The woman behind some of the fragrance world's most iconic scents on how she knows a product is complete, leaving her original brand and finding your signature scent

By Kaitlyn Frey
December 01, 2016 05:16 PM
Jo Malone

Lime Basil & Mandarin. Pomegranate Noir. Mimosa & Cardamom. These fragrances, among countless others, have become cult favorites among loyal Jo Malone London lovers, otherwise known as self-proclaimed “Maloniacs.” But while women have hoarded everything from candles to cologne from the brand since 1994, few know the story of its namesake.

Though the fragrance maverick sold Jo Malone London to Estée Lauder in 2006 and walked away from the fragrance world, Malone recently came back to the industry that changed her life, after having a life-changing experience of another kind. After receiving a prognosis of having just a few months to live with breast cancer and beating it, the entrepreneur announced her new venture, Jo Loves in 2011.

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With her new line of fragrances, Malone admits she’s “more aggressive, courageous, ballsy and bolder in the way [she] approaches the creation” of products, although the core of what she does remains the same. “You do it differently because you’ve evolved,” she told PeopleStyle. “That’s exactly why I love both of those brands in a very different way. They were in different parts of my life, but I am not the same girl I was 20 years ago.”

The perfumer gives the unvarnished truth about her career, from starting Jo Malone London at her kitchen table to her initial regrets about leaving her first brand, in her just-released memoir, Jo Malone: My Story.

“I didn’t skirt over the cracks in this book,” she said. “That’s what makes it so inspirational. I think people identify with that, like ‘If she went through it and I am going through it, I can come out on the other end.'”

In honor of her book hitting shelves this week, we sat down with Malone to learn how she went from dropout to creator of an empire, and the bumps along the way.

When did you realize you had such a keen awareness of fragrance?

My mom worked for a woman called Madame Lubatti, a facialist. As a little girl I would spend time in the apartment in the laboratory where they make all the skincare. That’s where I first fell in love with fragrance. My sense of smell was so strong and powerful. I could tell the difference from rose oils – from the Bulgarian rose to tea rose to English rose – without reading the label, because I couldn’t read yet! I didn’t have to learn it or study it or think about it. It was very natural to me.

Do you remember the first fragrance you owned?

My father bought me my first bottle for Christmas. It was a very, very light French lemony cologne. I don’t remember the name, but I can still smell it today. It’s funny. This is the only fragrance I can’t recall 100 percent. But I actually made one many years ago called Verbenas of Provence [now discontinued], which is inspired by it. When you smell it, it smells like youth. Verbenas of Provence is the nearest thing I probably had for that first fragrance.

What inspires you to create new scents?

If I am happy or sad I create fragrance. So many signify moments in my life. Lime Basil & Mandarin from Jo Malone London was a turning point in my life where I went from running a skincare clinic to suddenly starting to become a very successful perfumer. Smoked Plum & Leather, which is a fragrance we just launched, is riding my horse in Montana up in the mountains when I really lost a sense of who I was and I felt really in touch with my creativity again.

When do you know when a fragrance is finished? 

I just know. No one has ever asked me that question, and it’s such a great question. It’s like when a book is finished or when a piece of music is done. The creator knows that. I put a red dot on the bottom of the bottle and go, ‘That’s finished. No one touch it. It’s done.’ My team celebrates with a glass of wine and it’s a really magical moment.

How long does it take you to make a new product?

A fragrance can take me 10 years or one day. Creativity doesn’t have time on it. I won’t ever let someone from marketing … say I need to make something by the spring. It doesn’t work like that. I am going to create fragrances from my emotions and my integrity.

After leaving Jo Malone London in 2006, did you have any regrets?

I was so, so unhappy. But I walked away from that business. No one forced me. No one pushed me out the door. I walked out myself. How often in life do we do something and we know we’ve made a mistake but can’t turn back? I could spend the rest of my life regretting it, or get up and try again. So I tried again with Jo Loves.

Jo Malone

Out of all the fragrances you’ve made, can you choose a favorite?

I have to do two. Lime Basil & Mandarin changed my life for Jo Malone London and Pomelo changed my life for Jo Loves, so I think it’s a bit like they’re my two kids. I can’t have one without the other. Without Lime Basil & Mandarin, I would have never created Pomelo. And without Pomelo I would never be able to move on.

Do you have a bunch of those two in your house at any given time?

We scent our house with Pomelo, so it’s a sign of home and safety to me. I only have one bottle of Lime Basil & Mandarin in my closet. Every now and then I just go in and smell it and take myself back to the moment and the memories. I still feel slightly sad when I smell it because it brings back all the memories.

As a fragrance expert, what advice can you give women to find their signature scent?

Test four or five fragrances from the same family – floral, woodsy or citrus – on a section of your arm. Mark where you sprayed each with one of those colored dot stickers you can get from Staples. Then you leave them on for about 20 minutes, go back and smell them again. But ultimately, fragrance is an art. Just like you will attune your eye to art, you have to attune your nose to fragrance.

What’s your favorite Jo Malone fragrance? Have you tried any of her new products from Jo Loves? Tell us below.