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Jo Loves

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Jo Malone’s Quiet Comeback

You probably didn’t even realize she’s been gone.

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Jo Malone’s name is synonymous with fragrance, but she hasn’t been a part of the brand Jo Malone London for a decade. In 2006, she left the namesake company she founded a few years after selling it to Estée Lauder. After a mandatory five-year non-compete, during which she was not allowed to create any fragrances or skincare, Malone launched a new brand in 2011 called Jo Loves. It’s been far from an easy Lime Basil & Mandarin-scented journey, however.

Malone documented her whole remarkable history in a book released last month called Jo Malone: My Story. She dropped out of school when she was 15 due to severe dyslexia and worked a series of odd jobs, including in a deli and a flower shop. Her mother inherited a salon and Malone helped concoct skincare potions and did treatments there. She eventually had a falling out with her family and started her own business, treating the likes of Sarah Ferguson, the onetime Duchess of York. She continued to develop products, and eventually, as many successful businesses did in the ‘90s, had her Oprah moment.

Jo Malone treating a patient in the ‘90s.
Jo Malone in the ‘90s.
Photo: Jo Loves

After being on Oprah’s show, Jo Malone London — the business — took off in the US, and Estée Lauder came knocking. Malone sold her business to the beauty giant in 1999, but stayed with her brand. At this point, Malone’s signature herb-inflected scents, which had descriptive names that made sense because they were in plain English, were ubiquitous. A Jo Malone London candle was the thing to bring as a hostess gift.

“I would find a note I really loved, and [the inspiration for] Lime Basil & Mandarin was just this one note that reminded me of those lime sweets that you sucked. And I’d been to a little Italian restaurant and had pesto for the very first time. I’d never had that before on pasta,” Malone tells me on a phone call. “I couldn’t believe the explosion of basil. Then I put the two notes together. It’s just how my mind plays with notes.”

Then in 2004, Malone was diagnosed with breast cancer and left work to get treatment. She then decided that things felt different at Estée Lauder when she returned, so she decided to leave. A five-year non-compete kicked in, and so did a sense of dread.

“I didn’t think I would ever leave [Jo Malone London], but then when I had to actually live it — oh my goodness was it uncomfortable, because all I wanted to do was create. So being away from fragrance — I hadn’t anticipated any of those emotions,” Malone says. “I wrote myself a CV and it looked dreadful because I left school at 15. I had no qualifications and I’d never done anything else. And I looked at it and thought, Who’s going to give me a job?”

When the five years was up, Malone got on the phone with perfumers, but she decided to use her married name instead of “Jo Malone” to see if she could pitch a new brand from scratch. No one returned her calls, so she thought to herself (I’m paraphrasing here) eff this and called everyone again, this time using the name “Jo Malone.” She got a call back within five minutes.

What followed was a “disastrous” (from her perspective, but it sold fairly well) launch at a Selfridges pop-up shop in London in 2011, where the all red and black branding read a bit garish. “In my pursuit to be nowhere near what I created before, I did these huge big red boxes and they were awful, with big white writing all over them. When I look at them now, I think, What on earth were you doing, Jo? That wasn’t who I was,” Malone says.

A bottle of Jo Loves Pomelo fragrane
The first fragrance from Jo Loves, Pomelo
Photo: Jo Loves

She tweaked the packaging, which now features a clean white box with a raised red dot. The dot is a nod to the way she signs off on projects for approval. With her dyslexia, it was easier for her to just put a red dot on things rather than sign off on them. One day she was painting her nails with red nail polish, dripped some onto a piece of white paper, and a new brand identity was born.

Malone’s first fragrance for Jo Loves, one that she now considers the brand’s signature, is called Pomelo, a grapefruit scent layered on top of a woody base. (Racked’s cameraman fell in love with it during a recent shoot, and Malone graciously signed a box for him to give to his mom for the holidays.) To a fan of the first Jo Malone brand, the scent names will sound familiar in their simplicity: White Rose & Lemon Leaves, Green Orange & Coriander, Smoked Plum & Leather. The brand now has a shop in London, just launched e-commerce via its website here in the US, and is available on Net-a-Porter.

While it’s a new brand, Malone doesn’t really think it’s appropriate to ask (as I totally did) what makes this brand different from her first one. Besides the obvious legal requirements that force her to maintain aesthetic difference from her first brand, there’s a more nebulous difference. “You would never ask a musician that. You would never ask an artist that, “ she laughs. “You would never say, ‘What is the difference between your two songs, Elton?’ Because they’re the creator, but they evolve. And it’s no different with me.”

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the occasional moment of nostalgia when she sees Jo Malone London. “Sometimes I walk past a window and I think, Gosh, that looks really beautiful, and I wish I could pick up the phone and say, ‘Well done, it looks great,’” Malone says. “And at times something happens and I think, Ooh, I wouldn’t have done that. I try really hard not to feel those emotions because they can be really destructive if you travel down that road, and I refuse to. It’s not my brand. That boat’s long sailed. But I look at it and I think, I built you, and sometimes I do get a bit sad, yeah, but not very often.”

Jo Malone has already done “Rocket Man.” Now it’s time to see if Jo Loves will become her “Candle in the Wind.”

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