Jo Malone's sweet smell of success second time around
Jo Malone sold her first perfume business for millions but its loss left her miserable. It was her nose that saved her, in some ways, as well as a fighting spirit learned early in life
There are two moments in conversation when Jo Malone's demeanour changes. One is when she describes a new scent she has created for her brand, Jo Loves. It's called Smoked Plum and Leather, and when I ask if it's a sort of deep purple scent, she gets the faraway look in her eyes of someone in the first flush of love. "It is," she says, perking up and gazing off, as if conjuring it up before her. "It's smoky and it's powerful and it's the kind of thing I'd never have had the courage to do before."
The second time it's not a look of love that comes over Jo, it's one of total disgust. The second time, she's talking about one of the lowest times in her life, after she came back to her original business, the one that bore her name, Jo Malone, after nearly a year of being treated for cancer. The treatment had been tough and facing her mortality had been tough. But in the aftermath, what became an extra and, particularly cruel, blow was her damaged sense of smell.
"That was really awful. All I could smell was like I ran my hands down an aluminium pipe," she shudders, as if the cold metal was in her hands. "It was a really horrible smell; it was that and a mouthwash that I had [during the cancer treatment] and it makes me heave if I smell it now."
A huge aspect of Jo Malone's shattered sense of identity post-cancer was her damaged sense of smell. She could still create a fragrance, she explains, but it would have been because intellectually she knows what works, not because she could "see" it. Because that's how Jo Malone does it. She sees smells as shapes and colours and almost as people or characters. They are more than aromas, they are real to her and key to her identity. So when she couldn't see her smells she felt lost.
What was lost to her in the mid-Noughties, she says now, was "what I can do that makes me different".
Reading her just-published autobiography, Jo Malone: My Story, you quickly grasp that this extraordinary gift of smell is not all that is different about her. Jo Malone's rags-to-riches story is a good one, but it's not her full story. She's also what you might call a comeback queen.
In 1999, she sold her company Jo Malone to Estee Lauder for "undisclosed millions". She stayed on as creative director but then she was diagnosed with cancer and stepped away from the business for treatment, only to return and find she couldn't reconnect with how it had changed in her absence. She left the business in 2006 with an agreement that she couldn't work in the fragrance industry for five years. It was an agreement that devastated her, shaking her sense of self to the core.
She came back though, and that's what makes her really different. She's a wildly successful businesswoman who has not just once built a brand from nothing to multimillion-pound level, with Jo Malone, but is well on the way to doing it again with Jo Loves.
I suggest that, to some people, Jo's position in 2006 would have been a dream come true. Millions in the bank, a sense of personal achievement in having built a global brand from nothing and the knowledge that she could live a comfortable life for the rest of her days. But she was miserable.
Was it not working that made you unhappy, I ask.
"Not working?" she says. "Yeah. I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what to do with myself. It wasn't about a wage. At the end of the day, it was about being occupied and being of use and I don't think it's good for human beings, when they can do something, if they don't do it. And for me, I wasn't happy."
In interviews with English newspapers, there is often some comment made about Jo Malone's accent. It remains, they say, pure Bexleyheath, Kent, where she grew up in a council house, a sensible, driven and pragmatic girl from the start. She was also the daughter of a father who gambled and a glamorous beautician mother who allowed her to help out in the business, teaching young Jo how to make face creams and do facials, at which she was an instant whizz.
Her father's gambling was a massive strain on the family, creating a life that was characterised by highs and lows and mostly the latter, when money was scarce and rows were frequent.
"I knew that I was the sensible one," says Jo. "I was the one who, before I left for school, looked in to the fridge and thought, 'OK, there are four eggs, some cheese. What are we going to eat for dinner?'"
Jo was key to keeping the house going, but as she grew into a teenager she also became crucial to her mother's business. She had a real talent for skin care and for creating scents, and people started to seek her out. Dyslexic, she was considered lazy at school, but in truth she was anything but. However, when her mother had a stroke during Jo's early teens, the dynamic changed in the house.
"She was really sick and she changed tremendously as a person," Jo says. Tension grew between them and it culminated in an incident when her mother threw jars of face cream at Jo. Her father and younger sister Tracey - her only sibling - sided with Jo's mother and the rift with them did not heal until many years later, not long before all three died within a relatively short space of time. "What happened with the face cream was the straw that broke the camel's back," Jo says, "but that was the making of me, really, because there was no going back. But I never stopped loving them, and that's in the book."
That is in Jo's book. I tell her that it's admirable how the rift does not colour, with hindsight, the happiness of her early years.
"But that's real life," Jo says. "[My mother] had been very poorly and that affects things. But I thought it was important that if you're going to write a life story, you have to be truthful. Otherwise what's the point?
"People know the success of my life, but they needed to know what was under that. What drives me. And that little girl who got up and fought every single time, that's what drives me. And forgiveness is so much more liberating than resentment; that is the message here."
Jo married her first love, Gary Willcox, in 1985 and he has been a key player in her success. She describes herself as a person who throws herself headlong at things, sometimes stopping to think only when she hits her head against a wall. There are people with her who do the "strategic" thinking, she tells me. Gary, a former surveyor who gave up that career to join her as Jo Malone took off, is probably the key strategist. It is clear in her book that they share a great love and the fact that they built the business together was part of the fun.
Two Jo Malone fragrances, Lime, Mandarin and Basil, and Pomegranate Noir, are now staple scents worn by women all over the world. They are layered with other Jo Malone scents - a genius idea of Jo's. They are worn, and also used to fragrance homes with candles and infusers. They also come in drawer liners, scented sachets and scent-infused Christmas decorations, not to mention shower gels, body lotions and hand creams.
There are thousands of fragrances in the beauty market, and thousands of creators with very special noses, but something about Jo Malone's scents struck a chord. In 1999, 15 years after she started the business, Estee Lauder made the deal to buy it from her. It had been a slow-burning process and Jo considered it carefully. She decided that this was a brand that was sympathetic to hers and that could move it along, past the million-pounds business she had built it to.
She stayed on as creative director and it was an exciting time as she travelled all over the world and enjoyed a different experience of business.
In 2000, at the age of 36, she discovered she was pregnant and had her son Josh, her only child. Life changed again, and again for the good.
However, in 2003 Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her association with the Lauders turned out to be a blessing, as Evelyn Lauder had set up a breast cancer foundation and they helped Jo to get the very best treatment in New York. She and Gary and Josh moved to Manhattan for almost a year and Jo approached cancer with the same determination as every other challenge in her life.
"Control is my thing," she notes. "I need to be in control. But with the cancer, I just handed it over to the doctors."
When the treatment was over, Jo gently reimmersed herself in Jo Malone, but it wasn't the same. Was it like coming back to find that the business was no longer 'her baby'?
"Well, they took over the baby because I had cancer. And when you've had cancer and gone through chemo every five to six days, it plays havoc with all sorts of thought processes. It changes the way you think and, you know, I thought I was going to die.
"And it wasn't as if someone took over from me. It was because they had to, because there was no one else to run it.
"But then when I went back I couldn't identify with the brand I'd built, because I was a stranger. And I couldn't marry all my emotions about it. And that's why I went [from Jo Malone], because I wasn't happy any more."
In hindsight, Jo readily concedes she might have extracted herself differently.
"When I look back," Jo says, "it was probably the right decision at the wrong time. If I had given myself a little bit of time, I probably would have made the same decision, but made it differently. But how differently, I will never know. It's a 'Sliding Doors' sort of thing."
Jo hated being idle. Her agreement with Estee Lauder was that she couldn't be in the fragrance business or use her name for five years. And the money, despite what anyone else might imagine, didn't help. "I'm not in love with money," says Jo. "I never have been. I'm in love with success. I love to run things that are successful. But money is not my god. It just frees me to do what I want to do.
"You don't worry less," she says, "you worry about different things. Now, my responsibilities are about different things. I'm not going to the fridge to make sure that there's something for dinner, but I'm worrying about other things."
Jo and her family enjoyed themselves in that time, they took wonderful holidays and lived very comfortably, but it wasn't the same. The fact that she couldn't smell properly did not help. Jo was in a position in which she had never been before: she wasn't striving for anything and it wasn't good.
In Jo's house, they can afford waste but she cannot countenance any. Sunday night dinner, she says with a smile, is "bits-and-bobs dinner", which means using up anything in the fridge that might get thrown out otherwise.
It's symbolic and telling. She is not careless and she is not a gambler. She was never seduced by the thrill of it to which her father was in thrall.
"If I found £100 in my pocket and I was told to turn that into £10,000, I'd rather invest it in a business than place a bet. I'd rather be in control of it than gamble it. It's the control element, that's my trigger. When I lose control I get panicky.
"I felt I had lost that when I came out of the business. I came out of the business to a void. The void made me very claustrophobic. And that's when I thought, 'Who am I? What am I going to do?'
"The scariest part of the five-year lock-out was that I didn't know who I was. All my life, I've known who I am but I'd lost my identity and I had to find it again."
Jo did some television and she began writing but the significance of her lost sense of smell cannot be underestimated. Jo knew she wanted to create a new business, but without 'seeing' smell the way she used to, what would that business be? In her heart and soul, how could it be the same?
Jo 'trained' her nose back into some sort of action but the ability to create a new scent evaded her until an early morning walk on the beach while on holiday in the Turk and Caicos Islands. She had been thinking about the pomelo, a melon-like tropical fruit, but during her walk, the fruit's fragrance melded with other smells; the sun warming the sand, the day heating up, the luxuriant tropical island around her. Pomelo, her first scent for Jo Loves, was born.
Now, five years in to the journey with Jo Loves, she has a shop on Elizabeth Street in Belgravia, London - near where she had her first job in a florist. Jo thinks that's a sign of how right it all is, and one of her Jo Loves scents, Flower Shop, is a nod to that history.
Jo believes that the trauma of the cancer caused her to walk away from Jo Malone with no idea of how to go on without it. She doesn't regret the decision, though, partly because she is so enjoying the second journey with Jo Loves.
"You can also be better than you were before," she says. "Before, I would never have had the bravery to do things and the courage to do things that I'm doing today.
''But cancer taught me to live for the day and be true to yourself, no matter what the consequences." Any anguish she felt over Jo Malone is past, too, even if it must be hard to distance yourself from something with your own name emblazoned on it. "When I look at the brand today, I'm no longer the creator nor the consumer," says Jo. "I don't own the product and I don't buy it. I feel detached. It has taken time to get to that place. I look at it with a huge amount of love and respect but it's nostalgic.
"I love what I'm doing now with Jo Loves. It's like the second child that gave me a second chance."
Jo Malone: My Story has a glossy page inside the cover with a scented picture of a bottle of Jo Loves Pomelo. Jo explains the science of infusing the page with fragrance and assures me that it will last for up to four months. "The reason we scented the book with Pomelo is that it was the fragrance that gave me a second chance," Jo says. "Where would I be if I hadn't created that? I don't know.
"Anyway," Jo says, "you couldn't read and understand my story without that sense of smell."
'Jo Malone: My Story' is published by Simon & Schuster
Jo Malone's business wisdom
"I really do enjoy my success. Because it's not just about the destination. You have to enjoy the journey. If you don't enjoy the journey, you have to question why you are doing this. Is it just to make the first million? Because if it is, then you are missing out on the journey."
"If you hand on your experience as a baton, as well as the successes, you have to say: 'This is what I did, these are my mistakes', learn from them and don't make the same ones."
"I believe that there is no decision we make, good or bad, that we can't come back from. There is a way back from everything."
"We're not building businesses any more that we hand on from generation to generation. Tech industries, young people are building their first businesses and selling them by the time they're 28 and then sitting on a whole pile of cash. We need those people to put it back into industry and build again to keep it all going."
''When you build a business and you're so synonymous with the brand, it's hard to step out of that. I was able to come back into the industry that I love, and for any artist or creator, that is the ultimate, because if you stay on the same thing all the time, time and time again, you won't last very long. I was very lucky to be able to start again."
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