Jo Malone needs no introduction. We all know the professional history of the British fragrance designer who sold a successful eponymous brand to the cosmetic giant Estee Lauder in 1999 for “undisclosed millions” and agreed to curb all creative urges for the next five years. What many of us would not know is the toll this took on her.
“It wasn’t really my toughest time,” she told Gulf News tabloid! over the phone from London on Thursday afternoon. “I think fighting cancer was. It wasn’t tough [to leave] the business, [but to answer], ‘What would I do with all this creative energy?’ My creativity is my best friend. I talk to it every day and it’s a two-way relationship [because] I create. So, not doing that for five years was a very foolish mistake on my part.”
Watch: Jo Malone is in Dubai! She shares secret tips on how to properly apply fragrances.
A constant visitor to Dubai, the creator of Jo Malone and Jo Loves will return on Friday, March 10, to introduce her autobiography Jo Malone: My Story — which, interestingly, opens in “her second home”, Dubai — at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. On Thursday, however, Malone took us back in time to give a brief glimpse of the emotional rollercoaster ride that has been her life.
“[This book] has transformed so many things. I’d been asked to write for a number of years but never felt quite ready. I know the perfect time was perhaps five years ago when I’d left Jo Malone. But I wanted to end the book on this real moment when you stand on the mountain side and look [back] at your life,” said Malone. “And it wasn’t until I was in Dubai last year — where I was honoured by the World Retail Congress — I thought, ‘You know what? This is the moment.’ The book opens when I’m standing up to go and give my acceptance speech.
“I was [in Dubai] a few weeks ago when you had this terrible rainstorm. I don’t know what it is but I feel completely at home here. [We’ve] had many family holidays here — all of us love it. Also, my best friend lives here. When I am here I feel very safe, very creative, because everything around you is culture — the smells, the ingredients … so many different things to absorb.”
Excerpts from the interview.
Looking back at the six years after you sold Jo Malone, what did you learn — life lessons, skills?
I learnt a lot, mainly about myself. I learnt if I ever had the chance I would never leave that relationship [with creativity]. I know that creating fragrances is intrinsic to my happiness and contentment as a person, and it affects everything else.
I learnt, when you step aside from a brand, you have to leave everything [connected] with it. I’ve also said this in the book that I knew I’d made a mistake the minute I’d turned the key in the lock in the store on Sloane Street that last day. But it was too late. As I left the shop all I could think was, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’
I learnt in life that no matter what decisions we make, even if they’re wrong, we can always turn things around for good. It doesn’t matter — we make mistakes because we are humans. What’s important is not to feel sorry for yourself and picking yourself up and creating again.
I learnt that some people in life are there only when you are successful and when you step away, they suddenly disappear. That was a bit of a shock to me.
So how did you keep from feeling sorry for yourself and picking yourself up and creating again?
I’ve never given up on life, from the little girl who was told she could never be anything to the woman who was faced with her own survival. It’s the I-will-find-another-way spirit that is inbuilt in me. I find a way of bringing back happiness. I went to school, I helped children put together entrepreneurial classes, making products and understanding how an entrepreneur’s mind works. I helped a hospital design a chemotherapy unit. I made a television show for BBC ...
Often when we are in a job, the safety keeps us from stepping out. But when you step out of that comfort zone, that is the time when you try something new and different because, what have you got to lose? The worst that you can possibly do is fail and hope you find something else. That spirit of wanting to move forward, wanting to do something useful, is what motivates. I think I’m still very much that working-class girl who believes that it’s good to get up every day and go to work.
You’ve spoken of your fight with cancer as the toughest time, how did it change you?
I think any life-threatening situation would change your perspective. My boy was only two then so my motivation to survive was, to see my son grow up and be there for him. When I looked at my husband I felt I can’t let myself die — I know how crazy that sounds but every single day, every time I took chemo, every time I had an operation or a doctor’s appointment, I was determined to survive. I just wanted them to keep me alive and I would pick up the pieces. That’s very much the motto of my life.
I knew that it would end when the chemo stopped. Then you have a suspended phase where you dread it’ll come back. That’s a pretty scary time, but you get through that. I simply didn’t want cancer to become the book of my life. It would be just a chapter and that’s exactly what it is. The spirit of that young survivor is the same as I am now, the same as the little girl I was.
I remember when I got off the plane on my return to London, I kissed the ground because I’d thought I’d never see my home again. My son was holding my hand and he said: ‘Oh Mummy, it’s so lovely to be home’. I never want to let go of that appreciation. That’s what cancer does — it makes you really appreciative of all the goodness and eliminates anything that makes you feel bad about yourself. There is this wonderful moment where you realise you have a clean canvas and you decide what goes on it.
So if the book became part of a school curriculum what do you want the student to take from it?
I dedicate the book to every entrepreneur who takes a step of faith and courage every day to build a business. I’ve written a story with cracks so when someone reads it, she’ll know that she’s no different from me, even if they don’t know me.
It’s also about the relationship we have with creativity and the respect we must have for it. It also teaches that resilience is a vital ingredient for an entrepreneur. The challenge is how to get over [a problem] without getting angry or resentful or giving up. That’s the real crux.
This story is very much about the moment where I chose to keep walking forward and towards what made me happy. There’s definitely something amazing about taking a baton in life and handing it to the next generation.
You’ve spoken about being “emotionally connected” to your perfumes. How do you do that?
I didn’t go to perfume school or have any training because I have dyslexia. But my sense of smell has over-compensated [for] what I can’t do. My sense of smell is like a compass. I can tell where I am in the world, often what time of the day it is. When I smell something l lock it in my memory for years. And the smell will unlock the whole of the memory. I can easily memorise the very fine notes and when I’m creating a fragrance, I’ll go into that little library in my head and pull something, and run through all of the memories to find what I can sit by the side of that note. It’s a very unusual way, but I wouldn’t know how else to do it. I then sit like an orchestra conductor, pull all these notes from my head and make them real.
What can we expect next from Jo Malone?
Yes, I’ve lived most people’s dreams and yet every day I’m like, ‘What can I do today?’ But I never feel I’ve made it. Jo Loves is my new home and my new baby, and in fact she had her first outing in Dubai literally five years to the day when I won the award at the World Retail Congress. I had made 25 bottles which were presented at a luncheon my friend in Dubai was hosting and since then it’s had its first retail outlet, it’s been on Emirates airline, on the cover of the airline’s magazine. The similar thing between the two brands is the passion, love and care I’ve put into them. [The] only difference is the timing. One was with a young woman who started out with a dream, and the second is the passion of a woman who would never give up.
So what fragrance do you think would describe you?
There are two actually. Lime, Basil & Mandarin by Jo Malone because when I created it, all those years ago, it was something that everyone said wouldn’t work and my gut said it would. But, if I have to choose one to take with me into the next life, or to heaven, it would be Jo Loves Pomelo. Even the book is scented with it. It represents the desire to win, my second chance. If I ever doubt myself I go back and smell it and I tell myself, ‘This is who you are Jo, don’t ever forget’. It’s the spirit, the scent or the fragrance of hope.
Don’t miss it
For Jo Malone’s schedule at the literature festival and ticket prices visit emirateslitfest.com