Jun 27, 2016

Two Philanthropic Brothers — Selling Luxury Casual Wear for the Good of Retinal Research

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Photo of Bryan and Bradford Manning, co-founder/owners of Two Blind Brothers. Photo and video courtesy of Two Blind Brothers.

Bryan (left) and Bradford Manning, co-founder/owners of Two Blind Brothers. Photo and video courtesy of Two Blind Brothers.

Bradford Manning and his brother, Bryan, have a great sense of humor. You can see it in the video for their new clothing line, Two Blind Brothers — which donates its proceeds to retinal research — and hear it when you talk to Bradford over the phone.

His Spider-Man story is a great example. Late one night, a few years back, Bradford entered a New York City diner, where there was only one other customer. The Manning brothers have Stargardt disease, which impairs central vision, so Bradford couldn’t make out the details of the stranger’s face.

“But I just started talking to him,” Bradford, a member of the Foundation’s board of directors, recounts. “I asked, ‘You live around here?’ ‘Oh, yeah, a few blocks away.’ ‘Cool, what do you do?’”

The guy said he was an actor, and that he’d recently appeared in the movie The Amazing Spider-Man.

“’Wow,’ I said, ‘that’s awesome—a big studio film,’” Bradford continues. “Then I asked, ‘So, what was your role?’ And he kind of paused for a second, then said, ‘Uh, I was Spider-Man.’”

The stranger was Andrew Garfield.

Bradford, who’s 31, was diagnosed with Stargardt disease at age 6, a year after he failed the eye-chart test in kindergarten. Bryan, who’s five years younger, was diagnosed “as soon as they noticed he had eye problems,” Bradford recalls. Ever since then, with encouragement from their parents, the brothers have taken on every challenge not only with a sense of humor, but with grit and intelligence.

Both started learning Braille in middle school. Bradford swam competitively in high school and played water polo at the University of Virginia, where he majored in finance. Today he’s a founder and principal at Tiger Lily Capital, an investment-management company. Bryan played lacrosse and football, majored in statistics at UVA and now works for S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“Our parents allowed Bryan and me to participate in whatever we wanted,” Bradford says. “They encouraged us to find our own limitations.”

There don’t seem to be many. When it came time to think of a way to benefit retinal research while tackling yet another challenge, the brothers teamed up together. “That’s when we came up with the name Two Blind Brothers,” Bradford recalls. “It’s us. It’s authentic. It’s what our brand stands for.”

The same strategy dictated design — upscale, short- and long-sleeve henley shirts. “We’ve relied on our sense of touch throughout life, and we’ve leveraged that sense to source incomparable fabrics,” Bradford explains. “The clothing is designed for people who care a lot about the way clothes feel on the skin. We are serving a wide audience, particularly our friends in New York. The clothing is casual, but it’s also able to be dressed up with a sport coat.”

The company’s logo includes the word “look” written in Braille. “That word alludes to our mission,” Bradford explains. “Esthetically, we thought it looked interesting—it almost looks like an arrow going to the right. But it’s also a pun on ‘looking good.’”

One other detail is significant—a raised-Braille metal tag on one sleeve of each shirt. “It says ‘brother,’ but we will change the word in future collections,” Bradford says. “It’s another way in which we bring our experience with visual disability to the clothing. If you don’t know Braille, that tag feels like breadcrumbs. But to someone who’s not sighted, it’s like reading poetry.”

All production is done in New York, with top-line tailoring and fabrics. But the shirts are less pricey than major luxury brands — $100 for the short-sleeve shirts, $125 for the long-sleeves. In the future, the Mannings plan to expand the line, to include women’s wear and accessories. And in mid-July, the company’s headquarters, in Soho, will open a showroom.

Bradford will share some of these plans, and offer Two Blind Brothers’ shirts for sale, in the Exhibit Hall at VISIONS 2016, FFB’s national conference, which kicks off June 30 in Baltimore. He’ll also emphasize that he and Bryan won’t be profiting from the sales; with help from an advisory board, they’ll review various research projects, then distribute the funding.

As an FFB board member focused on cutting-edge research, Bradford has no doubt the Foundation will be on the receiving end of the proceeds. “And the message we want to get across,” he says, “is much like the Foundation’s — it’s not so much a question about revolutionary science at this point; it’s about getting these projects through clinical trials and into commercialization.”