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Courtesy of Jo Malone

Calling a Rose a Rose: Jo Malone CBE on her Creative Calling

As she launches the latest in evocative scents for her namesake brand Jo Loves, the British perfumer explains how scent has anchored her

Lead ImageCourtesy of Jo Malone

Jo Malone, both the name and the woman behind it, has undergone a vast transformation in the last 25 years – but it is for this entire quarter century that she has lived her life as both a shopkeeper and an artist. “Those are the two things I think I am,” Malone says. “I love being both.” It’s a title she has crowned herself with – though as of this summer, she’s been dealt another: CBE. Anointed in June, the prestigious title nods to the extraordinary impact she’s made on the global beauty industry with Jo Malone, the brand she set up and later sold to Estée Lauder in 1999 – now available in 22 countries. As well as with her new namesake, Jo Loves, a label under which she pushes fragrance innovation further still. And yet, in her presence, one can’t help but notice it’s perhaps her clear-cut and grounded sensibilities – that shopkeeper side – that has really driven her creations into both the spotlight and our homes. 

Malone has been making cosmetics in her kitchen since the age of eight, when she was taught by her beautician mother. And it was in this same domestic setting that she started her eponymously named brand, with a humble combination of lime and basil, and where Malone set the tone for an empire built on unpretentious creativity and desirable simplicity. By the time she sold the company and stepped down as lead creative, Malone had an aggressive type of breast cancer – as well as a heaving catalogue of fragrances (bestsellers like Wild Bluebell and English Pear & Freesia) and candles under the Jo Malone name. What escapes many to this day, she explains in the white wooden-clad room at the back of her Elizabeth Street store, is that she no longer has anything to do with that first label. “Still today, people think I’m creating – I make it very clear, in a very nice way, that I’m not…” she explains, of the difficulty of removing oneself from their namesake company. “When I wrote my book, I wrote a really true story: I allowed people to know that when I left Jo Malone it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life at that moment – that’s certainly not [the case] now.”

“I look at a kilt, the tartan in it and begin to understand what it would smell like… I can often smell pinstripe: it’s charcoal, an almost-amber charcoal, with eucalyptus or cedar through it…" – Jo Malone 

When we meet, Malone has just returned from a trip to Grasse, where she watched the famed rose de Mai being harvested, relishing its journey from field to precious oil – an ingredient she knows well. Like many of her peers, the perfumer can tell the difference between a Tea rose or a Bulgarian or Romanian rose. So too can she spot its origin – those from Grasse being particularly distinct to this nose. But it’s her synaesthesia – a condition described as when one sense (for example, smell) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses, such as sight – that has no doubt lead her to the extraordinary scent combinations that have made her famous. “I can smell colour,” she exclaims. “I look at a kilt, the tartan in it and begin to understand what it would smell like… I can often smell pinstripe: it’s charcoal, an almost-amber charcoal, with eucalyptus or cedar through it… I’m very dyslexic, so my memory is a huge part of who I am. I memorise a lot of things. I can’t recall names and years very easily, but I can recall exactly where I smelt the smell and where I was. Then when I close my eyes, I can see what was on the table – what kind of glass, what I was drinking. I can recall all those things through the key of fragrance, but I might forget your name tomorrow.”

With her gift such an integral part of her everyday life, she was never going to be long out of the business. Within only five years of selling her maiden company, and battling cancer during that time, Malone was lured back in. “It couldn’t leave me alone actually,” she explains of her calling. “It kept whispering in my ear and I was so unhappy not creating.” But for at least those first two years, she felt like quitting at every hurdle. “All the packaging was wrong in the beginning and it was because I ran into it too quickly. I was so desperate to be back where I wanted to be, I forgot the basics of business and underlying principles. You can’t just bang, go back in there.” And returning to the essentials, to the core tenets on which she built her first brand, Malone was able to reconnect. It was this same disarming honesty with which she details her experience that liberated her. 

“I didn’t have a marketing board, I didn’t look at benchmarks. I created fragrances and things that I loved, and then put them in a bottle, put them on a shelf and they sold. I still do that, every day; that is what is similar about the brands, that spirit of just being true to who I am. I remember once, many years ago, trying to create differently and I never sold the product, it never went into a bottle. I looked at it and I just thought, I don’t like it, and if I don’t like it, why have I done it? Sometimes you have to compromise, especially if you’re in an environment where you’re in a company, but to be true to yourself I think is one of the greatest riches of Solomon, if you’re really true to who you are you’ll be happy.”

As such, both her concoctions and packaging ring true to a clean, simple approach – that shopkeeper side. “I call a spade a spade. I think my fragrances are an interpretation of my character. They are interpretations of my life. I’m telling you something about myself. You know, with Smoked Plum and Leather, I’m telling you the story of riding my horse in Montana. Pomelo is the walk along Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos; Mango Thai Lime is sitting in the Four Seasons hotel in New York, and just sitting and watching things go by. So I’m telling you stories of my life, or things that have happened to me, and that’s what art is – it communicates something.” 

This is where her artist-self comes into play, that combined with what Malone now describes as a gutsier side that she gets to explore with Jo Loves, 25 years into her career. And with renegade innovations like the Shot Candle (a patented design that allows customers to select a main candle, and slot in a scented ‘shot’ of their choice, making for a bespoke home fragrance), or the Fragrance Paintbrush Gels, which see Jo Loves bestsellers translated into a cooling gel which one can swipe over their body with creative abandon. The latest of such progressive perfume methods is her range of Graffiti Body Sprays: a set of four, comprising Vetiver, Fig, Tuberose and Grapefruit, reminiscent of the 90s and designed to inject a hit of scent to your hair, body or clothes, or layered over your signature perfume. Each one is inspired by an artist or artwork. The white flowers of Tuberose offer an ode to Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms for instance, while the shimmering notes of Grapefruit reflect Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. That synaesthesia again.

Jo by Jo Loves, launching in September, is the perfumer’s present to herself. Hit with grapefruit again – a “signature” – bitter orange, lime, spearmint, vetiver and black pepper, it recalls “her favourite family holidays in Lake Como and crisp linen sheets scented with pamplemousse water”. There’s no doubt though that this vignette of summer will be evocative to countless others, beside herself.

For more information, visit Jo Loves.