Menu Close

How Jo Malone CBE went from kitchen candle maker to perfume maverick

Jo Malone CBE's rise to the top of the fragrance industry hasn’t been without its challenges. The perfume pioneer talks business building and the art of bouncing back.

Jo Malone

Jo Malone greets me warmly at her London store on Belgravia’s Elizabeth Street. It’s not difficult to find. If the brightly branded awning and creative floral window display don’t lure you in, the scent will.

The air around the shop is intoxicating, predominantly featuring Malone’s best-selling scent Pomelo, a fruity, grapefruit-infused fragrance. This was the first scent the perfume maverick created for Jo Loves, her second fragrance brand – the former being Jo Malone London, a fragrance and scented candle business that began in her kitchen back in 1983. She opened her first store in London in 1994 and, five years later, sold the company to Estée Lauder Companies for an undisclosed amount, remaining its Creative Director until 2006.

Just a few short years prior, in 2003, Malone was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the help of Estée Lauder’s Breast Cancer Campaign in New York she accessed the best possible treatment available. “My life is precious because I fought for it. I fought every day taking chemo and doing what I had to do. But it was a very aggressive form.”

“When I was diagnosed in London, I was given less than a year to live. I didn’t listen to that. Don’t be defined by other people’s opinions of you, even if it’s your health.” – Jo Malone

Following her recovery and exit from Jo Malone London, Malone had to sit out a non-compete agreement, which meant she couldn’t create a new fragrance or skincare brand for five years. “It was the worst time of my life, which is strange, because I had just fought cancer, which you think must have been much worse. But then, I knew where I was going, I knew where I wanted to be. This was like walking through a desert – and there was no end. I felt that there was no life in me. And listen, I was made a very wealthy woman through it, so I could have done anything I wanted. But I can’t do many things. I can create fragrance like no-one else in this world. Those five years were agony. I couldn’t walk through a cosmetic floor; it would just bring tears to my eyes because it’s part of me. I thought about going to university, but I’m dyslexic. I’ve got no qualifications, I felt no-one would have looked at me. And sometimes when you’re in that place, you see yourself very differently than other people do; I thought no-one wanted me. I doubted myself and I thought I was done. And then one brave night, I sat around the kitchen table with my husband and son and said, ‘Let’s try again’. And we did.”

Jo Malone bounces back

Jo Loves was born in 2011, launching with just four scents. “I realised that creating fragrance is my means of communicating with the world. I think I’m a real pioneer. I carve out ways for people. And I think Jo Loves has got a personality. It’s who I am right now at this moment in time.”

Although the business has achieved international success now, Malone admits there were mistakes along the way. “I was so desperate to get back, I hadn’t thought about distribution – I hadn’t thought about product if I’m really honest. No-one else knew I had left Jo Malone London and we had a legal obligation to make sure there was no confusion and conflict of interest. So, there was a big mountain to climb. And I fell down many times.”

Jo Malone
Jo Malone started her perfume brand from her kitchen in 1983 before selling it to Estée Lauder Companies in 1999.

Occasionally, Malone questioned her decision to self-fund, but ultimately believes it was the right one. “If you’ve got some money in the bank, you might as well invest it in yourself. Everyone told me to invest in the stock market. But I’ve got no control over the stock market and I’m a complete control freak. However, I do have control over my own destiny. So, we decided to invest in our business, but it was double, triple what we expected. I remember sitting here one morning, and my husband had been very, very sick at the time, and I was making a long list of everything I needed to do to close down and one of my team came in. She offered me a cup of tea and said, ‘I love working for you, Jo.’ She had no idea what I was doing, but when she walked out, I sobbed, ripped up the piece of paper and decided I had to think of another way. I picked up the phone, ate humble pie and I spoke to people. Things started to turn and that’s when I believe that God looked down on me and just said, ‘You’re never going to quit are you?’”

Given the popularity of Jo Malone London and now Jo Loves, what does success really look like for Malone? “Success to me means taking it, enjoying it, learning from it and then the last part – which I think has probably happened to me later on in life – is returning it. Return it to where it came from. It’s about treasuring the moments, treasuring the things that we learn, the people we meet.

“I’m 56 now and someone recently suggested I should be thinking of retiring, and I said I just started a business, I’m not retiring anytime soon. I’m not even meant to be here. Cancer should have taken me away all those years ago; it didn’t, it gave me a second chance. I’m not going to sit around. I mean, I love sitting on the beach, reading a book. But that for the rest of your life? It’s a waste of life.”

Leave a Reply