Words: Jourdan Ash
James Whitner is focused on being the change he wants to see. After spending his early life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, James moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he began to create a world of his own through sneakers. Since then, he’s opened experiential stores and spaces in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Greensboro, Houston, Raleigh, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Jersey City and Washington, D.C. and launched numerous educational and philanthropic initiatives.
The last year forced James to slow down and shift the way he connects with his audiences. It also gave him the chance to finalize his next collaboration with Jordan Brand, an Air Jordan III and apparel collection, making it a vessel for the experiences that have shaped many Black people today. His own admiration for his mother, and all Black women, paired with years of cultural and design expertise, have resulted in a moment that’s about much more than product. It’s about uplifting and acknowledging the pillars of our families.
Still from A Ma Maniére’s Raised by Women film
Ahead of the release, James debuted a moving three-minute film, Raised by Women, directed by the Turner Brothers. The film depicts the many ways that Black women show up for their children, their communities and themselves on a daily basis. James chose the Air Jordan III for the release, a nod to the first Jordans his mother bought for him, as well as her lasting impact on him as a person.
James approached the collection’s apparel with a timeless, neutral color palette and loose yet structured silhouettes. The sneaker, adorned with both the Jumpman and A Ma Maniére logos, has reassuring quotes on the back tabs: “You have to be comfortable walking alone” and “All we have is each other.”
These aren’t just mantras for James, he walks the talk. To further the advancement of young entrepreneurs, he and his teams have implemented programs like Product Swap, Fight With Rights and the women-centered Women Within and She Sneaks programs, led by Chantel Mack and Cristy Montoya. “There’s a responsibility for me to stand up for women, to support the creation of spaces where they are comfortable and heard,” says James. “It’s about putting their voices forward, and we all have to do more.”
Below, James talks about being raised by women and his new Jordan Brand collaboration.
Let’s start with the short film you made, Raised by Women. Why was it so important for you to center Black women and mothers when creating this film?
It’s real. The only stories I can tell are the ones I’m familiar with and close to. In the neighborhood I’m from, your mom is called your raise. No one called anybody your mom, because it was understood that she’s the woman who raised you. I was thinking about powerful Black women. Most of us were raised by our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and in some cases big sisters. It was always a strong Black woman.
I get that. What was the process of creating the film like? How did you pick the women to be in the film?
Honestly, it was so hard. It was hard because these stories really strike a chord with me. A lot of the people in my life from that time aren’t around anymore. Either they passed away, or if they are around, they’re incarcerated. I needed to block out the space to channel that energy. After that, I was really clear with our team that the women in the film needed to speak to what’s really happening in our Black community.
It was also important for me to work with a videography team that came from the same background as me. I wanted a team of people who, when I say “from the bottom,” I don’t need to explain what that means. They just got it.
When creating this script and working on this collaboration, what did you need around you in order to feel comfortable tapping into those memories — especially during this pandemic?
Just silence. I let myself go to that place, even though it was tough. So much has happened. When you start to go back and dig, it just opens wounds. That’s the important part. If we don’t tell these stories, who’s going to tell them? I’m all for celebrating, but I also want to acknowledge our past, our pain and our struggle. Silence helped me get there.
This was primarily about the women around me, and how they’ve supported me through what I’ve been through. Once I got there, it was easy. I just had to get there.
How do the women in your life, and women in general, inspire your creativity, style and approach to this day?
It’s the confidence to be in a space. My mother and my aunts helped me become comfortable in who I am. I was able to make it in this industry through how I grew up because I’m very comfortable being myself. I’m grounded, and I trust the voice in my head. I don’t need to follow anyone else’s lead. Does that make sense?
It absolutely does. It takes a while to get there. But once that’s been instilled in you as a child, you really can’t go back to anything else.
Yes. It’s them teaching you how not to need anyone.
My personal style is that I wear black, because it’s a canvas, and it’s neutral. It also makes it easy for me, because I don’t need to make fashion decisions every day. Growing up, a lot of my style was minimalist, often out of necessity. If you look at what we’ve done with “Hand Wash Cold,” the only way you keep a three-pack of black T-shirts clean is if you hand wash them cold. When they’re done drying, you iron them, so they stay crisp, right? That embodies everything about my personal style.
Thinking about your personal style, why did you go with the Air Jordan III for this Jordan collaboration?
It’s the first Jordan my mother ever bought me. My younger brother reminded me of that before we got into this collaboration. I had to be in the second or third grade. It was the first AJ3 to drop. If you flip up the back tab of the shoes, one says, “You have to be comfortable walking alone.” The other shoe says, “All we have is each other.” My mom would always say that to us, “All we got is each other.”
I can imagine how good you felt getting that pair of sneakers, how hard you went to keep them clean. When it’s the first pair you get, and it’s so highly anticipated, you cannot play with those sneakers.
And just think about how hard Ele is to keep clean. Like any slight oil or anything that gets on it, it’s a wrap. As the OG starts to scuff, you can’t clean it. It was exciting as hell, but yes, it was tough to keep clean.
How would you describe the details of your new Air Jordan III x A Ma Maniére, in terms of color, material and narrative?
Classic, timeless and luxurious. It’s the design language for everything we do at A Ma Maniére. The idea is that, when you’re buying things that are expensive and meaningful, you should only be doing it once, right? That way, you’re going to care for it. It’s different because it’s classic; it’s something you keep forever. It hits the timeless point.
Then, it’s about having luxurious details to bring out a model like the AJ3. It’s already such an amazing, iconic model. What can you do to a shoe that’s already so incredible? You can only figure out ways to make it more timeless. When you take the Ele off and replace it with suede, it automatically becomes something different, yet it also remains the same.
You mentioned minimalism as being central to your style. The apparel comes in natural colors and flows really well together. What was the inspiration for the apparel side of this collaboration?
I wanted to create a collection that women would think was dope, but that men would like, too. The other thing we wanted to do was coordinate, though we didn’t want to match. It’s meant to be perfectly imperfect. You can wear gray and mauve together. Gray, cream and mauve are the hero colors. We wanted to add black, for the reasons I’ve explained already. We wanted the fit to be boxy while retaining a somewhat streetwear silhouette. It’s an OG feeling. If you know, you know. It’s like a double entendre — combining minimalism in streetwear and classic luxury while making it all feel really good, so that any man or woman wants to grab it because it’s dope.
I like that you can mix and match with other things in your closet, too. Sometimes, you can’t get every piece and wear the full look.
Yes. Exactly. You shouldn’t have to buy it all. You could just have any one of the pieces from the collection and still be able to represent it well.
Just being able to tell our stories. To me, Jordan Brand represents Black excellence in and of itself. If you think about who MJ is, and what he embodies as a player and as a person, that connects back to the Brand. That’s what it’s always been. That’s always been my connection. The Brand gives us the ability to tell powerful stories that are true to our roots as a community. There are rarely the right voices authentically telling those stories. Everybody’s leveraging our community to buy, but how many people are telling the real stories.
Your work goes beyond sneaker releases, you really go out of your way to help Black people through mentorship, events, educational initiatives and more. What’s next for you, A Ma Maniére and The Whitaker Group?
The overall company has a couple of pillars. The first one is always about supporting the Black community as a whole. The second one is about experiences. The third one is continuing to connect and be great retailers. We’re constantly drilling down on the foundations of all of those things and strengthening our relationships and partnerships with the people we serve.
We got to be here forever. It’s our responsibility to turn this 15 minutes into forever. I want to help people get from where I was when I was 20 to where I am as a 40-year-old.
It’s also important for us to keep our feet on solid ground. We work to make sure that we’re being strategic in our messaging, to reach and help the most people. It’s about planting seeds for all of us.
The Jordan Brand x A Ma Maniére collection releases June 10.