As soon as we walked into Victoria met Albert’s adorable shop in Friedrichshain, we instantly fell in love with it. Bursting with a wide range of carefully chosen items we hadn’t seen elsewhere from home accessories to selected fashion to decorations amongst other delights, it was clear this would be a shop we’d be returning to again and again… and that became even easier on discovering their second store in Prenzlauer Berg!
We wanted to learn a bit more about charming husband & wife owners Will Tomlinson & Ilka Heineke to find out how it all came to be.
What were you both doing before Victoria met Albert, and how did the idea to start a retail business come about?
I (Will) followed my dream and became a graphic designer. Ilka is from the same trade and we both worked in this field for many years in London as well as Berlin.
I had enough of sitting in front of a screen all day working mainly by myself as I enjoy talking to people! Being previously involved in my families’ stores in London as the men fashion buyer and designer I decided to open my own store in Berlin where I could combine the two, being creative and meeting people.
Inspired by my parents, the business idea came true!
Tell us about the name Victoria met Albert?
The shop was our first baby (followed by two actually kids), the result of two cultures come together.
It’s the love story of an English-German couple with the passion for design. This just describes the British Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert (who was German by the way!).
They were known for their love for international culture, design and fashion. If you ever get the chance, check out the Victoria & Albert Museum in London with its grand collection.
We LOVE the curation and variety of items in your stores, especially as we haven’t seen many items anywhere else – how do you go about your search & selection process?
Being from a retailers’ family trading for over 25 years I have learned how to look at and choose products.
There is no set process or planning of the selection. Sometimes we know our customers will love it, other times we just love it ourselves so much, so we go for it and hope our customers love it, too. This makes the whole business just so much fun.
We always keep our eyes open for new ‘things’, whether it’s at a tradeshow or a local store in Lisbon (this is where we’ve just been and where we found some new gems!).
Once the products arrive Ilka and Carolina, our visual Merchandiser, do the magic! The displays are put together by a mix of products and put into collections.
Like us, you’re a husband & wife team. How do you feel this benefits (or hinders) the business?
Running a business with your other half is very romantic but challenging at the same time.
We are very lucky that we are a couple with different strengths that complement one another. At the same time we can be open and critical with each other which is important for the growth of the business.
As mentioned before we have a family, too. When our two girls need us, we can pause, spend lovely time together with them, and once they are asleep look after the business.
It’s great to have this flexibility even though it’s sometimes difficult to separate our private life from work.
What were the biggest challenges in setting up the first Victoria met Albert store?
The setting up of the store was probably the most fun but scariest part of the business. This was now our own company and it was down to us to make the final decisions.
It also meant to except that we were no longer capable to do everything ourselves. On top of everything we just didn’t know if people would like what we were passionate about.
How important do you feel location is for a retail outlet like Victoria met Albert?
The location of any store is crucial.
We had already made orders that were delivered to the ‘to be’ store. Right at the last moment we pulled out. We got a gut feeling that it would not work. I think that was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
We used to go out to cafes and bars on Helmholtzplatz and really liked the atmosphere around there. There were interesting things going on and at the same time it was a residential area with a lot of soul.
Most of the buildings were done up but there was one place left over. We thought that would be a great place and we discovered the little advert on the window. It was pure luck! We were at the right place at the right time.
The story about the store at Boxhagener Platz is fairly similar. Having had a look around the square only a few weeks before the closure of the Schleckers stores we knew we had to open our second store around there and were again looking out for a property at the right place at the right time.
What advice would you give to readers potentially interested in opening up their own shop or boutique?
Use your gut feeling!
Do listen to what other people have to say but trust yourself!
Consider your customers (you are not buying things for yourself)!
Take trends with ‘a pinch of salt’!
Will, you’re originally from the UK. How do you feel the retail industry differs in Berlin to London?
For me it’s a lot more interesting to retail here and I feel I have something new to offer.
Consumerism is a different beast in Germany. There are not so many stores in comparison to London.
This sounds great on one hand, as we don’t ‘step on each others toes’. However it can be challenging at the same time, as consumerism is just not as high.
There are also different focuses and tastes of the two cultures and not least the deal with the open Sundays what makes a huge difference in the retail world.
We’ve saw some brilliant VMA flyers last Christmas featuring wonderful fellow neighbourhood business owners like Morgan from Silo Coffee and Laurel from Shakespeare & Sons showcasing your products. How important is a local business community for a shop like VMA?
Locality was one of the criteria when choosing the right places for our stores.
We are still not online with our product collection. I have to admit that one reason for that is that I purely don’t get the ‘www’.
What we like is the local exchange. Our shops are in very residential areas and we enjoy the relationship with our customers who sometimes come past just for a chat. We like to offer a place to hang out, wonder around and enjoy the experience. As much as we do!
As important as the good contact with our customers is the relationship with the other businesses.
We like to be part of a community where people know each other and work together. This has an effect on the vibe of the area where people like to go to.
Which places do you both like to eat, drink and relax in Berlin?
Our life style has changed a little since we had our two ‘troublemakers’. Going out for dinner is a definite NO. However we manage every so often to get an evening out.
The best place to relax is a bit of green. We love ‘Schlosspark Charlottenburg’, ‘Botanischer Volkspark’ in Pankow or best of all my sister in laws garden in Weißensee during summer. The kids can make as mush noise and get as mucky as they like and we can sit back, bbq, drink beer and watch the day go by.
Winter is another world in Berlin. Relaxing is the wrong word but the most satisfying place for the whole family is ‘The Labyrinth’ or stay at home under the duvet to watch ‘Mary Poppins’ – again and again.
Complete the following sentence: “For us, Berlin is…”
…an easy living!
Looking for some wonderful and stylish presents for a loved one or yourself? Do make sure to visit Victoria met Albert’s beautiful stores in Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg very soon!