By SHALWAH EVANS
It’s early Thursday afternoon and in a small open space behind the cash register at her namesake clothing boutique, Dema Grim is hard at work making samples for a large order from Modern Appealing Clothing, the only other store that sells her designs. Dressed comfortably in a navy button-down shirt she made, black Redwood skinny pants she sells in the store, and metallic flats, she cuts fabrics with precision.
“I think it gives people a little thrill to see the action,” she says laughing. “Sometimes I feel like a zoo exhibit, people watching me work. Give me some peanuts if you’re going to stand and watch me.”
As the Mission District becomes home to an increasing number of independent designers, DEMA has endured. From the storefront at 1038 Valencia Street, once a coffee shop, Grim has been selling her creations for 11 years—a longevity that makes her the oldest designer on the block, a veteran now facing her second downturn.
“I think there’s a perceived panic going on,” she says of a decline in retail sales that has hurt everyone from the Gap to smaller shops.
Now 43, the Seattle native got her start in the recession of the early 1990s. When stores stopped paying her for the orders of clothes she provided them, she decided to open her own so she “wouldn’t have to rely on anybody else for the money.”
The decision to settle in the Mission District came easily.
“I couldn’t rent in any other neighborhood. And this was the neighborhood I used to come to to go drinking,” she says adding that a small inheritance became her start-up capital.
With folded fabrics, organized drawers of buttons, fixtures, and detailing, posters plastered on the walls and papier-mache art that her friend created for her, the studio is a whirlwind of Grim’s life’s work.
Settling in, however, offered challenges. In the first week someone plastered yuppie hate signs on her windows. Then someone spray painted “Where are all the clothes for us big girls?” on the sidewalk in front of her store. She was accused of gentrifying the neighborhood. The incident still upsets her.
“People assumed they knew what the store was about,” she says.
Nevertheless, she says, the dot-com boom of the late 1990s offered “easy money.” Mission residents freely spent on expensive cups of coffee and $88 jeans. It was the first time Grim felt financially secure enough to scale back on designing.
“I relaxed. I was 35 and it was the first time I felt like I had made it,” she says.
When the bubble burst, however, Grim says it was lonely as she was one of few stores in the neighborhood to stay open. Besides Therapy, near 17th Street, DEMA was the only upscale store around for some time.
“Mostly I had to look for less expensive lines to carry—just like now—and really keep an eye on costs of producing my own line in order to keep the prices down.”
In the past three or four years she’s gladly seen more boutiques open up and help bring back a certain vibe.
Even today, however, Mission hipsters can be eccentric. Just the other day a woman stormed out after assuming that the clothes, which are made in the neighborhood, come from a Chinese sweatshop on 18th Street, she says. Grim was unfazed.
She cuts her own pieces in her studio and then sends them to her sewers, Carrie Lee on San Jose Street and Rose Tailor in Oakland.
“They set the price,” she says. “There are times when I might ask them to cut a dollar or two off but I respect that they have families and bills, et cetera–so I rarely ask that.”
Facing her second recession as a shop owner, she’s instead focused on cutting other costs. She sees this slowdown as an opportunity to tighten her marketing and assess the way she uses fabric.
In the past year the price of materials to make clothes has gone up, but cotton has risen less than silk, so she’s been making more cotton pieces and less silk. She refrains from marking things up to keep clothing affordable for her customers.
Nonetheless, it’s been a rough year. Most people are only buying if it’s a special occasion like a birthday, she says.
But Grim is a self starter who perseveres. At 16 she started selling shoes, and two years later she left her home in Seattle for New York, where she went from store to store pitching her designs to retailers.
“I got orders,” she says. “That was shocking.”
She eventually sold to Barney’s New York while her then-husband attended film school at New York University. Until then, she hadn’t seen fashion as a lucrative business. But when it was time to move back to the west coast, she continued to pursue a career making clothes.
Grim laughs as she reminisces about the tube skirts and dresses she made when she first started out, with few designing skills. When she decided to expand her horizons beyond spandex tubes, she went to a pattern-making class. She also worked at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, making costumes for characters like Grumpy in Snow White, and at a tailor’s where she learned how to take garments apart and put them back together to fit.
Even now, she puts scraps of fabric away “for pockets,” part of her practice of using fabrics in a smart way.
In the store, bags adorn wall fixtures and sunglasses decorate the cash register–an old marketing trick that encourages impulse spending. A floral-printed cotton blouse priced at $136 stands on a rack by itself. And one lonely cashmere striped turtleneck by LINE mingles among other pieces; it sells for $176.
When asked about retirement, Grim gives a hard laugh. “Tomorrow!” says the 43-year-old.
“Maybe in about 10 years. That’s a pipe dream if I can afford to. But who knows, maybe I’ll be completely re-inspired and want to keep going, keep doing this,” she says. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”