Local business of the week: L’eau Muskoka

L'eau Muskoka Photo Courtesy of Judy Carter

Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Judy Carter who owns L’eau Muskoka in Port Carling, Ont.

What is L’eau Muskoka?

We’re a small retail boutique located on the docks, literally, in Port Carling between three gorgeous Muskoka lakes. We curate jewelry, clothing and other various goods designed with a timeless cottage aesthetic, while trying to keep our pieces local and sustainable.

How did the business get started?

I went to OCAD for material art design, and you had to choose between textiles, jewelry, and ceramics. I wanted to continue in all three, but you can’t do that, so I zeroed in on jewelry. I started making jewelry for myself and friends, and then I went to lunch with this group of women in Muskoka and was wearing this sandalwood mala that I’d learned to make. They all sort of swarmed me and said, ‘Can you make one for me?’

One of the women then said that we should start a store. So, she and I ventured off into this tiny little boutique for a couple of weeks in Muskoka. But she didn’t want to continue doing it and I did. So, I took it over, and I moved into the Duke Boats building in Port Carling, which has this super authentic boathouse style. The beams are exposed. It’s beautiful. Totally my aesthetic. It mixes the old with the new. And now I’m entering my sixth year with the store.

What inspired the name?

The girl that I originally started the business with, we were trying to come up with names, and she was actually from Montreal. We started thinking, we’re on the water, and the store is going to be in Muskoka, so we were like, let’s do the French word for water.

How do you choose which products to sell?

My pieces are slow fashion, so I try to be very sustainable when I’m creating my own products. When I started the store, I did one piece of clothing, which was the map of Lake Muskoka collection. I wanted to make something that was local and personal. So, I drew a map of Lake Muskoka and we silkscreened it onto bamboo sweatshirts that were Canadian made. Then I would embroider a little x where the customer’s cottage was.

When I buy, I’m also conscious of being sustainable. For example, one of the things I did in the first year when I started was take some of the vintage pieces that I’d bought and rework them with hand-painted art on the back. I would do some custom pieces for people and my customers loved them. The whole mending of garments, I see that being the future of fashion.

L'eau Muskoka
Photo Courtesy of Judy Carter

What’s your most popular product?

The mala were one of the more unique pieces. They’re sandalwood necklaces with sterling silver and gold tassels on them. They were one of my top sellers when I first started. They’re one of a kind pieces that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Then the Lake Muskoka map sweatshirts and hoodies, those are always popular. Every Christmas I’ll have someone calling me for an order. And then, of course, this past year, I had my sewers all make masks for me. That was a big pivot, but I was selling five masks minimum a day.

How has the pandemic affected your business?

The change I’ve made during the pandemic is to buy less and make more locally. What I mean by buy less is normally I’d go to New York, to the trade shows and fashion week, and buy a minimum order from a designer. Well, I had to cut back on that order because I was worried that I wouldn’t have the American clients here to buy. I was concerned that the store wouldn’t be allowed to be open. I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, the numbers are certainly down. Our sales are down 50 per cent, but by buying less, it’s sort of balanced out.

The pandemic has also made it harder to get orders from certain designers because some have gone out of business, so I’ve started using local sellers and local patternmakers. One of the women I work with has her sewing machines in her house and she’ll do these pairs of pants for me in this great linen.

Overall, though, the pandemic has been actually really good for me and my focus because I can’t travel. I have to stay in my studio and I’m surrounded by my sewing machines and my fabrics, and I’ve been making amazing new pieces.

L'eau Muskoka
Photo Courtesy of Judy Carter

What does the future look like for L’eau Muskoka?

I think my focus will have to be online. Hopefully more people will have the ability to travel with the vaccine, especially from the States, and they won’t have to spend another year away from their cottages. But I think I’ll have to focus on expanding my online brand for sure.

I may also look at collaborating with someone and sharing their retail space in order to focus more on my line of clothing. And maybe even collaborating with someone in my space. The building I’m in has so much potential, and I’d love to get some health and wellness people in there.

L'eau Muskoka
Photo Courtesy of Judy Carter

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