Limited or no use of dressing rooms.
A massive drop in consumers’ comfort to shop inside.
These were just a few of the looming regulations and factors outside of retailers’ control that they’ve had to navigate over the past 14 months of the COVID-19 crisis.
Eli Loftus, owner of the ever-popular women’s clothing shop at Carolina Boutique at 76 Throckmorton Ave., and her boyfriend Chris Kelley, an assistant professor at the New School in New York City, decided this was pandemic moment to seize the day. They opened Fez, a music- and meditation-inspired men’s clothing and home goods shop last October at 118 Throckmorton Ave., the former home of the Mill Valley Hat Box, as well as Sundry and Branded Boutique.
In doing so, Loftus and Kelley joined Americans starting new businesses in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis in mid- to late-2020 at the fastest rate in more than a decade, per government data, seizing on pent-up demand and new opportunities after the pandemic shut down and reshaped the economy, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“There was a time to take a risk – no social obligations, no extracurricular activities – so this was it,” Loftus says.
Loftus, who grew up in Lucas Valley and has spent most of her life in Marin, studied art in college and worked in retail for the Free People brand in the Bay Area and Seattle before moving on to Carolina Loiacono’s boutique in 2014. Loiacono decided to transition away from the business and Loftus took the reins.
“The thing that keeps small businesses alive and one of the reasons Mill Valley is so loyal to the small businesses here is that’s it’s all based on relationships,” Loftus says. “This is a small town and most of the retailers know each other and we have that ‘help each other out’ mentality. We really appreciate those relationships.”
Loftus says she’s “always thought that Mill Valley needed another menswear store.” Couple that with the fact that the pair “needed an excuse to spend more time together,” with Loftus in Marin and Kelley in New York, they made the leap. Kelley says Fez is built around the couple’s love of art and travel and music as they sought to create a space that was not just a retail store, but a gathering place to marinate in “the things we feel passionately about.”
“It’s incredibly important for Americans to travel and get outside of their comfort zones,” says Kelley, who also runs Psychedelic Sangha, a community group that provides harm reduction and integration via psychedelics at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. “With goods from all over the world from our various trips, Fez envisions a way to do that in Mill Valley.”
Those goods run the gamut, from rugs and floor pillows from Morocco and floor ancient pottery from Mali to teak root sculptures and furniture from Indonesia, as well as bowls and jewelry. There’s also an array of modern and vintage clothing like drawstring pants and tie dye tees from Dr. Collectors, basics from Velvet and Runabout goods and Lone Hawk hats from Los Angeles based designer and musician Charley Overbey. They also have socks from Japanese brand Rototo, jewelry from Brooklyn based designer Scosha and hand dyed baby clothes and socks.
Kelley says that Mill Valley’s “rich psychedelic history” informed Fez’s psychedelic altar “dedicated to honoring that history and the people who made it.” The altar serves as an art piece but also a a functioning spiritual device. “It’s part of how I approach my life and my spirituality. Fez is very much a reflection of that – it’s a main, front-and-center feature of the store,” he adds, noting that he hopes to teach people how to create sacred spaces in their homes.
Loftus and Kelley hope to, when appropriate, make Fez a gathering space, with a meditation room that will allow drop-ins and sound baths that take people from a guided meditation into a performance.
“Fez could be a great spot for people to return to emerging out of the miasma of Covid,” Kelley says.