When Tracey Wonnacott was young, her parents took her to Paris. She fondly remembers shopping with her mom on the Champs-Élysées and opening the tall doors in her bedroom to look at the Eiffel Tower. Many years later, she and her husband returned to France with their children and fell in love with the lifestyle and the beauty of the French countryside. As an adult, she found the European outlook and way of living a balm for her busy American life. “Europeans have a different mentality, especially in France,” she says. “Where we live to work, they work to live. They’re protective of their free time, weekends and vacations. They enjoy life. In France, meals are an event; they linger over wine and dinners. Here we eat, get the check and go.”
Wonnacott’s two children would eventually move abroad—her son to St. Petersburg, Russia, to teach English and her daughter to St. Andrews, Scotland, for university. She and her husband traveled to visit them for several years until their children moved back to the United States. With no reason to travel overseas, Wonnacott found herself at loose ends, so she decided to open a business. “I wanted it to be something I loved, and I love to travel and shop,” she says. Lavender Hill Designs was born.
Nestled in Mount Pleasant’s I’On neighborhood among the quaint shops and outdoor dining, Lavender Hill contributes to the neighborhood’s European vibe. The store offers a curated selection of women’s clothing, jewelry, scarves, handbags and other accessories, as well as table linens, serving pieces and gifts. Each of these treasures is hand selected by Wonnacott from European buying shows and markets.
Twice a year, she travels to France and England for back-to-back buying shows; in London, she attends a show with pieces from smaller businesses or one-of-a-kind items made by local artisans. Then it’s on to Paris for a larger show, where discoveries often include an array of European linens, home accents and a selection of tabletop items. Following the Paris show, Wonnacott and her husband head to the South of France to scour the local markets and villages for vintage art and unique glassware from France and Italy.
While Lavender Hill Designs is the go-to place for European table linens and lovely gifts for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries or hostess appreciation, the store also has a cult following for travel-friendly clothing and a wealth of packing advice.
If Wonnacott has a superpower as a retailer, it’s listening to her customers. For example, most Charlestonians have a wardrobe specific to our microclimate and culture. However, when we travel abroad, what works here doesn’t always work there. “You don’t want to wear Lilly Pulitzer in Rome,” Wonnacott says. One of the store’s most delightful niches is a local, Charleston-based clothing brand, La Mer Luxe. The brand specializes in creating lightweight, packable clothing for women of all ages that translates well for European (or tropical) travel. While the line has bright colors favored in the Lowcountry, it also has items that are more subdued and appropriate for a trip abroad. “I love these designs because you could pack a few things, two pairs of shoes, and go.” As someone who could teach a master class in packing for travel, she is generous with her hard-earned, practical advice when customers come in looking for help.
Lavender Hill Designs is also known for hosting fun events that celebrate Europe and European culture. The store was decked out for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and all British goodies were on sale. The next event, the annual holiday shopping night, takes place in late November. Expect European-style drinks, hors d’oeuvres and festive discounts. Also, keep an eye out for the much-anticipated “Evening in Paris” event in early 2023. “We love doing events because we enjoy celebrating occasions with our customers,” Wonnacott says.
The store is also known for another unusual reason: Book club. Each month, Wonnacott chooses a book set in Europe or written by a European author and posts it on the store’s website. While the local book club is small—just 11 people—there is an at-large book club spread around the country that follows along for recommendations.
While Lavender Hill Designs is the place to go for clothing, accessories, home accents and gifts with European flair, it’s also a gathering point for those who love Europe or are excited about getting ready to love Europe. Whether you need something specific or just a little je ne sais quois, you can find it here. *
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.