Fort Washington, Pennsylvania native Alina Alter is the proprietor of Philadelphia's Aoki boutique. Born into a bilingual household, Alina cultivated a sense of wanderlust at a very young age with frequent trips abroad to Europe. She studied tourism & hospitality at Cornell and Temple Universities, and although she wasn't 100% sure what she wanted to do -- Alina always knew she wanted to be her own boss. In her late 20s, Alina has the kind of quiet confidence that takes decades for others to hone. It's a confidence that comes from the difficult experience of trial, error and triumph. Learn more about Alina in the interview below. When did you discover your love for fashion, art and beauty?
I want to say that it was always engrained in me. I was lucky to grow up in a really creative family that always nurtured art, creativity, and self-exploration. It was sort of a natural progression. I don’t know that I have a first memory of beauty, I just always knew that I wasn’t going to have a traditional career path.
I wasn’t going to sit in an office and work for someone else.
I originally was pursuing working in hotels and hospitality. Ever since I realized that it was something you could do, I always loved traveling and staying in hotels. That kind of translated into a love for creative spaces, creating ambiance for people, creating experiences for people. I wanted to create a collection. It took this shape over the last few years.
Tell me about some of your travel experiences growing up.
My mom is Austrian, and we were lucky to grow up going to Europe. My family is there. I grew up in a multilingual and bicultural household. We were always traveling around, and so I grew up with this appreciation of travel and different cultures.
Our house in Austria is in southern Austria, right on the Italian border and it’s so amazing that you can be within another country in just hours. Just creating memories and intangible experiences that stay with you forever…I wanted to do that for other people.
You spent a lot of time studying tourism and hospitality. When did you realize that maybe it wasn’t for you?
To be honest, I think it might be for me. When I’m older, the long-term goal is to have a bed and breakfast. I think different dreams and goals are good for different times in your life and it’s OK to postpone certain aspirations. Just because you’re not going to do something at a certain time doesn’t mean you need to write it off entirely.
I put that on hold because I wasn’t going to open a hotel at 24. That’s still the ultimate dream when I’m ready to settle down. My boyfriend’s a chef, so it works out perfectly. He could ideally cook, and I have the hospitality background. I thought that I could incorporate great customer service in a boutique.
Since opening the boutique I’ve been a big proponent of ‘it’s OK to switch career paths’ and ‘it’s ok not to use your major’. I have a lot of customers who are college students and recent grads. They come in here and they’re stressed out about what to do after school. I always enjoy having authentic conversations with them. I ended up not using my major directly and I switched career paths. It’s not a waste of money, and it’s not a waste of time. You end up incorporating what you learn and the people you met.
There are elements of whimsy and travel in your store. I know you spent a lot of time living abroad in Tokyo. Did that inspire your shop’s name?
The name Aoki is actually my cat’s name. She’s my muse and shop mascot. I found her online when I was living in Tokyo. She was waiting for me when I got home and she bridged the gap between my time abroad and my time here.
Tokyo was so inspiring, and growing up I spent a lot of time in Europe, but there is nothing like being in Asia and being a tall blond person in Tokyo.
I was very conspicuous there and it was an interesting experience because you’re so self-aware. You become an ambassador for your country and your culture. Everybody wants to touch you and take pictures with you. There is no way to blend in there. It’s just a fascinating culture, the dichotomy between old and new, tradition and progress and of course the style there is incomparable. They’re all about risk taking and self-expression and it’s really a backlash against the sort of repression that is forced upon them by cultural standards and the government. Then there are all of these subcultures and underworlds that come out at night. Some of the street style I saw was really inspiring. You turn a corner and see the most unexpected structures or people or gatherings.
Learning to read Japanese was an awakening of the mind that you don’t have since you’re a baby. Trying to put sounds and words together. I remember the instant when I learned how to sound things out again and it was this total reawakening.
It was an reinvigorating and inspiring time. I was ready to hit the ground running with something when I got back.
Would you say that you developed your personal style there?
Definitely. If you go to Harajuku or some of those neighborhoods it’s so inspiring and the fashion is so cheap. I didn’t go with a friend or anything. To be honest I didn’t really make any friends. I was alone all the time exploring and I loved it. I would wander around spying on people. I felt like I was on a recon mission, eavesdropping on people. I didn’t know what they were saying. I was just watching and observing them, stealing style ideas from them. Some of it I just could not pull off. I’m not a cool Japanese girl. But being anonymous over there, you can try a lot of things out. I’m not going to run into anyone I know!
Were you in Japan when the idea of opening a boutique struck you?
It’s funny because it wasn’t that I wanted to open a boutique.
I wanted to be self-employed. I wanted my own physical space. I wanted a women-centered business. I wanted to curate a collection of some sort.
I wanted something related to style, aesthetics and fashion. It wasn’t that I wanted a boutique specifically. It was the culmination of all those desires. I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. I know it’s cliché, but it doesn’t really feel like work.
What does women-centric mean to you?
It was an interesting experience going into fashion and retail because I was always into academia. I felt like I should be doing something “meaningful” with my life and I didn’t see fashion to be that way.
You didn’t see it as an intellectual pursuit.
Yes. Then I had this realization that fashion really can be a means of empowerment for women and self-expression. There is nothing trivial about that. I’ve done a total 180 with my thinking and I know it’s not the most powerful thing in the world, but I try to use it as a vehicle for really empowering women.
It’s super meaningful to me when a woman comes in here and finds an outfit for an interview or even a date and I can see how good she feels about herself and that it can change her day.
She can be having a bad body image day and we can reverse it for her. It’s not an academic pursuit, but it’s like a powerful emotional and psychological thing. That has been meaningful and unexpected.
Who are some of the designers you’re really into right now?
I’ve connected with some of the local designers from the Philly Fashion Incubator. I’ve been really impressed with them. They run a really great program over there. I’m carrying two or three of them at the moment. They come in here and blow me away. They’re super professional and they’re really going somewhere with their designs. They give great presentations when they come in here. Some of them already have big followings in New York by the time they get to the incubator. It was really cool to know that we have that kind of talent here.
One of the most meaningful things about opening the store has been connecting with this sisterhood and community of women in the city that I didn’t even know was there. It was really humbling actually because I thought I was going to open the store and start this great community of women…but wait, they already exist and I’m joining them! So many people are already doing so much cool stuff and it was exciting for me to see that I was joining the ranks of women doing creative, inspiring work in the city.
Opening a business is extremely difficult. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Probably the fact that I hadn’t worked in retail or fashion in any capacity. You name it, I didn’t know about it. I did informational interviews with people. I had a notebook I was keeping at the time with questions I would ask people. It’s so funny when I go back and read it. It was literally, ‘how do I get the tags on the clothes?’ I didn’t know that there was a gun that you use. You name it, I was asking it. Thankfully I had no shame asking those questions. It wasn’t all trivial stuff, I asked them about some of their biggest challenges. How do you price your items out? I didn’t know that you could charge whatever you wanted. Then there are licenses and taxes. I was doing it all by myself. I’m super independent. That was the right decision for me to make. Coming in here, doing the build out, having to make every single decision. How many feet off the ground do I want this shelf to be? Am I making the right decision? Should it be a foot higher or lower?
At the end of the day you can remove those screws if you make the wrong decision. My business is not going to go under if the shelf is a few inches too high or too low. You don’t want to overlook the details, but it feels like everything hinges on the details. I was learning as I went. I didn’t really have any experience, partners or mentors.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through the experience of opening a boutique?
They’re small things, but just because I like the way something looks or think it’s cool doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. For example, one of the big mistakes I made was buying a silk snakeskin jumpsuit. It was super badass and laced up the back. It was the most inconvenient design. Nobody would be able to get in or out of it. You couldn’t go to the restroom in it. I couldn’t sell it. Now when I go to buy stuff, I think about whether or not it’s saleable. Does it translate to working in the store?
Also, I’m more confident. I’m sure that when I went to the trade show and bought the jumpsuit, the vendor told me that it was fabulous and I needed to have it. I was probably really green and said, ‘sure I’ll take it’. Now I trust myself much more to say no, it’s not going to sell. I’ll tell you why. I have experience with this.
Similarly when I hired contractors to fit out the space I was 24 years old and had never worked with men like that before. They would talk down to me. I didn’t know a lot of the terminology that they were using. I was probably overcharged for things. In the meantime I’ve had to have other work done in here. I’ve had to educate myself. I know now, I’m not afraid to speak up for myself. And that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.
I thought at the time I was empowered and strong but I realize now I was afraid to stand up for myself.
I thought, I’m half or a third of this man’s age and he’s an expert in this field. Who am I to say? This is my business. I have to protect it. I have to protect my image and reputation here. I don’t cut corners anymore.
How do you want people to feel when they come into your store?
I want them to feel welcome, never intimidated. I want them to feel that they’re walking into their cool friend’s closet or bedroom. They’re raiding the closet and they’re welcome to hang out in for a little bit sit in the chair, grab one of the books and flip through it. My approach is never to hover over people. I’m here if they need me or need help from me. I don’t want people to feel like they’re not cool enough to be here or not welcome to be here. I want them to feel like they’ve have all of the time in the world to browse. I hope they find something here, but if not, no pressure. I hope to welcome them back.
What advice would you give to the next Alina Alter?
I would say that there are so many different paths to take to have something similar. If you can’t afford a brick and mortar store, you can have an online shop. You could create a brand with a blog and business cards. You could do trunk shows or pop up shops somewhere.
The devil is in the details. If you’re going to approach someone about something, make sure that you sound professional. Spell everything right. You can’t overlook little things like that.
There are so many different avenues to getting to a certain place. In this day in age, you can really create business or a brand with very little money, frankly. You can make it happen. There are so many great resources in the city. The Wharton Small Business Development Center for example is a great one over on Penn’s campus. It’s free.
Wharton students provide free business advice and consulting to budding entrepreneurs. They work with people at all stages of businesses.
Just call people. Ask if you can pick their brain. My dad always told me that the worst thing someone can do is say “no”.
They’re not going to laugh at you or beat you up. If the answer’s no, the answer’s no. Just ask. You never know what will come of it.
You can visit Aoki Boutique at 115 S. 22nd St. (between Chestnut and Sansom) in center city Philadelphia.