The conversation between Nicola Moulton, Beauty and Health Director at British Vogue and the incredible Jo Malone MBE sits right up there as one of the most refreshing (no pun intended) and inspiring talks I’ve ever sat in. It brings me great joy to share the beautiful and painful moments Jo shared with us.
Nicola: What was it like writing your book, looking back on what you’ve been through over the years?
Jo: Looking back over some of the memories was painful. What people want to know is “Is she a real person?” and “What does she really go through?”. I wanted to put the cracks in.
The night before the book was published I had cold feet, but at that point it was too late. I’m very proud of my book, especially when I see some of the letters from people that are reading it from every generation and corner of the globe.
A little boy with Dyspraxia wrote in and said my Mum read your book to me. It’s a real privilege to be able to say to people that if I can do it, you can do it too.
Nicola: Where did your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
Everyone thinks I grew up in a really posh house but as you can see I’m no posh bird. I grew up in a council estate in Bexley Heath. My Dad was an architect but he was also a gambler.
From the age of 11, it was up to me to make sure that there was food in the fridge and that the rent was paid. I learnt as a very young kid that I could sell skincare creams, so I would memorise every single step as my Mum and Dad made lemon cleansing cream. I’m dyslexic so I couldn’t read but I learnt by watching.
That brought my entrepreneurial spirit and spirit of survival through. My Mum worked for Revlon and then for an amazing woman called Countess Lubatti. Every weekend and school holiday, whilst my Mum was working, I spent hours and hours with Countess Lubatti, who was 80 years old. I memorised all her face creams and one day she asked me to make her a face mask, which I made brilliantly and that was where my love of skincare was born.
Nicola: Many people don’t know about your amazing gift which is your sense of smell. Tell us more about that?
Jo: My sense of smell is so strong that when I see colours, I can distinctly smell what the colours remind me of. A year ago I did an article for something and spoke about possibly having synaesthesia, which could explain why my sense of smell is so strong. A woman called Claire Guest, a physiologist and scientist, she asked if I’d like to go down and test my nose with the dogs she works with. She has a dog detection unit in which they train dogs to sniff out tumours, diabetes and epilepsy.
I went down and worked with dogs, using the same process that they use to identify these diseases etc. Until they’d met me, they had never met a human being that could do use this method in the same way that the dogs could.
“My husband has nicknamed me super sniffer”
Nicola: Tell us about the story with your sense of smell and your house…
Jo: We’d had a terrible fire in our house so I’m always on alert for anything. One evening I could smell wet walls and my husband Gary, who is amazing, completely doubted me. But I was so sure of it and could smell it for six weeks. We had the plumber in, he checked everything and said it was fine.
But then one day we were sitting there and there was this sudden gush of water coming through the walls and it had been running for 6 weeks. I trust my nose more than my husband.
Nicola: You mentioned about being dyslexic. Do you think that’s contributed to being able to think differently about things you’ve done with your brand? Particularly your famous ‘lime, basil and mandarin’ scent.
Jo: I’m a what you see is what you get kind of person, so what I create is ‘what you see is that you get’.
When I was first married, Gary and I rented a little flat in Chelsea and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen because that was the only place we had a stool. And that is where the famous lime, basil and mandarin perfume was created.
I was told that basil would never be good in a perfume because it’s dominant and would behave as a bully but I knew I could balance it. Everyone I knew told me that I couldn’t use basil and it would never work but it did! We call that scent the pension fund because it’s sold 40x more than anything else.
It’s used a benchmark around the world as a turning point in perfume.
Nicola: What was it like opening the very first Jo Malone store?
Jo: Oh yes! The financial times put out a story about our store opening but used the wrong date, so we had to open 2 days early. The night before we painted the shelves and used hair-dryers to dry them quickly. But by the next morning, everything had stuck to the shelves. You couldn’t move 1 bottle.
We used screwdrivers and jammed them all off, then this man walked in wearing a pin-striped suit. He was American and he said, “I’ve been instructed by my client to come and buy your company”. I hadn’t been open for an hour and he offered me a million dollars for my company.
I remember thinking “I can buy a bed” because Gary and I had a piece of foam that we used to roll out and sleep on. But I also knew that if I sold the business so early on, I’d rob myself of an adventure. I never saw him again.
Nicola: Give us an insight into the highs and lows you experienced when running Jo Malone.
Entrepreneurs don’t have to be the smartest, richest wisest people, they’re simply people who had courage and put one foot in front of the other every day. The key is to keep your mind fixed on your goal, no matter what happens.
One of our amazing moments was on Christmas Eve in the shop during our first year. Gary and I were in the shop and it was full of men grabbing last minute gifts. I did my calculations and we were just over £300 short of our first million. It was amazing!
We said we weren’t going to shut the door until we made a million. A gentleman walked in and asked for the cheapest item we had, which was an £8.95 shower gel. I gave it to him with a bottle of Dom Perignon because he’d hit us over the million mark. He took it and said “Jo Malone if you treat everyone like this you’ll never make a successful businesswoman”.
But we also got ourselves into some really tight corners with intellectual property, trademarks etc. Gary and I had to learn on our feet but we were never frightened to ask for help.
One of the most amazing women was one called Rose Marie Bravo, who was the head of Saks and then went on to become the CEO at Burberry. We went into a meeting with her hoping to sell in Saks, but to my horror, Gary turned around and said “Can you explain how the rest of America works with Neiman Marcus” – who was their competitor.
She sat down with us, brought out a huge map and talked us through everything. Because of that we never made a mistake with our distribution in America. We asked for help and it was so very gracious of her to give it to us.
Nicola: Speak to us about why you decided to sell the ‘Jo Malone’ brand?
Jo: I sold the brand because success was starting to backfire and we couldn’t control how big the company was getting. I was looking for a company to acquire us that had 3 things: Money, distribution and heart – someone that understood me and the cosmetic industry.
When I met the amazing Leonard Lauder and had breakfast with him, I knew Estee Lauder had all those 3 things that I needed.
I sold the brand to Estee Lauder and really believed that I would continue to work with it forever. It was an amazing time. Then life dealt me a different set of cards.
“I was diagnosed with cancer and it all changed”
Nicola: How does it feel to have someone using your name and you’re no longer a part of it?
Jo: Slightly schizophrenic but at the same time that brand now belongs to The Estee Lauder Group. There’s no point sitting and crying about that. I don’t create for the brand any longer and I’m not a consumer of it. But that doesn’t stop me loving it because it was my best friend for a very long time.
My new brand ‘Jo Loves’ doesn’t compete with the Jo Malone brand. I’m the mother of both, I created both but one was my brand 20 years ago and Jo Loves is where I am today. I’m proud!
I wouldn’t discourage anyone from using their own name with their brands because your name is what gives it authenticity. But if you are going to use your name just be mindful of the consequences.
Nicola: So after that, you had an enforced 5-year hiatus from the beauty industry. Was that a frustrating time?
Jo: It was awful! I left the business because I was diagnosed with cancer 3 years into my deal with Estee Lauder and I was given 9 months to live. I went to New York and spent a whole year fighting for my life and thank God I came through the other end. I’m completely all clear.
But it changed me and I remember standing in one of our stores in Madison Avenue and thinking “You don’t belong here anymore”. My sense of smell had been affected by the chemotherapy and I didn’t want to harm the brand in any way.
I remember my very last day working for the brand, I was in the Sloane street store restocking some shelves and I knew I’d made the worst decision of my life. I wanted to scream out and kept hoping that someone would ask me to stay but no one did because no one knew!
Never make a life-changing decision on a bad day – ever! The landscape of your life can change so dramatically that you may look back and wonder why you made that decision. I made the wrong call at the wrong time but it was too late.
I never thought I would come back into the cosmetics industry again – never say never. Sometimes in life we make the wrong call, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make it right.
Nicola: Tell us about starting your new company ‘Jo Loves’
I suffer hugely from anxiety and panic attacks and I was going through a time where I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. My husband took us on holiday to Turks and Caicos and every day I’d walk along the beach trying to find my creativity. One morning I was walking down and feeling particularly down about not being able to create a new fragrance.
As I walked down the beach I saw a baby stingray. She was swimming down the side of me and as I stopped walking she stopped swimming. It was so beautiful! She followed me all the way down to the end of the beach and it was as though life was saying “You don’t own creativity but she will mimic you”.
I looked up and captured everything around me, from the white rolled towels, fizzy water, the sand, the stingray, the blue sky and my flip flops – everything! And my fragrance ‘Pomelo’ was created out of that. It’s the scent of hope, a second chance. My book is scented in it, my dog gets washed in it, my floors at home are covered with it.
“Your creativity will always be standing right beside you and it’s waiting to mimic your imagination.
Be true to it and don’t try to own it”
Nicola: What I associate with Jo Malone is fine attention to detail. From day one, Jo Malone always felt special.
Jo: It was tough doing the packaging for the new fragrance because I was so known for the iconic Jo Malone packaging. When I created the second brand I got it really wrong in the first year of it’s life. The packaging is so important because it’s your advertising, it’s your marketing, it’s your love letter to the world.
Nicola: Finally, is there anything left for you to achieve?
From September, we’re changing the way you wear fragrance completely. So you’ll no longer pick up a bottle and squirt, you’ll pick up a brush and paint yourself. I want you to look at your body like a canvas, you spray and then begin to paint the fragrance into your skin. The genius about it is when you take another fragrance and paint that on to create your own ideas. It’s called paint a note and I believe it will create a paradigm shift in the industry.