Introducing Kasia Vermaire, the first female tea sommelier in the Netherlands. Tea sommelier? That’s right.
Summum Woman is twenty years old. Owners Jos and Jorien Wijker can recall how they began the business back in 1998 as though it were yesterday. Operating first out of the only liveable room in the house they had just bought, complete with their toddler and baby, then later out of an old school building in Amsterdam-Noord, with just cold running water and shared toilets. Something of the frontier spirit. But it didn’t matter: after years of fun and enjoyment working for others, it was wonderful to be setting something up for themselves. Their own business, based on a gut feel – but with years of experience behind them to call on, of course.
And the couple had no idea just how successful their venture would be. That’s the nature of the beast: being down-to-earth, no-nonsense, roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. No castles in the air or letting success go to your head. Always keeping an eye on whether what you’re doing is a good idea and making sure you don’t over-reach yourself. ‘If you think you’re there, you’ve been there,’ acknowledge both Jos and Jorien.
Jos, a big fellow with grey curly hair and merry eyes, is a true entrepreneur. Someone who is not afraid to take big decisions. He has worked in the rag trade since he was fifteen. First in shops, as a salesman, then as a manager, working his way through the ranks to become a buyer for a wholesaler. It was in one of these stores that he met Jorien when he was 21. ‘I was running a boutique in Alkmaar when Jorien came into the shop. She was looking for a job and asked to see the manager. “You’re talking to him,” I said. She looked at me in disbelief; I was still young, of course. For me, it was love at first sight. I hired her on the spot. When we really started our relationship, she went and got a job elsewhere. We thought it was healthier that way.’
‘I wanted to go backpacking in Greece. So I was looking for a job to earn some holiday money. I was attracted by Jos’s cheerful face. Plus his humour and good spirits. I was sixteen, he was a little older. That’s why I kept our relationship hidden a little at the beginning.’ Despite that, things soon developed very pleasantly. Jorien laughs: ‘We had little company parties that were with just the two of us.’
Jorien studied at fashion school and then wanted to go on to the fashion academy to develop her creative side. But things took a different course. ‘I was offered a job with a designer I had done some work experience with. He also taught at the academy. He convinced me that I could learn just as much with him doing practical things as I would at the academy.’ Which turned out to be true: Jorien is in charge of good taste at Summum. She is the creative one, the person who has ‘an eye for styling’, as Jos calls it. ‘I think in broad terms, coming up with the main lines. I’m very visual. And it’s fantastic fun to create yet another inspiring picture every season.’
The fact that the couple has managed to stay living and working together for so long is something special. ‘I’m surprised, too,’ jokes Jorien. What’s their secret? Jos: ‘Don’t harden your heart about things. You have to keep talking.’ Which is exactly what they do – although isn’t it always about work, because you run a business together? Jorien: ‘We live in Egmond aan Zee and we travel a lot together. In the car we discuss business, but about 8 k’s before we get home, we switch off and stop talking about work.’ Jos: ‘At home we’re just mum and dad. We have three sons, so it’s all about the family.’ Even when the stress of work is high. Jorien: ‘Jos is very neat and tidy by nature. If we don’t reach a conclusion, we just think: tomorrow is another day. It’s great having your own business, but you don’t have to sacrifice everything when things are going less well.’
Family life is important. The couple regularly go out with their three sons. The last time was when the five of them went to see a concert given by singer-songwriter Ray Lamontagne in Dublin. The enthusiasm and emotion about this experience brings a lump to Jos’s throat: ‘It was totally crazy to be able to do that together. After the gig we of course dived into the Irish pubs to enjoy something good to eat and drink.’ Because that’s what the Wijkers are, too: people who enjoy life. They attach a great deal of importance to leisure time, which they like to spend with family and friends. Or together, when they’re travelling for Summum. When they’re on trips, it’s not just work, but gathering inspiration and enjoying themselves. Just the two of them eating in good restaurants, or shopping to see what’s out there. ‘It’s great,’ say Jos and Jorien.
Yet level-headedness and common sense still prevail. Jorien: ‘We are often asked to be on judging panels and all that sort of hoopla. But we can’t be bothered with all that; just leave us alone to relax. We are very happy with the inspired team we have gathered around us. They are all people who can see things outside the box and think with us. I’m proud of that – it gives me a feeling of gratitude.’
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