A distinct fashion sense wasn’t what got Bradford and Bryan Manning interested in starting a t-shirt company. Quite the opposite. Their journey from business gigs in NYC to charitable company cofounders – or, as they like to style themselves, co-brothers – began in earnest after a trip to Bloomingdale’s.
“On this particular day, we lost each other in the store. When we came out, we had both coincidentally bought the same exact shirt, and it's kind of a funny moment. We played rock-paper-scissors. I won, so Bryan had to return his shirt. Probably a good deal for him since now all we do is wear our own clothes, but basically, a light bulb went off.”
Two Blind Brothers
Getting their brand, Two Blind Brothers, off the ground wasn’t easy, The two founders put their own personal finances at stake in the beginning and have built a team around them that complements their strengths. From Bloomingdale’s to their launch at a foundation event, the effort took about a year. One of the major limitations at play, Bradford says, had nothing to do with their blindness.
“Bryan and I do not know how to sew. And, even when we started the company, even our dad was like, ‘You guys cannot make clothing because you are horrible dressers. Who's gonna buy anything you want to make?”
Since the company launched in 2016, Two Blind Brothers has donated approximately one and a half million dollars – all their profits -- to The Foundation Fighting Blindness. They hope to make that two million by the end of the year. Their process, Bradford says, is rooted in their experience with blindness; both have Stargardt Disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration, and they integrate their experience – having been diagnosed at ages five and seven – into their designs.
“Our vision challenges were really, you know, not front and center [growing up]. Actually, that’s a good Stargardt's pun . . . But learning Braille was a distinct departure from that kind of ordinary life of our peers. And so, it became kind of a bonding experience for Brian and I, we were competitively learning Braille. As a clothing brand, we were kind of getting sick of seeing some little animal over the chest pocket of any shirt we were wearing. We thought, ‘Well, maybe this is how we can logo our clothing.'”
What started with meaningful words and phrases on the label soon shifted to Braille being used to denote aspects of the clothing. It’s an access need that Bradford says is a real challenge to meet when he is shopping for clothes that aren’t from his own company.
“We actually got a little smarter and we decided to put the color of our items in Braille on the [shirt]. So when people see the Braille, that's kind of how we logo our clothing, but from an accessibility standpoint, you know, somebody who has visual issues or can't see color will know what color they're wearing just by touching it.”
Bradford credits part of the success of the brand to the challenges that come with blindness.
“There's no growth without friction...I think a lot of the aspects of entrepreneurship, creativity, perseverance, you know, handling rejection. I mean, I think a lot of these lessons are the lessons we learned growing up with Stargardt's Disease.”
Understanding the accessibility needs of their customers is critical to success.
Accessibility as a necessity in clothing
Anthony Lue, an Ontario-based wheelchair athlete, advocate, and access consultant, also believes that identity and access are very important when it comes to clothing. He models for IZ Adaptive, a company that specializes in creating accessible clothing for people with many access needs.
“The company or brand definitely has to have some sort of representation of people with disabilities using their product, because at the end of the day, able-bodied people will tell us how to do things all the time, but they don't really know what it's like until they're actually in a position when you're in the chair.”
Lue says much of the knowledge he has about navigating the world with a disability was gleaned by folks in the community.
“You have to be in it to understand it, essentially, and if you're not doing that research, and if you're an able-bodied person, you better make sure that you have a lot of research and support to back up your findings because the disabled community's starting to speak up a lot more now and you don't want to get caught in their crosshairs.”
For clothing to be accessible for him, Lue says it often has to do with the length of a pair of pants and the lack of space he has on either side of his body while in his wheelchair. With the snug fit that he prefers in his chair, he says many winter jackets make him feel like he is a “marshmallow”, and that the fit of lots of winter clothing leaves him with both limited space to wheel and a dirty piece of clothing at the end of the day. It’s gotten to the point where he chooses not to wear a jacket because of the hassle involved. In terms of pants, his main area of concern is that his disability means that he doesn’t get sensory feedback from his legs. With clothing, that means not knowing if his backside is visible during everyday life, but particularly when transferring.
Designing with accessibility in mind
Lue's advice for designers is to think broadly about access and be specific about clothing sizes. Half an inch can be the difference between whether a piece of clothing is fit for purpose or not; he also cautions clothing designers to not paint the community with a broad brush.
“I have to say, you have to work really closely with your clients because everybody's needs are so different. I think that's really the biggest thing when it comes to disability."