Mill Valley has been a magnet for artists and creatives, stemming back to the early 1920s. Historically, folks found themselves drawn to the majestic Mount Tamalpais, “The Sleeping Lady,” where they could be seen dancing in the woods, painting by the creeks, playing music in the square, or just absorbing all the natural beauty. Our serene little town emerged as the perfect weekend getaway for those less akin to the “hustle and bustle” sweeping San Francisco during the roaring 20s. Thankfully, this pilgrimage inspired and continues to illuminate some of the world’s greatest artists to create their finest works. And while Mill Valley has undoubtedly changed, it remains a hotspot, drawing in creative types from around the world.
It’s not surprising then that our feature resident this month, Eli Loftus — a perfect 30-something mix of cool, artistic, authentic, and driven — decided to plant her roots at the base of Mount Tam in the heart of Mill Valley. “There’s a lot of awesome history in Mill Valley and that’s one thing that I’ve always really connected to here,” Eli told us, casually leaning against a beautiful new display case at Carolina, one of two stores she now owns and operates downtown. Eli’s extremely loyal customer base is undoubtedly a testament to her stature as a powerhouse, fused with love and charisma.
Carolina has roughly an 85% customer return rate, and despite being shut down through most of the pandemic, continued to flourish. Because clients couldn’t shop in the store, they had to get creative. Eli and the rest of the Carolina employees created hand-picked boxes that they delivered to customers across Marin County and shipped packages to clients who have since moved out of the area- talk about loyalty! For her, connecting with her clients is one of the best aspects of her business. Cherie Milani, who has worked with Eli for eight years, told Mill Valley Living, ”Eli’s magic is in how she gains her client’s trust. She approaches everyone with her honest, authentic vision which then opens space for her to push them slightly outside their comfort zone while staying true to their style.”
Being a young female business owner has been far from easy, but Eli credits her parents for instilling the drive. “One thing they really ingrained in me was independence and a strong work ethic,” she explained. And wow, does she ever have an incredible work ethic! Beyond taking over ownership of Carolina shortly before the pandemic, Eli and her partner, Chris Kelly (or “Doc” as friends call him), opened Fez, a home and unisex store.
Doc has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York City, where he studied Buddhism with Robert A. F. Thurman. He is presently a part-time associate professor at the New School University and co-founder of Psychedelic Sangha, a spiritual-arts event programming, and media group. As Doc explained, “I’m what you might call a psychedelic Buddhist or psychonaut. I believe in the inalienable right to cognitive liberty and the pursuit of nirvana”. Doc is a New York native but currently living bi-coastal, splitting his time between New York and Marin County.
Being a long-distance couple might sound unconventional for many people, but for Eli and Doc, it’s the best of both worlds! Their geographic situation largely influenced the couple’s inspiration to open Fez together. It was an opportunity to unite their passions: fashion and travel. The influence behind Fez was inspired by what Doc referred to as “the hippie pilgrimage through Morocco.” Doc’s mother spent much of her life traveling and exploring the world. He told us, “My mother runs a small travel outfit that brings women on trips to far-flung places like Namibia, Africa. She’s truly cosmopolitan and has an apartment on the upper west side furnished with art and artifacts from all over the world. She even has ancient masks hanging in the shower. When Eli is in town, we enjoy visiting her and hearing about her travels and seeing her treasures.” So, it makes perfect sense that Morocco’s “Hippie Trail” was their primary vision.
As you walk through the door, the serene atmosphere transports you into another world. Fez is unlike any other place we have in Mill Valley. Everything from the floor poufs sourced from a small family in Morocco to the woodwork from Indonesia, the space is an eclectic and spiritual space that truly represents them both.
Many would consider Fez a clothing and home decor store, but it is so much more. It is a community space that fosters connection, where people can come together. They host live music, book releases, mediation, and sound bath sessions and recently started a book club. Their vision for Fez is to create an inclusive, safe space where people can feel free to express and embrace their true selves. At its core, Fez emulates and carries on much of the creative and artistic history Mill Valley has been fostering since the 20’s.
For Eli and Doc, creating a space where people can feel represented and included is one of their biggest passions. Whether it’s working with brands that have more inclusive sizing at Carolina, to finding unisex brands so anyone can find clothing that makes them feel like the most confident version of themselves, it is the highest priority. As Eli said, “when someone feels confident in the clothing they’re wearing, it truly shows. Their confidence radiates from within and can be felt by everyone, which to me is the most powerful gift.”
As Eli reflects on her life, she mentions she’s always felt like the black sheep of her family. She largely associates that with her artistic and creative pursuits. In fact, up until a few years ago, Eli was previously known as Karen. She always felt as if the name didn’t feel like her and recalled wanting to change it to Eli in the seventh grade but thought it was too late. Fast forward 20 years later, and she decided that to live her truest, most authentic self, being known as Karen no longer served her. It’s interesting that as children, we have this innate understanding of our truth, but as we grow up, we become clouded by external factors. Eli, short for Elizabeth, and also her middle name, reconnected with that inner voice and let her intuition lead the way. It takes courage to follow one’s truth, especially considering the often-inevitable fear one must overcome to do so.
Eli’s unwavering belief in herself and her ability to handle things with grace, wisdom, and strength seemed to be a common theme when speaking with friends and clients as we prepared for this interview.
Thank you, Eli and Doc, for gracing Mill Valley with your extraordinary artistic flair, showing us what can happen when we remain authentic, and doing so while still paying homage to all the artists who’ve come before you. You genuinely are Mill Valley’s “Old Soul Millennials.”