Perfumer Jo Malone on her collaboration with Zara, creating two brands from scratch and why the world needs more fragrance
Meghan Markle's favourite is Wild Bluebell, Kate Middleton is a fan of Orange Blossom and Sienna Miller has a weakness for Lime Basil & Mandarin. We’re talking, of course, about fragrances from Jo Malone London. Its founder Joanne Lesley Malone is no stranger to success and fame. After all, she was awarded the civilian honours of MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2008 and CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2018 for her contribution to the British Economy and the GREAT Britain campaign, which promotes British creativity and industry on the international stage. She founded the hugely successful company Jo Malone London in 1994, sold it to Estee Lauder in 1999. And after she left Estee Lauder in 2006, she started another brand, Jo Loves, five years later. And somewhere in between all that she even fought and won a battle against an aggressive form of cancer. Celebrity-approved or not, Jo, who grew up in a council house in Bexleyheath, South East London, is an icon in her own right.
So, when we get on a Zoom call with Jo, who is isolating with her husband in her home in London, we are pleasantly surprised by her humility and candour. “I’ve just taken my dog for a walk so I won’t be turning my camera on. I’m afraid I don’t look very glamorous at the moment,” she says with a laugh, as we begin our interview. “I hope all of you are safe and healthy in India,” adds the perfumer, who, in December 2020, launched a line of fragrances in India, in collaboration with high street brand Zara.
The collaboration with Zara materialised about three years ago, when Jo received a call from the Spanish apparel retailer. “Jo Loves, my second perfume brand was a hit in the UK, but it didn’t have a global presence at the time. By teaming up with Zara, I was once again about to go global. So I said ‘why not?’ Essentially, it’s the coming together of Zara’s fashion heritage and my heritage of fragrance,” she tells us.
The set of eight unisex fragrances draws on Jo’s expertise in citrus-forward and natural scents. As a storyteller whose only language is fragrance, she shares that each perfume from the collection is built around well-thought-out personalities. Waterlily Tea Dress (vert de bergamot, spearmint, musk) for instance, is for the beautiful girl relaxing in an expansive lawn while wearing a vintage beaded dress, Ebony Wood (peppercorn, clove, ebony wood) is designed for the student who has just finished university and is driving down the South Pacific Coast highway in a convertible sports car thinking about what’s next, and Amalfi Sunray (bergamot, mandarin, orange flower) is created for the girl who is walking down the beach in her sundress and flip flops processing her feelings after she has fallen in love. Other fragrances in the collection include Vetiver Pamplemousse, one of Jo’s favourites, with notes of vetiver, grapefruit and mandarin, Tuberose Noir (ylang ylang, tuberose, sandalwood), Fleur d’Oranger (orange flower, neroli, ylang ylang), Fleur De Patchouli (peony, patchouli, guaiac wood) and Bohemian Bluebells (lavender, sandalwood, musk). “The amount of effort and attention to detail I put into Jo Loves has gone into this collaboration with Zara as well,” she shares.
When we ask her what’s her most favoured fragrance from Jo Loves, she is quick to respond. “It’s Pomelo,” she states. So much so that she even washes the wooden floorboards in her home with a diluted solution of the scent. “Our place is like a little white beach house in the middle of London. Pomelo was the first fragrance I created for Jo Loves, after five years of not working, so it reminds me of home and second chances,” she reveals, referring to the five-year non-compete she had to sign after leaving Estee Lauder.
When Jo travels the world, she likes to talk about what she calls ‘the five ‘I’s’ — inspiration, innovation, integrity, instinct and ignition. This is the very formula by which she built her own brands. While the rest are less tangible, her need for ‘innovation’ finds expression in Jo Loves’ fragrance paintbrushes, which she creates by turning her popular scents into tubes of quick-drying gel that you can insert into a brush (which is much like the one you’d use for make-up) and paint your body with. “You can paint the contours of your body with something like Vetiver and Pamplemousse, and then you can inject little bits of Tuberose Noir or Ebony Wood over the top. I love wearing two or three perfumes together. You should look at fragrance like art, instead of as a cosmetic product. It helps you unlock many different aromas,” says Jo.
For the self-taught perfumer, who grew up with numerous challenges, both financial and emotional, the five-year period of not working after she left Estee Lauder was the darkest time in her life. “I left school early with no education or qualification. I was the adult in the family from the age of about 12. When I was diagnosed with cancer at 38 (she is 57 now), I was given one year to live. But I fought my way through that too. However, not working with perfume for five years was more challenging than anything I had faced in my life,” she says, adding, “I didn’t cope very well. I would wake up everyday and think ‘I can’t wait for this to be over.’ I fell into a really deep pit. One day, I asked myself what I would do if I had 24 hours left on this earth, and I realised I would want to work with fragrance.” So, that’s exactly what she did. In 2011, she introduced the world to Jo Loves — a name chosen by her then eight-year-old son who reasoned that the name would ensure she never forgets what she loves. “The first few years were tough. I thought we’d have to quit. Sometimes in life you think the storm will never end but someone very wise once said to me ‘Look down. Can you see one step?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ ‘Then,’ they said, ‘Take it and stand, but don’t believe it is forever.’ And now my dreams are coming true with Jo Loves, and this collection with Zara is part of that dream,” says Jo.
Jo, who in the future hopes to expand into skincare and even harbours dreams of opening a hotel, was aware that she possessed an extraordinary sense of smell from a very young age. “My mum worked for Revlon as a manicurist and then went into beauty. I would help her make face masks and skincare products. I couldn’t read the formulations because I’m dyslexic but I would remember everything by its smell. I realised then that my sense of smell was something different. I feel that now more than ever,” she recalls.
However, she was not wholly prepared for what the future would bring. But judging by where she is today, she made the most of the opportunities that came her way. And she is brutally honest about it. “Without a doubt, it’s tough times and learning to survive that made me who I am. Tough times either break people or make them. And I think that is the message the world needs right now. When this is all over, and it will be, we’re going to have to pick up and build again,” she states.
Adversity may have been her constant companion in her early years, but Jo, who sold her first company for ‘undisclosed millions,’ is very matter-of-fact about success and wealth. “No matter how successful you are, nobody has it all. There’s always something more you want to learn, do, create, be involved with,” she says. So, a few years ago, when someone asked her if the world needs anymore perfume, she had no qualms in admitting that it actually doesn’t. “But,” she says, “I turned around and asked this person if the world needs anymore art, or music or colour. The answer is ‘no.’ Fragrance is a language. If you take scent away from the world, you take away texture, colour, emotion and vibrancy. The world will always need something delicious to smell,” she signs off.