Home News Interview with Hélène De Witte
Interview with Hélène De Witte
Date:22 November 2018
Hélène De Witte is a former merchandiser for high-end fashion and interiors brands Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Burberry. She retrained as a landscape and garden designer with the London College of Garden Design and qualified in 2014. She is currently living with her family in West London.
What made you decide after a 15 year career in the global fashion and luxury industry, to become a full time landscape and garden designer?
Fifteen years in fashion felt like quite a long time. I achieved what I had hoped to achieve and had had a fabulous time in the process. Corporate life in the retail industry is particularly high-paced, demanding and never stops. Gardens have always been my passion so I felt it was the right time for a career change. In fact, I find change very positive and stimulating. Also, this profession gives you more flexibility which suits family life.
You studied fashion management in Paris and before that International Business in Brussels. Have these qualifications been useful in your present profession?
What I took away from my 18-month Masters in Paris was the importance of collaboration among the various functions. This was very helpful and is still valid in my present job: you work with gardeners, builders, clients,… so you need to be multifaceted and multifunctional.
Can you tell us about your first design contract after graduating from the London College?
My first contract was a garden in Holland Park, a job I was offered through a friend. It was extremely stressful but exhilarating at the same time. Looking back, I was trying to bulletproof everything. I had a full soil test done, ordered way too many plants, I even invested in a head light in case I would loose my tools in the dark. Luckily, we had a fantastic team and everything worked out well.
Five years on, I realise that every project varies and presents different challenges so you keep learning.
When you start a new project, what are the main elements you consider in your design?
It’s actually quite a structured approach. First of all there is the brief from the client. You have the objective and less objective elements to consider: space needed to put a dining table, space for ball games, privacy from a neighbour, a more formal or rather romantic garden, a preference for certain plants,…
Then comes a survey of what you’re given to work with: the type of soil, the orientation, … Finally, there is the budget and often this is very much underestimated. In general, people don’t like to reveal a budget from the onset although that would make life a lot easier. You tend to create a design and then you have to start stripping due to budgetary constraints.
Do you usually work on your own or as part of a team?
I work on my own. Initially, that was important to establish my identity and style and I wanted to remain flexible after having walked away from corporate life. However, in the future I would like to set up a partnership. There are undoubtedly benefits of working with an architect or an interior designer. When you have such a collaboration from the onset of for instance an extension and a garden project, the results are often more interesting.
What has been your most rewarding creation so far?
It’s hard to single one out. At the end of each project it’s amazing to see the transformation. Of course, it’s paramount that my client is happy and recommends me to future clients. Within the industry, I’m working towards accreditation, towards becoming a member of the Society of Garden Designers so a portfolio is essential. I’ll therefore be even more pleased once I obtain my certificate.
What made you move to the UK?
Work initially and the appeal London has on a professional level. I was working in Paris, was offered an internal move and the job was appealing. I didn’t plan on staying because my impression of life in London was not all that positive. However, 18 years on I am still here with no intention to move.
With a profession like yours, would the countryside not be more attractive to reside in rather than a city like London?
Yes and no. If I lived in the countryside I would spend too much time in my own rather than in my clients’ garden. It’s all about finding the right balance and I manage that by spending time in the Swiss mountains and in Belgium. I therefore don’t feel the lack of green because I have this balance. I keep visiting countryside gardens to get inspired. As a designer, you can’t stop looking, observing, analysing and memorising. You’re working all the time.
I understand you have worked on projects within this country and abroad. Are there differing trends/expectations in these non-UK countries?
The styles may be different. When people recruit me, it’s because they like the formality, the structure which is typical of Belgian gardens. Although, I’m probably in between, using strong structures and softening the edges with plants. What is most striking is that some plants are not used in certain countries, often due to disease. In Belgium, for instance, you can suggest the use of ivy whereas for the English it’s an absolute ‘no-no’ because ivy is regarded as too aggressive.
The use of every bit of space, especially in London, is so important for people’s wellbeing. Historically, there was a law which stated that properties had to have a proportion of outside space and this is still valid. That explains why a lot of houses have got back gardens.
You have 3 small children. Do you encourage them to enjoy green spaces?
Very much so. Most children are very interested in finding out how things grow, particularly when you can start producing fruits and vegetables. For children growing up in an urban environment it is so very important to understand how nature works.
Do you have regular contact with other Belgian expats?
We have a really nice circle of Belgian friends. My husband is Canadian Indonesian but grew up in Belgium so we both have Belgian friends from before we moved to the UK and some we met here. We celebrate Sinterklaas together for instance.
What are your aspirations for the future?
Professionally, I would like to become a well-established garden designer, who you come to for a creative approach. I would like to create gardens which will last, marking the landscape for decades, maybe a century.
Restoration of historic gardens is also something I would like to dip my toe into. I am picking up a course on history of the gardens at the V&A museum to be ready when the opportunity arises!
Photos: © Joana Kossak