Her name is synonymous with delicate fragrances in luxury packaging; the very scent of aspiration. But Jo Malone spent years wondering if her sense of smell would ever find a new outlet, after selling her eponymous brand and walking away from the business – a decision she now says was “the biggest mistake” of her life.
Yet after a lengthy hiatus in which she found her creative wings clipped, Malone, 53, is back with a new brand, Jo Loves, and she has plans to go global once more.
“Within 18 months we will open more stores in the UK and take it out [around the world] at the same time,” she says, on a visit to Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “I am 30 years older in fragrance so what I have created is very different.
“It was never about sitting down with a piece of paper and going: ‘What makes me different?’ because I am still Jo.
“It would become so prescribed but this is part of my everyday life. It is completely natural to me.”
Malone’s highly-tuned nose – she has synaesthesia, a neurological condition where the senses can overlap – means that when she sees colour or hears music, she interprets them as scents.
She points to the white and purple sofas at the InterContinental Festival City and says: “When I see them, I smell eucalyptus and blackcurrant.
“I will listen to jazz and interpret it through smell. I am not physically smelling it but through my imagination. I trust my nose more than I trust most people.”
Her husband Gary Willcox once flew to New York to surprise her but she rumbled him by detecting his scent in a lift in her hotel before she had seen him.
Malone’s rise to fame has been well-documented, most recently in her autobiography Jo Malone: My Story.
Born on a council estate in Bexleyheath, south-east London, she grew up helping her beautician mother to mix lotions and face creams.
Severely dyslexic, Malone dropped out of school at 15 with no qualifications in order to look after her mother, who had suffered a stroke. With a gambling father often disappearing for weeks at a time, she was out selling the family’s products from a young age.
“It was up to me to put food on the table from the age of 11,” she says. “By 16, I was running a business.”
She launched Jo Malone with the nutmeg and ginger oils she mixed in her bath at home. From its humble beginnings, it grew into a multimillion-dollar empire and was eventually bought by Estée Lauder in 1999 for an undisclosed sum.
Then in 2003, Malone was diagnosed with breast cancer, at the age of 37, and given a year to live. She underwent a gruelling year of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy and decided to step away from the business.
“I was terrified the cancer would come back and made a big life-changing decision to walk away from the brand that I had founded,” she says. “I felt a stranger in my own business.”
On her last day, she asked to be the last person to leave the shop and sobbed as she stacked shelves and took a last lingering look: “It was such a lesson – that moment when you think: ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Chemotherapy temporarily stripped her sense of smell but even when it slowly returned, her hands were tied in a five-year golden handcuffs deal which prevented her from starting a new cosmetics business.
“Just like anything, if you do not practise it, your sense of smell can disappear,” says Malone. “I had a year’s chemotherapy and had this very strong smell of metallic in the background the whole time so I could not create top notes.
“After about a year, I started to feel like Jo again.”
It was a walk along a beach that inspired the first clean, crisp, citrus scent of pomelo that launched Jo Loves. In 2011, Malone sat once again at her kitchen table to think about how to develop a new brand, and, two years later on her 49th birthday, her husband presented her with the keys to a new shop in central London – the same site where she once worked as a florist as a teenager.
Jo Loves now boasts 12 scents, including smoked plum and leather, mango Thai lime, green orange and coriander, and red truffle 21.
Malone, who received an MBE from the Queen in 2008, went to different fragrance houses to create the scents, and says: “My sense of smell has come back in a very different way. I am much bolder and can smell things in fragrance that hardly anyone else can smell.
“Smoked leather and red truffle are not safe fragrances. They are pushing boundaries the whole time with strong, dominant notes.”
Malone says she is “a hundred times the person I was and much bolder”. As for the future, she simply wants to be “happy and loving what I am doing”.