Richard E. Grant: How I went from films to fragrance and turned my scent, Jack, into a successful brand

After an acting career spanning almost 30 years, Richard E. Grant, 56, has turned his hand to business, using his love of fragrance to create a unisex scent, Jack.

He has not only managed to get it stocked in Liberty, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols but has made a profit in its second year.

It’s quite an achievement for the actor, whose most well-known films include Withnail and I, Dracula, The Crimson Petal and The White and The Iron Lady. More recently he has had stints in Downton Abbey, Jekyll and Hyde and, so rumour has it, Game of Thrones next year. (And if you haven’t already, catch his hilarious turn as presenter of Sky Atlantic’s Hotel Secrets.)

Grant’s interest in scent started when he was 12, growing up in Swaziland, and has been a lifelong obsession. Having only launched Jack in 2014, we met him to find out how he has made a success of it so quickly.

What inspired you to create your own fragrance?

“When I was a boy I wanted to buy a perfume for someone I had a mad crush on but I couldn’t afford it on my pocket money. So I took all the gardenia and rose petals I could steal from my parent’s garden, boiled them with sugar water in jam jars, and buried them in the ground. Two weeks later they turned out to be stink bombs.

“Four and half decades later I was on holiday and a fellow house guest, Anya Hindmarch, saw me sniffing and smelling everything in sight. She said, ‘Are you going to do something about that?’ So I said, ‘What, psychiatrically?’ and she said, ‘No, are you going to make a perfume?’.

“I told her that had been my secret dream, so she put me in touch with some people in London. I then met Katherine Mitchell, who I’d been introduced to by perfumer Roja Dove, and things started moving.”

How did you develop the fragrance?

It was ‘nose’ Aliénor Massenet in Paris who expertly refined the formulas. Grant wanted to create a unisex fragrance and the ingredients he had in mind were lime, marijuana and mandarin as the top notes: “Marijuana because its earthy and peppery with a gorgeous, sexy smell. It was the ‘RAAWGH” [Grant does a sexual growl] that was missing.

“Massenet added something called Oud, which is an old Middle Eastern perfume and finally we had the ‘Va va voom’ factor.”

How long did it take to reach your dream smell?

“To work out the final formula of Jack Original, I used my friends to blind-test and take notes on every variation we had. I also worked with a team at Liberty, where I tested it and eventually got down to two favourites. One morning I mixed the two together and that was it, an epiphany that was exactly what I had dreamed of.”

How did you finance it?

“Everybody said don’t invest your own money and be prepared to loose it all. So I asked my accountant how much I have saved by not smoking or drinking for the past 40 years. He totted up a number and I said that is what I will invest in the company.

“[I said] I’m going to take a chance – I’m 57 and you only live once. It’s been my passion and dream.”

Grant admits, however, that he is useless with numbers and his daughter does the company’s accounting.

Jack launched exclusively at Liberty. How did you get them to stock it?

“We had a meeting at Liberty two years ago, and they were looking for a bespoke British unisex scent.

“It was like Dragon’s Den meets The Apprentice because we went in and all I had were drawings of what my packaging would look like, and that it should look quintessentially pillar box/London bus red with a Union Jack faded little bag, with a luggage label so that you can personalise it once the bag is opened.

“We had a six-minute pitch and they said they would order a huge number if the scent was good.”

Where can people buy the perfume?

Jack Perfume is sold at Liberty, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum and Mason, Bluebird, Petersham Nurseries and at my website Jack Perfume.

What are your plans to grow the business?

Jack Original became Liberty’s third best seller in 2014. It won a Power Perfume award from Cosmopolitan magazine, and Best New Independent British Fragrance at the perfume Oscars, ‘The Fifis’.

This has enabled Grant to launch the second scent in his range, called Jack Covent Garden, and next year Jack Piccadilly, which Grant says “has petrol, patchouli and bergamot and smells just like sex”.

Richard E. Grant’s top three tips for starting a business in your fifties
  1. In the first year you get fleeced at every corner and you have to hold on to your courage and believe in your dream.
  2. It’s 24/7. You have to be obsessive – which I am.
  3. Triple check every single detail. People say one thing and what they actually mean and how they deliver are two separate entities. Never assume.