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Q&A: Zoë Petty on House of Culture

Written by Zenobia Lloyd

February 27, 2023

Around the corner from Wally’s Jazz Club, just 15 minutes from BU’s campus, House of Culture resides. The Black-owned, family-owned clothing boutique has served as a hotbed for fashion and community for over thirty years. In 1991, fresh out of fashion design college in London, Patrick Petty founded the boutique in the epi-center of Boston. As a young Black man in a historically racist city, Petty laid down his roots and grew notable among figures like Shaquille O’Neal and the Wahlberg family. Defined by their racks heavy with colorful, one-of-a-kind pieces and the family’s lively and warm customer service, House of Culture has evolved into far more than just a store. Last week, I took a trip to the iconic boutique to speak with Zoë, creative and digital director and the daughter of Patrick Petty. Perched on a couch beside black and white family photos and newspaper clippings from the ‘90s, we discussed the boutique’s legacy, community, style, inspiration, and the significance of being a thriving Black-owned business in Boston.

OTC: Could you walk me through the history of House of Culture?

Zoë: My father, Patrick Petty, opened up House of Culture on Newbury Street in 1991. He was inspired by his lived experiences growing up in Ohio, then going to college in London, and then coming to Boston, so we opened Culture Shock. In 1998, as Culture Shock became more of a community, it was renamed House of Culture. In 2004, we moved from Newbury Street to the South End, where we now are, on Columbus.

OTC: What inspired the House of Culture name and the signature style?

Zoë: My dad had culture shock when he went to London for five years from the Midwest. Everything was really different for him. The store was renamed House of Culture from Culture Shock as it became more of a community. We have customers that we sold prom dresses to, and now we’re selling their daughter's prom dresses. We’ve seen so many generations of people come through the store. I was in a pack and play in my childhood and now come here talking to you as the creative and digital director.

A lot of store’s fashion is inspired by pieces that you're gonna feel good wearing, you're gonna be excited to have them in your closet, and you’re going to be excited about buying. My father doesn't mind being the loudest person dressed in the room and I think that does come across in our clothes. Our customers are okay with disrupting the spaces that they're in. That's kind of the culture of the store– fun pieces that you're gonna get complimented on, and if you don't get compliments, you might get side eyes, but you love it.

OTC: What inspired the presentation of the space at House of Culture?

Zoë: The old store had two big windows and benches where the mannequins were, and we had a lot of space. So people would drop off flyers of events going on and so we always are connected to what was going on in Boston. Now people don't have flyers as often as  they did in the 90s, but people come in and ask us, ‘can you hang the sign and put some fliers up?’ We're always willing to do that.

We have art that I've seen my entire life. My dad loves Billie Holiday, so we've always had Billie Holiday art and other older black women like Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker. We've also always had art of black mothers and their babies and most recently I put up this gallery wall that's like our Hall of Fame. We've also always had art from our family so my aunt who unfortunately passed in December was an artist, and we've always had her art up in the store.

It's always been a mix of black culture, which is our culture and Boston culture, celebrating the events going on, and then our actual family. So it's a little bit of everything. And then you can find some pictures of me. We always have a bunch of small things that are just uniquely us. If you get into small businesses, you always see a picture of someone's kid. That's what makes small businesses special.

OTC: How would you describe the House of Culture community and why do you think that this community developed?

Zoë: I'm so biased since I grew up in the store, but I feel like everyone always looks out for each other. People are excited to tell people, ‘Hey, we have this going on. Do you want to come? Do you know anyone that might be interested in this?’

We have customers that are in the Boston Police Department, we have customers that are educators, and range from all walks of life. But everyone's exchanging information. I feel like everything in our community is based on fun and we try to make things very convenient.

There's always a conversation going on. There's always someone joking, so you just can let your guard down. You walk in and you start talking, and you're part of the community. It's not like a sign up sheet. It's just the feeling you have.

OTC: Do you have any moments in your childhood that sum up the store's culture or your experience growing up with this store?

Zoë: I used to walk around and try on shoes when I was two at the Newbury Street store. I also got ready for prom at the store. Those are moments that are so pivotal.

At a young age, I was very comfortable being around all types of people because we'd have customers who would come in and who were going out to a drag show. And then we'd have customers who were high school students. And then we'd have teachers.

OTC: What does it mean for House of Culture to be a historic Black-owned business?

Zoë: Now that I'm older, I understand the importance of it, but while growing up, it just was our lives.  I'm gonna rep Boston, every second of every day, but Boston does have a reputation for having a very racist history. Now I'm older and I realize my father has had a business as a black man in the city of Boston for over 30 years and started when he was a young black man on the most popular street in Boston, in the 90s. That's just such a big accomplishment.

One of his friends sent him a birthday message, and she said there are so many people in the city that [he has] inspired and that think if Pat could do it, I can do it. I think for him, he was just doing it. You don't always know you're making an impact or breaking down barriers.

A lot of our customers are also people of color, so I think that that is nice when they come in, and they see this is Black-owned. I feel like people are excited to see what's coming next and I'm just as excited as them. It's such a great thing to be able to say that we're a Black-owned business in Boston.

I love being a Black person in America, it comes with a lot of adversity, but I love it. A lot of our customers are specifically Black women, so we have that common bond and I think that is beautiful. It also makes people comfortable. When I look at you, I see myself, so welcome to the family.

OTC: How would you say House of Culture has changed in the past three decades?

Zoë: Moving from Newbury Street to South End was actually such a blessing because Newbury Street evolved a lot and it became a lot more commercialized. Coming to the South End, we’re around actual Boston residents all the time.

House of Culture is community driven. For some of the big stores, the idea of community is more like, sign up for this rewards program, and you'll get our emails. For us, people might come in and just ask for  restaurant recommendations because they know that we know the city.

Ecommerce has also entered the conversation. We have a website and now you can find us on Google. What's funny is a lot of our customers, which I guess is a testament to the community, will look on the website, and then still come into the store. Things have changed, but the roots are staying. We still have cool clothes. We still have the same core values. And although the retail space is very saturated, I think when you have something special, you got to hold on to it.

OTC: What else do you want people, specifically college students to know about House of Culture?

Zoë: I hope people will see Boston when they see us, and not just the Citgo sign side of Boston. I hope when people see us they see a legacy business because I think that's something that's really beautiful. I want people to see how unique small businesses are and how they all have grit. I hope they see how invested the people are in House of Culture. We're a small business and we're very relaxed but we also take our business very seriously. I hope they see an open door. Come on in and talk to us and tell us about your life.

We have the outfits for whatever formals or birthday parties, whatever big events or small events, or every day pieces. But what I want them to see more is the culture of House of Culture, which is that open door.

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