James Whitner, founder of an ever-growing hospitality conglomerate that combines fashion, food, lodging, culture and mentorship, announces his latest expansion plans. Amid America’s historically tumultuous year, one that has most recently ignited a great and overdue civil unrest against systemic racism, Whitner has felt the need to push forward and build, and not just brick and mortar, but community.
“I thought about the best way I could keep the conversation alive around racism and opportunities for the Black community, [and] the easy answer was to get active,” Whitner explains. “It’s time for us to keep the energy within the community where it’s coming from.”
A Ma Maniére, Whitner’s premier luxury-street fashion boutique with locations in Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Houston, will be opening its first New York store in one of the city’s renowned and revered Black culture epicenters, Harlem. It’ll include, in addition to clothing, footwear, homegoods and the like, the shop’s Living and Eats experiences — a boutique hotel that’ll be situated above the shop, and a full-service restaurant and bar within the shop.
Of course, just as with all of his other locations around the country, Whitner maintains that the success of A Ma Maniére Harlem depends on its ability to give back to the surrounding community. With that in mind, he’s bringing along his Hand Wash Cold initiative to New York, a social outreach program that mentors young people through the fashion industry, with seminars, workshops, panel discussions, charity work and more.
“It’s time for us to keep the energy within the community where it’s coming from.”
Whitner’s love and respect for Harlem began well before he even thought to open a clothing store, but it became even more profound once he began to realize his retail dreams. He explained that during the early days of his first shop, Flavor Factory in Pittsburgh, he’d drive a U-Haul truck to 125th Street — Harlem’s shopping district — to buy inventory because he didn’t know where else to go.
He’s been visiting Harlem for years now, but remains frustrated with the fashion industry’s neglect for the cultural hub. “Everyone talks about the key places in the U.S. where business is happening and where the kid is, and when they say the kid, for me, that always feels like the Black kid.” Adding, “What influences New York City comes from Uptown, and all that energy has to come Downtown, and now Downtown leverages that energy and that kid, but never pays back to that community.”
This doesn’t just happen in New York. Black urban youth around the globe are influencing fashion, music, arts, tech, entertainment and culture-at-large, but their communities often rarely reap the benefits. Which is why Whitner has tripled down on his pledge, and is announcing new Social Status locations — his more streetwear-focused shop — in Detroit and Baltimore, two of America’ top 10 cities with the largest population of Black residents, in percentage and total.
“People don’t understand all the potholes that there are for kids that are coming up in these communities,” explains Whitner. “They don’t know what it’s like to feel hopeless, they don’t know what it’s like to have people constantly taking and never giving. They have no one to look up to.
“Now that I’ve been put in a position where I can help reclaim some of our communities, I want to do so with our voice and for our people. I’m not doing it to just do it and make money, but to help them understand how to elevate how we look in our most elevated state. I want the kids to understand what Black excellence looks like and put a North Star in these communities that they can touch and have something to aspire to.”
Social Status Detroit and Baltimore will both be joined by the company’s beSOCIAL program, a space within that shop that will be dedicated to a variety of community-driven events and activations. Whitner even tells us the Detroit outpost will house a fully hoopable basketball court.
“These [programs] are my touchpoints to these communities,” Whitner reiterates. “They’re my way to get the kids in to do something that’s not just consuming; it’s my way of getting them to eat their vegetables. Yeah, we want to make sure they’re getting their protein, but if they don’t eat their vegetables, then you know what it is.”
“I want the kids to understand what Black excellence looks like and put a North Star in these communities that they can touch and have something to aspire to.”
Although building community is the primary goal, it’s still a two-pronged approach for Whitner and his businesses. If the neighborhood will be holding him accountable, then he must also hold the brands he stocks accountable for their lack of commitment to these communities. And we’ve already begun to see this, as Whitner points out that brands are very much ready to change right now. Take adidas for example, after being pressured by its employees for swift and meaningful change in its diversity and inclusion measures, the sportswear brand announced a $120 million USD investment in programs that support Black communities and its Black employees.
“Ultimately, we need corporate America to change, because corporate America is what funds legislation through lobbying and super packs. If corporate America and privately-held companies get on board, then we’ll start seeing some meaningful change. This change just can’t be championed by Black America, white America has to champion this change.”
Despite the very recent increase in dialogue and action around systemic racism in America, Whitner doesn’t want to be complacent. “I’m trying to take everything, I never try to sit around and hope for anything, I don’t think the world works that way. What’s yours you gotta take. And take has to be a collaborative process, but I have to be the aggressor. I have to fight, not be hopeful.
“Hopeful invites complacency. We gotta own this moment.”
A Ma Maniére Harlem is targeted to open Fall 2021, while Social Status Detroit and Baltimore are TBD.