The mannequins in the window of Utopia have an enviable view from their perch on Broad Street. For 20 years, they’ve watched the hum of alternative fashion blossom into a full-blown industry in Charleston. If only they had a voice as loud as their clothes.
Today, the mannequins sport black sequins, tailored coats, and oddly shaped leather shoes. It appears they’ve matured since the early days of Utopia, when they wore cat suits, Doc Martens, and hot pants.
“My store has definitely matured with me,” Utopia owner and artist Beki Crowel says. Her original paintings and racks of funky-printed clothing surround her as she reflects on her 20th year in business. “It’s hard to believe,” she says.
Searching for a way to pursue her art, Crowel began selling hand-made earrings at the old Charleston market when she was 19. When that wasn’t successful, she bought a sewing machine from a pawn shop and taught herself how to make clothes, including tie-dyed pieces and pieces made from African fabrics her husband Sherman sent her while he was traveling with the Air Force.
On a trip to New York, Crowel noticed street fashion was starting to take on a more ethnic look and she was inspired to use her fabrics to achieve the same thing in Charleston. A few trial pieces sold well in the market, and even started attracting business from locals. “We had kind of a following so I thought, why don’t we try opening a store?”
Crowel and her husband opened Utopia at 27 Broad Street in 1991 among a slew of law firms. She says it was an interesting first few years in business as the only edgy boutique in Charleston for young people. “Charleston’s become less conservative, but back then it was very conservative,” she says. “I had one woman who thought we were a head shop, like it was some kind of front for something. I mean we were young, African American, on Broad Street. It was an unusual sight.”
Alternative youngsters flocked to the new boutique, ignoring the raised eyebrows as they dashed inside. Utopia was the only destination for what Crowel calls club clothes, which were big in the underground rave scene at the time. The store was the first to bring Doc Martens, the combat boots that were often paired with Betsey Johnson mini dresses, to Charleston.
Utopia became the center of a forward-thinking niche. On the nights they weren’t club hopping, Crowel was hosting shows for local artists in the store. It was a youthful camaraderie that Crowel says fueled their rebelliousness. She laughs as she recalls an ad they launched in the early ’90s that featured a condom filled with glue above the caption, “Utopian sex.”
“We liked the whole controversial attitude. It fit the whole vibe we were starting out with,” she says. “But over the years, we evolved. Nothing stays the same.”
About seven years after Utopia opened, some similar boutiques started popping up, like Luna on King Street. Crowel says she was more than welcoming of the new competition.
“It set the tone so that more people were interested in self-expression through fashion,” she says. “That’s when Charleston started becoming a more fashionable place.”
As Utopia aged, Crowel let the store retreat from the frontline of fashion. She admits that though she loves clothes, she’s never been a fashionista dedicated to following trends. “For some owners it’s all about fashion. For me, it’s a little bit different,” she says. “I’m really an artist first, and the fashion is an expression of the art, and a way to make a living in a creative way,”
The walls of Utopia are now lined with Crowel’s original artwork. Though her vibrant paintings are for sale, she says the boutique keeps her from worrying about selling art. “I didn’t want the pressure to be on my art because then I felt like it would change the way I was creating,” she says. “That would have been a lot of pressure, especially in an art market as conservative as Charleston.”
Her store is no longer much of an anomaly on Broad Street. The art-gallery-meets-clothing-boutique blends seamlessly with the galleries that have sprung up in the past few years. But that’s not to say the store has lost its flair.
“When I find clothes that feel creative and artistic and interesting and different, because that’s what my customers want, then there’s an element of feeling fed,” she says. “I don’t need to attract all 500,000 people in Charleston. If I can just attract a small number of people who are like, ‘this is my store’ then that’s fabulous.”