Jo Malone CBE talks dyslexia, fragrance storytelling and the one product she always wears on dog walks

The revered perfumer on how her dyslexia fuels her creations, the secret to building her businesses, and why she favours sticky lipgloss

By Rhea Cartwright

5 April 2021

amed for her self-made success in the fragrance industry, Jo Malone CBE - Founder & Creative Director of Jo Loves, speaks about perfume with an infectious passion. From making creams in the kitchen with her mother to creating brands such as Jo Loves that are known the world over, she tells The Stack about her love affair with glitter, and why money doesn’t mean anything to her.

Growing up with dyslexia, I thought everybody struggled…

It wasn't recognised when I was at school, I was just told I was lazy and stupid, and I’m neither one of those things. When I would read – and it still happens to me now – words would run around on the page, so it can sometimes be an exhausting process. But if you change a document into colour for me, I have no problem with it. I’ve learned over the years to put safety-nets in place. When I was younger, I was much more embarrassed about it. Now, if I can't figure something out, I'll just ask if someone can give me a hand – 99.9 per cent of people are utterly charming, but you get a few arseholes who try make you feel stupid. I just look at them and think to myself: I’m the woman who changed the fragrance industry.

Dyslexia is a disability, but I just think differently.

I can reach the destination and the solution faster than most people I know. So I think dyslexia has actually taught me to move fast in finding solutions. I’m not frightened of change, or things constantly moving and changing. I also have OCD, which is probably the thing that's really helped, as I like things very organised and structured in my mind. I live in the moment, so I haven't got other things running through my head and I can keep focused on one thing at a time. The only place I don’t mind chaos is in my imagination, because anything can work there.

My mum was a beautician trained by an amazing woman called Madame Lubatti…

As a child, I would spend huge amounts of time in the laboratory with Madame, who was in her 80s. She was 6ft 2in, always in a white lab coat, blonde hair, fishnet tights, high-heeled shoes – an amazing woman. I can remember the very first face mask I made when I was seven. It was slippery elm, honey, yoghurt, lime juice and camphor. I’d seen my mum and Madame both make it, so I just mimicked them. I can't read a formulation, so I rely on texture and smell.

As a child, our kitchen was half for cooking and half for making products…

The beauty industry fed us as kids, because it earned money to put food in the fridge. Cooking was a big thing in our kitchen but suddenly making face creams was too. My job was to seal the jars and put them into the fridge. Beauty was just a part of our lives.

Creating the brand was a means to pay rent and put food on the table.

I did what I felt was right for me and my business, but ultimately I don’t think a lot of entrepreneurs start out by thinking that they’re going to change the world. It may be your big dream, but mine was to get myself out of a situation where I was worried about where the next meal was coming from. Once we opened our first shop, that's when I knew something was changing and I knew that it was probably going to change the world, but that was after 15 to 20 years of real grind.

People talk about the momentum of a business…

Which is why this moment in time is really scary, because we’ve lost any momentum that was gathered and things have halted. For us, growth wasn’t due to a particular client or piece of press, it was an amalgamation of the momentum. When things start to take off, it happens quickly, so as an entrepreneur, you have to take those opportunities and analyse the risk in each one. When you're a small business just starting out, you have to keep running with that.

My money mindset hasn’t changed…

I don't see money – never have done. I've had nothing and I've had plenty. I no longer worry about there being food in the fridge, but as you grow in business, your worries change and you think about whether you can pay all the salaries, for example. Money doesn’t make you happy, but it does give you choices. The choices make me happy, but with that comes responsibility, and you can’t have one without the other. I’m able to make my life happier, but I'm also able to make many other people’s lives better too. But if I lost everything tomorrow, I don’t think I’d be a different person. I'd start thinking: how can I build again?

Freedom is the biggest luxury, which I am craving more than anything else right now…

I would trade a lot to be able to get out there and to live. Faced with our own mortality, survival is a luxury right now. To be able to still have a business, to have four walls that feel safe, to have a meal. When I visualise luxury, it’s like when you reach up to try and get something on a high shelf, and you’re on tiptoes and your fingers have got it; you're trying to edge it over the other side, and you hold on until you get it – that, for me, is a picture of luxury. You have to stand on your tiptoes. If luxury becomes something that you take for granted and it doesn't make you feel like you've worked for something, it’s not luxury for me.

You need to surround yourself with people who have similar dreams to yourself…

They say if you want to understand someone’s character, look at their three best friends, and surrounding myself with people who have believed they can achieve things has helped me hugely. I'm able to gain strength from being around people who are able to do things.

As a storyteller, I see life through the power of scent.

Life can inspire me out of nowhere. My latest launch, Cobalt Patchouli & Cedar, is based on a moment that happened way before lockdown. There was an almost perfect day, and I wanted to capture it in fragrance. I was walking down Mount Street in the West End, which has the most beautiful architecture: big arch windows and terracotta-coloured bricks. The sun was out, there were blue skies and the sun was hitting these bricks, and this immaculately dressed older gentleman passed me. I never saw his face but there was an amazing waft of his cologne. In the heat of the day, I stopped to have a coffee outside. I just remember sitting there and I thought: this is perfect.

Perfumers create fragrances from our own memories, but also give memories to others…

Fragrance is a really powerful language at the moment because our senses are all numbed while we're stuck within four walls. The sense of smell can transport you right back to a certain moment – the place, the time, the person – and unlock a memory.

The way I create is very unconventional.

I capture all of the things that I remember and assign single notes to them. In Cobalt Patchouli & Cedar, the terracotta tiles are the burnt crystallised patchouli. His cologne is a lavender mix with a little vetiver – every detail from the memory is a different note. It’s not always what I’ve seen, it might be an emotion or what I’ve touched. That's where my dyslexia is my best friend, because it's taught me to create differently and use scent like a different language.

The beauty product I love more than anything is Chanel lipgloss.

I love a good sticky gloss – I don’t like ones that just slip on, I want to feel that it’s there. I’ll put it on whether I’m taking the dogs for a walk or a black-tie event – I just love a little bit of lipgloss. Chanel has a whole collection of glittery nudes which are peachy, fleshy tones and I love a bit of glitter – it adds light, reflection and movement.

I’m most known for fragrance, but we started with facials and skincare…

I still make my own skincare products every single day for myself, and I love the smell of oils and ingredients. I like when things smell clean, rather than vanilla or something that masks the product’s true smell. Fragrance notes and ingredients are often like people to me in that sense: when you meet someone and they’re clearly not who they claim to be, that’s like when products are scented to mask their truth.

I wouldn't consider myself beautiful, but beauty for me is about contentment and being happy…

I always have a sense of freedom when I’m near water, when I’m on holiday and stripped-back. I remember being on a boat and feeling so content. I can smell the salt in the air, without any coiffed hair or makeup – the bare essentials of beauty, if you will, just all pared down. I love the smell of your skin when it's been in the sun all day, but I also think it’s because when I’m away, I'm with family which puts everything into perspective. I think I feel the most beautiful when I'm really content and fulfilled as a person.

Lead image: The Masons

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