Perfumer Jo Malone has followed her nose to the Middle East, leaving her native London behind for Dubai, the “hot amber” smell of the desert, the souk air thick with cinnamon, frankincense and sandalwood, and the scented napkins at the dinner table.
“I found a lychee note the other day, and it was so beautiful,” said Malone from her Jo Loves shop on London’s Elizabeth Street. “It’s got a very heady scent — quite musky in a funny sort of way. We’d call it an ‘animal note.’”
It’s a sunny February morning and in a few hours Malone will fly back home to Dubai where she’s been living for the past six months, with no firm plans to return.
Moving to the Middle East wasn’t part of her life plan. Recently she’d spent some time in Dubai, wandering through the Miracle Garden with its 150 million blooming flowers, daydreaming in the city’s shady courtyards and taking in the new, exotic smells.
She told her husband, and business partner, Gary Willcox, that maybe it was time for a reboot. “I feel so alive there,” she said.
Malone had also recently recovered from what she describes as a serious bout of anxiety, which also got her thinking about her next act.
“I believe life happens in trilogies. I’m going to be 60 this year, and while I’m not going to pop off my perch anytime soon, I hope, I am in that third trilogy. I’ve always felt that, in my life, I was meant to do something that transformed the world. I’ve loved building the business, but there’s something more in me, but I’ve never known what it is,” she said.
She chose Dubai for reasons beyond the vast smorgasbord of scent.
Malone said she loves the people, the climate and its proximity to the rest of the Middle East, the Far East and Europe, the fastest-growing markets for the Jo Loves business. Malone declined to share revenues for the business, but according to its registration with Companies House in the U.K., Jo Loves is registered as a “small business,” which are classified as having under 10.2 million pounds in revenue.
“Gary and I can actually service the international part of the business from there. We’ve got a really strong team here in the U.K. and we’ll probably build one [in Dubai] as well,” she said.
She’s been blending work with pleasure, and later this month will be traveling to Taif in Saudi Arabia for the annual rose harvest. In Dubai, she’s been visiting oud factories and spending some time working in “this gorgeous little hotel” by the Old Creek.
“It has a little courtyard with a big, beautiful tree growing in it with birds flying around. I sit in the shade in their lobby with all my perfumes and smells. Living here means I’m able to find creativity. It’s a different world, and I’m kind of excited by it,” she said.
She’s not the only one inspired by Dubai, where business and industry are flourishing in the wake of Dubai Expo. The global trade showcase took place in 2021-22 around the themes of opportunity, mobility and sustainability.
Firmenich, the Swiss fragrance and flavor developer, has opened a state-of-the-art studio near the Miracle Garden, and museums and research labs are popping up everywhere. “I can feel the creativity in my fingers. It’s like an electric energy. I really don’t feel that here,” in London, she said. “The Dubai government want entrepreneurs in there, they want it to be a hub of business.”
Malone launched the luxury brand Jo Loves in 2011, more than a decade after she sold her eponymous fragrance house, now known as Jo Malone London, to the Estée Lauder Cos.
An experiential retail pioneer, Malone fitted her small Jo Loves store with a long counter, like a cocktail bar, where customers can sample, mix, layer or even “paint” fragrances on their pulse points with the infused brushes that she developed. The back of the shop is for educational events and fragrance master classes.
Malone is known for her fresh, fizzy flower-packed fragrances that are as energizing as her personality. The Jo Loves signature fragrance (and bestseller) remains Pomelo, a grapefruit-infused citrus with notes of vetiver and patchouli.
The business, which is wholly owned by Malone and her husband, is small, but growing rapidly. Although Malone declined to disclose annual revenue, she said sales would double in 2023 via international expansion and new launches.
Her latest juice, Ebony & Cassis, launched earlier this month.
It’s inspired, she said, by nights in Oman, “sitting in a beautiful old dhow [sail] boat, looking at the night sky, with the dolphins swimming by the side of the boat. The stars are silver, the water is black, and you are at one with nature, at one with your dreams.”
The scent is vastly different from the ones she’s been making. It’s deep and rich, with notes of cassis, myrrh, dates and cedarwood. The bottle is dark purple with veins of silver.
Malone continues to develop fragrances for Zara under the Zara Emotions Collection by Jo Loves. She said the Zara team has already paid her a visit in Dubai and, going forward, she’ll be creating fragrances for them “with my ‘Jo Dubai’ head.”
Malone has also opened a creative consultancy in Dubai and has three clients there already. She said she wants to be “the entrepreneurial eyes within global corporations.”
In addition, Malone said she’s pitched herself, for the first time, to a potential partner for a mega-project, although she didn’t give any details.
“I’ve never gone out to look for something and had to put myself on the line. And I thought ‘Come on, Jo, get out of your comfort zone.’ And they’ve come back and we’re talking. And it’s huge. I can’t believe I’m doing this at 60,” she said.
She also has plans for a new fragrance proposition called 101 Notes. It was inspired by her son Josh, who’s at Harvard and studying Arabic, and by the Middle Eastern folk tales in “One Thousand and One Nights.”
The idea is twofold. In January, Malone began creating fragrances with notes drawn specifically from the country or region where she sells her brand. She has already set up teams to support the fragrance project in Dubai and Korea.
Later this year, Malone plans to take that bespoke, personalized service a step further, whipping up fragrances based on a customer’s memory, or an important moment.
“At the end of the year, you will be able to tell me a story of your life in one sentence, and I will recreate it in five notes for you. I’m going to create salty sea, blue skies, flip flops in the sand, great baby elephants sitting with the matriarch under the shade of the tree. Elephants smell amazing, by the way, like Tamboti wood, so I know the notes I would use in South Africa,” she said.
Travel and exploration have only sharpened Malone’s bloodhound nose — and the rest of her senses — and challenged her to create in different ways.
In Dubai, June, July and August are brutally hot and humid, “so you stay indoors, and fragrance is an important part of everyday life,” said Malone, adding that the extreme heat also adds complexities to scent making.
“Fragrances smell differently at the height of heat because the water evaporates faster, so you can have the same bottle of fragrance and it will have a different voice,” in the day and night.
Malone said that making fragrances for the local market requires a tricky balancing act between alcohol and water as alcohol evaporates quickly in the heat, while water is slower to disappear.
As for people’s preferences, she said that men don’t wear cologne — it’s too light — and tend toward rose, strong spice, woods and cologne-y smells. Women will scent their hair, and every part of their body, the more the temperature rises, she said.
Malone said that on a steaming hot day “there’s nothing more wonderful than your hair smelling of fresh cedarwood. It’s so lovely.”
In Dubai and other parts of the Middle East, the locals take a sophisticated approach to scent.
“No one wears one fragrance,” said Malone. “They wear four, five, maybe even six fragrances, all layered so everybody has a very unique way of smelling. And, often, that’s a secret.”
She added that scent comes from all directions, too. Malone said she loves sitting outside at dinner in the evening, at tables laid with scented napkins. “You see the Emiratis walk in, and there’s this wonderful waft. I just sit there, and think, ‘I love this! It’s my dream.’ I think of fragrance all the time.”
Asked about the other smells and sights she’s encountered during her new life away from the wet and mottled skies of London, Malone doesn’t hold back.
She recalls having been hot-air ballooning and then watching the sun rise over the desert and the color of the sand change.
“The air smells of … wait, I’m smelling it now … it’s like a hot amber and it’s sweet,” says Malone, shutting her eyes briefly to conjure the scent. “There’s no blossom in the desert at all, but I can always smell fresh white blossom.”
In the end, it wasn’t scent that helped her to banish the anxiety that had haunted her back in London. Instead, it was the sight of parachutes raining from the sky when she was sitting poolside with her husband.
She was on holiday toying with the idea of moving to Dubai when she saw the parachutes floating down. She then challenged her husband to jump out of a plane with her the next morning.
“There I was, someone who had gone through severe anxiety to someone who was strapped to an Egyptian rugby player called Tariq,” she recalled.
But with the plane in the air, and the door wide open, she freaked, and tried to back out. Tariq said: “’Too late, honey,’ and he pushed me out. We were free-falling, and the anxiety stayed on the plane. I have not felt anxious since, and I wake up with a smile on my face,” said Malone.
The jump also sharpened her sense of purpose. “I want to sit at the banquet of opportunity, and I’ve got to go find this new adventure,” she said.
Despite the move and the big life change, Malone said she wants to keep working, creating fragrances and exploring opportunities for Jo Loves.
“For the last few years, I could feel a speeding up — but no momentum. In order for us to gain traction now, to really make our mark in the world, we have to keep that momentum moving,” said Malone.
Asked about the future of Jo Loves, Malone said she’s still mapping it out, and deciding whether she and Willcox will preserve Jo Loves as an independent company; find a minority partner; or sell a majority stake in the business.
“I know that I will stay with this business until I die — I’ve learned that about myself. But I do feel that in the next stage of our lives, a big proportion of the money — although not all of it — needs to return to the place where I started, meaning that I can do really great things.
“I’d love to set up a creative fragrance school, to give back to other people and give them the opportunity that I had. That’s just a dream, for the moment,” she said.
Malone added that while she likes the creative part of the business, “I don’t enjoy all the rest. I love the trips, telling stories, sitting and chatting away and the visual bit. But I don’t want to run a business if I’m really honest. I never did. Thank goodness I have a strong team here, and I’d love to see them succeed as well. It’s important to me that other people feel their dreams are being fulfilled, as well as mine.”