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Arts & Entertainment

Making more out of the mall experience

When Danielle Banks and her husband Richard Bougere face a significant barrier, they find a way to convert it into an opportunity. Case in point: A year and a half ago, the couple took a group of interns to shop at Forever 21 in downtown San Francisco, and were racially profiled after the store manager called the police and accused the group of shoplifting.

Banks and Bougere, both artists and community leaders, took to social media to decry the incident and demand an apology from Forever 21. Their video went viral, giving them national recognition. 

"For me, it was very bittersweet," said Banks. "The last thing I want to be recognized for is anything bad that occurred to us rather than the work we have done in our community."

But there’s a silver lining to every cloud: The couple’s latest venture brings local artisans and clothing makers into focus, helping them to grow their brands and gain more visibility without the financial burden of maintaining a full-time brick and mortar. In recent months, Banks and Bougere have partnered with Sacramento-based entrepreneurs Delmar and Ayesha White to enliven malls with local wares, starting with a shop in San Francisco's Stonestown Galleria Mall called The Pop Up Shop SF

"We explored this concept with Delmar and Ayesha before the Forever 21 incident, but the timing turned out to be perfect," said Bougere. "The Whites launched the concept in Sacramento at the Arden Mall, and it really took off, so we worked with them to make it happen in the city."

An intern from Project Level shows us one of the clothing brands in the Pop-Up Shop SF | Photo by Meaghan Mitchell

The approximately 2,200-square-foot shop is centrally located in the mall, neighboring major brands like Victoria's Secret. 

"We are right in the thick of it," Banks added. "People stop in daily, and our brands add to the mall's diversity."

Banks and Bougere both grew up in San Francisco and converted their passion for the arts into successful careers in music and business development. Banks is CEO of her talent agency 1015 Management, where she manages musicians, models, and actors. Bougere is a well-known local hip-hop artist known as "Big Rich." 

In 2012, the power couple decided to combine their efforts and "pay it forward" by establishing Project Level, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that uses performance art, fashion and business to empower underprivileged youth through internships and other opportunities. Since then, they have mentored hundreds of Bay Area youth and even launched entertainment careers for some. 

While the Forever 21 event was distressing for Banks, Bougere and their interns, it resulted in a public apology from the business and a request to work on a brand concept and clothing collection that includes Project Level youth

Project Level and youth meet with Forever 21 Execs | Courtesy of Project Level

"I am happy with the outcome," Banks said. "Because we've expanded possibilities for our kids, and Forever 21 has played a significant role. Our youth are interning there, and we're hard at work on our next collection, which will be released next year."

In the meantime, Project Level is nurturing emerging entrepreneurs through the Pop Up Shop SF and giving Project Level youth the opportunity to gain fashion work experience as managers and retail associates in the shop. 

Vendor Dayanara Thompson of IWoke Wellness | Photo by Meaghan Mitchell

Project Level targets high-traffic malls and covers the costs associated with running the shop, enabling entrepreneurs to test their products at the mall. 

"It starts with an inquiry, and then we go through an application process," said Banks. "We do the work to make sure we understand their brand and curate the space so that there are no conflicts with similar brands."

At the Pop Up Shop SF, you'll find clothing items by Bay Area designers, most of whom are from San Francisco. The clothing ranges from streetwear to activewear and clubwear. "We also carry accessories like jewelry and household items like candles, made from our vendors," Banks added. 

A look inside the Pop Up Shop | Photo by Meaghan Mitchell

The Pop Up Shop SF operates on consignment, and incoming vendors start with a trial of 60 days but have the option to stay longer if their product sells. Vendors are also required to volunteer in the shop during their trial period at a minimum of four hours per month. 

There are plans to expand the Pop Up Shop SF to other locations, starting with the Westfield Shopping Center in downtown San Francisco. In October, Project Level will launch two additional shops, one that will focus on men's clothing and the other on women's. Banks and Bougere are looking to expand from there. 

"We want to branch out to Fillmore and Haight Streets eventually, but being in a prime location is paying off because we are reaching so many people but are able to keep the cost of advertisement low,” said Banks.

The Pop Up Shop SF is also an opportunity to activate vacant storefronts during a time where San Francisco’s economy has been hammered by the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on our city’s creative outlets and local artists,” Mayor Breed told Here/Say.

“As we look to our economic recovery, supporting local organizations is key to uplifting our neighborhoods. Project Level and the Pop Up Shop SF provide just that—an opportunity for people in our community to showcase their incredible work and help drive our city forward."