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I Turned My Vulnerability Into Strength (And You Can Too)
Illustration by ELINA KRIMA
I Turned My Vulnerability Into Strength (And You Can Too)
Illustration by ELINA KRIMA
With a global interior design brand, she’s known as one of the UK’s toughest business women, but says Kelly Hoppen, it’s her personal challenges that have been the key to her professional success

Kelly Hoppen is sure you’d like her a whole lot more if you were able to spend an hour in her company. 

Not that the world’s most famous interior designer, millionaire business woman, former Dragon’s Den dragon, part-time TV personality and one-time tabloid fodder, takes your opinion of her - whatever that may be - personally. She just knows that successful women tend to be perceived in a particular way. 

‘I think, especially as a woman in business, you’re seen in a certain light,’ she says. ‘But you’re just as vulnerable and fragile at times as everybody else; it’s just you have to put on this show the whole time.’

If you had sixty minutes to hear her back story, you’d realise she was human too. Via Zoom, she helpfully summarises. 

“I came from a broken home, my parents were divorced. My father was killed when I was 16. I ran away to South Africa, I was a total mess for a year,” she explains, bullet-pointing the formative heartaches of her life. “But because of that I also decided I’d never depend on anyone.”

And so she shrugged off further education, started working in interior design at 16 and by 18 had her own business. Her early won, unsolicited resilience has undoubtedly been the keystone to her now globally recognised brand. At 60 she is still as hands-on as she’s ever been; until a world-changing virus, was still in the studio five days a week when she wasn’t travelling, up at 5.45am every morning to meditate before working out for an hour. “I’m someone who’d get up three hours earlier to exercise in the morning,” she says. “Not everyone would do that. But I know the benefits it has.” 

“If one person is up and one person down, you’re constantly helping each other, giving support. Those kind of friendships are absolutely imperative. We all need that support system”
Kelly Hoppen

And yet within the backstory to that shiny success her determination to be independent, has been, she admits, to her ‘detriment’. 

“I’ve been married twice before… so I’ve been through all the heartache and pain with that. I have an amazing mother who I didn’t always have a great relationship with so I have had plenty of tears there,’ she says. 

“I think that people think I’m this real social butterfly but actually I spent many years, very shy, on my own, alone, not around people and felt very much like I didn’t fit into a lot social scenes,” she explains. “So that thing of looking at someone and thinking, ‘Oh, she has the perfect life’… Believe me, it hasn’t always been that way. I feel now, within the last 7-8 years, I’ve been so fortunate to find a partner [she is with businessman John Gardiner] I’m so connected to… But there are many many years where I didn’t have that. In a way that’s why I delved into my work and became so obsessed with it. It was the thing that gave me something back that was unconditional I suppose.”

Cards On The Table

Hoppen may still be full of professional fire, but she is not a woman who solely lives to work. Aside from John there is her daughter, vegetarian chef and food author, Natasha Corrett and her grandson, Rudy both of whom she is currently separated from due to lockdown restrictions and misses so dreadfully often finds herself crying. 

In fact in the latest chapters of her life, now, she says, she is “older and wiser”, rather than push away her vulnerabilities, she has learned to embrace them. If there’s any scant silver lining of the current situation, she says, it’s that we can all afford to show our vulnerability a little more. 

“We’re in a position now that we’re more authentic than we’ve ever been,” says Hoppen. “Right now it’s about building solid relationships with people. You can go back and rebuild relationships because everyone is very open about the idea that people want to talk. There is no secret that everyone is looking do something.

"In normal life when people are going out networking it can be a bit iffy. People can be a bit; ‘I’m alright, I don’t need you.’ Right now the cards are on the table. And I think that in itself shouldn’t be frightening it should be something that people can look at say, “Okay I can call Ms X” and say ‘We talked sometime ago and now I’m working on this, what do you think?’ I think people will be open to those conversations.”

Strength In The Sisterhood

Another perk of lockdown life is the connections she’s strengthened in her own support network. Hoppen is a big proponent of The Sisterhood and counts fashion designer Melissa Odabash, BAFTA Chief Executive Amanda Berry and YOU magazine editor, Jo Elvin amongst her tribe. ‘I’m constantly on WhatsApp,’ she says, suggesting that women particularly can thrive with the dawn of the Zoom era. “We’re so good at that banter and that supporting each other.”

“We’re in a position now where we’re more authentic than we’ve ever been”

“I think the more honest you are and the more open you are [the more you get from those relationships],” she insists. “The support system is amazing. It’s like a glue. If one person is up and one person down, you’re constantly helping each other, giving support. Those kind of friendships are absolutely imperative. We all need that support system.

“Lots of people live in a dishonest way,” she continues. “They think they have friends around them but they don’t; they have people who flit in and out of their lives and it’s all about what you’ve got or what car you’re driving. Real friendships are about being able to pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m really down today, this has happened, what would you do?’ And by the time you finish the conversation, you’re laughing your joking…that’s real friendship.”

Pick Up On The Positive

All of this is symptomatic of Hoppen’s extraordinary ability to reframe a situation to seek out the positive: “Every situation you’re in you can decide what view you take, whether you take a positive or a negative. God knows I am human, I do have [bad] days. But I always try and sit down and think, ‘Okay how do you make a positive out of today? Okay, you won’t be as effective today as you were yesterday or you will be tomorrow but there is always a way you can try and get through.” 

“My ex husband and I were very, very close and he went and followed a religious cult,” she slips into conversation at one point. “And so after 16 years that just dissipated and that was heartbreaking.” (The Ex was Ed Miller, father of Sienna and Savannah to whom Hoppen is still reportedly close.) 

“But he was very spiritual and I learned a lot from that. So that positive way that I like to think, I got out of those dark times and it’s really helped me.”

Predictably, given her ability to learn from life’s biggest challenges, there’s not a lot Hoppen would do differently, given the chance: “I probably wouldn’t change much actually because I think the tapestry of my life is what’s made me who I am today.”

And looking forward, as difficult as that may be right now, she is as accepting of what the future might bring as she is of what the past has already given her. “We are never going to be the normal we were before. We need to prepare ourselves for a different world and make it a better world, she says. “We have to embrace this change rather than being fearful.”

Kelly Hoppen. Photograpy by Dezeen
Turning Your Vulnerabilities Into Strength

Build your support network

You only need a few, trusted people. Connect regularly and share your feelings openly. You’ll soon realise that not only do they often feel the same but the whole world does. Realising that we all have vulnerabilities is a game-changer in how we view our own.

Seek out the positive

Experience has taught me there is always a something positive to be gleaned from any situation. Make a habit of finding it. For example, I’m dyslexic, which throws up various challenges but it also means I see the world and communicate in different - often more effective - ways than other people. What could be seen as a weakness, I often think of as a strength.

Learn to tolerate the unease of vulnerability

It doesn’t always require immediate action. Right now, we’re all feeling especially vulnerable but it doesn’t mean taking unnecessary risks. Sometimes it means thinking straight and being sensible.

How You Can Future-Proof Your Career

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