Vanessa Howard and William McDonald have created a vintage fashion museum at their French home to give their gîte business a cutting edge
“I think you have to have a point of difference otherwise everyone is doing the same thing. You need a USP.” And as USPs go, Vanessa Howard and William McDonald’s is certainly unique. The couple have created a private vintage fashion museum at their home in Dordogne, where they also run gîte accommodation. The benefits are twofold: the museum offers their guests an additional experience that they’re unlikely to find elsewhere, and allows Vanessa to continue to indulge her passion for vintage fashion, which began with the purchase of a pink Edwardian lace blouse from an antique shop in Chelmsford in the mid 1980s.
Vanessa and William bought a 19th-century stone-built coach house situated in the village of Mialet, and the property ticked all their boxes in terms of price, location and the potential for gîtes. While they were fortunate enough to have bookings for the whole of their first summer in 2018 and last year was successful too, Vanessa felt they needed to offer something different to help them stand out in the crowded holiday accommodation market, and using her vintage collection seemed to be the ideal solution.
It occurred to them that an old barn on the property could be turned into the perfect showcase for Vanessa’s collection, and carpenter William was just the man to transform the space. With several house renovations in the UK under his belt and having already worked on the gîtes, he took on the challenge of renovating the barn over the winter and put his talent for interior design to good use.
Vanessa has a particular interest in ladies’ nightwear and the pieces she has collected over the years are on display alongside accessories including hats, gloves and handbags, and there are several nods to one of her favourite designers, Chanel, which in turn provides a link to her collection of French perfume bottles. There is also an early French sewing machine that belonged to the lady who previously owned the house, and a corset bodice from the 1900s that was given to Vanessa by one of her French neighbours after she gave her a tour of the museum.
The local brocantes and vide-greniers have provided the perfect hunting ground and Vanessa has been able to add more items to her collection, such as the white cotton cap that was part of the national costume of Limousin. “It’s nice to include things from France too,” says Vanessa. “Hopefully as we show more people around they’ll see it’s not just about a British person showing them British things.”
Vanessa hopes that the museum will be what sets them apart from other gîtes and that it will also help them to attract more guests outside of the peak tourist season, as well as those with a particular interest in fashion. The location they have chosen works well for that too as it has strong connections with the fashion industry – luxury brand Hermès has a factory half an hour away while nearby Limousin is known for the production of leather goods from its eponymous cattle. There’s no shortage of vintage events in the area either and Vanessa and connecting with those is next on her to-do list.
“We’re planning to invite the maire to come and visit and to speak to the local tourist office,” says Vanessa. “I’m hoping we might attract people who run vintage shops in the UK too who want to spend a weekend here and can easily fly from a UK airport into Limoges. The more people that find out about us the more opportunities there will hopefully be – opportunities we don’t even know exist yet.”
There’s still plenty of work to do on the property and one of William’s next tasks is to complete a second gîte in order to expand the business again this year, which by extension will also increase awareness of the museum. They are also considering turning a second barn into a gym and games room for guests to use.
“We’re happy to be here, to be part of the local culture and to play our part,” says Vanessa. “It changes your thought processes living here and we’re learning something new every day. As far as we’re concerned we’ve changed our life and this is the next chapter. We have lovely French neighbours who often bring us a basket of home-grown fruit and vegetables, and there are so many things to get involved in in the village.”
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