WAXHAW – Kim Henson and Alara Baltmiskis, owners of Siela Boutique, are not only new to Waxhaw’s downtown shopping scene, but the concept of their store is something the area hasn’t seen before.
It’s based on the idea of clothing with a cause, or conscious, you could say. The longtime friends and former coworkers in the travel industry believe fashion should empower, not exploit; generational poverty can end through dignified jobs, not charity; and consumers can have a stylish wardrobe while also caring for their environment.
It all started when Baltmiskis began learning about the negative social and environmental effects of the modern fashion industry and realized there wasn’t anywhere in the greater Charlotte area, or Union County, to shop for ethical clothing. She talked to Henson and they decided to take a risk and open their own store. However, they knew from the beginning they wanted it to be more than just clothes.
“We wanted to share our passion to serve others and bring awareness to the waste, pollution and human rights violations in the standard fashion environment,” Baltmiskis said.
She explained that today’s consumers are spending less on clothing, but buying more than ever before, and fast fashion is the culprit. People are shopping on impulse, buying apparel that’s made to fall apart, then discarding or donating it after only an average of seven wears. This comes at a huge cost to the environment in the forms of enormous water consumption and pollution, the use and disposal of toxic chemicals and an alarming level of textile waste, Baltmiskis said.
Polyester, for example, is the world’s most commonly used fabric. However, Baltmiskis said the cheap, synthetic fiber is petroleum-based, non-biodegradable and its production releases high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. The microplastic fibers that are released when polyester is washed are also bad for our waterways and oceans. Cotton is a natural fiber, but some growers use pesticides and the production process requires a lot of water. It takes over 700 gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt.
Everyone loves a bargain, Henson said, but cheap clothes are usually made by textile factories and garment manufacturers that pay low wages, have limited health care access, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions and forced overtime. And where there is extreme poverty, there is child labor and human trafficking.
“People today are starting to be more conscious about what they eat and put in their body, but nobody really thinks about what they’re wearing or where it comes from,” she said. “You can buy a $4 shirt at Walmart, but how much did it cost to make that shirt? The person who made it probably didn’t make a living wage that day.”
“I always say, ‘What’s cheaper than buying a $4 shirt? Not buying a $4 shirt,’” added Baltmiskis.
Henson and Baltmiskis opened their store at 318 S. Main St. in September and decided to call it Siela, which is Lithuanian for “soul.”
“We kind of feel like we poured our heart and soul into it, so it just made sense,” Henson said.
“And the makers pour their soul into their products, too,” Baltmiskis added.
The items in the store are made in small batches and made to last by a person making a living wage. Products range from women’s apparel in all sizes, to jewelry, sleepwear, health and beauty, vegan leather bags and stocking stuffers like hair ties and bamboo toothbrushes. They also carry homeware, like salad bowls and tongs made in Kenya out of olive wood.
Baltmiskis and Henson source their products from vendors that align with the store’s core values and beliefs. As a result, in-store purchases support fair living wages, safe working conditions and workers’ rights; access to clean water, educational opportunities and health care; the fight against forced labor trafficking and child labor; environmentally sustainable farming and manufacturing processes and the community through donations to local nonprofits.
Even the price tags at Siela give back to the environment. Each recycled, biodegradable card is embedded with a mix of wildflower seeds. Customers simply plant the entire card, add water and sunlight and watch their flowers grow.
The women know the concept behind Siela Boutique is different, but they’re looking forward to spreading their message and making a difference. Hopefully, they said, the more people who stop in this holiday shopping season, the bigger the impact.
“If you can buy a gift for someone that helps someone you don’t even know, it’s like giving twice,” Henson said. “It’s a gift you can feel good about giving.”