Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

“I dream in perfume”: Jo Malone on how her life has been shaped by fragrance

Jo Malone

Jo Malone’s name is synonymous with the most luxurious perfumes and scented candles on the market. Her eponymous brand, which she sold to Estée Lauder in 1999, is associated worldwide with utmost indulgence. In 2008 she received an MBE for her work and today, her brand Jo Loves, is thriving. Here, Jo, 52, tells Stylist of how her remarkable sense of smell has shaped her entire life – both for good and for bad. 

“The pungent scent of linseed oil penetrates my nostrils, filling my whole body with its heady thickness, as my father leans over the sink of our Bexleyheath kitchen, washing the oil paint off of his bristle paintbrushes. In the corner of the room, linseed meets a smell of cold tea bags, as he soaks and softens his canvases, ready for the next stroke.

When he wasn’t painting, the clean, herbaceous cologne-like bouquet of Christian Dior’s Au Sauvage clouded my father’s aura, embracing the white linen shirts he wore – which he would starch until they were crisp. On his days off his hands smelled of sulphur from the bangs of his magic tricks. When a whiff of whiskey laced his breath on weekends, I knew that he’d turned a bad hand at one of his regular poker games.

These are my earliest memories of scent. I am severely dyslexic, so basic things such as telling the time, determining left from right and reading can be a real struggle for me – so I have always relied on my sense of smell to guide me in life.

jo malone

Jo, aged four

I remember the perfume my mother wore when I was growing up: Ma Griffe by Carven, a full-bodied floral fragrance that she would spritz liberally over herself on summer holidays. In the winter months she would douse herself in Worth’s Je Reviens, whose small blue pleated bottle I would hold during the train journey we’d take from Bernhurst to Charing Cross when she went to work. Now, when I take the same train, the aroma comes rushing back to my nose as if she were sat right beside me, chattering about the day ahead.

Like a bloodhound, my nose is my compass. As a little girl, my family would joke that my sense of smell was a magical power - because I was able to predict from the change in atmosphere two days before it was going to rain or snow.

As a little girl, my family would joke that my sense of smell was a magical power

My sense of smell enables me to capture my feelings. Every memory of my life is partnered with a scent like a perfumed photo album, and involuntary memories transport me directly back to each point as if I were standing right there.

Like many, my teenage years were tinted with the saccharine top notes of Revlon’s Charlie. When I had my first kiss, I remember it lingering on my jumper. Now, when I catch a whiff of Charlie in Boots, it reminds me of how grown-up I felt, and the taste of my lemon-flavoured lipgloss.

Jo Malone

Jo at work

An odorous career

But despite my strong sense of smell, it wasn’t until I met a certain person that my career in fragrance was marked: my mother’s boss, Countess Lubatti.

An older, elegant woman who retained a thick musk of sandalwood powder and rose oil, the Countess trained my mother in skincare. During school holidays, I would go along to her Montague Mansions laboratory and observe, fascinated, as she cooked up potions in her long white lab coat with fishnet tights peeking out underneath. I made my first face mask under her tutelage.

When I first dipped my toe into the cosmetic industry, I was one hundred per cent reliant upon my sense of smell. I didn’t know the recipes; I couldn’t read the ingredients or figure out the percentages of components required in each cream. I only knew one thing: when the concoctions smelled right, they were ready.

At a party, I was struck by the red and black dress Anya Hindmarch was wearing. I immediately went home and created Pomegranate Noir

To me, scent has always appeared in my mind like colours. When I hear a piece of music I can smell it, and even when my sinuses are completely blocked by a rotten winter cold, I can still smell in my head.

I even dream in perfume.

Often, the way people look or sound or what they’re wearing evokes a smell in my mind. Attending a party with the designer Anya Hindmarch, I was struck by her striking red and black dress. I immediately went home and created Pomegranate Noir – evoking the strong red of the inside of the pomegranate, and the peppery black detailing on the dress.

Jo Malone

Jo outside number 42 Elizabeth Street

The scent of love

I will never forget how my husband, Gary, smelled when we first met - of the clean chlorine that seemed to live sparkling on his skin after his daily morning swims. Even his big grey sweater, which I still wear now when I want to feel comforted, had a hint of the local swimming pool on it.

Early in our relationship, we went on a trip to the south of France and ate an extravagant steak dinner, surrounded by the orange blossom trees that decorated the restaurant. At that moment, besotted with this man, I truly fell in love with fragrance and knew it was what I wanted to focus on for the rest of my life.

When we had our first child – my son Josh, now a teenager – I suffered from post-natal depression and struggled to bond with him. I wanted to escape, to live alone and leave it all behind. But one day, leaning over to feed him, I caught a whiff of that beautiful baby smell – the scent of new life. I looked down at him, swaddled in blue muslin, leant down and breathed in deeply. It was a smell impossible to recreate, and I felt my entire body fill with love. We’ve been inseparable ever since.

Jo Malone

Jo and her husband Gary

Not all odours have positive connotations, though. Sometimes, the memory can be a moment I desperately want to escape.

The night I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was sitting in the waiting room next to a man wearing strong cologne. Now, if a man passes me in the street wearing it, or I pass it in a perfume hall, I have to stop and gather myself as I am transported back to that terrifying instant when I thought my time had come.

Cancer reeks of the ethanol wipes used to clean your arm prior to a chemo drip. It smells like the fabric conditioner on the Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt I wore every day in the ward.

I don’t use fabric conditioner now.

Sometimes, the memory can be a moment I desperately want to escape.

When I sold Jo Malone London, I signed a contract promising not to create fragrance for five years. It was torture. I remember once walking the dog after a thunderstorm, and the rain had cleansed the air, making way for the smell of every single flower and tree. I stood, eyes closed, and could pick out each one. It was painful – I couldn’t make anything from it and I felt like my one power was being taken from me.

Jo Malone

Jo and her son Josh

New notes

When the five years had passed, I returned to the industry and launched Jo Loves from my kitchen table.  Whilst I had ideas, I had lost the ability to create fragrance - I was stumped. I was miserable.

But, one day on holiday in Southeast Asia, I tasted pomelo fruit for the first time and experienced a moment of creativity.  From that moment, everything came rushing back, and I immediately went home to create a Pomelo fragrance.

Now, Pomelo is my best friend. When I smell it, it says: ‘I told you you could do it again.’ And when I ever have moments of doubt, or think I can’t do something, I smell Pomelo. I spray it onto my pillows, sweep the floors with it and even bathe the dog, filling every corner of my house with its sharp citrusy notes. It makes me strong and reminds me that I’ve been given a second chance.”

As told to Harriet Hall

Learn how to be the next Jo Malone at Stylist Live on Saturday 15 October. Get tickets here.

Jo Malone's autobiography Jo Malone: My Story is published by Simon & Schuster and out now. Buy it here


perfume banner.jpg

The Pros Know: how to make your perfume last longer

beauty hero.jpg

Watch: the Stylist beauty team answer your most pressing questions

bridget jones.jpg

Bridget Jones's author on life, love and the importance of friendship



This is why Alicia Keys wore make-up in her latest photo shoot

The star appears in colourful eyeshadow and sweeping eyeliner

by Amy Swales
20 Jan 2017

Iris Law is the new face of Burberry Beauty

A huge gig for the 16-year-old

by Anna Pollitt
17 Jan 2017

Why more and more women are embracing wigs

“I never have a bad hair day”

by The Stylist web team
15 Jan 2017

Claire Danes reveals how she tackles anxiety over her appearance

How to avoid falling into an "obsessive loop"

by Sarah Biddlecombe
05 Jan 2017

Caitlyn Jenner’s new MAC collection is here and it’s fabulous

Make-up for everyone.

by Moya Crockett
04 Jan 2017

British Army recruiters slammed for sexist “Military Makeup” campaign

"We want to know the girls behind the make up! We are searching for real beauty"

by Sarah Biddlecombe
03 Jan 2017

Hurrah: beauty grooming victory as Tesco cuts price of women's razors

A small victory

by Sarah Biddlecombe
03 Jan 2017

Breaking new ground: introducing 2017's innovative beauty products

Finally, some answers for beauty's biggest conundrums

by The Stylist web team
30 Dec 2016

Hair trends 2017: The cuts and colours ruling social media

New year, new hair?

by Amy Lewis
22 Dec 2016

Hairdressers are being trained to spot signs of domestic abuse

New law requires beauty workers to spot the signs

by Anna Pollitt
19 Dec 2016