Written by Jason Gilmer | Photos by Anthony Harden
Boutique owner, designer liaison, entrepreneur, matchmaker—Asheville native
Dema Badr isn’t satisfied with wearing just one hat.
Brook Street divides shops in Asheville’s Biltmore Village, and it’s a busy road that Scout Boutique owner Dema Badr crosses often to grab a coffee or lunch. When she opened her new venture there in April, she wondered if there would be days like those she spent almost a decade earlier in a different store, with no customers in the aisles scouring the clothing racks in search of the perfect cocktail dress.
Badr was 23 years old when she opened Zakya Boutique in 2006, which she operated in downtown Asheville for
two years. On some days, no one shopped and Badr stared at the mannequins.
“I was romanticizing those dead afternoons and what I would do,” says Badr, as she sits behind the counter of her store one morning. “I could walk across the street and get a beer at Catawba Brewing. That hasn’t happened. The day I actually, during open hours, have to go to Catawba and get a beer will be a low moment. I was hyping it, but I don’t want it to happen.”
After her first business folded, Badr’s career had stops in Philadelphia, New York City, and China before she decided to return home. The lessons she learned from her years as a buyer and in manufacturing has helped position her for success with fresh ventures.
Now, her new shop, an 800-sq.-ft. space located at No. 102 18 Brook Street, is frequented by the well-coiffed from Wink Salon and Boutique and the well-fed from Fig Bistro, two of the businesses that share the space in Biltmore Courtyard Shops. Potential customers shopping at other stores spy her boldly painted yellow script logo and professionally dressed mannequins and wander over. Some out-of-towners walk in, asking what else is down the street, only to stay and browse. Lots of shoppers know Badr and remember her former shop.
“It’s why Scout has gotten off on a really good foot,” she says, “because the people who supported me still live here and are excited that I came back to do a more affordable women’s venue.”
Biltmore Village has plenty of shops that sell clothes and accessories tailored for women. Scout Boutique is different. With its greenish-yellow floors, steel pipe dress racks and built-in shadow box shelves, it isn’t crammed to capacity with purchasable items. There’s space to move around, which gives the shop an airy feel, as do the high ceilings and somewhat art deco chandeliers.
Scout also offers smaller labels—some are even locally made—than many other stores, and Badr is often able to use her extensive contact list to find cheaper ways to make better products. There’s a one-on-one connection that Badr (a self-admitted lover of talking) utilizes to help find that perfect fit and look.
“I’ve learned that having a business can be a lot of fun, but serious at the same time,” says Hannah Shull, Badr’s lone part-time employee and a fashion merchandising student at Carson-Newman University. “She always wants to have fun with customers and make them feel welcomed in her store. Some people who operate a small business do not see the light in the opportunity like she does.”
“Dema is a breath of fresh air and amazing to work with,” adds Asheville-based designer Rachel Weisberg, who has several items in Scout. “Her professionalism and sense of style are top notch. It’s important to her that the designer’s work is genuinely showcased, and has inspired me to create unique items specifically for her boutique. She knows exactly what the Scout woman would most connect with.”
“I think Asheville is ready for it,” says Badr of Scout—clearly her baby, no matter what else is going on in her life. “I love retail because I grew up around it. It seemed like the thing to do. I know how to do retail. I can get all the things I need to be successful and I know how to be different.
“I would love to just grow this, obviously, into a successful boutique that is synonymous with good Asheville shopping.”
Growing Up Around a Small Business
Owning a small business should be second nature for Badr, who grew up around the process. Her parents, Hashim and Kathy Badr, opened Asheville Discount Pharmacy on Haywood Road next to the Buncombe County Public Library in 1982 to serve the downtown Asheville community.
Badr sold Girl Scout cookies off a collapsible table in the store and also worked behind the counter when she was older. The pharmacy is now located downtown on Patton Avenue (across from Tupelo Honey restaurant) and is still run by her parents and her sister, Nur Edwards.
“That’s how I understood Asheville as a kid, through the eyes of a small business, like a mom-and-pop business,” says Badr, who graduated from A.C. Reynolds High School in 2001.
Being a pharmacist wasn’t for her, as she didn’t want to endure countless hours of chemistry labs during college. Instead, she turned to clothing and fashion.
Summers for Badr, who grew up in the East Asheville community of Haw Creek, meant trips to visit her grandmother. Unlike most kids, her grandmother wasn’t a short car ride away, but in Jerusalem, Israel.
“My grandmother was a tiny, cute pioneer woman who did everything from scratch,” Badr says. “She was the person who influenced me into going into hand-making things. She taught me to sew, knit, cross stitch, dye fabric. All of these pioneer woman things.”
The first thing Badr created was a pillow. A lumpy pillow, she says, but it gave her a sense of accomplishment. Lessons didn’t stop after the summer adventures overseas.
“It brought out in my mom that she could do those things,” Badr says. “With bikes and Nintendo, she didn’t think it would be our interest, so she didn’t try to cull it with us.
“When she saw there was an interest, she said, ‘I also know how to do this and this.’”
While other students in her school may have made their own clothes, Badr wasn’t that into the process. It took a few more years for her to become enamored with how clothing was made.
She went to UNC-Chapel Hill without any inclinations on what her future profession would be. “I had gone to visit there and was in love with the campus,” she says, “and thought it would be a good place to at least figure out what I wanted to study.”
She settled on a public relations and journalism degree and then headed to Parson School of Design in New York City for a fast-track program for degreed students to learn the missing components of fashion design.
“It wasn’t until I got to New York that I saw knowing how to make things from a technical side could get you jobs that you really enjoy,” says Badr, who did two internships during her time there. “I love fashion, but have always looked at it as a perq to the business side of the industry.”
If I had never been forced to leave my comfort zone and move to Philly, New York, and China, then none of it would have ever happened. I wouldn’t have learned all of these skills that I really wanted and didn’t know how to reach or achieve.”
Her First Boutique
The theory behind Badr’s first boutique, Zakya (which means “taste” in Arabic), was simple: She would make some of the products for the store, and then find other local designers, people selling at flea markets or on Etsy, and showcase their clothing and accessories. It became a place to find gifts for people, while purchases of tops and pants were hit or miss.
“Clothing is really hard if someone hasn’t been trained to tailor and finish clothing appropriately,” Badr says. “You can’t take a pair of pants and sell them for $200 when there’s labor and expense put in by the designer. You want to compensate them fairly, but what people associate with boutique quality wasn’t there.”
While a shop owner, she also served as a wardrobe stylist for Lark Book Publications, a craft book publisher that began in Asheville and had a local presence for 35 years before its operation moved to New York City in 2014. Someone in the publishing house office asked Badr to model for the books, which showcased all sorts of crafts, and she declined. Instead, she dressed the books’ models when it was needed.
Zakya was located on Haywood Street, the same downtown road on which her parents began their small-business career. Badr’s shop, which sold more formal pieces, cocktail attire, and women’s work clothes, had a good clientele, but managed only to survive the two-year lease that Badr signed before closing. She wonders now why someone didn’t stop her when she opened the store. Maybe she was too young and needed to work other jobs before she jumped into business ownership.
“Closing my first store felt like a complete failure,” says Badr, who was 25 years old when the store shuttered. “I was parting with something I didn’t want to part with. It did feel like a fail. [But] if I had never been forced to leave my comfort zone and move to Philly, New York, and China, then none of it would have ever happened. I wouldn’t have learned all of these skills that I really wanted and didn’t know how to reach or achieve. On paper it was a failure. The bank statements all show it was a failure. It was my greatest asset. It kicked me in the butt and made me go.”
Her ownership of Zakya was a plus on her resume. Potential employers learned that Badr knew how to work with designers, and she went to work in Philadelphia as a buyer for Anthropologie, a women’s clothing, accessory, and home decor store.
“Our team’s success at Anthropologie required strong diplomatic and negotiation skills, both of which Dema has in spades,” says Laura Graber, who worked with Badr as a buyer at Anthropologie and now lives in New York City. “We worked as intermediaries between design, color, and pattern teams, production, and the catalog production team. Dema has the envy-inducing ability to become friends with anyone and everyone, and this served her well in a company where relationships truly mattered.
“Dema also was able to leverage her network of independent designers that she knew from her previous boutique experience and bring a whole new roster of designers to Anthropologie. Not only did she champion these new, relatively unknown designers, which obviously was a huge boon to their business; but she really helped to freshen up the designer matrix at Anthropologie, which, at the time, during the post-recession, really benefited from the injection of newness.”
After Anthropologie, Badr worked for Coach’s corporate office in New York City as a product developer, and then moved to Hong Kong in 2011 to work first for Coach Asia (part of Coach International), then for shoe company Y Jessi.
For four years, Badr lived in China, where the work pace was frantic and taxis moved at a breakneck speed. Her commute to work was often filled with drivers asking if she liked Chinese food (she doesn’t) and Michael Jackson (she does). She lived on salads, boiled eggs, and Clif bars as she assisted Y Jessi’s handbag manufacturing division.
“You will get stomped on and boxed out in subway cars,” she says. “No one is kind and sweet in the masses, but when you break away, everyone is kind and sweet. I loved my work.”
With her knowledge of fashion principles (from design to manufacturing to purchase), she can help select the right outfit by asking a few questions and sizing up her just-walked-in client.
After four years in China, Badr was ready for a return to the United States, and a friend’s autumn wedding in Asheville made that even clearer. She missed her family and friends and the town in which she grew up. And while she isn’t one to look for signs in life, if one smacks her in the face, she plans to roll with it. That’s what happened when she first spotted the location that would become Scout Boutique. She met with the landlord, loved the big windows and light that streamed in, and then heard that she needed to make a quick decision. She took the chance and signed the lease. As her expenses had been paid while she lived in China, her savings helped start the store; in short order she was painting, adding light fixtures, and ordering products.
“If it weren’t for all of the contacts I made over the last 10 to 12 years, I never could have set up a shop in two months,” she says, adding that her clientele is a good mix of locals and tourists.
“We’ve committed ourselves to being this touristy town now, and what do people do? They walk around Biltmore, they eat everything in sight, they drink all the beer they can possibly handle, and then they want a little take-back. Something interesting that they won’t find at home. There’s also the tendency to shop more when you’re not at home.”
Badr knows that customers will look at an item, notice the label’s name, and then head home to search online for a better price. It won’t happen at Scout—Badr does the same thing and knows the correct price point to put on a tag.
“The quality of the clothing is great, and the prices are even better,” employee Shull says. “Asheville is not huge, but it is growing, and I find that sometimes the shopping, especially in the Biltmore Village area, can get quite expensive. Women do not want to spend 300 dollars on one dress as much anymore. Dema has great merchandise and she offers a variety of sizes and styles. The atmosphere is great and inviting.”
A customer may walk into the store and, upon examining an item, comment, “I don’t know if this will look good on me or not…” It’s Badr’s job to help them find what does. With her knowledge of fashion principles (from design to manufacturing to purchase), she can help select the right outfit by asking a few questions and sizing up her just-walked-in client.
“One goal of a buyer is to be able to both read a customer’s mind and also gently, and subconsciously, guide them towards purchases that will enhance their wardrobes and lifestyles,” says Graber. “At Anthropologie, even though we weren’t in direct contact with the customers, we were always pushing ourselves to better understand the customer’s needs and figuring out what makes them tick and ultimately decide to buy something. Dema has mastered this art and is putting it to amazing use as a boutique owner. With just a brief conversation with a customer, she can gain a deep understanding of their style, likes and dislikes, and comfort level with trying something new.”
Badr’s journey back to the mountains of Western North Carolina, incidentally, didn’t end her business interests elsewhere. She also returned to New York City and tackled several freelance jobs, which she continues to do from Western North Carolina through email, Skype, and phone calls.
She works with handbag designers from labels like Alice and Olivia and House of Harlow. They contact Badr and ask if she has a source for something like ombre blue leather; life in China gave her plenty of options for sourcing the materials, so she’s able to help designers work toward a better product.
“Knowing there’s a library of raw parts they aren’t considering, you can help them design into a better price point or product because you aren’t attached to the design,” she says. “I love helping stuff get made, and I don’t have to be the mastermind who came up with the idea. But if I know how to make it better, I’ll nag you until you make it better.”
She’ll occasionally travel to New York City to meet with clients simply because her job is so relationship-oriented, and she’s always on call to answer a designer’s concerns.
This aspect of her job will eventually carry into Scout Boutique. Badr says she wants a product made specifically for the store. Not an apparel line, she says, but possibly an accessory that women will use in their wardrobes for a decade or more without it going out of style.
Keeping Locals Involved
One aspect of Scout that is similar to Badr’s first boutique is the local investment she has made. Badr wants to showcase great local talent. She won’t, though, sacrifice quality simply to have another local brand on her shelves.
She chose a few to work with early on. Lace panties from Elise Olson’s On The Inside Lingerie, pieces from M.E. Ster-Molnar’s ME & Blue and Rachel Weisberg’s apparel lines, and Amber Hatchett’s unique jewelry line are part of Scout’s inventory. These designers love working with Badr because of her background in the industry, her business acumen in running a boutique, and the ability to get their products into the hands of customers.
“I have seen a significant amount of sales through the boutique, especially considering that Scout has only been open for six months or so,” Olson says. “I think that On The Inside fits in well with Scout’s aesthetic and other products. Dema is the best. She is incredibly easy and enjoyable to work with. For each order, we work together to create some new pieces that she sells exclusively at Scout.”
Badr was constantly on the lookout for new designers when she ran Zakya and, later, as a buyer. Now, though, she wants to support the designers she has in her store and help them build brand awareness. At times she has served as an impromptu small business consultant to several local designers, and those relationships will only help everyone build a better product.
“I love working with Dema,” designer Ster-Molnar says. “She’s super professional and she has a clear vision. If she sees something is working, then she goes with it. She’s a true retailer. She knows how to buy correctly and how to merchandize a store. I think she has one of the best stores in town.”
Now she has added matchmaker to her resume and she recently set up Modern Blackbook (www.modernblackbook.com), a new service for Western North Carolina.
Badr once struck up a conversation with someone in the café section of a Whole Foods in New York City a couple of years ago. Communal seating made this chance meeting possible, and the two women bonded over a vintage dress.
“I have someone I want you to meet,” the woman told Badr.
At the time, Badr was seeing someone and told the stranger that she couldn’t meet her friend. The gentleman wasn’t a friend, though, but a client. Badr had met a professional matchmaker and she was intrigued by this career choice.
Now she has added matchmaker to her resume and she recently set up Modern Blackbook (www.modernblackbook.com), a new service for Western North Carolina that officially went live on October 3.
“I never thought of it as a work career, definitely a hobby,” says Badr, adding that while in college, she set up an ex-boyfriend with the woman he would eventually marry.
Modern Blackbook isn’t a website like Tinder or eHarmony; there are no online profiles and no phony photos for people to agonize over. Badr never signed up to use an online dating service but knew friends who did, and many times the results were harrowing.
“I never want to go on that date where I’m in the bathroom begging my roommate to call me,” Badr says.
Modern Blackbook will attempt to be more discreet and classy and use a human touch, not an algorithm, to determine who is most compatible. Badr’s service, which costs $60 a month, begins with a 50-question survey on the website.
Questions include: “What is your favorite book”; “Who was your memorable celebrity crush”; “What are some of your adamant deal breakers”; and “Do you get jealous when you see the person you are dating speaking to someone of the opposite sex?”
Badr’s questions also tackle religion, ethnicity, monogamy, and other tough topics. Some are multiple choice and a few include Badr’s sense of humor, like having “Blehhhhh” as one possible answer for the question, “How do you feel about children?” She readily acknowledges that parts of the questionnaire might seem odd at first glance, but, ultimately, the answers she gets tell her a lot about the person.
Sincere answers are required before Badr makes contact with a new client. Then there’s a background check and a meeting over coffee (or something else relaxing) before Badr begins to set up dates.
“Dema often says that she ‘loves love’ so I have no doubts that her matchmaking service is going to be a huge success,” says Graber. “She has a talent for being able to read people in a short amount of time and is able to make people feel instantly at ease in her presence. People open up to Dema—she has stories of making friends everywhere she goes—and I know that this natural talent, paired with her love of love, is going to lead to some very happy couples.”
The hope is to have 300 clients before Christmas and then she’ll begin to set up dates.
And if a female client needs a new dress for her first blind date, Scout Boutique would be the perfect place to shop.
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