Scent of a businesswoman
Jo Malone is a brand, and a person, who is still young and full of life and ideas. Philip Whiteley met her at her Jo Loves ‘brasserie for the nose’ in London’s Belgravia to discuss the magic of fragrance and the challenge of building a business
Entrepreneurs are known for displaying drive, but their craft can be closer to artistry than commercial impulse. Pablo Picasso was an entrepreneur, so is Sir Paul McCartney. Where once there was nothing, someone created something – something no one had thought of before; had not seen, experienced, heard – or smelt.
With Jo Malone MBE, creator of the eponymous global brand of fragrances, and now her most recent venture Jo Loves, the similarity to the creative artist is so close that the distinctions disappear. If a songwriter walks down the street imagining a chord progression and a rhyming couplet to accompany, Jo Malone imagines scents; creates different combinations in her head; can imagine how they would combine.
‘I have just walked up Sloane Street, past the Dolce & Gabbana window, and I saw a lovely dress,’ she says. ‘I could smell the fragrance. If I hear a piece of music, I can correlate it to a fragrance. The dress had red roses; I smelt redcurrant and garden roses; it was set against a black pattern, so I could smell liquorice. The background was beige, and I smelt cinnamon. I can smell a fragrance in my head; I create it in my mind.
‘The minute I concentrate, it disappears – it’s very instinctive. The more you try to control it, you lose the instinct. I straddle the two; allowing creativity, but at the same time able to harness it. If not, then it’s just a hobby.’
We are meeting in her new Jo Loves shop – to call it just a ‘shop’ is an understatement, but we’ll come on to that – which is all pristine white, elegant and minimalist in design, located on Elizabeth Street near Sloane Square in London’s Chelsea.
The concept is closer to a ‘brasserie for the nose’ than a regular perfume store. You can sit at a bar stool at the counter, while the lovely assistants offer scents to sample: not only the conventional spray on a testing strip; she may soak a white cloth in a bowl, infuse with hot water, cover and then release, to give that sensation of a bathroom or a spa. Or mix a paste into a cocktail glass, or apply skin lotion to the back of your hand, with a brush like a painter.
Then there are the candles; a new venture for the queen of the olfactory sense. The Jo Loves Shot Candle allows the customer to choose a preferred cocktail of scents: one in the base, the second in the ‘shot’, which is a core of the candle’s centre and wick, plugged into the base, after it has been lightly softened with a tiny blowtorch, as one might use on a crème brulée.
For someone whose very name is a global brand, Jo Malone is extraordinarily lacking in self-importance. Yet you quickly realize that she is exceptional. She radiates energy – in an uplifting, engaging manner. She talks quite quickly, with warmth and friendliness, and penetrating sharpness on her product, how to do business and what it is to be human.
She founded Jo Malone over 20 years ago ‘with four plastic jugs and a kitchen sink’. Her genius for fragrance was quickly appreciated, word spread and the business thrived. Within just five years she had created a global brand that she sold to Estée Lauder. She then stayed as creative director before parting with the multinational firm in 2006. In the five-year period covered by the non-compete clause after leaving, she diversified her interests, to cover broadcasting, where she presented the BBC High Street Dreams series, working with entrepreneurs to take them ‘from market stall to the deal of a lifetime’. Some of the firms are still flourishing, for example Muddy Boots upmarket meat products, and Den Kit, the children’s toy.
Part of the reason for stepping down from Estée Lauder was a battle against cancer, ultimately successful. But though she enjoyed the BBC presenting, beauty and fragrance is her real love, and for which she has a unique genius. Returning with the Jo Loves brand in 2011 ought to have been straightforward, yet she found it unexpectedly difficult. ‘I started around the kitchen table again, and created fragrances. I remember thinking: “I can’t do it.” I created some, but they were just like everyone else’s.’
She made a huge decision to pull a major product shortly before launch, the fragrance Pomelo. ‘I was still thinking: What does this need? What will I add, that will give depth and harmony? I was walking down the beach on holiday and I was thinking: “I can’t launch this. It’s not right”.
‘I have no marketing board; I don’t look at trends, or benchmarks. I create what I’m seeing. With that comes authenticity, integrity; not just “This is the next fragrance”. I said: “This isn’t good enough.” We pulled the launch. It cost me around £200,000.’
She adds: ‘I had to ask serious questions about the last few notes, that I couldn’t get right. On the same beach a year later, [I was] trying to get it right. A stingray was swimming by the side of me. It followed me down the beach and back again. I went back to the sun-bed, to the white towels rolled up. And I knew exactly what it needed … I knew which note. Three years on, it is the Number 1 fragrance.’
This decision reflects her approach as being close to that of the creative artist. A complex, intoxicating perfume is a crafted work of art, not just a mix of ingredients.
Her gift is innate. It can be described as ‘synaesthesia’, a neurological condition that enhances her sensory perception. For her, it is all she has known: ‘As a child, when you can or can’t do something, it’s normal. Since I became comfortable with it, saw it as a gift not a disability, it has grown into other areas.’
She is dyslexic, in common with many gifted, creative people. The combination of dyslexia and synaesthesia enables her to perceive things differently. She acknowledges the importance of complementary skills in her team. At Jo Loves, her husband and business partner Gary organises the finances, her colleague Naomi handles operations, and Charlotte the marketing and PR.
‘When I build a team, I want people who are better than me: there are things I can’t do.’
The most successful business-builders care about their staff. ‘When people feel fulfilled, loved, cared-for, you get the best from people: doing what they’re best at,’ she says.
But being motivational does not mean being soft: ‘They have to be happy – but I am a task-master; I can be tough. I trust my team, but for some decisions I step in and say: “I’m going to be the founder here.” Sometimes, my decision is popular, sometimes not. If it goes wrong, it’s my responsibility. If it goes right, everyone celebrates.’
She refers frequently to obstacles as one grows a business. Overcoming them helps you build ‘business muscle’, she says.
Start-up firms often neglect the importance of packaging, the full customer experience; and computing the landed cost – the full cost of bringing the product to the consumer. Without a sustainable margin, you are sunk.
With her team around her, Jo can be liberated to do what she does best; thinking of new fragrances, new consumer experiences. She is ambitious. Jo Loves is undergoing a rebrand, and there are plans for global expansion. She mentions Dublin, Shanghai, Dubai, Istanbul, New York. There will be the daring use of truffle in a perfume – which is a powerful, but difficult-to-handle ingredient, she says.
The business is just a few years old, and the brasserie opened only in late 2013, but it is clear that the public already loves Jo Loves. Even on a Monday morning in the summer holiday season, trade is brisk at the Elizabeth Street outlet.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of fragrance. A scent may lie at the heart of some powerful experiences. It may evoke memory, potential, romance, friendship, love. It is more than just a pleasant waft or a distraction. It can get into you, like a piece of music. Just like music, it requires composition. That takes an artist.
Jo Malone MBE: key dates
1994 – Begins Jo Malone bath oils and fragrances, working from home
1999 – Sells Jo Malone business and brand to Estée Lauder for an undisclosed sum
2006 – Resigns as Creative Director at Estée Lauder, owing to health and personal reasons.
2008 – Awarded the MBE by the Queen for services to the beauty industry.
2010 – Begins as co-presenter of High Street Dreams for the BBC.
2011 – None-compete clause expires. Begins the Jo Loves range.
2013 – Opens the first Jo Loves ‘brasserie for the nose’ in Elizabeth Street, London’s West End
2015 – Begins major rebrand for Jo Loves and prepares to expand internationally.