Straight Outta Weston

Pat Demling has seen her Hip Zepi stores get robbed, shot up, and blasted by the mayor for selling “Stop Snitchin’” T-shirts. She’s beloved by her employees, and resented by customers who say she’s exploiting the poor. It’s a tricky business, being a white, Republican, tennis-loving, one-time suburban mom running a growing hip-hop-wear empire.

If in 1994 Pat Demling had been the person she is now, she probably wouldn’t have divorced Bob to begin with. She would have stuck it out. But then, of course, she wouldn’t be the person she is now, a successful businesswoman, employer of dozens, guest speaker and certified role model at inner-city schools, humbly recounting her life story as she scans—through a slight haze of tears?—the 12 security cameras in the cramped back office of her Downtown Crossing store.

Which is to say, she would not be the type of person her daughter Jill seems to think movies should get made about; she sees her mother’s story as being a bit like Dangerous Minds, the popular if panned Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle that gave the world the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” (along with its worthy Weird Al Yankovic parody, “Amish Paradise”). Jill works a day job at Vogue, where she books celebrities for cover shoots.

Pat and Bob and Jill are all doers, but in different ways. Bob has run burn units at hospitals around the country for most of his life, and is a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. He is the sort of person more often profiled in articles like this one. He has always and will always be immersed in his work, and the idea of his work. “It probably wouldn’t have worked out”—he and Pat, even if she had been more patient with that than she already was, he says matter-of-factly. He could never be the husband she wanted, present in the way she needed him to be present, on the golf course once a week, at Junior League functions and dinners with her tennis friends in Weston.

“Pat lives in the world of reality,” Bob says. “I want to save the world. I’ve always been that type. I couldn’t get home from that and go to a dinner party and listen to someone talk about the vacation he just took to the Bahamas. It’s hard not to say, ‘Why should I give a shit about what you just did when you have no idea what’s happening out there?’”

This is the kind of thought Pat Demling doesn’t have. She is not a huge idealist or redistributor of income, a bleeding-heart big thinker, a robber of the rich to save the poor. In the most literal sense, in fact, she profits from the propensity of some kids in urban America to outfit themselves with clothes they can’t afford. She owns four hip-hop clothing stores around the city (in addition to the Downtown Crossing outlet, she has two in Dorchester and one in Mattapan), a venture she entered into with the man who at the time was her daughter’s tennis coach, a Jamaican-born entrepreneur named Delroy Allen. Their Hip Zepi chain supplies their young customers with those loud-print hooded sweatshirts and seersucker jackets and T-shirts with dollar signs silkscreened in gold and, until the mayor raised a fuss about it, that charming line of “Stop Snitchin’” apparel. While Pat won’t disclose her annual revenues, Hip Zepi’s almost obsessive sponsorship of concerts, always packed shops, and incessant radio and TV ads are an indication of its status as one of the top players in the regional hip-hop economy. If she weren’t doing it, someone else would be. But it probably would not be another tennis-playing, Republican, suburban white lady.

And that’s where our story really begins.

“There’s nothing original about a black man opening a hip-hop store,” says Jill. Oh, Jill: She’s only trying to explain her attempts to keep me from focusing too much on Delroy’s wheelings and dealings, on his side of the enterprise. It’s understandable—her mother’s story is being pitched to a number of Hollywood studios by a New York producer, a sort of Dangerous Minds does retail. There is a problem with the efforts to turn Pat Demling’s life into a movie, though, and it’s that, frankly, Pat Demling does not act like someone in a movie. She does not speak in sweeping statements. She distributes among her employees not copies of Hemingway or Frederick Douglass but a Lou Holtz management tome called Winning Every Day. She doesn’t really emote, the way one visualizes emotion on the face of a Pfeiffer or a Hilary Swank or a Julia Stiles or any others in the pretty-white-ladies-in-troubled-minority-’hoods cinematic canon. She doesn’t even emote a fraction as much as Bob, her former better half. If anything, Pat seems a case study in the underrated virtues of Bottling Up—and in a way, that’s sort of how she keeps it real.

Pat is a midwesterner by birth, the daughter of an extremely modest rural-Iowa Catholic family of six. Her father drove a Pabst Blue Ribbon truck and struggled to put meat on the table; her mother spent hours flipping through books of sewing patterns to ensure her girls wore the latest fashions anyway. Pat’s mom wanted her to escape their town, and a nursing degree was the route out. Pat met Bob in a San Francisco operating room. They married and had two daughters, and after she retired from nursing, they moved around the country until finally settling in Weston, where she grew restless with Bob. It doesn’t take much more than a phone conversation with him—“He’ll talk your ear off,” Pat warns, wryly—to understand why. “Someone like me, I can’t balance my checkbook,” Bob says. “All my uncles and aunts were priests and nuns. For a marriage to work with someone like that…I don’t know. If you get two missionaries together, maybe that can work….” The irony, of course, is that the Pat of 2007 is as married to her mission as Bob ever was. Today she’s living in Boston, and the two are now good friends. Neither has remarried.

“Pat had focused on getting out of her town long before I met her, and I knew she would do it again,” Bob says. Not that with Weston there was anything so concrete as a small town to get out of; rather, just the creeping dullness of the suburbs once her job as a suburban mother was done. When she and Bob separated, Pat knew she needed more control over her own destiny than she could get by going back to nursing, with all the new rules and cost pressures and bureaucracies she’d watched Bob navigate. The most logical step, considering the only other job she’d ever worked was in retail, was to open a store.

The “hip-hop” part of the scheme was Delroy’s idea. He had known Jill and Pat for four years, a relationship that consisted almost exclusively of tennis. Pat played religiously and thought she should buy a tennis pro shop. But Delroy knew enough about rackets and balls, prices and models, and local supply and demand to put her off the idea for good. It was 1994, the era of Cross Colours and Karl Kani, the beginning of the cult of Timberland boots and Carhartt jackets and Coogi sweaters and Tommy Hilfiger. It was also the start of a sea change in rap music: While the late ’80s and early ’90s had been an idealistic time for the genre, by the mid-’90s it was beginning to focus on product, product, product. And the right product, outside of New York street fashion meccas like Dr. Jay’s and Jimmy Jazz, was in short supply. Allen convinced Pat to come visit some Manhattan wholesalers with him, and she began to think he was on to something. Back in Massachusetts, they put a lease deposit on the second place they saw, a narrow 500-square-foot space in downtown Framingham. The space (since closed) cost a little more than $500 a month. Over pizza they concocted the sort of quirky name hip-hop boutiques always tend to have: Hip Zepi. “We liked the way it sounded.” And thus began, Pat remembers, “the really exciting times.”

The first few years were a whirlwind. Hip Zepi had tapped in
to what seemed like limitless demand for then up-and-coming hip-hop labels like Ecko and Phat Farm, and no one else was doing it. The madness of the pace enabled Pat to brush off the things that bothered her, not least the jeers of “white bitch” from black women upset that she was so visibly collecting their disposable income. Pat allowed work to “fill the void that was there at that particular time,” she says. Her younger daughter, Kate, came to the store a few times, but there was no question Pat’s new family was the business, and as in her old family, she was the beacon of sanity, soft-spoken and impeccably disciplined (a quality evident in her admirably slim figure), the one who made the trains run on time.

“Pat is the one who’s always calm, who thinks before she talks, who you’ll never see flinch at anything,” says Moise “Junior” Fils, Hip Zepi’s longest-
serving employee. “Delroy is the one who’s always fucking things up.” Delroy is all right-brain, instinct and hustle; he oversees the company’s relationships with the equally fast-talking, ear-to-the-ground sales reps for labels like Enyce, Phat Farm, and the obsession du jour, LRG. Delroy also mans the front of the store, leads the buying, fastidiously micromanages the displays of rhinestone-studded Che Guevara T-shirts and elaborately pocketed premium denim. He is the Bob of the Hip Zepi partnership. And like Bob, he’s never really been surprised by anything Pat’s done.

“Pat hasn’t changed that much,” Delroy says. “In the beginning, of course, we were really naive. Then you start to realize people are using stolen credit cards, that sort of thing. But she’s never been bothered by much. And she’s never been one to talk about herself.”

“She’s low-key,” says her friend Laura Jenks-Daly, the one-time owner of the Weston boutique Outlooks, where Pat was, she remembers, a very good, very subtly fashion-forward customer. “I can’t remember when she shared her problems with her store with me.”

“‘Subtle’ would be the word,” adds Junior. “If she was having problems with her family, she never brought that to the store.” It makes more sense, he says, to focus on how her influence has changed him, turned him and his colleagues into more selfless managers who are willing to pass on wisdom and delegate tasks.

“What I really learned from Pat was the ‘soft-touch’ theory of negotiation,” says Rob Frederick, a former MIT student who managed the Cambridge location (now closed) more than 10 years ago. “It sounds like a cliché but it’s not. She’s incredibly good at channeling the best in people and steering the more creative and maybe scatterbrained toward ideas she thinks will actually work.” Pat’s instinct isn’t always correct: Delroy pursued a line of Hip Zepi–brand clothing despite her fears that other stores wouldn’t buy in; the line was a hit. But when she next allowed Delroy to sell customized knockoff Nikes, it not only resulted in a lawsuit from the footwear giant, but also badly alienated the most powerful street-fashion brand in the universe. Hip Zepi still doesn’t have a Nike account, though Junior believes that’s only made the store more successful.

“For us to survive without a Nike account,” Junior says, “it’s all Pat. It’s never been easy. But it’s made us stronger. We try to hire people from Foot Locker and other places”—chains that rely on Nike’s endless stream of $100-plus sneakers—“and it doesn’t work out. They don’t know how to sell. Pat knows how to make us sell. She knows how to make people take pride in their work.”

“Well, it’s just like being a mother,” Pat says, almost exasperated. “There were times I’d be up at 5 in the morning, taking my girls skiing because I wanted them to learn to ski. And I didn’t know where I was going, and it was snowing, and I was scared. But you’re a mother. You can’t show them you’re scared.”

Pat’s former life with Bob was, by all accounts, cushy. “I was a real soccer mom,” she recalls. There was a stint selling Mary Kay, three years as Junior League treasurer, a rigorous tennis schedule. Still, Pat had never inoculated herself against the fear of being poor again, and in her present life she is constantly reminded why. At her Hip Zepi stores, she serves as much as life coach to the staff as she does co-owner. Maria, who works at the Downtown Crossing store, has just come back from the Dominican Republic, where her brother recently died of tuberculosis and her toddler son cried for three days. “The entire family lives in a single room,” Pat says. “They’re just one step away from this real, Third World poverty. It’s just so depressing.”

But Pat is not one to dwell on the depressing, or much of anything. Because, as she reminds, “my time here is preordained anyway.” Pat is a Christian now; it happened, Bob points out, within a year or two of both her sister and brother being born again, like some late-onset genetic condition. It’s clear it is good for her. The sort of natural spiritual calm she finds doesn’t come easily to a person who’s used to paying the bills, signing the paychecks, depositing the cash drops, writing the schedules, dispensing the emergency paycheck advances, firing larcenous employees, or covering for it when Delroy, that consummate hustler, buys a few hundred pairs of iffy Nikes and gets served with court documents, or starts selling decoratively “bulletproof” vests. The person who must sweat small stuff.

That person is accustomed to control.

During her first years in business, tennis was Pat’s favored method of decompression. But around Christmas 2004, she stopped wanting to play anymore. It began on the way to the airport to pick up Kate and her husband, when an 18-wheeler swiped the side of her Mercedes, leaving Pat miraculously uninjured but in shock. Then on the day before New Year’s Eve, 2005, during an inventory meeting at Hip Zepi’s Dorchester location, an angry kid marched in past the armed security guard and shot Eric, a salesman, right there.

There had been a half dozen break-ins and two traumatic robberies at the stores before the shooting. In 1995, at the Cambridge store, gunmen tied Rob Frederick’s wrists with rope and moved him to a back room while they looted the place. In 2001, in an incident that would prompt Pat to hire the aforementioned armed guard, another manager suffered less serious injuries while running out the back door of the Dorchester store to escape a pair of particularly menacing robbers. (“He told me he knew he was going to die that day if he didn’t make an effort to save himself,” Pat recalls, and shakes her head. “And if it weren’t for the ‘Stop Snitchin’’ thing, maybe the shooters would have been caught.”)

But Eric’s shooting would trigger something. En route to the hospital 30 minutes later, the backstory, whose theme can be boiled down to what is generally known as “baby mama drama,” began to emerge. The alleged shooter was Eric’s baby’s mother’s new boyfriend, and Eric’s baby’s mother happened to work at the same airport concession as Eric’s mom, and had forbidden Eric from seeing his son in a move that was part leverage, part jealousy on the part of her new boyfriend. In the Hip Zepi crime files, the incident was not actually all that scary. (It was not, for one, about Hip Zepi. The mechanics of witne
sses and criminal lineups and the whole “Stop Snitchin’” ethic were not applicable, and there was no practical reason for employees to feel threatened. And while the violence of the act was jarring, “it was nothing I hadn’t seen growing up,” Junior explains. Eric, for his part, would make a full recovery.) Still, it came at a delicate time for Pat. A contractor she’d hired to gut an investment property ended up going MIA, wiping out $30,000 of her investment. Later, violent stomach problems would keep her awake nights. When a crisis counseling team she’d hired to help the store recover from the shooting arrived, she found she was more traumatized than any of her employees. The counselors traced through all the ways the shooting could have been avoided—if the boys had told her about all the dramatic phone-calling that had been going on the past two weeks, if the guard had been better trained and prevented the shooter from entering the store.

Inevitably, Pat would wonder if she’d have been better off had she just stayed married to Bob. And then she would laugh at herself. Because even Pat Demling, modest though she is, knows that the world is, in a small way, better for what she’s done through Hip Zepi. There’s Rodney, who’s started investing—even more successfully than his boss—in real estate. Junior has gotten married, had a child, and evolved into an inspiring manager. Another employee has successfully kicked drugs.

But for every good choice Pat encourages, there are, she will concede, dozens of small bad choices her employees will continue to make. “You should see them on tax return day,” she says with a shudder. “They go through that money in a week, tops. And they say, ‘But Pat, you don’t know how it is! If you don’t spend the money, it won’t last.’” Some of them have parents who will siphon off earnings if they try to save. For others it’s a mindset, as stubborn and cyclical as everything else about growing up poor in America. And Pat’s greatest strength as a businesswoman is, perhaps, that she doesn’t feel the need to change it. It’s enough for her just to be there, bringing in enough cash to keep her staff ogling her shopping bags from Bloomingdale’s. In fact, her proudest moment of Hip Zepi matriarchy happened at a company meeting, when an effort to get her young charges to sell more aggressively in anticipation of the back-to-school season turned into a rap session on the lengths kids go to prepare for it.

“And one guy gets up and says, ‘In the middle of July, I start thinking about what I’m going to get. So I probably have 15 outfits for the first two weeks, because you can’t wear the same thing twice for the first two weeks. And I don’t go to school the first day, because everyone is there, so I don’t usually show up till the following Monday. And the night before, I have all my shoes and all my outfits out, and I’ve got the ironing board out….’ And I could never visualize this kid with an ironing board in a million years! And of course, he has to walk to school because he can’t take the bus.”

Where some might see truancy and profligacy, Pat sees human nature, a good laugh, and yeah: profits. “You could tell who the best salespeople were because their stories were the most incredible,” she says. “You have to be able to tell a good story to be a good salesperson.”