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What We Do: The French Revolution Ltd

An antique mirror that is on the next shipment to New Zealand for The French Revolution
 
It was several months ago that I emailed a fellow interior designer and friend, who has a great eye for antiques, for her recommendations of good antique retailers in New Zealand. I was working on a project that was asking for statement antique pieces and was unsure of where to start. She responded with great advice and a list of her preferred suppliers. At the top of the list was The French Revolution. Since the introduction, my client and I have been working closely with Frances and Larissa to find the perfect pieces we need for an extensive renovation next year. I've loved learning all the lingo and jargon as well as hearing the stories behind the pieces they have found. We also look forward to meeting with Larissa when she visits New Zealand in January.
 
Larissa and Frances reunited in Bordeaux where Larissa and Matt 'officially' celebrated their 11 year secret marriage with New Zealand and French friends and family at the most exquisite Bordeaux vineyard.

 

 The French Revolution Team, (left to right) Shannon Paku, Larissa Clarkin, Frances Paku and Matt Clarkin


How did the French revolution come about?: The two of us met as both our husbands were contracted to a TOP14 rugby club in a small south west town in France called Montauban.  Larissa assisted the club with settling new players and their families so we spent a lot of time together from the outset.  Being a small expat community in a town where few spoke English meant we became a sort of extended family.  While there, Larissa and her husband Matt renovated an old farmhouse – completely gutting the inside and redesigning it for modern living while retaining all the quirks and charm of the original dwelling.  Seeing how they incorporated old with new to create an interesting and beautiful space started us talking around how we could build on this further – and how could we leverage our respective locations.  We knew Auckland had some wonderful boutiques specialising in importing European antiques but further south in New Zealand there were limited furniture options and we saw a gap to provide to provide French Antiques at competitive prices given we operate with low overheads.

We love how a beautiful piece of furniture can be both functional as well as uplifting for your soul.  When you buy a piece of furniture that you have fallen in love with – you get a sense of warmth whenever you walk past it, or open a drawer to smell the old wood.  We get excited when we source a piece of furniture or a decorative item and ponder 'who else has owned this, sat on this, used the keys – what would this piece say if it could talk, what stories would it tell'.

How hard was it to develop the business you and your partner have created?: The biggest challenge is probably that we are both very passionate about what we do and we want to run with it – however, we both have 3 small children each and we work in opposite hemispheres in opposite time zones, so we have to reign ourselves in at times and let the business grow organically.  The other hurdle which is typical of start -ups – is that we began with a small investment that went almost solely on stock,  so we had to become jacks of all trades (and call in favours from clever friends) to compile promotional material, catalogues and design a website.

The bridge over the Garonne river in Montauban France - the place where it all started!

 

The Place Nationale - the scene of many extended lunches in Montauban. The red brick style is reminiscent of Toulouse and the surrounding South West villages and truly comes alive in the gorgeous sunset.

You started out as friends – how does the friend’s dynamic influence the business? What strengths do you rely on or draw from each other in running the business? That part is really easy. Being friends first and business partners second means neither gets offended so we don’t have to mince our words or waste time on elaborate email replies.  Often when Larissa sends me an image of a prospect piece I simply reply “ LOVE” or “Nope”. Or I'll send suggestions I have found online and she’ll tell me its ugly as sin!  Actually its usually in French as she’s forgotten the English term so I have to remind her how to insult me in English!

For the most part – Larissa buys and I sell so any relationships and requirements required for purchasing she looks after and I handle all the New Zealand based relationships, identifying and targeting marketing opportunities, and the majority of the administration including accounts,  our website, social media and PR.  We are also lucky in that out husbands are really supportive of our venture and are great sounding boards for different items we are looking to import as well as providing the muscle for the logistics of our larger purchases!

What is it about The French Revolution that sets it apart from other antique businesses? We have a style that we like, and it’s typical of the Bordelaise region of France.  We don’t buy anything we wouldn’t love to have ourselves (which makes the job of selling it all the more harder).  We like to stay true to the authenticity of the piece so we try our best to buy only pieces with original working hardware, and the best possible condition. We also have a small network of trades people in France including an ebeniste (joiner), tapissier (upholsterer) and a chandelier restoration specialist   as we get as many repairs or alterations done in the traditional method as possible.  That way the items our customers purchase are as French as they can be.   We also aim to record as much information about the piece as we can, so the purchase becomes more like an adoption than a transaction if you will.  We know that our pieces are unique and in the right setting are sure to spark conversation.  We want to make sure the new owners have as much background information on the piece as possible - information on where we found it and all the wonderful history associated with that particular piece, such as a French farm table that was the owners Grandparents wedding present, or a Bonnetiere single armoire that was found in the depths of an attic and stripped back to reveal the raw gorgeous oak.

As our business grows we want to be able to offer more buy-to-order services as we are unique that Larissa is permanently based in Bordeaux – we can be searching for pieces perfectly suited to your requirements and budget and have you involved in the purchasing process in (almost) real time.

 Restored patinee Armoire with sculpted floral detailing - local antique fair in the Bordelaise region held Autumn  and Spring.
 
Commode Noir - found at a local antique fair - professionally restored and patinee with original hardware.

In terms of antiques and running a business– where do you draw inspiration from? Antiques: we are inspired by timeless, elegant and quintessentially French antiques and home wares.  Our style is rustic romantic if you had to put a label on it I suppose so our shipments are definitely of that flavour. In saying that however we have clients who prefer the more polished and ornate style and we can certainly accommodate them.

Business: We have a lot of entrepreneurial clever cookies in our combined circles so they inspire us to keep building on what we love and turn it into a viable business on both sides of the world.  Eventually we would like to have a store or display premises showcasing our imports and all things French and fabulous – while still holding on to the personal touch.

What's a typical day at the French Revolution for you? We are still really in our infancy – so we are building through word of mouth and social media.  When our shipments arrive we run a mini “marche” to showcase our new arrivals, and this time around much of our next shipment has been placed on hold by various clients so it’s becoming a first in first served scenario which is amazing for us!

I think people would be surprised just how much works goes into sourcing what we bring over.  On many occasions Larissa will return from a long buying trip empty handed as the pieces weren’t to the quality we were expecting, or she is scouring the local market in the rain with kids in tow.  However I do also get images of the breath-taking towns she passes through and stories of a country rich with history and culture.  At my end I often double as a removals specialist juggling the logistics of heavy stock, it really isn't quite as glamorous as people might assume.  I joke that I’ve got the raw end of the deal as I sit here waiting for the shipment while she swans around the south west of France buying gorgeous furniture but in reality I couldn’t do what she does – its long, hard, heavy work and her clever eye and sharp negotiation skills are what our business is built on.  Through networking and working closely with clients I am refining what it is hot demand from the French antiques perspective here in Wellington and as a result Larissa and I have worked particularly hard on the pieces for our next shipment and it is looking amazing (if we do say so ourselves!)

 Chandelier found in a mansion in the Landes Forest
 
 
 
Grand Maison - in the Landes forest, we bought two amazing chandeliers from a couple who were downsizing. These lights were in hot demand amongst the French but the owner held them for us as she was excited about the prospect of them carrying on their legacy in New Zealand. Even the French regard their antiques as extensions of their family!

What are 5 tips that you would pass on when one is thinking about getting antiques for their home? 1. If it takes your breath away, BUY IT! Both the beauty and the catch with antiques is they are one of a kind so if you miss out there is no ordering one in from the factory.  Even pieces of a similar style and wood type can look vastly different depending on their life journey so far.

2. Have fun – mix old antiques with new modern furnishings. Eclectic works with antiques

3. Buy pieces that can be repurposed as your needs change. A commode of drawers can also be used as a hall table, a grand armoire could store kids toys and then later your best linen in a guest room

4. Ask questions. Is the hardware original, is it restored, treated? The price will usually reflect the authenticity and condition of the piece so it’s good to know what you are buying

5. Expect bumps and bruises – that’s the charm! 

What are your favourite kind of antiques? Ha ha ha – the shipment becomes a tug of war between Larissa’s love for old chairs, particularly Louis XVI fauteuils with some worn wool velvet thrown in for good measure or solid wood Louis XV sideboards versus my obsession for small intricately detailed wooden bedsides or small tables – ideally with a marble top and exquisite patina! 

Larissa has a really good eye for pieces with a “je ne sais quoi “ so I generally leave the buying to up to her and I get pleasantly blown away when she shows me our purchases. She has built up a great network of dealers and experts in Bordeaux and the Aquitaine who get us access to some amazing finds.  For me a major perk of this job is getting first ‘dibs’ on the items that we bring in – and I have to admit there are a few in the next shipment that won’t be making it to the sale table!

Photographs courtesy of The French Revolution.

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