Upon entering Aoki Boutique, customers can see strings of paper hearts, glowing fairy lights and the color turquoise cleverly accented throughout the store on South 22nd Street.
After all, Aoki is a Japanese word, which means, “blue tree.”
“I just thought it was a whimsical and quirky name and kind of suited the vision for my brand here,” said Alina Alter, Aoki’s owner and founder.
Alter opened Aoki in 2012, just two years after she graduated from Temple with a tourism and hospitality management degree. This spring, Aoki celebrated its three-year anniversary.
For the anniversary, Alter’s lifelong friend, Drew Feith Tye, sought to capture the essence of both Alter and Aoki in original paintings, which are currently on display throughout the boutique.
“Whenever I walk into Aoki, I feel like I’m walking into [Alter’s] mind,” Tye said. “It’s interesting, it’s cultural, it’s eclectic, it’s strongly female, but also very open to all.”
Alter’s own tastes have heavily influenced the overall vibe at Aoki, as well as the types of clothing, home décor and trinkets sold there.
“I just kind of buy with an eye for my personal taste and kind of hope that translates,” Alter said. “It’s a little bit of everything. It’s very eclectic, but cohesive in a way.”
Alter describes her personal style, which drives the vision behind Aoki’s products, as “feminine with an edgy kind of taste, very street style driven.”
In fact, international street style inspires many of Alter’s product choices for Aoki. Alter draws creative inspiration from style and fashion in many countries like Iceland, South Africa, India and China.
Alter said she has been especially influenced by the street style she saw in Tokyo during her time spent abroad at Temple’s Japan campus in the spring of her junior year.
“They’re much more influenced by subculture, [like] the whole cosplay thing in Japan where they dress up in actual costumes,” Alter said. “[There is] a lot more risk-taking, a lot more mix and match [and] mixing prints.”
Alter was charmed by this juxtaposition of bright colors with wild patterns and textures common to Japanese fashion, but also by the use of style as a means of expression.
“[Americans] dress for comfort or to look cool, but not so much to send an actual message,” Alter said. “It’s just cool to see people really taking risks and really expressing sort of like a backlash against societal repression through fashion. It just really shows that style and fashion aren’t trivial.”
Alter has continually strived to incorporate this notion of style and substance into the way Aoki operates.
“I use [Aoki] as a multi-purpose space, not just a boutique,” Alter said. “It’s not just about making money for me here. It’s about fostering a creative community and a sense of sisterhood.”
Jordyn Shaffer, a local fashion blogger, began frequenting Aoki when the boutique first opened while she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Shaffer said Aoki can serve as a creative escape for young women.
“Not only do the college students need a boutique like this, but [they] need a really amazing creative space like this,” Shaffer said. “I’m obsessed with the idea that every time I go into the store, I feel like I’m in a secret garden shopping.”
Alter aims to foster this creative atmosphere by holding events at her boutique, like coloring parties and live painting. She also exhibits the work of a different local female artist every few months, free of commission.
Alter tries to use Aoki as a forum to creatively empower not only shoppers, but also local female artists, bloggers, stylists and designers alike.
Aoki is very much a place where different styles, cultures and modes of expression converge.
“[Alter] is so generous with her community and wants to collaborate and build relationships,” Tye said. “She gives women the opportunity and the space to explore their identities through fashion.”
Jenny Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: In a version of this article that appeared in print, Aoki Boutique was misattributed to be located in South Philly. The boutique is currently located in Rittenhouse Square.