Stepping into the photo studio, is like stepping into a private parlour. Lush potted palms provide a rich green anchor for a set of burnished vintage frames, and large, cheerfully illustrated tea canisters and tea paraphernalia that had been gathered for the shoot.
Behind the table, a handsome couple — him in a sharply tailored suit, while she was dressed simply in a black sheath dress — are trying out poses, albeit slightly awkwardly. Neither is a professional model, but after each shot captured by the photographer, they visibly relax and break into laughter. A sense of ease ensues as the photographer snaps away, their awkwardness in front of the camera gradually gives way to more relaxed and natural banter all around.
The woman catches sight of me and smiles, the corners of her eyes slowly creasing to accomodate a widening smile. We are familiar with each other: she is Maranda Barnes, the director of business development and communications, and co-founder of luxury tea label TWG Tea, and we had met on several occasions prior to this interview. And next to her, is her husband Taha Bouqdib, CEO and co-founder of TWG Tea.
After inspecting their pictures on the photographer’s computer with his wife, Bouqdib makes his way over to me, accompanied by an executive, who makes the introductions. Bouqdib appears reserved, and I have the distinct impression that his personality might be as intense as the smoky, oud-based cologne he is wearing. But when
he speaks, it is in soft, measured tones. His accent is intriguing — I hear French off the bat, with touches of Arabic from his Moroccan ancestry, but at times, there is an unmistakable Singaporean inflection, the result of having lived and built his business in the island city for 11 years. In 2007, Bouqdib and Barnes made the bold decision to leave Paris, where they had lived and worked since their twenties, to move to an island in Southeast Asia, one that neither had ever lived in — amidst a chorus of discouragement from their peers — and jointly set up a company selling tea.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Barnes shared that they never, ever had thought that one day they would create a tea company together.
One of seven children, Bouqdib’s life was charted as soon as he was born, and pursuing a career in tea was never brought into question. His father was the head of security operations for the King of Morocco, and it was his dream that every one of his four sons and three daughters would find a career in the royal palace. Bouqdib was sent to Paris to study law at the age of 22. “Honestly, I thought I would end up very high in the military,” he says, with a wry smile.
The Bouqdibs lived next to the Chinese embassy in Rabat and every time there was a Chinese holiday, the family would receive a gift of tea leaves and “some nice calendars” from the Chinese diplomats. The Chinese tea was strange to young Bouqdib, who was used to the Moroccan style of serving the beverage — strong green tea with lots of sugar.
It wasn’t until later, when as a law student in Paris, that Bouqdib tried the famed Longjing tea, one of China’s most precious teas, that he made the link to his childhood experience. “That was when I realised that [the Chinese embassy] had given us gifts of very, very high quality,” he shares.
His law education ended almost as soon as it had begun. While in Paris, Bouqdib became acquainted with a friend who worked for a tea company, and was given the opportunity to visit the company’s warehouse. “Immediately, I just fell in love with the smell of tea, so many different kinds of tea,” he says. “I said, this may be my new life.”
He quit law school and rushed headlong into the tea industry with no regrets or apprehension, save one — having to go home and tell Bouqdib senior about his new direction in life. The conversation was firm: his father told him that if that was his choice, then he would have to “take care of his own life”. However, he also gave good advice to the then-22-year-old. “He said, if you are happy doing this, then you’ll have some future or some success,” Bouqdib recalls. “But, if you are not happy, you will never have anything.”
Bouqdib’s passion for tea is palpable. Over the course of our conversation, he rattles off ethnic names of tea cultivars with ease — lapsang souchong, gyokuro, Darjeeling. He describes his love for tea as a passion that has remained unchanged from the first day he stepped into that tea warehouse, up until the present moment. Whether it’s experimenting with new blends or simply opening fresh tins of tea, he says that the experience makes him “forget everything”. “I can forget any issue, I can forget the day-to-day of running the company,” he says. “Because this is the time when I can be completely turned off from the rest of the world.”
At this point, Bouqdib breaks from the conversation and turns around to greet Barnes, who was walking towards us. “Oh, very nice!” he compliments his wife, who had changed her clothes to a flower-heavy ensemble. “I’m in Tory Burch now!” she says with a laugh. “I’m in a tea garden — no, I am the garden!”
Just as a career in the tea industry has sparked joy and meaning in Bouqdib’s life, it has also given him another source of happiness: his wife. It was a meet-cute straight out of a romantic comedy — one that was “strangely natural” (Bouqdib’s words). She — a blonde and bright-eyed American — was studying to be a concert violinist in Paris. He — dark, handsome and very continental — was at that time working at a historic French gourmet tea company. As Bouqdib fondly recalls, Barnes had come into the shop one day to buy tea while he was working there — a chance meeting that had led to marriage and the eventual global tea business. “We literally met over a cup of tea,” Barnes adds with a girlish giggle. “And we never, ever had thought that one day we would create a tea company together.” The only daughter of an art director and a special education teacher, Barnes was born and raised in Chicago. As a child, she was entirely homeschooled, while her parents worked together on their business, a graphic design company.
Barnes started playing the violin at age three, and by the time she was ten years old, she was practicing up to five hours a day, with the goal of becoming a professional classical violinist. “I’ve never been to school, since my mother was a teacher,” she recalls. “As a violinist, you never have a life of your own. You’re always practicing and your life is dedicated to that and concerts and competitions.”
Prior to moving to France to study the violin at the Conservatoire de Paris and comparative literature at The American University of Paris, Barnes had spent a year in Italy. She had moved to Europe to learn the languages and further her music studies.
However, upon graduation (and by then, she had met Bouqdib), Barnes decided to shelve her plans of becoming a concert violinist, and went to work in market research for the luxury fragrance industry.
Several years later, she made an “interesting jump” to the international public sector, and joined the team handling communications for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “It was very different and much harder,” she says, adding with a laugh: “It’s much more fun doing lifestyle and talking about tea!” However, she credits her past work experience for her current success as the communications director of TWG Tea. “It was a tough journey, but at that time, Taha already had this deep knowledge and understanding about tea,” says Barnes. “So I was like, ‘Well, I understand markets and marketing and communication, I can talk about you and your product, so I think we can do something together!’”
With TWG Tea, Bouqdib wishes to elevate tea-drinking, yet at the same time, democratise the luxury.
Working with her husband was deemed a natural career progression. “It was completely natural because I saw my parents working together and I thought that it was the best thing ever, and I still do,” she says. “We had our son, and we had enough of never seeing each other and never having the chance to collaborate on our own project.”
As the opportunity to set up a new luxury tea label in Singapore presented itself in 2007 , their plan to relocate to the middle of Asia and sell tea was met with skepticism from their peers. “My friends told me that in Asia, you can get a cup of tea anywhere for free — just walk into any restaurant, and they serve you tea even before you order,” Bouqdib says. However, he was adamant that it was the right thing to do. “I was very sure that Asia was very ready, at that time, to discover high quality products — not just tea, but anything,” he says. “The Asian market was more mature, and it was why I was sure about my project even though I had a lot of discouragement.”
His approach is simple: wherever in the world you are in, if you have a high-quality product with an equally high quality packaging, you cannot lose. “If you’re here just to make a quick buck, you can have very nice packaging but what’s inside is not the reality (of what you’re selling), then you’ll only have a short measure of success,” he adds. “I will never sell anything I don’t like a hundred per cent, not even 99 per cent, because consumers can tell when a company puts a lot of effort into what they sell, and the consistency.”
Perhaps ranking as high as quality on Bouqdib’s scale of importance is consistency. If a customer
buys 50 grams of tea, he says, and then comes back in a year to purchase more of the same, the product and service must match exactly what they received the first time. His dedication to consistency is so high, he says, he would rather mark a product as out of stock if the harvest of the season is not up to par, than sell a subpar one.
“The customer really falls in love from the first day,” he explains. “So when they come back, it has to be back to the same shop.”
Their gamble paid off: today, TWG Tea holds the distinctive reputation of being the haute couture of teas. The company has expanded to over 70 TWG Tea Tea Salons & Boutiques in 19 countries across the world. It pioneered a modern tea ceremony — one that is unfussy and focused on bringing out the best flavours of its teas — and has strong presences even in countries that have historical tea traditions, like Japan and China. Most recently, it even opened two tea salons in the heart of tea culture, London itself.
WALK INTO ANY TWG Tea salon today, and despite minor differences, you will see a recurring aesthetic. Warm light, rich dark woods, and marble, glass and brass accents feature in every outlet by design. Bouqdib is singularly responsible for the interior design, and it was his choice to feature materials that would “never die”. Wood, marble, glass and brass, he says, are timeless. “You just have to give them a wipe once in a while and they come back to life!”
The light sparkles off canary yellow canisters that line the walls from floor to ceiling, and behind polished glass cases, a rainbow of delicate macarons form a delectable display. A dizzying array of multi-coloured tea tins, tea-scented candles and other tea-infused merchandise surrounds you, almost overwhelming your senses with hundreds of choices. Despite that, the furnishings are neither overly feminine or masculine, nor are they fussy and traditional.
In almost every salon, the boutique is the first area any customer, whether simply to shop for tea or to dine in the restaurant, walks into. The layout is purposeful: According to Barnes, it serves as a smooth segue from retail to dining for customers who prefer to try a cup of tea before committing to their purchases. Additionally, the bustling of activity in the salon, just behind the boutique, also serves to pique the curiosity of retail customers.
It is Bouqdib’s wish to elevate tea-drinking, yet at the same time, democratise the luxury. While TWG Tea salons are lush, they aren’t intimidating. Only a very small selection of their products are prohibitively expensive — one can purchase high quality Japanese sencha for less than $20, or treat oneself to a macaron for $2. Of course, if one wishes to splurge, some of TWG Tea’s priciest collections include the Imperial Gyokuro, one of the rarest teas in the world grown in Yame, Japan, which goes for $1,100 per 50 grams, as well as the Gold Yin Zhen, which is a delicate white tea from China dusted with 24 karat gold, and that costs $195.50 for a pot at the tea salon, or $900 per 45 grams.
“A lot of young people, they associate [high quality] tea with their grandpas,” explains Bouqdib. Before TWG Tea, the only places to purchase rare and precious tea leaves were very exclusive and reclusive Chinese tea houses, which he describes as very “silent, serious and zen” and where “everybody [will] look at you if [you] say something wrong”.
“The tea there may be amazing, but you can’t invite your friends or girlfriend and take them to this place,” he says. “But if we create a place where there’s nice music and ambience, and the waiters are all young, we can show that tea can be fashionable too, and not boring or just for old people. I just want to take out the extreme seriousness of tea, and see everyone, from couples to young kids, feel comfortable to just enter any salon to buy their favourite tea or macarons.” Another big difference, he adds, is that having a dining salon allows customers to experience tea as more than just a drink. The food menu features several options for trying the beverage, whether as part of a traditional scones-and-tea service or incorporated into food dishes. Salad dressings are made with tea-based vinaigrettes, matcha powder is sprinkled onto truffle fries, and even bechamel sauces are infused with either black tea or pu’erh. “Even for the people who would never drink tea, they can still try it in our other products,” Bouqdib says. “Then, maybe they will want to try the tea on its own.”
Still, Bouqdib and Barnes both consistently and repeatedly declare their dedication to providing the highest quality tea as the most important factor of their business. “You can be easily impressed with the ambience, but when you go back home, you don’t have this or that,” says Bouqdib as he waves his hands expressively, miming plush surroundings. “That’s when you try the actual product and you will then decide if this is the place where you will want to get more of it or not.”
A few weeks after meeting the couple at the photoshoot, I meet them again. This time, it’s at an intimate dinner hosted for media guests to celebrate TWG Tea’s tenth anniversary since its debut in 2008, and the venue is one of the brand’s most iconic salons, the circular Tea Garden at the ritzy Marina Bay Sands mall.
Barnes is in her element, moving gracefully from table to table at random, while interacting with the guests. She had once described herself to me as akin to Darjeeling tea — “the champagne of teas”, and the description is apt. Her striking blonde hair is unmissable, and there is always laughter in her voice, bubbling like the effervescence of sparkling wine.
In contrast, Bouqdib methodically makes his way across the restaurant, quietly thanking each guest with his trademark firm handshake and earnest gaze. Amidst the glittering decor of the salon and the glamourous attendees, his is an unassuming figure in a dark suit, and almost inconspicuous, if not for the fact that he is the man without whom, the venue would not exist.
As I observe the First Couple of tea preside over the dinner party, I am struck by how different, and yet complementary, the two are. If Barnes is Darjeeling, then Bouqdib is yin zhen — an unprocessed white tea of discreet, modest hue, but possessing a bold, multi-faceted flavour full of surprising depth. The man keeps a low profile within the company, because he tells me it’s important to him that his employees still find him approachable and unintimidating. But at the same time, he is strong leader, an acute businessman, a sensitive artist and a supportive husband — all roles he performs with natural ease in tandem with his wife. Together, they make a perfect brew.
Creative Direction by Jack Wang & Jumius Wong.
Styled by Tok Wei Lun.
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