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Lunch With
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Lunch with Jo Malone, Scott's, London

30 August 2016

The British fragrance queen explains her extraordinary journey to success, over lunch at Scott’s in London.

You’re not going to expect this, the story of Jo Malone. Unless you’ve heard it before, of course, then in which case you will… but even then you should read on, as hers has not been the usual rise to high profile business success. Jo Malone might just be your new hero.

We meet in Scott’s Restaurant in Mayfair, London. Jo arrives with her head of PR ,“to make sure everything runs smoothly”. It puts a different slant on the usually informal ‘Lunch with’ setting, but they have been working closely together for years and have the easy camaraderie of old friends. Any doubts dissolve as they envelop me in warm, friendly hugs as soon as they arrive.

As we step from the spacious and quiet foyer into the busy restaurant, the sound of dining and chatter is almost overwhelming. Jo doesn’t waste any time – she’s a regular at Scott’s and knows what she wants.

What many people probably don’t know is that Jo’s story is rather unconventional. Her family life has a filmic quality to it, an element of rags-to-riches and eccentric characters – the dark, surreal flavours of a Tim Burton movie as opposed to a tired Hollywood blockbuster, though. Jo’s father was a member of The Magic Circle and also an artist, while her mother worked for the enigmatic and self-styled Countess Lubatti as a cosmetician.

“My childhood was not easy, but it wasn’t unhappy either,” she says. “I felt very loved as a person and I was around creativity morning, noon and night. My dad was the most wonderful man. The only thing I didn’t like was his huge gambling problem. I didn’t have the mum and dad that you came home to every day. When I came home it was up to me to put food on that table.”

Jo worked from an early age as her father’s assistant at magic shows, worked the local markets with him selling his paintings, and helped out her mother making beauty products. These early experiences of work, explains Jo, with an air of positive philosophy, taught her to trust her creativity and imbued her with a passion for selling.

“I don’t believe anything in life is ever wasted. Everything is of use if you learn from it. I think the markets taught me the joy of being a merchant, of making something and putting it out into the world. Being a magician’s assistant taught me about the importance of theatre and the magic of life: how we all want to feel that childlike moment when the rabbit comes out of the hat.”

The waiter brings our food over and we all eagerly tuck in, for a few moments the conversation quietens. Jo has ordered sides of fries and creamed spinach and offers them around. Severe dyslexia means Jo is unable to read or write, which made school life in the ’70s a disheartening experience. An unrecognised condition at that time, “I was told that I was either stupid or lazy. I thought, well, I must be one or the other but I knew I wasn’t stupid because I could work things out faster than most people.”

Unfortunately worse was to follow and, at the age of 12, Jo’s mother had a “kind of breakdown” she explains. “That was when I realised that it was up to me or my sister and I were going to be taken into care. I don’t know how I did it but I convinced everyone I could hold it together. I remember sitting in the living room thinking: ‘We have no money.’ I thought: ‘OK, then I can make face creams and sell them to mum’s clients, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Jo, who had been helping her mother mix ingredients since she was a little girl, attributes her remarkable capacity to remember measurements and ingredients to dyslexia. But a greater blessing for the budding entrepreneur was her synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers an experience in another – for example, words may have a taste or colours may have a sound. In Jo’s case she has a heightened sense of smell and colours give off vivid aromas.

“My sense of smell is my compass. I can tell when it’s going to rain, I can tell when my dog is sick, I could tell when there was a flood about to happen in the house. It’s something that’s very natural to me but if I try to explain it goes away.”

Jo left school while she took care of the family and managed the business, briefly returning at the age of 14 where she found that school didn’t have any relevance for her as she was learning more working from her family home’s kitchen. With a big smile and an open-handed gesture that suggests she’s more than happy with the way things have worked out, she explains, “I didn’t finish school and I don’t remember doing any exams, I’ve got no qualifications so… there you go.”

Despite her friendly and positive demeanour, there’s also subtle toughness and determination at work behind the smile. Jo deftly manages the conversation, deflecting questions that aren’t immediately relevant to the brand’s story yet drawing me into her world with expressive demonstrations of how she creates her fragrances.

At 21 she married Gary Wilcox. She had a small skin care business and started to develop her sense of smell. “I realised the gift I had and started to create bath oils and body lotions. That’s when the business became very different. We got our first shop in Walton Street and for four years we saw the most phenomenal growth. Gary left his work as a surveyor and together they created Jo Malone, the fragrance brand that became synonymous with luxury and sophistication.”

In 1999 Jo sold Jo Malone to Estée Lauder and continued an association with the company as creative director and chairwomen. For a while she had the best of both worlds: she had received a large but undisclosed, figure for Jo Malone, and the pressure of trying to manage a burgeoning company was lifted. “I was very happy for three years, travelling the world... and then I was diagnosed with cancer and it stopped me in my tracks.”

When her son was aged just three, Jo was told she had nine months to live. With an indefatigable resilience that has got her through many difficult times, she looks me square in the eyes as she states, “That wasn’t good enough for me. I’m not going to have someone tell me when I’m going to die.” She went to New York and endured nine months of aggressive chemotherapy, which has left her cancer-free.

Jo left Jo Malone and Estée Lauder completely in 2006 but the price of her freedom was high. She was subject to a contractual lockdown from any kind of engagement with the cosmetics industry for five years. “Within days of leaving I realised I’d made a big mistake. Not a big mistake in selling or leaving but I had misjudged myself. I didn’t realise how much my happiness, my contentment, was connected with creating fragrance.”

In 2011, as soon as the lockdown ended, she launched Jo Loves. She describes it as much harder to do the second time around as people weren’t aware that she was no longer a part of Jo Malone. “People were a little confused. It’s taken three years of telling the story but it’s starting to really happen now.”

Even after spending just an afternoon with Jo, it’s not exactly difficult to believe her when she explains that she was so desperate to get back into business that she rushed things. “I got all the packaging wrong the first time around. I just wanted to be back being a shopkeeper and I was like a kid running towards it. My husband kept saying to me, ‘Jo, slow down,’ but that’s not my nature. So I had a few bruised knees.”

The first two years of the business were hard but things came together on Jo’s 49th birthday, when her husband gave her a key to a shop. It was the first shop she had worked in as a 16-year-old girl, on Elizabeth Street, in London’s Belgravia neighbourhood. Giving the brand a home and giving her a place to let her merchant’s imagination run wild was just what the fledging company needed.

The Jo Loves shop functions as a creative studio and a kind of fragrance tapas bar, where clients can come in and get painted with fragrance or have their own candle cocktail mixed. “Twenty-five years ago I would never have had the courage to do what I do now, it’s too daring. Now it doesn’t bother me. If people don’t agree with me, if people don’t like it, that’s fine, because there are thousands of other people out there that do.”

That much is certainly true, devotees of Jo Loves are many and the company has big plans to expand into new territories in 2017. After turning down offers to write her autobiography for the past six years, she’s now confident that her happy ending has come true and felt it was the right time to share her journey. With a big smile and her animated way of communicating, she explains,“You need to start the story down there and end the story up here.” So what seems like the end of the story for Jo is just the beginning for Jo Loves. Gathering up her paraphernalia, she says goodbye on a high note – perfectly illustrating her point. Then she’s off for her next interview, ready to tell her story all over again.

Words: Kate Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate