How We Met: Joel Bernstein & Serena Rees

Author: Interviews by Rhiannon Harries

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,

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