Nestled across the street from a children's playground stands a charming boutique located several blocks over from perpetually-bustling Rittenhouse Square. Unlike its Walnut and Chestnut Street neighbors, this newly-minted women's lifestyle shop has a calming effect with its brick facade, serene inner blue walls and eclectic, reasonably-priced offerings.
It's what Aoki's owner and curator of the space Alina Alter wanted shoppers to experience in the former bike repair shop-turned-boutique- "accessibility and comfort," she says. After all, the well-traveled, one-woman show at Aoki knows a thing or two about hospitality. The 24-year-old worked in the hotel industry upon graduating from Temple's School of Tourism and Hospitality. After several years of working for companies like W Hotels and Garces Restaurant Group, Alter realized that the corporate career path was not for her, and started to consider alternatative life routes.
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Having visited 30+ countries, Alter envisioned bringing her worldwide travels and exposure to a multitude of cultures and backgrounds to her hometown of Philadelphia. (Alter was raised in suburban Fort Washington). Her second desire was to be self-employed. She admits that the restaurant industry would have been the most logical path, but a magnanimous venture. Eventually, Alter foresees herself opening a cozy bed and breakfast, but for now, she's taken a more manageable route by running her very own boutique full of products she loves.
Without any investors involved in the process and by humbly admitting she is "very fortunate when it comes to money," Alter is truly able to call Aoki her own. The name of the boutique comes from her whisker-less cat, whose photo she has elevated behind her register. Like the name of her cat and boutique, Alter's inspirations stem from Tokyo, Japan- where she once lived.
Her product offering ranges from earrings to stationary to sheer silk blouses and dreamy dresses- and nothing is generic nor vastly overpriced. Staying true to her store's tag line, Alter carries "goods for the funky and fabulous" at a reasonable, affordable price point. She tells me her ideal demographic is "creative young professionals" who dress to express themselves without having to break the bank.
So, how did Alter find each of these obscure-but-sweet brands? Trade shows, and "plenty of visits up to New York in the early months of 2012," she says. In addition to Betsey Johnson tights and Yumi Kim blouses, Aoki is the city's exclusive supplier of a burgeoning brand called Pinkyotto.
The boutique held its grand opening several weeks ago and Alter tells me the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. With the lack of retailers on 22nd Street, Alter says her neighbors are excited to see new businesses emerge on the block.
Alter adds that the mix of customers has been diverse so far. "There was one woman in here who is a glassblower and another who's an art therapist." She adds, "I'm just loving hearing about all of their unique lives and passions, and finding ways to incorporate my merchandise into their wardrobes and their routines in ways that make sense and are organic, but also encourage risk-taking and radical self-expression."
So what's next for Aoki?
"I'm really pushing to establish Aoki as a multi-purpose space instead of just strictly a retail operation." The newly-minted boutique owner has a few ideas up her silk sleeves, including painting sessions and silk-screening workshops. Next month, Aoki will participate in Rittenhouse Row's annual Spring Festival. It's ideas like these that will engage the community, generate buzz and bring retail back to a strip of the city that desperately needs to be revitalized. And it's a radically-different boutique like Aoki that will help direct this mission.