Fairfax’s The Utility Room mixes vintage, handmade, upcycled and new
By Flora Tsapovsky
First impressions are a tricky thing. Elizabeth Lavoie may look like an actress—but then again, she really did spend her 20s acting in Los Angeles. The one thing you’ll find harder to derive from Lavoie’s edgy and fashion-forward look is a passionate love for customizing cashmere sweaters—but that’s exactly what keeps her happy these days.The woman behind The Utility Room, a new boutique in Fairfax, is full of surprises.“After L.A., my 30s were a mix of having babies and getting a masters in creative writing,” Lavoie says. In August of last year, she opened The Utility Room after her previous retail venture, the well-loved The Shop in Olema, became no longer hers. “My store is my sanctuary,” she adds. “I have three kids, I’m single and sometimes I need a break.”The Utility Room, full of attractive objects and motivational slogans, can be an instant sanctuary for anyone who walks in; it is now the home of The Utility Room the brand, which Lavoie started four years ago while juggling other retail businesses.“I started the label when I had the opportunity to have a space in The Garage, an artisan collective in Fairfax,” she says. “I had no idea that this would become my career. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom; sewing was the thing that I got to do when my other chores were done—it was dessert. Now sewing is my work, what I get to do all day long.”
The sewing machine located in the welcoming space is proof of that, and often you’ll find Lavoie creating something on the spot, upon a customer’s request. You’ll also find Lavoie’s upcycled cashmere products and other projects, such as jewelry, girls’ dresses, serapes and even homemade fudge, as well as a selection of curated home goods, design objects and accessories with a strong Californian appeal.
“I named the brand and the store The Utility Room because I’m a dedicated utilitarian,” Lavoie says. “When I buy for the store, beyond my intuitive sense of what pleases my eye, I look towards beauty and usefulness. With clothing, that means comfort, but not at the price of style. My goal when I design and buy is to populate the shop with clothes that a woman will feel grounded in, feel herself in the best possible way. I incorporate vintage, handmade, upcycled and new products in what is hopefully a magical jumble.”
Lavoie’s own designs stem from a desire to “make use of discarded objects by giving them new life.” The best example, perhaps, is the array of cool-looking, fresh sweaters hanging in the shop. “I love cashmere but I’m a bargain shopper,” she explains. “I’ve been sewing my whole life and it occurred to me that I could salvage cashmere from thrift stores and either refurbish the sweaters by washing, combing, mending and sometimes adding appliqués over holes or stains, or by cutting them up and sewing them together to make new garments. It’s a magic material; warm and breathable.”
These adjectives could describe Fairfax itself, its laid-back charm easily accommodating Lavoie’s latest endeavor.
“I’m really passionate about this town,” Lavoie says. “Often, I’ll find myself preaching its virtues to my out-of-town customers.”
Lavoie grew up in Mill Valley, and Fairfax reminds her of Mill Valley in the ’70s. “There is some economic diversity here, rare these days in Marin. There are still artists and characters. I can’t walk down the street without running into someone I know,” she muses. “It’s a small town with a deep and quirky soul, a hint of sophistication added by the proximity of San Francisco.”
Lavoie’s been back in the area since 2000, living intermittently in Fairfax and San Anselmo. “Currently, my zip code is in San Anselmo, but my heart is in Fairfax,” she says. “I’m really proud to be a local, independent business owner in this town where every shop and restaurant I can think of is locally owned and run. My kids come and go, as do their friends and mine. It’s a rich life.”
The Utility Room, 10 Bolinas Rd., Fairfax; theutilityroom.net.
David N Swaim