Black History Month Spotlight: James Whitner Broke the Mold and Built His Own Streetwear Empire

In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides.

It’s been nearly 14 years since James Whitner opened his first sneaker boutique.

The Pittsburgh native now has a bevy of retail outposts across the South and the East Coast, including the high-end A Ma Maniére’s two stores in Washington D.C. and Atlanta, as well as eight locations of Social Status. His apparel and footwear stores’ stock highly sought-after brands and collaborations (think Off-White and Kenzo) — putting his name on the map among hardcore sneakerheads.

The success was partly driven by a business strategy centered on introducing cult-favorite brands to regions that were overlooked in favor of major metropolitan markets. It can also be attributed to Whitner’s tenacity to overcome, borne out of a history that involved drugs, incarceration and even a gunshot wound.

Here’s how the owner and founder of retail conglomerate The Whitaker Group broke the mold.

What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry? How did you break in?

“I’ve always loved apparel, getting dressed and the experience of shopping in great retail stores. I always knew I wanted to work for myself; I grew up in the hustle, so it all felt natural. I started in 2005 and used a combination of business acumen, hustle, drive, work ethic and a lot of mentoring from Antwain Freeman. I would say it finally all came together for me by 2008, and after 2009, things really took off.”

Looking back on your career to this point, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

“I’ve been blessed to have the ability to understand others’ — customers’ and vendors’ — needs and goals, understand the global market and anticipate future consumer needs. Two accomplishments I’m proud of is the fortune of being able to build what I believe is one of the strongest teams in the retail sector we sit in as well as our team’s ability to stay agile and create concepts that the world has accepted. It’s not a singular accomplishment because for all of us, change is a constant, but our ability to be able to do so in ways that are natural to who we are is what makes us who we are as a team.”

What is the biggest challenge African-Americans face in the shoe industry?

“As a race, we wake up every day as black men and women. I’m self-aware of everything that comes along with that. Based on my stature and presence, one of the biggest obstacles I’ve had to navigate is the conscious and unconscious bias we deal with daily. For people who have limited exposure to working with and/or socializing with folks from various diverse backgrounds, I prioritize making sure everyone feels comfortable in my presence while staying authentic to who I am. Holistic comfort on both sides is essential to productive relationships.”

What is the best advice you would offer other African-Americans looking to break into the shoe industry?

“When I think of the biggest challenges African-Americans face in the fashion and footwear industries, I wouldn’t be off base if I listed a number of age-old challenges [such as the] lack of opportunities, limited focus on career growth for diverse professionals, conscious and unconscious bias [and more]. However, in leveraging my ability to be a change agent for our industry, I’d like to focus [on its] opportunity to bolster diverse candidates in visible roles at every level of the big organizations, especially at the C-suite level. When we reflect on how innovation [in] our industry has [evolved] — [in terms of] products, service, consumer experience — what hasn’t necessarily had the same innovative thinking and approach is most organizations’ human resource methodology. [This is particularly true] on key topics like hiring, developing a bench, etc. Based on recent news at the end of 2018, I’d say Nike is making strides. They announced two C-suite roles [that] went to African-American professionals — to lead Converse and Jordan brands, respectively. Arguably the biggest news of 2018 was Virgil [Abloh]’s appointment at LVMH. These are all great signals; however, the rest of the playing field has been business as usual and very quiet on innovating their human resource efforts.”

As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

“I’m a big believer in figuring out what area of the business you are passionate about. Once you have identified your passion area, you have to obsess [over] it and become a student of it. It’s much easier to break into an industry if you have a point of view, a certain capability or skill and enough knowledge to be considered a subject matter expert who has the ability to add value immediately. What I just described is called owning your career and destiny. This starts with each and every one of us. We have to do the work upfront if we want folks to give us a shot.”

What specific steps should footwear companies take to make their teams more diverse? And what are some barriers of success?

“Diversity is critical, but at the same time, it can’t simply be for diversity’s sake. On a smaller scale in my organization, we’ve always taken the approach of leveraging key filters to get the right people in the right roles. More times than few, if your primary filter is having a diverse slate first and the capabilities for the role secondary and tertiary, you have the potential of failing to fill roles with the right talent. With that being said, it’s important for organizations to take a top-down, bottoms-up approach, with diversity as the critical centerpiece of the filters. This will ensure [that] all the capability filters are being checked off [and] organizations get to the core candidate pool with the right diverse candidates in the mix.”

Want more? Check out FN’s 2018 Black History Month Spotlight

Black History Month Spotlight: Naturalizer VP of Design Angelique Joseph

Black History Month Spotlight: K-Swiss Global Brands Marketing Director Patrick Buchanan

Black History Month Spotlight: Rasheeda Frost

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