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Perfumer Jo Malone flies into Belfast to launch her 'bravest' fragrance yet

Celebrated London perfumer, Jo Malone, was in Belfast last week to launch her new eponymous fragrance which she has kept to herself for the past year. Gail Bell caught up with her to hear how leaving school at 15 and having dyslexia, synaesthesia and breast cancer never held her back

Jo Malone with her new fragrance Jo, by Jo Loves
Gail Bell

WITH a name like 'Malone', there must be an Irish connection, surely? But no, the closest Irish link celebrated London perfumer Jo Malone can come up with is that her father was a Scot – though she thinks she must have Irish blood coursing through her veins "somewhere".

As she arrived in Belfast last week for the launch of her latest fragrance – 'Jo' – by her company, Jo Loves, the successful businesswoman, wife, mother and cancer survivor was excited to be back in the city, doing what she does best on these obligatory scent promotional tours – "the chatty bits".

"After Belfast, I'm in Edinburgh and then Manchester – or, is it the other way around?" she wonders, before adding that, in any case, all the travel and the visits are "lots and lots of fun".

To say the 54-year-old has a nose for the business would be an understatement as Malone – who started her empire from mixing facial lotions in her home – has the rare but harmless condition of synaesthesia, a neurological condition where she 'smells' colour as well as seeing it.

A merging of senses that aren't normally connected, the phenomenon results in some people 'tasting' numbers or 'hearing' colours, while, in its rarest form, synaesthesia translates odours into shapes or colours.

"Synaesthesia has been with me all my life, so I haven't known what it's like not to smell my red scarf or green grass," she says. "I always had a highly developed sense of smell as a child – I have dyslexia, as well – but I thought everybody could smell like that; for a long while, I didn't realise it was just me.

"I still remember key smells from my childhood – the smell of my father's canvases and brushes, the smell of my mother's signature floral fragrance, Joy, by Jean Patou. My name at home was 'Bloodhound' because I could smell everything.

"My mother worked as a facialist for a woman called Countess Lubatti and when I was eight or nine and I'd go to work with my mum – who later took over the business – and watch this incredible woman in the laboratory. I'd watch how face masks were made and was endlessly fascinated."

But, as synaesthesia gave her an inherent advantage in the creative workshop, she was never professionally trained to be what technicians in the industry call 'a nose' – 'le nez' – and dyslexia proved something of a drawback in the boardroom: "I've never written a brief in my life".

The two 'disabilities' put together at one stage had top executives at Estee Lauder (purchaser of her first company, Jo Malone London), in a bit of a lather, given Malone's maverick approach to numbers, graphs and formulas.

When she sold her company in 1999 and they "understandably" asked to see the formulations, she reportedly told them, straight-faced, that she just made them up in her head. She didn't count the exact number of drops for a potion and she only stopped when "it felt right".

It is now 12 years since Malone parted ways with her namesake, Jo Malone London – she stayed on as creative director until 2006 – but there is still a degree of confusion among the buying public over a perceived association which no longer exists.

With the new eponymous fragrance, however, that is something the woman who reportedly received "undisclosed millions" in the sale, hopes will change.

"There is only once in your life you can call a fragrance after you; you can't do it again, so I had to get this right," she says, after checking into her Belfast hotel for the fragrance's launch at Belfast retail partners, Space NK.

"I get inspiration in all kinds of places and at odd times – maybe when people-watching in a coffee shop or reading a book – I am reading a brilliant one at the moment about strong women in Havana trying to hold on to their culture and I see myself there, cooking the Cuban food and sitting overlooking the water near these beautiful, washed-out Cuban houses. I can smell it...

"I create fragrances for all kinds of reasons, but, with 'Jo', I created it just for me. I've been the only person to wear it for the last year."

Inspired by family holidays in Lake Como and encapsulating her trademark grapefruit notes (along with bitter orange, lime and spearmint), she believes it is her "best and bravest" yet.

"It takes all my memories and pulls them together," she says. "Grapefruit is an incredible ingredient to use; it has this strength and tenacity, yet it is almost as if it is on tip-toe the whole time.

"My character is very much like that – I'm this really strong, warrior-type person, but there is also a gentleness beneath me and a softness which I've allowed to come through."

Her warrior qualities come from a number of experiences in both Malone's distant and recent past: a working class upbringing in a council house in Bexleyheath in Kent had an impact, giving rise to an ever-present fear of debt (rooted in a financially precarious childhood and her artist/magician father's gambling habit) and leaving school at 15 following her mother's stroke.

Then, in 2003, Malone – married to childhood sweetheart, Gary Wilcox – was forced to look "mortality in the face" after a shock breast cancer diagnosis in 2003 aged 37.

This period of her life is unflinchingly recounted in her autobiography, Jo Malone, My Story, published in 2016, but the personable Ms Malone is happy to share the details again:

"Fighting cancer definitely changed my life, changed some parts for the worst, some for the better," she says. "At the time when I was diagnosed, the only things I could think about were my husband and my son. I didn't care if the business was there or not.

"Then, the first thing you feel after surviving cancer is that you're walking a tightrope without a net when you go back into real life.

"I was locked out from the industry on the terms of the sale and I'm not complaining about that, but in those five years [2006 to 2011 when she launched new brand, Jo Loves] I became a very frustrated human being and desperately unhappy because I wasn't doing the one thing I could do brilliantly."

That creative paralysis changed when Malone – who collects a CBE from Buckingham Palace next month – found her core essence again with new project, Jo Loves, going on to open her flagship London store in 2013.

"I never thought I would be famous, I just started a business to pay the rent like a lot of people do," she reflects. "I come from a working class background and that working class girl is still in me; I need to get up in the morning, go to work and earn my keep.

"Coming back to business and doing it all again... it's tough and now it feels like the right moment to share 'Jo'," she adds. "It feels like my past, present and future is all in this one bottle. It is the best of me."

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