How We Met: Joel Bernstein & Serena Rees
'Here she was in heels and a Vivienne Westwood dress, cloth in hand, helping us clean the shop'
Sunday 22 November 2009
Joel Bernstein, 45 is the co-founder of London artisan bakery and chocolate shop Cocomaya. He was previously head of concept at department store Liberty and a buyer at fashion boutique Browns. He lives in north-west London
The first time I saw Serena was at a fashion show back when I was working at Browns and she had just opened Agent Provocateur. I was struck by how she looked – so exquisite and exotic.
A few weeks later, I met her properly at a barbecue at a mutual friend's house. She had her leg in plaster following some kind of kerfuffle at a party, but Serena is the kind of person who can still look stylish with a plaster cast. It was a fun day and I remember getting on well with her straight away.
Not long after, the same friend organised a holiday to Costa Rica for a group of us, including Serena and [her then-husband] Joe and their daughter, who was still a teeny baby. That was when we really got close; we had a very memorable walk along a beautiful beach, just the two of us, and I remember her giving me the first of a lot of good advice she has given me in all areas of my life over the years.
Serena is good for me because I can be quite earnest, and although she is very responsible, she has a brilliant sense of fun and she brings more of that out in me.
We have the same passions – art, design, food – and the same approach and standards in everything we do. As soon as Walid [al-Damirji] and I founded Cocomaya, we knew we wanted to get Serena involved. Since selling her stake in Agent Provocateur, Serena really does not need to work, but she has chosen to work with us and is incredibly dedicated. I really admire that.
It is wonderful to collaborate with someone who wants what you do to be even better than you want it to be. Although one thing people don't realise about Serena is that while she has high standards, she is also incredibly patient.
Serena is much more sociable than I am, so if we do meet up, we don't go out but we get together around a table in somebody's house. I love entertaining so I usually cook and we have a great laugh.
Serena loves things to be spectacular but she is not a diva. She can be demanding, but she's also willing to get her hands dirty. The day before we opened the bakery she was here in her high heels and Vivienne Westwood dress, cloth in hand, helping us clean the shop. That was a brilliant sight.
Serena Rees, 41 co-founded the lingerie label Agent Provocateur alongside her then-husband Joe Corre in 1994. She left in 2007 to pursue other business interests. She lives in London
The first time I met Joel must have been the only time in my life I haven't been in a high heel, because I had a broken leg. Our paths had crossed a number of times as we were both working in fashion, but I think we were introduced at my dear friend Laurent's, a neighbour of Joel's.
There were often quite fun gatherings, which would usually involve food – big Sunday lunches or barbecues in summer – and a whole bunch of us from different groups of friends. My first impressions of Joel were of someone very confident, always in good spirits, but who could also be quite serious. I've always had an interest in interiors and I remember being really impressed when I went round to his place the first time. He lived in what had been a very ordinary flat that he had turned into something fabulous and modern. He has this ability to turn his visions into reality.
Joel and I have both worked across a lot of different creative fields – I think we both have attention-deficit disorder on a design level – and over the years we have bounced a lot of ideas around, but we'd never worked together officially.
When he called to tell me he and Walid were setting up a chocolate shop and they wanted me to be involved, I said, "Forget it." I'd just sold my stake in Agent Provocateur, which was very exciting, but I'd spent the past 13 years building the company from nothing with Joe and I really needed some time to breathe and think. But work is my passion and I was never going to sit around for long. Joel kept calling, so I went to have a look at their first shop and I loved it.
In a way it was similar to what I had done with Agent Provocateur – a place where you go that feels special, where everything is of the highest quality.
I am very bossy – I can't help it – and Joel, like most creative people, isn't very good at concentrating on one thing for very long. There are always so many ideas flying around. But because I have worked in a massive business, I've had to learn to rein in my creativity so sometimes I get impatient with him, but we laugh about it.
I went to yoga the other day, and it took me back to when Joel and I went on holiday together about 12 years ago. Joel was in a big yoga phase and he had all of us doing it around the pool. He was stood on one leg with the rest of us behind him supposedly copying. What he couldn't see was that we were all in fits of giggles and falling over.
Joel's not a big drinker or a party person, whereas I love all that. More than anything we like to be at home eating and drinking with a bunch of friends. He is a brilliant cook, but also a very relaxed host. In everything he does, he is very kind and sincere and those are the kind of people you don't want to let go of.
Cocomaya is at 35 Connaught St, London W2 (tel: 020 7706 2770, www.cocomaya.co.uk)
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