“I live my life through fragrance”: Jo Malone CBE at the Union

On Thursday night, Jo Malone, founder of ubiquitous fragrance brand Jo Malone London, spoke at the Oxford Union.

Following the release of her autobiography My Story in October 2016, Jo Malone certainly had a story to tell at the Union on Thursday. She bounced into the room with a glimmer in her eye to match her sparkly sketchers and bejewelled Chanel belt, immediately capturing the attention and admiration of the audience.

She first spoke of her difficult upbringing. Although times were tough – she was responsible from the age of 11 for putting food on the table – Jo was quick to point out the positives of her experience. She would often sell her father’s paintings on a market stall in the street, something which she says instilled her with a great “business sense” and drive.

The business idea first blossomed in her early twenties, when Jo’s homemade face creams and bath oils were a hit with her friends. As the clientele kept growing, Jo and her husband, Gary, slowly built up Jo Malone London, with Jo carefully crafting each scent and Gary handling more of the analytic side. It is clear that the two work brilliantly as a team. “He’s my business partner and my best friend. And because of working together, we have shared so many amazing experiences”, said Jo.

“Scent is so intrinsic to who I am, I needed to create again. I live my life through fragrance.”

Although Jo claimed that she has “no regrets in life”, selling Jo Malone London to Estée Lauder in 1999 was clearly an emotional decision. She recalled locking up the Jo Malone shop for the last time: “I just sobbed and sobbed.” She remained Creative Director for the brand until 2006.

A battle with cancer and intense chemotherapy – during which Jo temporarily lost her sense of smell – left her thinking she would never make perfume again. But she triumphantly returned to the fragrance scene in 2011 with her vibrant collection, Jo Loves. “Scent is so intrinsic to who I am, I needed to create again.” Jo also has a condition called synesthesia, which manifests itself in her being able to ‘smell’ certain colours. “While most people would look at a blue sweater and appreciate it’s colour, I smell hyacinths and fresh grass. And sitting on this red leather chair brings back memories of horseriding and the scent of wild thyme. I live my life through fragrance.”

Although from the outside Jo is the epitome of a wildly successful entrepreneur, she is quick to stress that she has made some big mistakes in her career. When Jo Loves was unveiled for the first time she was deeply unhappy with the packaging; “It was very intense and masculine. I hated it. We had to do a total rebrand.” But, Jo says, learning from your mistakes is what makes the difference.

Recently awarded a CBE, Jo is now on a new mission. “Receiving that letter made me feel that I have to do something for my country.” She revealed her plans to campaign for education reform, believing it should be compulsory for students aged between 7 and 17 to have some form of business or entrepreneurial training. “For those kids who aren’t academic, they can come out of school with some useful business skills.” And if Jo approaches this new goal with the tenacity shown by her fragrance ventures, Parliament better watch out.

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StyleFrancesca Salisbury