As a girl of 14, Mrs van der Lelie, Herman van der Lelie’s mother, works at the curtain studio of the department store Vroom en Dreesman in Leiden (the Netherlands). The experience she acquires enables her to sew curtains for an interior decorator in Leiden in 1956. In the course of 10 years, the number of interior decorators she works for increases and by now 8 people are employed. At that time the manufacturing is still done at the Van der Lelie home, where the top floors of the house have been transformed into a complete studio and a connection to the neighbouring house constitutes a further addition. Herman van der Lelie senior takes care of the technical aspect and personally builds equipment such as goods lifts and his son Herman helps him.
In the late 1960s, an overlock machine and a blind stitch machine are the first professional sewing machines that are purchased. The machines speed up the process and the quality of the products improves. This development turns a way of earning extra income into a professional curtains and blinds manufacturing studio. Herman’s contribution to managing the company increases and he is regularly called home from school to repair the machinery.
In the early 1970s, an old multi-floored bakery in Leiden constitutes the first real business premises. They build their own stair lift and an escalator to transport the fabrics to the top floor. When the curtains are finished they are transported downstairs again by means of a chute where they are packaged and shipped. The business is doing well and a second branch is opened in Zaandam, where Herman becomes the manager. The studio in Zaandam focuses on the Northern part of the Netherlands, the branch in Leiden on the Southern part of the Netherlands. By now both studios have 80 employees each, with the oldest Van der Lelie generation still in management positions. Herman’s brother-in-law Rob Sieval joins the team to look after the commercial interests of the company.
Both studios continue to grow and in 1980 the decision is made to build a completely new building and to move both studios there. The old generation retires and Herman and Rob, together with second brother-in-law Hans, form the new management. Hans deals mainly with automation, which at that moment is already important for Van der Lelie. Unfortunately, the Netherlands is struck by an economic crisis just after the new building is completed and the company goes bankrupt in 1985. Herman and Rob decide to make a new start. They rent a smaller building to save on the costs of the expensive new building and together with 25 employees the company is relaunched in Leiderdorp (the Netherlands). Around 1990, the new company is healthy once again and moves to the current building at the Perenweg 21 in Leiden.
The curtain studio concept gains in popularity in the Netherlands. Gradually, fewer and fewer interior decorators have a permanent seamstress in their employment and Van der Lelie dedicates itself to innovation. A pleating machine and the plastic curtain hook were already being used, but a machine that automatically incorporated those hooks did not exist yet. Van der Lelie devises and subsequently builds such a machine, which to date still is the basis of the modern automated pleating machines.
In the late 1990s, competitive studios relocate a part of the production to Poland. Due to the large supply of skilled workers and cheaper labour, Van der Lelie also considers this step. The increasing demand of relations for cheaper production is the deciding factor in this decision-making process, but Polish labour is expected to become more expensive soon. Mid 1990s, Rob had started relief shipping to orphanages in Romania, which resulted in certain knowledge of and relations in that country.
In 2002, RomLelie is set up in Rumnicu Valcea with 18 people, some of whom are former orphans. Orphans are dismissed from an orphanage at the age of 16 and subsequently often end up involved in crime or prostitution unless they can provide for themselves in an honest way, for example by working at Van der Lelie. From a humanitarian and economic point of view, the launch in Romania turns out to be a good choice. Dutch expectations with respect to quality and keeping agreements have proven to be much higher than those of the Romanians, but their undeniable craftsmanship and desire to do well make the difference in quality between the Romanian and Dutch studios disappear quickly. At present, 190 people are employed in Romania and it is still our aim to have 25% of the workforce consist of former orphans.
The years after the launch in Romania are marked by a healthy growth. Rob reaches the age of 65 and decides to retire, leaving Herman as the full owner. A decision is made straight away to close the project department, which is very much appreciated by project designers who previously were competitors in that respect. At the same time, his son Sjoerd van der Lelie completes his commercial training and joins the company as the third generation. Herman’s strong technical knowledge and Sjoerd’s young commercial outlook prove to be a good combination and Van der Lelie decides to focus on curtains and blinds manufacturing only, without plans for their own home furnishings or fabric collections. This makes Van der Lelie a reliable partner for a diversity of business contacts and the company has a bright future ahead.