Denise Castilleja, owner of Earth Spirits, has presented a whimsical selection of handmade goods on El Paseo for more than three decades.
Story by Amelia Rodriguez
Photography courtesy Earth Spirits
“Earth Spirits was born out of a love for the handmade,” Denise Castilleja shares. “[A love for] that person who sat at the loom and wove fabric, that person who works with their hands to manipulate metal or set stone.”
Castilleja founded Earth Spirits on El Paseo in 1991. Her interest in heirloom-quality objects, however, developed even earlier. “I grew up in a family that loved to collect unique things and antiques,” she reflects. She began her career in the food and beverage industry, but always harbored a dream of opening a boutique.
Castilleja was working at a hotel in Pasadena when her parents called with the news that would change her life. “They said, ‘Denise, we just bought inventory. Quit your job, come home, and open the store,’” she remembers. “My father and I drove up and down El Paseo [and] found our original spot.”
As her father revamped the store’s interior, Castilleja learned the ins and outs of running a boutique, figuring out how to purchase stock and honing her eye for pieces that matched her target customer’s taste. “There’s no set algorithm,” she says of curating the Earth Spirits aesthetic. “I know it when I see it, but I have to search a lot of places.”
In addition to apparel and accessories, Earth Spirits vends a variety of decorative objects for the home.
Artist-made attire forms the heart of the shop’s offerings. Castilleja discovers most of her designers at juried art shows, in which artists are pre-selected by a panel of judges. Attending as a buyer, Castilleja explores the textiles and jewelry on display and connects with her favorite creators.
Other artists find their way into Earth Spirits through a combo of serendipity and Castilleja’s detective work. “I travel and go into the little towns and look in little galleries and boutiques,” she explains. When a piece catches her eye, she takes to Google, digging for the artist’s contact information. “It’s definitely a time-consuming process,” she adds, “but it’s exciting. You find somebody who responds to you, and suddenly, you have their beautiful art in your store.”
Castilleja supplements her stock of one-of-a-kind wearables with small-batch gifts, such as candles and books, and clothing from lesser-known production companies. The idea is to offer a one-stop shop for a closet that embraces sustainability and creativity. “The woman that buys the hand-painted silk jacket for a night out might buy her day clothes at the same place,” she explains. “They’re casual, but they still have that connective thread — that funky, unique style.”
Artist-made apparel makes up the bulk of the boutique’s plentiful offerings.
After the trial and error of the early years, Castilleja now has the process of stocking and running Earth Spirits down to a science. In fact, during her husband’s three-decade career as an active-duty Marine, she spent three years managing the business remotely from Japan, flying to the United States from time to time to purchase inventory.
Nowadays, Castilleja and her husband live full-time in the desert, where she enjoys interacting with customers, including shoppers who have been stopping in almost as long as the store has been open. “Even after 31 years, I still get those flutters at the beginning of every season, [wondering], ‘Will [customers] still come?’ ” she admits. “It’s very much like throwing a party and not knowing if your guests are going to arrive or not. But my husband always says, ‘Don’t worry — they always come home.’”