We review a must-read autobiography for fragrance lovers, budding entrepreneurs and anyone who’s ever felt that the odds are against them
Need a bit of business advice? A lift if you’re feeling hard done by? A bloody good read? Well make yourself comfortable, because fragrance prima donna Jo Malone achieves and delivers on all three counts. The first hint that this is an autobiography like no other (i.e, useful, inspiring and not a touch narcissistic) is the page fragranced with her ‘best friend’ scent Pomelo at the very beginning of the book. Jo Malone, you’ll come to appreciate, expresses herself and the world around her through fragrance, and such an innovative concept is hallmark Malone.
It’s not just the lingering notes of Jo’s signature scent that make an instant impression either; Jo’s description itself is almost fragrant in its crisp, evocative detail, but let’s be clear that there’s no sugar coating going on here. From family tension to being fired and fighting breast cancer, Jo’s frank, honest and humble account of her journey from a two-up two-down with iced up windows to building a unique and hugely successful fragrance business is both relatable and inspiriting. Having taken on an ‘adult’ role in her household from the age of ten, helping with chores, care and even invoices, Jo’s drive and work ethic shine through from page dot, and a preference for blending face creams to sell rather than doing her homework clearly worked out in her favour, given that she went on to have a distinguished and loyal clientele during her stint as a facialist. Considering the empire that she has since curated, it’s heartening to know that grades and academic success ain’t everything; Jo is dyslexic and the only qualification to her name was attained at Bible school.
It’s Jo’s acute and unusual sense of smell that set her apart in the beauty industry, and brought her initial eminence by the power of word of mouth (take that, Instagram). Her ventures evolved from blending bath oils in the flat she shared with her beloved husband Gary, who was known to muse that even late night pizza tasted of Nutmeg & Ginger, to breaking the U.S with a little help from Oprah and eventually selling her eponymous business, Jo Malone London, to Estée Lauder, for undisclosed millions. Given that she started out with £30,000 worth of debt taken on from a previous business partnership with her mother, her accomplishments are all the more awe-inspiring, and that’s not taking into account her aggressive breast cancer diagnosis, subsequent double mastectomy and going on to leave the iconic business of her own name to start all over again with Jo Loves . From nuggets of wisdom on combining business and motherhood (‘only robots can be all things to all people’) to setting up shop at the very address that she was fired from as a floristry assistant at the age of 16, Jo’s anecdotes and advice are engaging and resonant no matter what stage of life you’re at. Watch this space for Jo Malone: The Movie…
Want to try before you buy? Here’s an excerpt from Jo’s autobiography to whet your appetite…
“Crackling fire. Burnt sulphur. Wet leaves. Charred wood. Toffee apples. And the kind of grimy, wispy smoke that leaves its invisible trace on clothes. In a life to be governed by the sense of smell, my nose likes to imagine that these were the aromas in the air as I arrived in the world on Bonfire night 1963. Named Joanne Lesley Malone, I was the first of two daughters to Eileen and Andy. Mum, then aged thirty-one, said she was instantly enamoured with me that first night at St Stephen’s Hospital (now Chelsea and Westminster). ‘You were like this perfect, little French doll, and I used to sit and stare at you, observing every detail’. Dad, several years her senior, probably didn’t envisage becoming a parent in his late thirties but doubtless took it in his stride. I would eventually learn that he had great adaptability when it came to dealing with the unexpected.”
“For a short while, we lived in a pokey bedsit above a garage in Hayes Hill, outside Bromley. Dad was a draftsman at a local double-glazing firm, and Mum, like her father, had worked for the gas board, but their two meagre wages barely covered the rent. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, squeezed into a place not big enough to swing a cat, but my optimistic parents would have likely convinced themselves that their fortunes would soon change. Sure enough, when I was about six months old, we moved to a semi-detached, two-up, two-down house in Barnehurst, near Bexleyheath, on the south-east fringes of london’s suburbs, then part of the Crayford Urban District of Kent.”
“A street of uniform, sandy-bricked properties on a council estate would become my home for the next sixteen years. My bedroom was at the front, above the living room, overlooking a small patch of grass and low brick wall. at the rear, above the kitchen, Mum and Dad’s room had a view of the oblong back garden, and a neighbouring block of flats. The house must have felt huge compared to a bedsit, but there was only one problem in the week before we moved in – we had not a stitch of furniture except for my cot. Dad told Mum not to worry; he’d sort it. and he did, with forty-eight hours to spare.”
“Mum hadn’t a clue what he’d chosen as they drove to Barnehurst, with me asleep in her arms. Ideally, she would have preferred to pick out the furniture as a couple but Dad had wanted to surprise and impress. Mum figured that if the dapper way he dressed was any measure, then he would choose well."
“But she soon discovered that while clothes maketh the man, they don’t necessarily maketh the interior designer. ‘I walked in with you still asleep,’ she told me, ‘and my heart sank – he’d kitted out the whole place in dark brown. Dark brown sofa, dark brown dining table, dark brown chairs, dark brown armchair. and green and brown cheap velvet curtains!’”
“As a young woman sensitive to the approval of others, and because she didn’t wish to hurt Dad’s feelings, she didn’t verbalise her displeasure; instead, she forced a smile and learned to live with it. as to where the furniture came from, she preferred not to ask about that either. Dad said he’d bought it on the never-never, to be paid off in weekly payments. Mum privately doubted him, suspecting that he’d won it by gambling.”
“My dad was a dab hand at poker, playing at casinos or the homes of people in his social circle. He was a real wheeler-dealer, too. If opponents couldn’t pay, he’d claim the equivalent value in whatever else they could stump up. like a set of furniture, for example. In the end, Mum needn’t have worried – the payment arrangements proved legitimate – but she could never be sure when it came to any new purchase or gift. All that mattered on this occasion was that she had somewhere to put down roots, to feel secure, and to be with the man she loved. When you’ve made do in a bedsit, landing your own house on an estate is going up in the world.”
“These humble beginnings illustrate the theme of my childhood: the sense of struggle, the just-about-getting-by, and the resourcefulness of two hard-working people who did everything they could to keep the balls in the air. I wouldn’t know any other way to live or be. If we could make ends meet week after week, then we were in good shape.”
Extracted from Jo Malone: My Story, published by Simon & Schuster, RRP £20, buy online