Despite leaving school without qualifications, the perfumer went on to build a global fragrance brand. Having exited the business, she set up Jo Loves five years ago and this month launches her autobiography. She considers the lessons she’s learnt
Teachers told me I was lazy or stupid but I knew I was neither. They didn’t understand dyslexia. I left school when I was 14 or 15, never took exams and don’t have a qualification to my name, apart from my MBE and being inaugurated into the World Retail Hall of Fame. I am really smart but I learn differently – I often can’t read, so I watch, listen and I’m a great mimic.
The businesswoman was formed at a very young age. My dad was a great artist and I learnt how to respect creativity from him. I acquired the discipline of being a shopkeeper selling his paintings at markets. My childhood wasn’t the happiest but it wasn’t the unhappiest. I was the responsible one in our family. I was the one who had to put food on the table, working lots of jobs.
The pivotal person in my childhood was a woman called Madame [Countess] Lubatti, who trained my mum in the cosmetics industry. She was in her eighties, the most amazing, charismatic character who treated me like an adult at eight years old. I adored her. She taught me how to move around a laboratory, how to make face creams, blend face-masks and the importance of packaging.
I didn’t set out to build a global brand with Jo Malone. In the beginning it was hand to mouth. As that business grew, I was happy staying in this little bubble doing people’s faces and creating products for them. I didn’t have to worry about money for the first time in my life.
Don’t try to be all things to all men. You’ll stop doing what you’re good at and your business will be in trouble. It was evident that I was the creative, not the manager. When my husband, Gary [Willcox], and I became a partnership, not just in marriage but in business, the company started to take off.
I learnt a big lesson from leaving [Jo Malone]. When you make a life-changing decision, make sure you understand the landscape 12 months out. I’d fought breast cancer [diagnosed in 2003] and had a year of chemotherapy every five days. My mind wasn’t quite where it should be. I still would have made the decision but I would have made it differently.
When I left I was determined I was never going to build another cosmetics business. What was wrong with me? My lawyer and Estée Lauder asked if I was sure. I didn’t anticipate the connection and love affair I had. Suddenly I’d severed myself. I didn’t identify with where I was. That could have been to do with chemo and being frightened that I would not have long to live.
I felt the saddest I’ve felt in my life. I was financially well off but all I wanted to do was sit in a laboratory or sell fragrance again. I felt angry with myself and the world around me. I spent five years trying to find something else to do until I reached the point where I said ‘go back and do what you love’.
I’m really proud of what I created at Jo Malone and of what Estée Lauder has created at Jo Malone. But I’m also really proud of Jo Loves, that I had courage to come back even though every lawyer warned I’d be walking through a minefield, and that, as a much older woman, it was going to be difficult.
Everyone assumes you’ve got fairy dust if you have a global success under your belt – you haven’t. You’ve just got two per cent inspiration, 98 per cent perspiration. You build your first business with naivety, which makes the second the toughest. Everyone is looking at you and judging you against the first one, especially if you’ve been successful.
Starting Jo Loves was the trickiest thing I’ve ever done. I see it as this baby business with one store but with deals being handed to us left, right and centre, sales flying through the roof and global distribution.
The two greatest things you can give an entrepreneur, pioneer, or scientist are freedom to do what they need to do and the security that whatever direction they go in you are going to trust them with their instincts.
In the next 10 years I’d like to build a school that allows people to come from all over the world to learn about creating fragrance from my perspective, so I’m ready to hand the baton to somebody else and say, ‘I want the way I think to continue to be part of retail and fragrance’. The way to do that is by teaching others how to do it.
Jo Malone: CV
Early career Selling her father’s paintings at market; retail assistant – “I got fired from a flower shop for tipping a bucket of water over someone’s head” – before launching a home-grown facial and beauty business
1994 Founded Jo Malone from her kitchen table and opened her first store in Knightsbridge
1999 Sold Jo Malone to Estée Lauder for “undisclosed millions” but remained the brand’s creative director
2006 Leaves Jo Malone
2008 Awarded an MBE for services to the beauty industry
2011 Founded fragrance brand Jo Loves, opening one physical store two years later in Belgravia
2016 Autobiography Jo Malone: My story is released this month by Simon & Schuster (£20)
Most admires: “Coco Chanel. I feel like she and I in another life would have been friends. In my imagination I think she would have seen the gift in me and I would have seen the gift in her.”