Jo Malone is basically the Madonna of the scent world: She’s universally beloved, can be identified by a single moniker (say the name Jo to any fragrance fiend, and you’ll see what we mean), and has reinvented herself to critical acclaim. Proof of the latter is Jo Loves, a newly-launched line—separate from the Jo Malone brand—of niche fragrances, candles, and body products. But forging a path after parting ways with the brand that made her a household name wasn’t an easy road for Malone, as detailed in her new book, “My Story” ($19; amazon.com). Here, we take a deeper dive, starting from day one...
Where did you grow up?
I think people often think I grew up in an estate, like Downton Abbey. I didn’t—I grew up in government-subsidized housing in London. It's the equivalent of the projects in America. It was really tough. My father was an architect and my mum worked for Revlon. The two of them were always mixing and making things, including face cream. I made my first own batch of face cream when I was eight years old. I knew that face creams made money, and I knew that money could pay rent and put food in our fridge—I was really frightened about having nothing to eat. So I made the face creams, and my mum would sell them to her makeup clients.
How did that interest turn into a full-fledged career in beauty?
I never went to school—I dropped out at 15. I don’t have any diplomas. Instead, years later, I opened a little skincare clinic in London. I rented this tiny apartment and put in a little massage bed, and it was there that I made all of these face creams and treated people. Growth came through word of mouth—I had no PR; no marketing budget. I have to say it was one of the happiest times of my life. I always had a face cream in my hand; I was always making something. And I would treat these women, and I would see their complexions literally flourish, but also, they would walk out in this sort of cloud of delicious fragrance [from my handmade products]. And that’s what drew them back.
So then fragrance became your focus?
One day a woman said to me, ‘I love the smell of this body lotion,’ and I said I’d bottle it for her [as perfume]. So I gave her some, and then sure enough, a few weeks later she said, ‘Can I buy some more?’ and that was the turning point. There’s always a point in business when the road opens up to you—and that was it for me. We started going to Christmas fairs, and people would buy the products, both fragrance and the lotions. So really, by the time we opened on Walton Street, which was the first shop, we had a really strong following of people.
What do you think it was about the products that clicked with customers?
It’s down to what’s in the bottle. It’s always what’s in the bottle. If that isn’t good enough, then it doesn’t matter how you package something or what story you tell, or what famous person you get to promote your products. If it’s not good enough, it won’t sell a second or a third time. And that is what I’ve always aimed to do—to have the product be the hero every time. So the packaging, and the nice bottle, and the name, it supports it, but it’s what is inside the bottle that really matters.
How did you scale the business?
I think within six to eight months we could see that we were sitting on a racehorse. She was ready to run. So within five years of opening that little shop, I sold to Estée Lauder. We were growing at such a pace that I didn’t have enough money, so I had to bring on somebody that could distribute it, or somebody with resources. And of course Lauder had both—they were wonderful. I was on cloud nine the day I signed that piece of paper. But a few years into [working with the company as the brand’s creative director], I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That changed everything.
What did you do then?
I had a very aggressive form of breast cancer. So I came to New York City to be under the care of the best doctors. I started the process of chemotherapy and surgery; it was grueling. But a year later, I did come out at the other end. I went back to my business, but I felt like a stranger—I was a completely different person. I was very scared the cancer was going to come back, so I made the decision to leave and focus on my personal life—my little boy was three or four at the time. So, yes, I walked away from the business I founded. Once it sunk in, I knew I was making a wrong move, but I couldn’t tell anyone. All I wanted to do was to take an eraser and rub out everything that happened, but I couldn't.
What happened next?
I had crazy ideas—that I’d open a hotel or a vineyard, or became a hairdresser. But really, all I wanted to do was return back to cosmetics and fragrance and skin care. But [per an agreement with Estée Lauder], I couldn’t do that for five years. Instead, I focused on entrepreneurship—I made a TV show on the BBC and went into schools to help children learn to think entrepreneurially. But ultimately, everything felt like I was just filling time.
So [after five years], I started sitting around the kitchen table again and pieced together another cosmetic business, Jo Loves. It’s different this time around—life has changed me. And since who I am is the heartbeat of my business, the end product is different. That said, it's the same in that what’s in the bottle is authentic and real—and that’s what’s drawing people back.