Sauvageau Beauty

Designer River Sauvageau has fashion and functionality in the bag

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Mariana Schulze

River Sauvageau (with pups Finn and Matteo) in her Downtown Ojai studio, a kaleidoscope of color, pattern and shape.


s a personal expression. The best style represents one’s personality and interests,” says Ojai designer River Sauvageau, whose own eclectic style tends toward Bohemian. “Living in a small town with a reputation for being artistic, we are not relegated to following the dictates of fashion.”

Sauvageau is a creative force in Ojai. Her downtown design studio is a hub of activity, where she creates a wide variety of unique purses, bags and other carryalls. She also designs tipis, has been a costume designer for local (and other) theater productions and is the artistic director behind the colorful chalk street mandala for Ojai Day, the annual community art project celebrating 25 years in October.

Raised in New York’s Hudson River Valley and Montreal, Canada, by French-Canadian parents, Sauvageau (whose first language was French) fell under the spell of Ojai in 1977. She moved to the valley a year later.

“I fell in love with the mountains, the fresh running water, swimming holes, hot springs, wilderness and the beautiful relationships I found among the people who lived together in this small town,” she said. “I witnessed people helping each other and being a part of each other’s lives in a way that I had not experienced before.”

She dug right into the artistic groove of her adopted home. She opened her first retail space in 1990. She moved to her current and sixth Studio Sauvageau location, tucked behind the Arcade near the fountain, a year and a half ago. The New Age-y space is filled with a kaleidoscope of washable fabric bags that include, but are not limited to, her sturdily constructed eyeglass cases, coin purses, handbags and even wine sleeves. There are lots of choices for intrepid travelers as well, including passport wallets, backpacks and a line of luggage that includes carpetbags in tapestry fabrics, harking back to earlier modes of travel gear, for weekend jaunts.

Two 8-foot-tall papier-mâché pieces — “Tree Man” and “Tree Woman” — framing the front of the studio are popular with passersby wanting to take selfies. Sauvageau and her friend Evergreen Hericks made them. She also worked with local feng shui consultant Maria Lopez on the two-room studio painted six different colors.

“Maria is wonderful with colors and we chose a color palette for the studio that took the space and transformed it into a little jewel,” Sauvageau noted.

When defining style for her products, Sauvageau realized that what she loved and wanted to create were “classic shapes that worked practically.” In other words, functional style.

The studio and website showcase many one-of-a-kind bags and limited-edition styles made on the premises. All the designs are original. Sauvageau makes the patterns, does the cutting, chooses the fabrics, steams and stuffs, with the help of seamstress Carolina, who has been sewing for Sauvageau for 16 years. Her onsite fabric stash is conveniently stacked and ready for her “hands off!” cutting table filled with works in progress, which she admits visitors are tempted to touch.

Loyal Studio Sauvageau customers and fans, some of whom span three generations, tell her that the bags get compliments wherever they go. They also tease her about the durability, saying: “You shouldn’t make these so well, I’ve had mine for five, 10, 20 years and it still looks like new.” (She suggests they can always buy another one.) 

First-time customers on a budget often return as well.

“They buy a change purse and come back, sometimes years later, and tell me, ‘This is the best change purse I’ve ever had. So now I’m back for a bag,’ ” Sauvageau notes.

There is no shortage of inspiration for the baby boomer.

“I am inspired every year when we make the Ojai Day Mandala. I work with an amazing group of women artists to conceptualize and plan the public art project. I am inspired by working with others to make art.”

Sauvageau’s personal style at home is eclectic, a mix of antiques, vintage pieces and bold and colorful art. Her home is painted a creamy yellow and smoky coral highlighted with two walls in grass green. 

“I like being surrounded by these colors, and most people who come to my home say that the colors make the place happy. The colors are reminiscent of lemons and oranges in the spring against the verdant green the rain brings!” she noted. 

I asked the designer about advice she had for other entrepreneurs.

“Business is about relationships. Care for your people, both employees and customers, and realize that you are the creator of your own paradigm. I’ve been advised to be more ‘businesslike,’ and that might not be bad advice, but the most interesting small businesses are the ones where you are intrigued by the persona and product and comfortable enough to explore them and become a customer.”

She also suggests taking “all the advice you can get and use what resonates, because you are creating your own reality in your own business culture.”

For the past decade, Sauvageau has also been making ceremonial tipis used for tribal gatherings and healing ceremonies. Most are 28 feet in diameter. She’s made about 18 for groups throughout California. 

Her own purse of choice is always changing, but currently she’s carrying the Small Cyrena Tote. 

“It’s not too big, and because of its open design, I can always throw in my water bottle or, sometimes, even my little Chihuahua Finn. What use is a bag,” she laughed, “if it’s not practical?” 

Studio Sauvageau
305 East Matilija Street, Suite G, Ojai
805.646.0677 or

Much of the magic of Studio Sauvageau happens on site, where a sewing machine and cutting table are kept convenient for works in progress. These totes, computer cases, wallets and similar products are made from durable and richly textured fabrics, many with eye-catching and playful designs.





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