Making scents of it all: Jo Malone on nasal blocks and Brexit
Perfumer cried when Leave side won but she’s determined for it not to affect her business
Perfumer Jo Malone is dyslexic and uses red stickers to indicate to her team that she’s approved a new product. Photograph: Andrew Meredith
Walking through an airport’s duty free section is the nearest many of us get to Jo Malone. It’s the nearest we get to the Jo Malone name anyway.
A speedy douse of Earl Grey & Cucumber and we’re on our way to Madrid or Lanzarote or Leeds.
So, it was a bit of a shock to come face-to-face with the woman who has given us such a smorgasbord of smells and find that she took her leave from Jo Malone in 2006, when she sold up to Estée Lauder.
Well, it passed some of us by anyway.
She still answers to the name Jo Malone, and hopes her autobiography, Jo Malone: My Story, will draw people into her brave new world.
The smiling, welcoming woman, who has just got off a delayed flight and rushed from Dublin Airport, has not even broken into a sweat as she pours us tea in a Dublin hotel.
Jo Malone does exactly what she says on the tin. It might be a new tin now, but the sentiment remains the same.
The Jo Malone brand, which she sold in 1999 for undisclosed millions, continues to pull in the punters with its trademark monochrome packaging, so it must have been a challenge reinventing the wheel, we say.
Jo Loves, Malone’s new incarnation, has been going since 2011. It was not all plain sailing, she says.
“Well, I started off with bright red boxes, which I got horribly horribly wrong. I was so desperate to come back into the industry, and so desperate to be heard, that I think the huge red boxes were like a teenager dying their hair red and saying: ‘listen to me, I’m here, I’m back and I want to make a statement’, so it was more about my emotion than about the packaging.
“I went back and I thought ‘Jo, who are you, really?’ And I am this. I really love white space. My house is completely white. It is one of my favourite places to be.
“The little red dot on the packaging is because I am dyslexic. I can’t fill out forms so, when I pass a new product, I stick a sticky red spot on it so the team can see that Jo’s red-dotted it, it is good to go.
“So the red dot is my Nike swoosh,” says the woman, who knows a slam-dunk brand when she sees one. Whatever else happened to her, Malone never lost that.
She survived an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2003, then the terms under which she left the company in 2006 precluded her from working in the same area for five years. Both events were challenging, says Malone.
Then the woman who had always prided herself on her rare ability to think in smells, was flummoxed by what she calls the “nasal equivalent of writers’ block”.
She finally found her mojo again and came up with her signature scent, Pomelo, a citrus-y, grapefruit fragrance that is her now her best-selling scent.
‘Money doesn’t make you happy’
Malone hopes that her autobiography, which also bears the red dot of her new brand, will finally make is clear that the Jo Malone, the brand, and Jo Malone, the person, are separate entities.
So, is there an Irish connection, we ask, pointing out that the name Malone name connects her to one of Dublin’s most famous women.
She says that her dad was from Scotland, but she is not aware of any Irish connections. What she is aware of, however, is that she was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
“Not at all,” she says. “I was born in a two-up, two-down council house in Bexleyheath in Kent. My dad worked for a double-glazing company at the time. Everyone rented, so we had the rent man knocking on the door on a Friday.
“ The electric and gas meter were under the stairs so you would have to collect your shillings to feed it.”
Malone’s parents were “hard working and very creative”, she says. Her mother worked as a manicurist for Revlon and her dad was a member of the Magic Circle, a British organisation dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic, “amongst many things”.
The perfumer and former magician’s assistant knows how a lot of tricks work and can pull a rabbit from a hat, a skill that has come in handy – metaphorically, at least.
Malone has ended up a very rich women, but that is a long way from where she started. “I never wanted to be rich, I never thought about money in any shape or form,” she says.
“I believe that although money gives you choice, it doesn’t make you happy, it doesn’t make you a better person, it doesn’t make you wise.
“So, I have never been in love with money. I am in love with success, though. I love that striving. I never sought money first, I sought being happy and being fulfilled and the money came as a result of that. Anyone who knows me knows I am still a very down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground kind of individual.”
Can anyone amass money, we ask?
“Money can be part of your motivation. When I was a little girl, I just didn’t want to live the life I had grown up with. I didn’t want to worry about where the next meal was coming from. But am I sitting here now thinking about how I can make the next ten quid? No, I don’t think about that.”
“Being contented and happy are the two greatest things. If you feel that, as a person . . . then that is all they can hope for. I probably can’t do many, many things, but I can create fragrance.”
One thing that has made her unhappy recently is Brexit.
“I was completely devastated. I think it was the wrong decision, but it was a democratic decision.”
Respect for democracy aside, Malone notes that the result was “very close. It was half and half, so I still do feel sad”.
Malone was so upset by the Brexit decision that she cried.
“Not for myself – my business is going from strength to strength and my business will be a huge export business anyway. This isn’t going to be something that I will feel dramatically but there are a lot of businesses that will.
“There is no plan and the fact that we are sitting here even discussing it makes me hot with anger. These are people’s lives.
“We are human beings, we make mistakes, but when you can see something is so clearly wrong . . . I don’t understand it.”
She says Brexit is “ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. The things we have lost. The relationships that are key to any business. They are key to my business and have been for over 15 years. The first thing I did after Brexit was get on that plane and go to France to my suppliers, saying ‘I am sorry’ for what happened and ‘we have to find a way to go on’.
“And we will. Absolutely we will. That is why I’m saying don’t wait for new rules to be worked out, get out there and start talking and working out your own way.”
Jo Malone has always done things her way. Jo loves being her own woman. Now that is a brand.