Gabriella Lacombe for Style Weekly
Photos: Scott Elmquist
In an era of runaway marketing, ‘wellness’ has suffered.
Many things that fall under the umbrella of wellness have been squashed so forcefully into the mold of peak bankability that they’ve become sterile; bland enough to make no offense, swathed in gorgeous graphic design carefully crafted to appeal to the sensibilities of modern consumers.
This ‘wellness’ is one that is no longer part of a comprehensive approach to health, but a class marker—a lifestyle add-on that indicates a certain level of disposable income and cachet. It’s the pipeline that creates fertile ground for celebrities and influencers to build empires upon the consumption of healing.
But caricatures of wellness can’t kill the power of the real thing, and the overmarketing of wellness has, in spite of itself, had positive consequences. More people today are calling out abject commodification and exploring a wider variety of healing modalities. Particularly with the pandemic causing many to reevaluate their lifestyles, the availability of credible holistic medicine and wellness practices can play a critical role in a person’s journey to feeling good (unfortunately, a feat for many these days).
Jelena Nikolajevic, founder of Boketto and a licensed acupuncturist, and Reece Gutierrez, founder of the modern spa and wellness space, Skin by HC, both had their lives changed by wellness.
“I had some issues myself, and I thought that I’d try acupuncture and see if it would help, and it did,” Nikolajevic says. “So then I thought, ‘I have to do this for people!’”
Nikolajevic’s acupuncture experience led her to pursue an education in Chinese medicine, eventually opening Boketto in 2017 (also known as Boketto Wellness, although she’s dropped the term from the business’s name specifically because of what she feels the industry has become). Located in the Fan, Boketto’s team includes Nikolajevic and a group of providers offering classical and orthopedic-style acupuncture, craniosacral and Thai massage, facials incorporating lymphatic drainage techniques, and more.
Gutierrez, a veteran Richmond entrepreneur and founder of non-toxic nail salon, Holy Chic + Co., created Skin as the next evolution in her desire to anchor feel-good services in spaces built to make any visitor feel at home. Skin, which is set to open in August and located just a few doors down from Holy Chic, will provide a variety of wellness rituals found around the world— Turkish hammam bath packages, Korean skincare, reflexology—alongside an equally multicultural menu of food and drinks at Lolo’s Bar, the in-house cafe named after Gutierrez’s late father.
Acknowledging the way the wellness term has been warped, Gutierrez and Nikolajevic aim to shift it’s reputation in the Richmond community.
“Things have gotten skewed because of social media, where we’re being presented with this ideal that isn’t real,” explains Nikolajevic. “It’s not realistic to throw a million things into a smoothie and then celebrate that you’re so healthy. I think the true nature of wellness comes from connecting with nature. That’s the essence of Chinese medicine, paying homage to the natural order of things, understanding that we are going to shift with our surroundings. We’re not separate from our environment.”
“Wellness has become a buzzword that continually shifts its focus to different trends—a new ingredient, a new service—and that marketing game isn’t authentic,” adds Gutierrez, who also notes social media’s problematic role. “There often isn’t an emphasis on educating people so that they can think about what might be best suited for them.”
Both women aim to introduce clientele to a wellness that provides greater opportunities for people to see that they belong. This means finding the balance between offering more affordable services and ensuring their staff is compensated fairly.
“Everyone that works here is a healer,” Nikolajevic says. “Especially with massage and esthetic services, that person is expending and exchanging energy throughout the entire service, and it has to be equitable.”
Gutierrez believes its her duty to create a productive and positive work culture as much as it is to create an elevated experience for clients. “This space can’t be dedicated to making clients feel well, but the practitioners are being drained,” she says. “We also want to make sure that people of all kinds understand that they deserve exceptional experiences.”
On the more accessible side of things, Nikolajevic performs $45 acupuncture, her coworker Nic Pitts offers services on a sliding scale, and Boketto plans to get a BioMat—a mat that produces pulsed electromagnetic fields around an individual's body meant to have healing benefits—offered as a donation-based service. Gutierrez will offer services as low as $35.
Even for those who aren’t interested in a service, both Boketto and Skin are meant to be gathering centers as much as businesses.
“With Skin, we want to take the intimidation out of the spa space,” Gutierrez says. “You don't have to spend a lot if you don’t want to. We are a place to enjoy community and decompress in whatever way feels comfortable.” She adds that part of the purpose of the multicultural offering is to give as many people as possible “an opportunity to not feel out of place, and to encourage celebrating and learning from each other.”
Looking ahead, with people becoming more comfortable going out since the start of the pandemic, Gutierrez and Nikolajevic are eager to get better acquainted with the curious, and help people find out what version of wellness can have the most impact in their lives.
“Everyone’s wellness journey is so specific to each person,” Nikolajevic says. “What’s really important is engaging in practices that make you happy. Wellness can be something as simple as taking your shoes off and literally stepping on dirt. That alone can be so grounding and so profound. Wellness isn’t what you see from an influencer.”
Boketto is located at 106 N. Vine St. and can be reached at (804) 354-6707. Skin by HC is located at 2300 W. Main St.