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Inhaling the Sweet Smell of Success

Jo Malone's layered fragrances of unusual scents speak for themselves among those in the know.


For perfumer Jo Malone, 37, life is a bouquet of scents. They are her memories of people, places and emotions. When she thinks of her father--Eau Savage by Christian Dior, Vetiver by Guerlain and leather (from the seats of a Jaguar he won in a card game). The glamorous, red-lipped Countess Lubbatti, whom she idolized as a child, comes to mind with a whiff of pure sandalwood. The odor of rain-soaked pine needles recalls a creative funk, the birth of her first child 12 weeks ago . . . well, that perfect essence is indescribable.

It is Malone's nose that has made her a success at home in England and in the United States. She is known in select circles for fragrances and skin care products that combine unlikely notes such as amber with lavender or lime with basil and mandarin.

Her hallmark is fragrance layering. "It opens up a whole different world," said Malone, in town last week for her first L.A. store appearance at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. She recommends different combinations for different seasons: honeysuckle and jasmine with French lime blossom for spring, and lime, basil and mandarin grapefruit for summer.

Malone started her own company in 1983 in London with one product: a nutmeg and ginger bath oil that she mixed at home. Her eponymous brand has grown to include 200 products with prices ranging from $40 for a small bottle of cologne to $345 for a giant scented candle with four wicks.

The line was introduced in the U.S. in early 1999 by New York's Bergdorf Goodman. "I remember seeing my first Jo Malone bag walking down Madison Avenue and I wanted to cry," she said. "It's the great American dream, isn't it?"

Later that year, Estee Lauder Cos. Inc. acquired the company. "I wanted to be around in 50 or 60 years," Malone said during a break from schmoozing at a media lunch at the Polo Lounge. "After I met [Estee Lauder chairman] Leonard Lauder, I knew my business would be safe."

Malone continues to be the chairwoman of her brand, which has since expanded into a newly opened flagship in lower Manhattan's Flatiron building and a handful of Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus stores. Some industry sources believe the brand could reach a retail volume of $40 million within three years. It has been the top-selling fragrance brand at the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus since opening there in November, according to a store spokesperson.

Malone packages her products in simple, ecru boxes. She has never advertised--no galloping horses or romantic beach scenes here. "Picturing a woman lying on the sand is right for certain lines, but it dates you. I don't want my fragrance to be male or female. I'm simply handing people the tools to create their own memories and dreams."

She never sets out to create a new fragrance, ideas just come to her. She mixed French lime blossom after visiting an Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit in Paris. "I was so moved by how he painted every woman differently, and I began translating the characters into fragrances in my head," she said during an afternoon chat in her pastel suite at the Bel-Air Hotel.

"Then, when I walked out on to the Champs-Elysees, the lime blossom trees were in bloom. I told my husband I had to go to the lab right away."

Another scent, the woodsy 154, to be launched at Christmas, came to life five years ago during what she described as a low time. "I thought I had lost my ability to create," she said, pausing to draw a sip of Marks & Spencer English Breakfast tea. "I went [horseback] riding in Hyde Park. It was raining, and I was drenched from head to foot. The smell of the horse, the pine and the leather of the saddle made my creativity came back."

A beauty buff since she was a child growing up in Kent, Malone collected bottles of fragrance and helped her mother, a skin-care specialist, pour tonics. In the afternoons and on weekends, she spent hours watching her mother at work in the lab with the mysterious facialist Countess Lubbatti, mixing ingredients.

"To this day I can remember what [the Countess] looked like. She was very slim [she did yoga], had the whitest hair, wore fishnet stockings, blood-red lipstick and black court shoes. And she always smelled of sandalwood," she said. "Slightly off the wall, but a great storyteller."

Malone isn't so bad herself.

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