Laurent Gouon drives through the French countryside with his truck packed high with treasures after a successful day of hunting for one-of-a-kind French antiques to accompany him on the 4,500-mile journey back to Birmingham, Alabama.
Laurent, affectionately known as Lolo, originally hails from Nantes on the Loire River in western France, a charming city that his mother and sister still call home. As a teenager, he attended culinary school in France, but wanderlust carried Lolo across the Atlantic at the adventurous age of 17. “While working as a carpenter on a sailboat, he realized his passion for working with his hands,” says Mimi Montgomery, Lolo’s life partner and business partner, who handles social media and PR for Lolo French Antiques et More. “He chartered his own boat through the Caribbean, entertaining vacationers with his storytelling and cooking abilities. Eventually he landed in Miami, working as a chef. It was his late father, Maurice, who proposed the idea of importing European antiques to the United States, and, with his father’s help and guidance, Lolo opened his first antiques store in Miami in 1992. He’s been buying and importing antiques from France ever since.”
Lolo had been in the industry for nearly 20 years when he and Mimi crossed paths at — naturally — an antiques show. “It was pretty much love at first sight for the two of us,” Mimi says. “He was French, charming and had the most beautiful blue eyes and contagious laugh, not to mention he shared the same love of French antiques that I did.”
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The two were a perfect pair as well as a good business match, and Mimi, with her background in publishing and self-professed love of all things French, quickly set about helping Lolo to rebrand the Atlanta-based business. “We wanted to show antiques as hip and cool, and I wanted the new website I was creating for him to be informative, entertaining and user-friendly to both the novice and the experienced collector,” Mimi says. “We changed the company name from European Collection, Inc. to Lolo French Antiques et More, created a new logo and began the task of rebranding.” Soon after the rebrand, Mimi, a Tuscaloosa native, encouraged Laurent to consider fleeing the Atlanta traffic and settle down nearer to friends and family, leading the pair and their business to settle in Birmingham.
Since the rebrand and relocation to Birmingham in 2014, Lolo and Mimi have worked tirelessly to show the beauty of French antiques in a new light. “Brown wood,” for example, is a derogatory term thrown about in the antique and vintage furniture world to label old wooden furniture as either boring, grandma furniture or pretentious, out-of-touch and obsolete. But others, like Mimi, not only predict its comeback, but also celebrate “brown wood” for its timeless and stunning beauty. She even started a personal campaign for the much-maligned wooden furniture by using the hashtag, #brownwood.
“I wanted a younger generation to realize the importance of investing in a fabulous piece of ‘brown wood,’ that antiques aren’t stuffy and old fashioned,” Mimi says. They utilized the talents of illustrator Nan Richards to aid in this new vision for the company and to help convey the more whimsical, romantic side of French antiques. “Her style was perfect for showing that the seemingly daunting and often pompous world of French antiques can be friendlier and more approachable; it can be the wonderful world of French antiques that I know and love,” Mimi says. Nan’s darling illustrations, including Lolo and Mimi’s French bulldog, Louis, clad in a tiny beret as the shop’s mascot, added the personal touch that Mimi was hoping for.
Now the largest direct importer of French antiques in the Birmingham area, Lolo French Antiques occupies 10,000 square feet of space in the Lakeview Design District, and every inch is brimming with exquisite, hand-selected, affordably priced French antiques. “We offer a very diverse collection, everything from a $34,000 pair of Tiffany andirons (these are extraordinarily rare — only three other pairs are known!) to $3,000 Louis Philippe-style buffets,” Mimi says. “We have a large selection of tables, buffets, commodes, armoires, seating and more. We offer both period and style pieces dating from the 17th century to the mid-20th century.” Spend just a few minutes inside the shop, or get lost for hours. Either way, you are sure to find any number of pieces that are perfectly suited for your home and individual design sensibility.
Lolo’s expertise goes beyond his knack for unearthing gorgeous pieces in France and bringing them stateside for his clients. His unparalleled knowledge of French antiques extends to the repair, restoration and refinishing of the pieces, and his eye for detail ensures that no nook or cranny is overlooked. “He will not sell a piece that is rickety or missing hardware,” Mimi says. “He makes sure all the drawers slide smoothly, that all keys and locks work perfectly. He tightens every chair to make sure it’s not loose. He’s a stickler for details.” This assurance of both authenticity and quality when purchasing a piece from Lolo French Antiques is yet another reason why their customers place their trust in the business, purchase after purchase and year after year.
Mimi and Lolo’s love for antiques is palpable and contagious. “We’re all passionate about the thrill of the hunt,” Mimi says. “We love beautiful things and rare objects and appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that went into making these beautiful pieces.” Deeply knowledgeable and ever-enthusiastic, Mimi, Lolo and their team can help guide you to the perfect piece of “brown wood” to incorporate into the aesthetic of your home, while their own search for everything French and fabulous continues on.
After a hearty truck stop meal in France, accompanied by wine and a crusty French baguette, Lolo drives on to pick through dusty warehouses, brocante shops and flea markets, ever-searching for the perfect piece of gorgeous furniture or even an antique copper cooking pot, any trinket or treasure that will transport their Alabama clientele to his beloved France — even if just for a moment.
Lolo French Antiques et More is located in the Lakeview Design District downtown at 3101 Third Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35233. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (205) 323-6033 or visit lolofrenchantiques.com. And sign up for their newsletter to receive periodic info about new items and more.
Thank you to Lolo French Antiques et More for the fabulous photos!
And thank you to Nan Richards for sharing her fabulous artistic talents in all of the Lolo French Antiques et More illustrations!
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