Downtown Las Vegas Shop ‘Aliya Blue’ Empowers Sri Lankan Artisans

Artisan shop owner, Thushari Siriwardhane Aniban, supports Sri Lankan artists through her local business

The artisan shop Aliya Blue in downtown Las Vegas—hidden inside The Gather House—sells handmade, sustainably crafted goods that are only available for a short period of time.

Yet this neighborhood boutique’s uniqueness reaches beyond the exclusivity of its products. The outlet’s origins shed light on the talents, skills and resourcefulness of its Sri Lankan artisans.

In 2019, while visiting Sri Lanka, Thushari (Shari) Siriwardhane Aniban, found a piece inside a shop that reminded her of someone special, which partly inspired her to open Aliya Blue.

“I was just traveling the country and I happened to go into a market very much like a farmer’s market that we have here. There [were] lots of vendors selling different items and one of the items that caught my eye was a bag made out of reeds that you find in rice fields. [It] took me back to [when] my grandmother used to have this bag,” says Shari, “and that’s what she would take to go to the market. It just came to me like, ‘Why not try and see if I can take these bags back to the States and introduce these bags instead of the plastic bags?’”

The handmade bag that inspired Shari on her trip / Courtesy of Thushari (Shari) Siriwardhane Aniban

This novel idea blossomed into a business driven by the purpose of “giving back to the environment and empowering local artisans of Sri Lanka.” When customers purchase a lively batik dress or a colorful crochet bag, the funds go directly to the Sri Lankan artisans that created them. There are no third-party companies taking a cut. Each piece is made by hand organically, unlike factory products manufactured for the masses.

“I am supporting the artisans directly. It is important to me that the artisans making the products get the direct benefit of the money I am spending. These artisans are not looking for charity,” says Shari. “They have a talent and they want to improve and support themselves as well as their community through their talents.”

In April 2019, during her visit, Sri Lanka was attacked by nine bombs in several churches and hotels encompassing Columbo, the South Asian island country’s capital, on Easter Sunday. The explosions killed at least 359 people and injured 500 more. According to the Associated Press, this was the deadliest violence since the civil war’s end a decade ago.

Similar to Las Vegas, Sri Lankans depend on tourism to make a steady income and support their families. This devastating tragedy also destroyed their economy.

“There was a terrorist attack in the churches in Sri Lanka, and [this] caused the tourism industry, which Sri Lanka relies on heavily, to crash. I was traveling through Sri Lanka, and I was meeting a lot of these people. They had no livelihood because there were no tourists to purchase their products. So that also inspired me to do this, what I’m doing now, to give them a venue to showcase the products, the talents that they have. To be able to do that was really special to me.”

On the shelves at Aliya Blue, patrons will discover a variety of handcrafted products, including jewelry, bags, art, ceramic and tableware. To produce each piece by hand is a meticulous process that takes time. No two pieces are identical. Shari tries to get new pieces for the shop on a quarterly basis.

Since its inception in 2019, Aliya Blue has employed about 20 Sri Lankan artisans, with the majority being female. Through her downtown shop, she has contributed an upwards of $25,000 to support its artisans, which is equivalent to about 14.5 million rupees in Sri Lankan currency. While the vibrant clay creations and striking batik dresses showcase the talent and skill of the makers, it is not the products that Shari wants to highlight during our interview. It is the artisans behind them that she wants to recognize.

Pramilla, one of her artisans, repurposes saris—the traditional garment for women in Sri Lanka—into beautiful tote bags and purses. Another artisan, Shamilla, makes clothes, bandanas and earrings using the batik technique. Shari says each color is applied separately, so it’s a laborious process to create. The imaginative crocheted scarves, bags, clothes and hats are created by Umanga. These three handmade items are unique to Aliya Blue and are produced in small batches. Some products take months to complete.

Umanga, one of the Sri Lankan artisans crocheting / Photos Courtesy of Thushari (Shari) Siriwardhane Aniban

“Everything is handmade and there is a limited quantity simply because it takes a lot of time to make these items,” explains Shari. “I have some blankets in the store that take about a month to make.”

The store started out as a pop-up shop in the Market in the Alley and First Friday before opening a brick-and-mortar boutique. While it still participates in local farmers’ markets and art events, Shari hopes to expand her business globally. She aims to help the artisans sell their work internationally and connect them with other vendors, too.

“One of my goals when I go back [to Sri Lanka] is to actually sit down with these artisans and make them think globally rather than locally. I feel like right now, they’re making products for the Sri Lankan market and I want them to start thinking about how to take that to a global level. So even if I don’t succeed, they are still able to position themselves where they can start selling everywhere. I want to start expanding to other countries and take this concept to other places [to] help other people.”

When asked if anything about Las Vegas reminds her of home, she mentions the friendly atmosphere of the city.

“It’s been very accepting just like the people in Sri Lanka; we are very warm-hearted people. So that connection has been quite good.”

Aliya Blue is in The Gather House at 1020 E. Fremont St. The boutique is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit Aliya Blue to learn more about their special collections.

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