance icon onto the world beauty stage. “Scent is everything to me. It’s colour, sound, taste and touch. I smell it, but I also hear it like a tune and I can feel it,” she says. “A scent is the most beautiful piece of music to me or a painting. With JO Loves, I’m back doing what I love the most. It’s very personal to who I am.”
Following the launch of a capsule collection with department store, Selfridges, she opened her first boutique in 2013. Like her fragrances, the store was another industry game-changer. Styled like a brasserie, with staff dressed in aprons, the store houses a silver and red ‘fragrance bar’ centrepiece, where customers can sit and try her growing fragrance portfolio, but with a twist. “I call it fragrance tapas, for the nose,” she explains. “You can try my fragrances in an unusual and excitng way. It’s so important to play with the theatre of a store; it’s the heartbeat of any business.”
Adding to the retail drama this year has been the creation of the Candle Shot studio, a unique experience where visitors can create their own bespoke candle from a scented ‘base’ and ‘shot’. Scents include creamy Gardenia, aromatic Mint Mojito and mouth-watering Salted Caramel. This is one creation that has to be experienced and elevates the humble scented candle to a new level of desire. “This is taking retail to the third sector,” she explains. “I want every JO Loves customer to be part of the creation, not just the consumer. The Candle Shot studio puts them in control of their creation and makes the experience something very special.”
So what’s next for the woman who marks 21 years in the industry? “I’m happy doing what’s true to me,” she says. And what better way to celebrate the occasion than by breaking new fragrance barriers with the launch of Red Truffle 21.
The scent is green, earthy, contemporary and sure to become a modern classic. Key to its composition is the inclusion of truffle, a fragrance first, that was inspired by a simple plate of pasta containing truffle shavings she ate in a London restaurant. “The intensity of the smell hit me like a huge power note. I couldn’t stop thinking about how to turn it into fragrance.”
Red Truffle 21 took two years to perfect “one drop at a time” and combines fig, bitter citrus and crisp vetiver with rich truffle undertones. “This fragrance marks the beginning of a new and exciting collection, a series of scents that surprise you. It’s just the start.” Upon smelling it, something says it really just is.