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Jo Malone and the scent of resilience

The famous London perfumer on her collection with Zara, lockdown life and dark days that lead to blue skies

Jo Malone, the famous London perfumer, is known for her skill in storytelling through scent.
Jo Malone, the famous London perfumer, is known for her skill in storytelling through scent. (Courtesy Jo Malone )

Fragrance can be powerful. It can take you back in an instant to school, bringing alive memories of jumping in a puddle as it rains, or to a drawing room from the past, chatting with your grandfather about his favourite attar, or to the Mediterranean Sea shore and the vast blue expanse. A whiff of benign aerosol can unlock memory, making you forget it’s another Blursday that will be spent gazing at four walls and an office laptop. “It can also tell stories, you know,” chuckles Jo Malone, the famous London perfumer who started the Jo Loves label and is known for her skill in storytelling through scent.

We are chatting over Zoom, discussing her more than an year-long collaboration with the retailer Zara—Zara Emotions by Jo Loves. A collection of eight fragrances, Zara Emotions, was launched last month in India (“an important market”), and then globally, as a budget-friendly perfume range (a 40ml bottle costs 1,590).

Jo Loves offers candles, lotions and perfumes.
Jo Loves offers candles, lotions and perfumes. (Instagram/Jo Loves)

The conversation veers first to her childhood, when she would help her gambler father sell his paintings in London street markets so that the family could arrange its next meal, then to the afternoon she realised she had been given the “gift of a lifetime”, and to the day she launched a new label. It’s a story of ambition, survival and resilience.

Back to business

The unisex Zara Emotions perfumes come at a time when the world is still coming to terms with covid-19. Global luxury brands are in the red. Consumers have been thinking twice about clicking the Buy button. Why then come out with a product that most probably will never feature on any priority list?

“Everybody’s priorities and luxuries are different,” Malone, 57, insists. “Covid has affected all industries. Hospitality…my goodness, my heart goes out to them. At least we can go online and sell. Having said that, I know a scented candle or fragrance would be the last thing you will think about if you are trying to feed your family. But my job is also to create jobs. Entrepreneurs create jobs, not politicians.”

This determination kept her busy throughout 2020. Malone created some 50 scents during the year. “In past years, I have only done four-five fragrances. But during the lockdown, I just did not stop. By working constantly, I think I have really perfected everything.”

Each perfume, she says, reflects the emotions and memories of the lockdown last year. “My drawing board was my wardrobe. I looked inside for pieces that I loved, that held special memories, like a vintage Alice Temperley beaded dress, a Donna Karan leather jacket and a kimono I made with a friend. I wanted to create scents that could tell the story of the wearer.” The fresh, citrusy Vetiver Pamplemousse, her favourite, for instance, is like a “whisper that says ‘I have been here every day and we have survived each day’.” The heavy but clean Ebony Wood, used by her 19-year-old son, is about youth. The sweet Waterlily Tea Dress, “about the parties we long for, or drinking a glass of champagne to life”.

For the self-taught Malone, fragrance has always been a means of communicating. While she struggled with dyslexia, her nose became the compass. Sometimes, when life takes away with one hand, it gives you back with another, she says, with a wide smile. “If I was to write you a letter, you probably won’t be able to read because of my dyslexia. If I were to create your fragrance, you would love it.”

Scent of life

Malone created her first perfume at the age of 8, mixing Bulgarian rose oil with sandalwood powder, honey and a bit of Chinese camphor. “I remember it like it was just yesterday. I can actually smell it as I am talking to you. I was in a lab with mum (her mother was in the beauty industry); she used to take me with her to work, otherwise I would have been alone at home. I was copying the lady who was training my mum, and without jotting down anything, since I was dyslexic, I was able to copy the recipe perfectly.”

That, however, wasn’t the moment Malone realised what she was destined for. By the age of 11, she had become the breadwinner. While helping her father sell his artwork and working at a flower shop, she picked up the skills of a salesperson. At a parlour, while massaging clients’ arms with her home-made lotions, she got the confidence to start her own perfume range—the popular Jo Malone London, which she sold to Estée Lauder for an undisclosed amount in 1999. A few years later, she launched Jo Loves. In between, she fought, and overcame, breast cancer. “I think what kept me going throughout was that I never forgot my roots. I knew, and I still know, what it is like to go hungry to bed. And I haven’t wandered too far from what I used to do then. It’s just that now I tell stories of life and people love stories.”

Before wrapping up the conversation, I ask Malone what kept her going through 2020. She said it was an illustration in Charlie Mackesy’s book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse. It shows a boy saying, “I can’t see a way out of this.” To which a horse replies, “Look down at your feet. Can you see one step?” The boys replies, “Yes.” The horse tells him, “Take it,” and then take another one the next day.

“I think that’s resilience. Sometimes you can’t see the end of it but you can see one step. And I think I have lived my life like that. Look at your feet, take one step, stand still and take the next step. What happens then is that you look up one day and there’s a clear blue sky.”

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