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James Whitner is one of the most recognizable names in the streetwear arena. In 2005, he launched his first streetwear store, Flava Factory in Charlotte, North Carolina, fulfilling a longtime dream. After meeting Antwain Freeman (who would become his best friend and mentor), Whitner reinvested in Social Status, opening the first store in Pittsburgh in 2007.
Now the founder and owner of over a dozen APB, A Ma Maniere, and Social Status stores across the country, he curates, stimulates, and offers some of today’s most covetable global goods. His shopping spaces go beyond the typical retail location. Each is a gathering place for its local community, with programming and a message that doesn’t shy away from life’s sticky subjects in the right direction.
Whitewall spoke with Whitner about why this community-embedded approach to retail is a personal testament to his past, and how he’s empowering others with education for change.
WHITEWALL: The Whitaker Group is made up of 17 stores now and their “Whitaker Projects” community programs. What do these encompass?
JAMES WHITNER: Each retail banner has its own community outreach arm. APB has APB U, A Ma Maniere has Hand Wash Cold, Social Status has beSocial. These also all have their own dedicated physical space within the retail stores. It’s important for us to connect with our local community on a meaningful level. I want to empower individuals to become agents for change in their cities and beyond.
Our programs include Free Game, which educates our community on topics—like retail culture, voter suppression, mental health, and most recently “Street Law”—that aren’t regularly talked about. They originally took place at our local retail stores, but we moved to Zoom during the pandemic. It’s been great, as we can now host up to 500 people and have the audience interact with the panel.
Brand(ed) focuses on collaborations with our brand partners to help the community and raise brand awareness. Women Within is a series of monthly meet-up and organized workshops. Bag Talk focuses on financial literacy. Fight with Rights is a series on voter education to prevent voter suppression and empower individuals to make change within local government.
WW: How was your latest Free Game session, “Street Law,” inspired by Vice President Kamala Harris?
JW: Civil rights lawyer and founder of For The Struggle, Alesha S. Brown, joined Free Game to talk about Street Law and the Fourth Amendment, which was Vice President Harris’s suggestion when she came to Social Status in Charlotte during her campaign in October 2020. Most Black kids aren’t aware of their rights, which is a huge disadvantage when dealing with landlords or law enforcement.
WW: What do you feel is street culture’s influence on society?
JW: Street culture has always been a driving force behind what moves society. To clarify, “street culture” to me means “Black culture.” It has influenced the world inclusive of music, art, fashion, and helped birth streetwear. It’s been leveraged by all industries to gain influence, coolness, and social status. My only burn with it is Black culture inspires but doesn’t reap the benefits of it. We influence it all for it to be taken off of us and sold back to us at a profit. I love our influence, but we have to be more intentional about capturing more of it and getting the necessary credit.
WW: A Ma Maniere, D.C., is a combination of retail and hospitality, featuring two luxury hotel suites directly above the boutique. What link do you see between retail and hospitality?
JW: Our boutiques are more than retail—they are about the community, lifestyle, and experiences. I’m all about pushing the boundaries and expectations in retail, so growing A Ma Maniere into an actual modern living experience seemed the natural next step.
WW: How has the pandemic impacted how you are approaching work and life in the months and years to come?
JW: It’s made me obsess about the connection between digital and physical on the business side. It’s made me hyper-focused on the Black community and what we need to have a chance for parity in the world. My family is as passionate about what I do as I am. My children are nine and 14, so I’m working to build a foundation in them to have the character and integrity to understand the world and why it’s important for us to all have a great chance.
WW: Can you tell us about your happenings in Pittsburg, and where you’ll open stores next?
JW: We’re opening two units in Mon View Heights that will resemble our other beSocial spaces, which are traditionally attached to retail. This space, however, won’t host any retail components and will focus on programming only, functioning entirely as a space for the community. We’ll host financial and mental health programs and afterschool programs.
After Pittsburgh, we’ll be opening stores in Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, and Harlem.
WW: What’s next for the Whitaker Group?
JW: Right now, my focus is on uplifting Black entrepreneurship, creatives, and mentoring. When I’m connected to this, I’m most creative and inspired. I want to be a part of creating what’s next—from Eastside Golf, Circle of Winners, and Good Fat on the brand side to creatives like Julian Gaines or Nina Chanel Abney (who are unapologetic in their approach at creating and still don’t get the respect that they should) and to kids in the projects that are simply creative in their way of existing based on their circumstances. I find joy and inspiration in the process.