Beauty is a totally oversaturated industry. There, I said it. Over the past few years, with what feels like hundreds of new, independent brands coming onto the scene and multibillion-pound beauty conglomerates throwing every spare penny they have into competitive marketing, to say it's a struggle to make a name for yourself would be a massive understatement. But then, you hear stories like Jo Malone CBE's, and faith is restored.
Truthfully, before Jo Malone (both the woman and the brand), fragrance was ruled by emperors. Think big names like Chanel, Guerlain, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Fragrance names that we now deem mainstream were once upon a time, for the majority of people, the only choice when it came to luxury scents. Unless you had some serious cash to spend, independent fragrance brands simply did not exist, and the big dogs liked it that way. You see, in beauty, fragrance runs the game. With huge sales volumes and even bigger profit margins (when you're mass-producing on a global scale, costs can be kept very low), perfume and fragrance is a sure-fire way to make big money.
If you're an independent fragrance brand, however, things aren't quite so clear-cut. Raw materials cost a fortune, marketing means having to compete with TV campaigns and, most importantly, creating a crowd-pleasing scent is incredibly difficult when you don't have the money for a "nose." (Yes, that is a real job, and it takes years of training). But that's a risk that Jo Malone CBE was willing to take. With no formal fragrance training (she had worked with florists and as an at-home facialist), Malone started making scented beauty products in her kitchen and founded Jo Malone London. After opening her first store in 1994, by 1999, the brand's success was so overwhelming that it was sold to beauty giant Estée Lauder. Thus, a new era of fragrance was born.
Soon, Jo Malone London became one of the most recognisable brands in beauty. (I challenge you to find an Instagram feed that doesn't showcase a bottle of its iconic cologne.) Since then, Malone has left the eponymous company, created another brand, Jo Loves, and collaborated with high-street giant Zara to create an affordable fragrance line, Emotions.
Throughout my career, I've spent a lot of time interviewing perfumers, "noses" and brand founders, and it's safe to say that no one understands what we want from fragrance quite like Malone. With the face of beauty having changed so drastically over the past year, many of us have felt at a loss when it comes to fragrance. Perfumes we once turned to for uplifting empowerment have no place in our low-key routines, zesty body products that once reminded us of sunny escapes now come with an added sense of longing nostalgia and, on top of it all, finding a way to shop for scents that fit into our new normal is harder than ever.
As a die-hard fragrance lover, I have felt somewhat uncertain about what the future of scent will be. So in a bid to find my perfume mojo once more, I sat down with Malone herself to discuss what scent means to her and to get her thoughts on how we will use fragrance as we enter a post-lockdown world. From discovering her favourite perfumes to being let in on the scents that have come to define her, this is what she had to say. If anyone can pull us out of our perfume rut, it's Jo Malone CBE, right?
"I did this wonderful collection with Zara called Emotions. One of my son's favourites is Ebony Wood, and it just reminds me of him completely. When he went to university, I said to my husband, 'Don't wash his bathrobe! I'll wash it when I know he's coming back!' Sometimes when I'm feeling like I miss him or I'm scared, I just go and sit in his room, and I can smell Ebony Wood. It makes me feel close to him."
"I'm dyslexic, so my sense of smell is my predominant sense. I could go back to almost every year and tell you specific moments. I remember my father used to wear Guerlain Vetiver. My father was 6'2" and an ex-rugby player but a brilliant artist that would wear silk shirts, too. Where we lived on a council estate, he always looked like he just walked out of a movie. I can smell him right now—that creamy tobacco feel of Guerlain's Vetiver."
"My mum would wear Ma Griffe by Carven to work, and as I've said that, I just got a waft of it. I can see her right in front of me. She would wear Je Reviens by Worth if she was going out for dinner with my father or doing something in the evening. Joy by Jean Patou was her go-to later on in life when she really wanted grandeur. The perfumes have all changed now. It's nothing like it used to be. I could always tell what mood she was in by what she was wearing. I'm very different. I use fragrance as my language. It's like my best friend."
"All through lockdown, I have done little spa hours twice a week to keep my skin looking good. This mask reminds me of when I was a little girl and my mum worked for a woman called the Countess Lubatti. She worked in a white laboratory, and it always smelled of camphor. I always felt safe there. So now, the smell of camphor makes me feel safe, and that has stayed with me all of my life. Whenever I use this Eve Lom clay mask, which has a really powerful camphor scent, I feel really good. I feel clean and like I have done something good for myself. It's that smell of cleanness. When I smell it, I see white, starch-clean sheets."
"Fragrance brings colour, texture and vibrancy back into life, which has felt very grey for a long time. I think we are going to carry on with that. I have started embracing a much more vibrant feel. The fragrance we just launched is very different. I haven't done anything like it for years, but it is just what I felt. I was walking down Mount Street in London before the pandemic, and there was a clear, blue sky, and the sun was hitting the terracotta bricks. As I was sitting having a coffee, an elderly gentleman walked past me, and he had this lingering cologne. It was what I call a blue-sky moment—where everything is perfect. If there was ever a time for us to look at blue skies, it's now."
"Lime Basil & Mandarin was a real turning point in Jo Malone London. We used to call it the pension fund. It was one of the first scents we launched that really gained attention and brought the world to our doorstep (with Estée Lauder buying the company). Without Lime Basil & Mandarin, I'm not sure any of that would have happened."
"Pomelo has a really powerful place in my heart. After leaving Jo Malone London, I didn't create perfume for five years. When I came back to it, I couldn't do it as naturally as I thought, and Pomelo coaxed me back in. Whenever I smell it, I remember that I had a second chance and that I had to really work hard at that second chance. It didn't come naturally."
"The perfume I feel safest with is Jo by Jo Loves because I created it for me. I wear it every single day. It's a meze of grapefruit, which is one of my favourite notes of all time. I could create a different fragrance with grapefruit every day for the rest of my life. We've just done a candle in it, and I had a big luxury one made up for me. I close my eyes, and I'm sitting on the whitest beach with a glass of wine in my hand, and I can hear the ocean. Everything is white and clean, and I have my Eres swimsuit on, and my skin is all tanned. That's what Jo by Jo Loves means to me."
"I'm never envious or jealous of other people's creativity. But having said that, in my lifetime, I would love to create a fragrance for Chanel. I just love the fragrances they create. Scents like No.5 and Cristalle are such wonderful smells. I would love to bring my creativity to the house of Chanel at some point, but I am nearly 60, so I'm running out of time. Dreams are important. Sometimes when we visualise and verbalise dreams, they happen. Sometimes, they don't, but they're still your dream, and no one can take that from you."