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

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Harriet Hall
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Explore the Jo Loves fragrance collection here

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


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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.