The two floors of fashion store A Ma Maniere stand within a chic new luxury development west of downtown Houston. Wholefoods and River Oaks Country Club are near neighbours, while financial skyscrapers built by Philip Johnson and IM Pei stand a short drive away. For James Whitner, CEO of the Whitaker Group and the store’s founder, it’s a departure from the typical locations of his retail outposts. “Usually we’re in the heart of the black community,” he says.
This is not to say that you need an extra excuse to visit A Ma Maniere; the store is an exceptional destination for pure retail therapy. The walls are lined with Dior, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Amiri, Acronym and Fear of God, and glass fixtures hold socks by A-Cold-Wall* and Heron Preston. A neon sign reading “If you eat, we eat, we all eat together” demarcates the store’s restaurant – a dining experience, says Whitner, designed to foster interaction.
But what makes A Ma Maniere exceptional is the way it does its business. The buy operates on a “one to three” basis: for every one hanger of clothing by Balenciaga, Sacai, Moncler or Junya Watanabe, there are three by smaller contemporary brands, such as Human Made, Denim Tears or Infinite Archives. It’s a strategy Whitner conceived on a trip to Paris Fashion Week (the shop’s name is French for “my way”) when he realised he wanted to have a luxury boutique that spoke more specifically to black culture.
The store is designed to inspire a sensory reaction. “It has to connect to youth culture and be architecturally forward,” says Whitner. “And then it’s about the smell, sound and warmth of the people.” The space has its own bespoke fragrance, and Whitner curates the music personally: “Mary J Blige is my morning music – I’m not trying to tear it up at 8am. After five, you can get ratchet.” But Whitner insists that it’s the people who make A Ma Maniere what it is: “You have the space, the feel, the vibe and the connection to the community.” He pauses. “Then it’s about the product.”
A Ma Maniere, which also has branches in Washington and Atlanta, operates the Hand Wash Cold social impact initiative, which treats the community as you might your most delicate clothes – with care and consideration. Its main aim is to support professional development where it is most needed. Whitner’s own journey started in public-housing projects and he’s keen to help others change their lives: “Naturally, I wanted to help people,” he says. The business group is now split into the for-profit retail division and a non-profit arm dubbed The Whitaker Project. This organic approach and community focus has won Whitner industry awards and a recent store visit from Vice President Kamala Harris, to whom he presented a pair of special edition Converse trainers designed by artist Nina Chanel Abney, adorned with 2020 campaign buttons.
Whitner’s vision is ambitious. New collaborations on the horizon include a Jordan 3 drop, and there are plans for an own-brand capsule collection and a store in London. “Someone said to me, to move the world you have to be patient and impatient,” he says of his ambitions. “It’s a fine web I try to weave every day.”
3300 Kirby Drive #6a, Houston, TX 77098;