November 11, 2016
We love this story. Two blind entrepreneur brothers make the best feeling shirts in the world. Then, as an added bonus, a video of Richard changing into one on Necker Island.
By Sarah Gibbons
On the face of it, ‘To cure blindness and make the best feeling shirts in the world’ seems an unlikely, if not eye-catching, corporate vision statement, combining two bold missions under one banner.
But with the grit and determination in the face of adversity shown by brothers Bradford and Bryan Manning – and their huge generosity – you get the feeling that both are possible through their innovative venture.
For them there is a sense of irony in creating a ‘vision’ statement at all as they are both registered blind having suffered throughout their lives with Stargardt’s Disease – a genetic condition which affects the patient’s central vision causing, eventually, partial or complete blindness.
But far from letting it hold them back in life, the young entrepreneurs have used their impairment to their advantage – and to that of others suffering from degenerative eye conditions.
Successful in their own business lives living in New York City – Bradford, 31, in finance and Bryan, 25, in software – the pair decided a year ago to turn their focus to helping find a cure for theirs and other inherited retinal conditions which currently affect more than 10 million Americans alone.
No longer able to drive or recognise faces due to their poor and deteriorating sight, and reliant on the zoom function on phones and laptops to recognise small print and detail in everyday items, they realise that the science behind finding a cure is available but the missing piece of the jigsaw is funding for clinical trials.
So, for two siblings whose father remarked had ‘terrible dress sense’, what less obvious choice of raising money could they imagine than an upmarket clothing brand.
‘Shopping when you’re visually impaired is hard,’ said Bradford. ‘It’s hard to see sizes and details. Bryan and I were in Bloomingdales department store some time back and lost each other within half an hour. When we met again we’d both bought the exact same shirt and had to play rock, paper, scissors to see who got to wear it!
‘Our first instinct is to touch something to tell the quality so the obvious product to work with was clothing, despite having no background in this.
‘We have a lot of friends who work for big brands or in production who were more than happy to give their time for which we’re most appreciative.’
And so it was that the Two Blind Brothers clothing range launched on May 19th this year.
Currently available only online, the range consists of 13 styles/colours of Henley shirts – smart casual crew neck T-shirts with three buttons – plus a similar number of women’s T-shirts, ranging in price from $85 to $125.
Bradford, who joined the Foundation’s board earlier this year, explained: ‘We wanted to make products people absolutely love,that once they’ve purchased one, they want to talk about it and wear it all the time.
‘There’s a big emphasis on the sense of touch and feel. It’s important to us in our lives as we have another sense significantly impaired.’
Indeed the strapline on their website reads: ‘Feel the Difference’.
And in a further nod to their disability, the brothers have designed each of their shirts to include a metal tag on the sleeve – inscribed in braille. The current tag says ‘brother’, the next batch will say ‘vision’.
‘We’ve always had an inside joke about it,’said Bradford. ‘We used the braille marks outside restrooms and in elevators to test each other. It’s been fun to incorporate that into our clothing.’
All this is a remarkable feat given that the two brothers are unable to even order from a menu in a restaurant and eat according to the waiter’s recommendation of his favourite dish.
But launching a successful brand with no experience – and landing a deal with Virgin Atlantic boss, Richard Branson, to sell their shirts on his exclusive Necker Island resort – is only half the story.
Because Bradford and Bryan do not take a single dollar out of the business by way of salary. They donate 100 per cent of the takings to the Foundation for Fighting Blindness.
Shortly after the brand launch, the brothers were proud to hand over a cheque to the organisation for $24,000 and while they remain tight-lipped about the target annual turnover, they confidently predict ‘a six figure sum’.
Bradford, who was diagnosed with Stargardt’s after he failed a kindergarten eye test at the age of five, said: ‘We are fortunate our businesses allowed us to be able to do this. We’re not putting a dollar into our own pockets – we don’t take any salary from the clothes.
‘The set-up costs were significant but the Foundation have been tremendous letting us speak at their events to promote our brand and show how we’re working together.
‘Our parents came across the Foundation when we were younger so we’ve grown up knowing about them and as young kids they gave us hope.
‘Identifying the gene that causes the problem was a major milestone. Then there were other small victories we kept hearing about.
‘It’s become less a question of science and more a question of funds to get clinical trials and in our opinion the Foundation is the best resource to fund research to find cures for retinal conditions.
‘We had each other growing up but a lot of people are the only one in their family with the condition. This makes it accessible to people.’
The range is designed and produced in New York’s fashionable garment district and orders are currently mailed out by Bradford, Bryan and their assistant, Janice Wilson.
Plans are in hand to convert a Soho building into a showroom and upmarket independent city boutique stores are negotiating to stock the clothes.
‘We’ve had some trials and tribulations as we don’t have a lot of experience,’ said Bradford. ‘But everything has been moving pretty quickly.’
Realising that there are many supporters empathetic to their cause but priced out of contributing by purchasing a shirt, the Two Blind Brothers site is about to launch a new product range – leather wrist bands – to appeal to those on more modest budgets.
Bradford said: ‘We’re just having so much fun and learning a lot – and there’s no better excuse for not wearing a coat and tie to a meeting than when you have your own brand! The shirt fits and feels amazing.
‘I never wear anything else – apart from a tuxedo at my sister’s wedding recently!’
If you are not able to get to Necker Island to buy your Two Blind Brothers shirt you can order on their website here
Keep up with Brad and Bryan on their Facebook Page