Expats Sophie and Simon Warren met by chance on holiday in the Alps and 12 years later they are raising a family, building a house and starting a vintage furniture business in Annecy
Written by Emma Rawle
Looking after three young children, building their house from scratch and launching a new business means that life in Annecy for Sophie and Simon Warren is anything but quiet, but they seem to thrive on the challenge. Their story began 12 years ago, when Sophie was living and working in London, running her own boutique branding business. While on holiday in the Alps, she met Simon, who was spending a ski season in Chamonix after giving up his financial job in the City of London. The pair fell in love and after two years of a cross-Channel relationship, they married and settled in Chamonix. By this time, Simon had transformed himself into a project manager for property developments, and was involved in the renovation and building of property in the Alps.
“The French dream started with Simon just loving the mountains and wanting to counterbalance the life he’d had before,” says Sophie. “The day after our wedding was my first day living in France.”
Children soon followed, and by 2010 they had three – Archie, now eight; Eleanor, now six and Benji, now four – and were starting to find life in the mountains tough, so decided the time had come to relocate.
“We used to have to dig the car out of the snow regularly to get our eldest child to school,” remembers Sophie. “We thought it would be easier without so much snow around.
“We were at a juncture where we thought: Do we go back to the UK or do we continue the French dream? We decided we weren’t quite ready to return, so we did a bit of asking around and, on the recommendation of a friend, we chose a particular village on Lake Annecy. We haven’t looked back since.”
Sophie and Simon adore the lifestyle Annecy offers, with the mountains and lake just on their doorstep, but also the buzz of life you find in a cosmopolitan town with an international community.
“I think we’re very spoilt here and I keep forgetting it,” says Sophie. “Annecy really is such a beautiful place and to have the lake in the summer is such a magical thing for us as a family. We go up to La Clusaz every Saturday afternoon and go skiing with the kids. They have this wonderful ‘Swallows and Amazons’ lifestyle where they disappear off into the garden or up the mountains or off to the lake, and there’s a wonderful freedom. The main thing we think is so amazing is them being bilingual. They don’t know they’re learning a second language. It’s still amazing to me every day to hear them speaking both languages. We’re giving them the lifestyle we would have loved ourselves. It’s pretty special. I don’t think they realise how lucky they are at the moment, but I hope they do one day.”
“Annecy really does have its own feel as a place. It’s very accessible and that’s quite crucial. We feel connected with family and friends, and it is easy to come and go. It is incredibly touristy, particularly in August, but that’s nice too; it feels very alive. We love the opportunities and the mix of people we find here. We’ve got a lot of international friends and in the area we live in, there is a very international community. It suits us very well.”
But living in such a popular place does have its downsides, as the couple discovered when they looked to buy a house.
“The area that we live in on Lake Annecy is prohibitively expensive,” says Sophie. “The properties don’t come up for sale very often and people tend to have their properties on the market for a long time to achieve their asking price.”
However, Sophie and Simon haven’t let this faze them and they have found another way to obtain their dream home on the lake: building it from scratch.
“We love living in this area; the kids are really happy in the school, and we don’t want to move them from that,” explains Sophie. “So, to be able to live here and have our own home rather than renting, finding a piece of land and building on it really is the only option for us. It seemed like an obvious opportunity for us, and it’s not something we would ever shy away from.”
However, this process hasn’t been easy either. Land is a scarce commodity around Lake Annecy and the préfecture, in an effort to preserve the beauty of the area, has very strict rules on where building work is permitted to take place. After a year of searching, Simon found a plot of land that wasn’t even on the open market, and the couple set about planning their dream home.
However, yet again the strict rules around Annecy have placed restrictions on their plans as they had to take into account boundary rules and height restrictions during the house design. A planning application was submitted to the mairie but then, two weeks before the deadline for a decision, they hit another snag.
“The rules under which we applied for planning permission were annulled by the court,” says Sophie, “and the old rules were reinstated while the maire draws up a new PLU [Plan Local d’Urbanisme/local planning rules] which means we now have to go back to the architect and draw up the plans again to find a new home that fits under the old rules. In 12 years of dealing with property here, we’d never heard of a situation like this. It’s usually quite a straightforward process if you apply by the rules. It’s an interesting fly in the ointment!”
So, house-building plans are currently on hold but Sophie isn’t short of things to fill her time as she recently started her business Vintage French, where she buys vintage pieces in France and sells them on, mainly to clients in the UK. The idea for the business grew out of her love for vintage furniture and the abundance of pieces she was finding at local brocantes. When her youngest son, Benji, started school in 2013, Sophie began to think about turning her hobby into a business, and after four months of careful planning, with the help of Simon, who speaks fluent French, Vintage French was launched in April 2014.
Embracing the growing interest in vintage furniture but from a different angle, Sophie has managed to tap into a market in the UK. “The take I have on vintage furniture is having a really beautiful piece that has lovely workmanship or details and putting it in a contemporary space,” Sophie explains. “We all love white walls and wooden floors, and then by adding a statement piece, this is where I see vintage furniture as more relevant in a modern home.
“I’ve been buying vintage furniture since we lived here really, and I realised very quickly that I was picking up pieces that would probably have more interest in the UK than they do here in France. The UK has always had a love affair with different styles of French furniture and I think all are relevant in the right setting, and I think all those items have more value in the UK.”
The business has been going from strength to strength in its first year and, as word begins to get out about Vintage French, Sophie is picking up more local clients as well as in the UK market. Her major marketing tool has turned out to be social media, which has been crucial in reaching her target market across the Channel, albeit a steep learning curve for social media novice Sophie.
As well as visiting local brocantes and vide-greniers, Sophie is starting to find local people are coming to her to offer their unwanted family furniture, and she is also receiving commissions from clients, which can sometimes prove challenging. “We had a commission for a vintage football table for children,” laughs Sophie, “and I stumbled across one! Absolutely extraordinary. Often people see things in magazines and ask us if we can find something similar. It really is good fun. To have found something that I am so interested in, and that I can fit into being a full-time mum – it’s just great to have found it.”
It looks like the future is exciting for this expat family. As they build up Vintage French and continue with their house-building plans in Annecy, they are certainly not about to lie back and take it easy any time soon.