On her childhood: I grew up in Winterswijk, a small backwater town in East Holland. Everyone knew everyone. By the age of 6, I was cycling to and from school by myself – on a bike without brakes. My family ran a furniture business called Arco and I’d spend the afternoons playing in the factory: I loved the smell of fresh wood. My sister and I would paint building blocks or we’d collect off-cuts from the tables and sell them as wooden hula-hoops to our friends for a guilder apiece. When I was 12, my parents decided to drive us to Austria for our first overseas holiday so I set to work making sun-blinds, cushions and travel bags for the car. I’ve always had a creative streak.
On her early career: Looking back, I should have picked a career in interior design but I had no idea what to do when I left school. I did a one-year secretary course then packed up my bags and moved to the UK. The plan was to spend a year there to improve my English and then travel around Europe – but, within a few months, I met my now-husband John and moved in with him. My family asked if we knew someone who could sell Arco products in the UK. We didn’t – but decided to give it a go ourselves. We ran the business from our garage with a telex at the end of our bed. Our first big break was exhibiting at a furniture show in Earl’s Court: Terence Conran was there and described us as a “promising young company”, which was an amazing endorsement for us. He became a client. We then started selling furniture to Heals and Habitat, and opened our first showroom in Ladbroke Grove. The business snowballed from there.
On her toughest moment: Our son was born in 1986. He arrived a month early and John missed a meeting with a buyer from Harrods to be at the birth – so we ended up naming him Digby after the department store’s founder [Charles Digby Harrod]. We couldn’t afford childcare so I’d take baby Digby to work with me and sneakily breastfeed him behind the sofas. We desperately wanted to have another child – but I had four miscarriages in a row. It’s easy to become obsessed with getting pregnant. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it but it’s true that a worry shared is a worry halved. We were lucky enough to have two more children, our daughters Nienke and Merel. Nothing makes me prouder. I’d rather have a failed business and happy children than a successful business and messed-up kids.
On her current role: The business has grown organically – there was never a grand plan. We started adding different brands to our range, including luxury Italian furniture by Minotti. It was hugely popular so, a decade ago, we switched to selling Minotti products exclusively and opened the first monobrand store in London. We employ 15 people and sell to architects, interior designers and private clients. You’ll find our products in yachts, restaurants, high-end residential properties and offices such as Estée Lauder companies. When John retired three years ago, I took over at the helm. I’m not someone who likes to be in the limelight but I found myself enjoying it. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone.
On her go-to style: At work, I tend to mirror our products and go for a classic look. I’d buy Chanel all day long if I could afford it. I always wear heels even though I’m 6ft. My friend Sabine Roehmer is a goldsmith and we’ve struck a deal: I’m going to swap one of our sofas for a pair of her earrings. At home, I tend to wear jeans and a t-shirt. I’m a bit of a hippy at heart: I love rummaging through clothes at Las Dalias market in Ibiza.
On her style icons: I admire Audrey Hepburn for her elegance, the Kardashians for bringing the fuller figure into the spotlight and Jane Fonda for looking fabulous in her 80s. I’m now 58 and embracing it. Age brings strength and confidence. I don’t give a shit what people think of me anymore.
On staying sane: I do self-styled yoga, combining all the moves I’ve learned over the years, and I go to the gym three times a week for a cardio workout. My big passion is skiing: it’s the best stress-buster in the world and I don’t mind falling over. Out on the slopes, I have no fear.
On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: Don’t concentrate on what you haven’t got – be thankful for what you have. And as my grandmother always said: “Walk upright”!
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