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(Bloomberg) -- Walk into Bradford and Bryan Manning’s SoHo loft, and the first thing you see is a giant eye-chart-style painting that, instead of the standard Es in backward and forward formats, spells out the name of their clothing company, Two Blind Brothers.
The Mannings both have Stargardt’s disease, a genetic disorder of the retina that causes the body to process vitamin A incorrectly. Byproducts of the vitamin accumulate on the macula, eventually resulting in a loss of central vision, as if perpetually looking at the world through an eclipse. Onset is typically in childhood. Bradford and Bryan, now 32 and 26 years old, respectively, were each diagnosed with the disease at seven years of age. The brothers are not totally blind, but the condition blacks out their eyesight in the center field of vision, and they can see 20/400 on the periphery.
The duo has now taken that identity—Two Blind Brothers—and turned it into a most unexpected thing: a successful upstart clothing brand. They put all its profits into support for Foundation Fighting Blindness, an organization started in 1971 to find treatments and cures for inherited retinal diseases.
Since the company was launched in May of 2016, Two Blind Brothers has contributed $70,000 to the Foundation Fighting Blindness, with another contribution of $30,000 imminent. “When we started this, we had zero concept of what it was supposed to become,” says Bradford Manning, who has worked in finance in various positions within investment advisory firms including PBM Capital Group, Rothschild & Co, U.S. Trust, and Macoma Capital Group where he focused on business development, deal sourcing, and diligence. He still serves as a director at Tiger Lily Capital. Bryan also worked in the financial technology space for S&P Global Market Intelligence and Oracle Corporation on their respective sales teams.
Before Two Blind Brothers, the duo had wanted to come up with a project to support the foundation and thought it would “be an interesting thing to focus on the sense of touch.” They spent weeks feeling their way through fabric swatches before finding bamboo-based fabric blends that were satisfyingly soft.
“It was realistically supposed to be us making shirts for our friends to buy them and getting a little awareness out to the world,” Bradford says. Each shirt, with prices that range from $30 to $105, has a small metal braille tag that reads “brother,” “look,” or “feel” sewn onto a sleeve. All their shirts are made by visually impaired workers at the Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind.
“We had the good fortune of just so many amazing people deciding to support us and share our story,” continues Bryan. Those amazing people include Ellen Degeneres. When she invited the brothers onto her show in January of this year—and with sponsor Shutterfly, bought $30,000 in shirts for her studio audience—“it gave our cause a massive attention swell. It was one of the single coolest days of our lives.”
Their story is told, not just in interviews and a robust social media presence, but also through the product names themselves. The site currently offers more than 40 T-shirts, Henleys, and hoodies, each one named for a person or place special to the brothers. The women’s line, broadly, is called the Sighted Sister line for their sister Katie, who did not inherit the disease. Kalamazoo, a forest green hooded long-sleeve T-shirt with a navy-and-green lining in the hood, recalls where they spent holidays as children. A navy blue Henley is named for their father Paul.
The Branson, meanwhile was named for an early adviser and advocate, Richard Branson. Bradford met the Virgin Group billionaire at his Necker Island resort through a mutual acquaintance. “I went down there right when we launched Two Blind Brothers. I was telling [Branson] the story of the brand and asked for advice. He said, ‘You know, this is a good story, and as many people as you can get need to hear this.’ I said ‘Well, on that note, can you help?’”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Here I am. First of all I want to buy like a thousand shirts.” And until Hurricane Irma destroyed it, Branson’s shop on Necker Island was pretty much the only brick-and-mortar outlet where you could by a Two Blind Brothers garment. He even did a little video.
So often, businesses struggle to figure out how to accommodate the handicapped, but the brothers have had a learning curve from the other direction, in how visually impaired people buy online. “I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything on my phone, because that is just a giant project for me,” Bryan says. “But for a fully sighted person, that is how they buy. It’s been such an interesting thing to change your perspective and realize you’ve been thinking like a visually impaired person your whole life. You actually have to think about such a broader audience.”
The goal they have in sight is to ultimately raise a million dollars for the cause, something that Bryan thinks could top the thrill of that first appearance on Ellen. “That would be a pretty fun day.”
To contact the author of this story: Matthew Kronsberg in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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