Divine Rags Brings Sophisticated Dress, Hope for Culture Change to Downtown

Monday, January 14, 2008, Vol. 123, No. 9

FINDING FREEDOM: "Taking Care of Business," a mural outside of Divine Rags at 300 S. Main St., depicts the emergence of blacks from slavery to freedom. -- Photos By Rosalind Guy

Dr. Divine Mafa said he wants to be known for his desire to help revitalize Downtown Memphis, as seen through Divine Rags, an upscale women's boutique at 300 S. Main St. where he recently held a soft grand opening.

He doesn't want to be remembered for the controversy that surrounded him when he decided last year to open the business.

The controversy, which involved him possibly painting over a mural on the side of his building because of the condition of the wall, cast him in a negative spotlight with community members who were upset about the decision.

The painting, "Taking Care of Business," depicts the emergence of blacks from slavery to freedom through education and entrepreneurial success. It was one in a series of murals created around the city under the direction of local artist George Hunt during 1983, and one of only two murals remaining.

Mafa ultimately decided to leave the mural on the building.

Improving Memphis

Putting the incident behind him, Mafa said he wants to change the landscape of Downtown, one store at a time. In addition to Divine Rags, Mafa plans to open two more clothing stores and a restaurant Downtown in the next few months.

"I always tell people I'm the Obama of Memphis, because I feel like I'm a uniter," Mafa said, referring to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. "I'm not into all that division that Memphis has brought upon itself because people aren't trying to be open-minded. I wasn't born here so I could care less about getting involved in the trivialities that they have and all that nonsense.
I'm just here to deliver a product that people are going to want to come here and say, 'Wow, this is good.'"

That product at Divine Rags is high-end Italian women's fashions. Also, Mafa said he plans to designate space inside the women's boutique to promote local fashion designers and artists.

In the back near the cash register is a spot where local designers can offer their products for sale.

"I want to give them an opportunity or an avenue," Mafa said. "But they have to have a superior product because that's what Divine Rags is all about."

On the walls, the store will feature the work of one local visual artist a month, with a showing of all of the artist's work to be held once a month. This month features paintings of a Memphis College of Art student. A show is scheduled for later this month.

More to come

Next month, Mafa said he plans to open Divine Rags Gentleman, and in March, he plans to open Sassy Boutique, another women's clothing store that will cater to "the average-income makers."

After that, Mafa and a partner plan to open Safari Tapas Bar, a "world tapas bar that will have small samples of food," he said. "When you go to Barcelona, you hear people say, 'Let's go eat some tapas.' They have a street full of bars that have tapas. They're
quick-filling and very exciting and it's just good food and you enjoy it."

Tapas is the name used to describe a wide-variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine.

All of Mafa's businesses will be on Main Street, because he said that's the most important part of Downtown. He pointed to places like Atlanta and New York where people go Downtown just for the shopping.

"The most important street in Memphis is not Beale Street, it's Main Street," he said. "And when people start realizing that ... every city you go to, Main Street is the most important street, then they'll realize that's why Memphis is not developing. (City leaders) need to focus on Main Street.

"I can go to New York just for shopping Downtown and go to Atlanta just to go shopping Downtown, so my vision is to create that where you have
people just coming Downtown to do some shopping rather than eating."

In bringing businesses Downtown, Mafa said he realizes people need to be able to feel safe. So he is working with other business owners to organize a neighborhood business association.

"I'm putting it in my hands to make sure the area around my business is going to be safe," he said. "The neighborhood association is going to be hot on the criminals that want to come here; we're going to make sure that any shopper who comes here is going to feel safe."

Della Franklin, a bank manager at First Tennessee Bank who has been working with Mafa on his business ventures, visited his store on a recent afternoon. She said she is delighted with the setup of the store, which includes natural logs taken from the Mississippi River being used as light fixtures.

"I'm just hoping that his store will be a great success," Franklin said. "I think it's needed down here in Downtown. They have some other shops on the other end, but I think it's great that he wants to help to revitalize Downtown. I'm looking forward to his store being a great success."