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Scents and sensibility: We chat to perfume maker Jo Malone

A formidable businesswoman and one of the top names in perfumery, Jo Malone has packed a succession of highs into her life. But there have been some serious lows too, she tells Rebecca Gonsalves

From cancer to career upheaval, and a set of decisions and dilemmas on a scale most of us are never faced with, Jo Malone has been through a lot these past 15 years. The emotion of it all is evident when I sit down with the businesswoman who has become a byword for beautiful fragrances.

"Cancer definitely changed my perspective on life," she says. "Although some of the lessons I learnt I've let slip through my fingers."

There can't be many people who haven't had some Jo Malone in their home - one of her signature scented candles, perhaps, or some fancy bath oil, or a crisp cologne. It's very likely such items will have been received as a gift, nestling in a cream and black box lined with tissue paper and tied up with a grosgrain bow. In all these ways Malone creates a kind of magic, but the idea that her life might have been as idyllic as the world she creates is some way from the truth.

At 52, Malone can look back on more than three decades of extraordinary achievement, during which she built a staggeringly successful brand. However, back in 1999 the sale of Jo Malone to the beauty behemoth Estee Lauder turned out to be a mixed blessing, for all the millions Malone made. It presaged a period in her life that was professionally challenging to say the least, and when cancer struck, that challenge became even harder.

Malone - a woman of immense drive and energy - has come through the dark times and right now, with her Jo Loves range keeping her at the forefront of the beauty business, she is back to her true love: being creative.

There's a steeliness to Malone and there's no doubt that she had to learn to be tough from an early age.

"I grew up in a little two up, two down on a council estate in Bexleyheath," she recalls. "My father was a very brilliant artist, and I'd help him in the market selling his paintings. He was also a member of the Magic Circle and I'd be his magician's assistant. I had a pet white dove with clipped wings that used to sit on my shoulder and there were white rabbits everywhere."

Her father was also "a huge gambler", but the matter-of-fact way that she refers to this seems to be a testament to a reconciling with her past, for all the difficulties it presented.

"I remember sitting in my bedroom, looking out and thinking, I don't want to grow up like this. I was the sole provider for our family from the age of 11, 12 years old."

Her mother, a beautician, suffered a stroke, and Malone left school at 15 to care for her. She had no qualifications, but the inspiration for what would turn out to be her career had already presented itself in the form of a woman called Countess Lubatti, who Malone's mother worked for.

"I was eight or nine and I'd go to work with my mum and watch this incredible woman in the laboratory. I'd watch how face masks were made; watch Madame Lubatti grind the sandalwood."

Malone's job was to pour the finished products into little pots for Lubatti's wealthy clientele, but she proved to have an exceptional ability for creating them too. She was on her way, the Bexleyheath council house was left far behind, with the clientele that she inherited from Lubatti becoming her first customers when she launched her own range of bath oils from her kitchen table in 1994.

That a company as big as Estee Lauder would eventually make a bid for Jo Malone was perhaps inevitable. Malone, by then in her mid-thirties, stayed on as creative director, but it was now that her cancer was diagnosed.

"When I came out of a very drawn-out, excruciating year of chemotherapy, I suddenly felt like I could run at life again," she says. And that realisation led, in 2006, to her next big decision - to leave the company that bore her name. "There was a disconnect. I started looking at it purely as a business, and I'd never felt that way about it before."

A new, seizing-hold of life, coupled with a fear that the cancer would return, persuaded her to make the leap, but by the time she was reassured that the disease wasn't returning it was too late to think about where she'd really be landing. She had fought for her life, but without fragrance she felt that she was no longer really living:

"I made the right decision for the business, and for Estee Lauder. But for me, as a creator, it was the worst thing I could have done."

Under the terms of the Estee Lauder deal she was obliged to take a five-year hiatus from the industry, and she found herself with a lot of time on her hands, much of it spent miserably. She says that she "couldn't even walk through a department store I was so unhappy".

"I'd look at other businesses being built and I'd literally get choked up. My mind was full of endless possibilities and creations, and there was nothing I could do."

She kept herself busy, sitting on various boards, a role not suited to her given her fondness for plain-speaking. She made a TV programme with the BBC which drew on her retail skills. She holidayed and spent time with her family, husband Gary and son Josh. She was made an MBE for her services to the beauty industry.

Finally, the five years was up, and as soon as Malone was free to work in the business again, she did, launching Jo Loves in 2011. It wasn't easy. Her departure from Jo Malone five years earlier had not been widely publicised so the new venture came as a surprise to many. And it was made even tougher by the fact that for a start-up venture the scrutiny was intense, exacerbated by her own exacting standards. She tells a story about her first scent, Pomelo, that says a lot about her.

"I really felt Pomelo was my voice. It conjured up exactly how I was feeling, the emotion of everything. We'd got right the way through the process - ordered the bottles and the compound, the labels even - and we were ready to launch as soon as I got back from our Easter holiday.

"I was walking down the beach in the resort in Turks and Caicos on my own one morning, and this stingray swam by the side of me as I walked up and down. And in that moment I knew in my heart that the fragrance wasn't finished, and I pulled it. It cost us £100,000 and nobody spoke to me for a week. I was so desperate to get back to this industry that I'd been ignoring this nagging voice, but I knew I couldn't ignore it any more."

No sense of any such difficulties lingers when I meet Malone at the Jo Loves store, a serene white space tucked away in Belgravia. On the day of my visit, florist Matthew Dickinson is installing a Valentine's Day window display: a veritable meadow of lemons and white silk roses in homage to White Rose & Lemon Leaves, the second-best seller in the Jo Loves range after Pomelo.

Malone is dyslexic, so she couldn't follow a formulation, but by watching the process she was able to "hook the various stages and then knit them together - I could make a face cream from the age of nine, and I could tell when it was ready by the texture". When she had sold her company to Estee Lauder they, understandably, asked to see the formulations. "I said: 'I haven't got a formulation, I make it from my head.' I sat in their laboratories and they'd ask me to make something, and off I'd go. They'd say, 'stop, stop! How many drops was that?', and I'd say: 'I don't know! Until it feels right!' Then we'd have to start all over again."

This affinity for the ingredients is innate: "I could tell if the camphor or rosemary oil was past its sell-by just by the smell. I was taught from a really young age that what I saw and what I smelled were really valuable tools."

For a perfumer a sense of smell is obviously vital, but Malone's ability is rare even among industry noses. When she recently said that she could smell running water in her building it was laughed off by her family, until six weeks later a leak burst through the wall. "I can smell anything. I could smell when my husband was sick, when there's something not right with the dog, when it's going to snow. I can smell all kinds of things that are normal to me, but not to other people."

When she underwent chemo she says she wasn't worried about losing this ability, instead focusing her energies on surviving.

"I was living in New York, and creating these basil candles. I love the smell of basil. Well, I did love the smell of basil. I don't now. The product came over to my apartment for me to test and every time I burnt them, boy was I sick. Even if I smell it now it turns my stomach. But I didn't let cancer take anything more from me than it needed to. Chemotherapy takes a lot from you, but it gave me everything back, apart from my eyelashes. But my sense of smell has come back stronger."

It's not just Malone who has faced life-threatening illness. In 2014 Gary suffered adrenal failure, and she says that her belief in God has helped her face up to these challenges.

"My faith is a very important part of my life," she says. "It's my compass. When I talk about inspiration, innovation, integrity -these are elements inspired by my faith. I faced my own mortality. When I was going through chemotherapy there was a week when I thought I was going to die. And when I sat by the bedside of my husband, who I thought was going to die, my faith was what got me through. I wouldn't impose it on anybody, but it's something I choose to live by."

Her charity work is another expression of her values. She is involved in Magic Breakfast, which helps ensure that underprivileged children start the school day with a healthy meal: "Not one child in this country should go to school hungry. It's ridiculous."

So what about her politics? During last year's election she gave her support to the Conservatives. "I put my head above the parapet and I fought because I didn't want to see a lot of the work small business had done being undone."

You can see how she ruffled feathers in her various board positions. Currently her only directorship is of Walpole, which promotes the luxury industry and on which she is allowed to speak her mind. She is also a fundraising committee member with the British Film Industry. "If I could choose two things in life it would be fragrance and film. I go to the movies twice a week; I love being totally immersed in somebody else's creativity."

She says she compartmentalises her life into "moments". That epiphany on the white sand of Turks and Caicos was a defining one, and another occurred in Montana, where she visits a horse ranch every year.

"One summer I wasn't back at work and I was very unhappy and I couldn't find who I was at all," she recalls. "We went to the ranch and I took Josie, my horse, out. I was getting these terrible anxiety attacks and coming back down the mountain it was all shingle and every time Josie put her hoof down she'd slide. I could tell that she was frightened and I just burst into tears. The cowboy who we were with said: 'Trust your horse Jo, she'll get you down.'"

Nearly three hours later Malone was at the bottom of the mountain.

"It was as if life was saying to me: 'Every time you step somewhere something shifts, but you've still got to take every step.' From that minute I looked at life differently."

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