Why James Whitner’s The Whitaker Group Is What Retail Needed in 2020

On Dec. 8, The Whitaker Group will be honored as Retailer of the Year at the first virtual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 7 print issue about the James Whitner-led retail empire, which put its community focus on full display through educational opportunities, social justice discussions, voter initiatives and more. 

With the coronavirus disrupting the retail landscape, The Whitaker Group, led by owner and founder James Whitner, opted to double down on its people-first mission. As shoppers remained indoors — and became more engaged than ever — his four retail banners (which include Social Status, A Ma Maniere, APB and Prosper) were hyper-focused on the most pressing issues in their communities, particularly social justice.

“COVID presented a unique opportunity for racial injustice to become a mainstream topic,” explained Whitner. “It made everybody care about it more. It slowed the world down and made the world get laser focused on it. And then layer in a divisive president in Donald Trump — it made for a perfect storm.”

When tensions began to rise in the summer, The Whitaker Group responded by closing its banners on Aug. 28 to protest racial injustice following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Three months later, as attention moved to voter initiatives, the stores closed again on Election Day to drive people to the polls.

And in the months between, Social Status in Charlotte, N.C., welcomed one high-profile visitor who shared a message of love, community and positive energy while on the campaign trail: then-Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris (now VP-elect).

To fulfill Whitner’s community-oriented mission, each retail banner activated its own program. For example, APB has APB U and A Ma Maniere has Hand Wash Cold. However, Social Status made the biggest splash with its BeSOCIAL platform — specifically its “Free Game” educational series.

“During the time where everybody was sitting at home, BeSOCIAL allowed us to still be available,” said Dave Butler, The Whitaker Group’s director of community initiatives. “It was something we were doing prior to the pandemic in Charlotte, so the framework was in place for us to scale easily, while dealing with the limitations of the pandemic. And we were able to get James’ friends to come on.”

BeSOCIAL Social Status
A pre-pandemic BeSOCIAL event at Social Status.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Whitaker Group

Indeed, a Zoom panel in April featured Sneaker Politics owner Derek Curry, Concepts creative director Deon Point, Oneness owner Joe Staley and others, who offered insights on how to start in the sneaker business.

Whitner said he wants to use his platform to encourage people interested in a future in footwear and fashion.

“I’m a Black man who works in a primarily white industry — which [is the case for] Black people in all industries,” Whitner said. “There isn’t a focus on us [professionally], but there’s always a focus on us as consumers.”

He continued, “I’m from the projects and made a way for myself. Now, I’m trying to kick the door open so kids still in the projects understand how to make a way for themselves.”

Whitner’s efforts have garnered the support of his notable brand partners.

“James’ personal story is proof that your life can be bigger than the circumstances that surround it,” Jordan Brand president Craig Williams told FN. “I’m most excited about what someone like James means to the next generation of leaders. Seeing an example of what excellence looks like helps others to dream of what’s possible.”

The retail exec also has invested financially in his community, awarding up to $10,000 throughout the year to entrepreneurs with promising ideas. And in October, he split The Whitaker Group into two units: the for-profit retail division and a nonprofit arm dubbed The Whitaker Project. Its first initiative is the buildout of a community center near Pittsburgh’s Whitaker housing projects, where Whitner grew up.

Meanwhile, The Whitaker Group’s for- profit group is move forward with aggressive plans as well. A new A Ma Maniere flagship will open in Atlanta in late 2021, spanning 23,000 square feet and include the Living and Eats functions, a Hand Wash Cold community space and retail store. (The Whitaker Group will also introduce its A Ma Maniere Cabin and A Ma Maniere Beach concepts in 2021.)

A Ma Maniere Atlanta
A rendering of the A Ma Maniere flagship slated to open in Atlanta in late 2021.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Whitaker Group

Atlanta’s existing A Ma Maniere will become Social Status, and the city’s current Social Status will become The Whitaker Group’s debut women’s and kids’ store.

Also, two more Social Status doors will open next year, in Baltimore and Detroit. “Detroit and Baltimore were chosen not
for what we can do from a commercial perspective,” Whitner said. “They’re places we can add value to.”

Looking further ahead, Whitner said there will be an A Ma Maniere flagship in Harlem in late 2022 and either a Social Status or an A Ma Maniere in London — specifically the historically Black community of Brixton — to follow.

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For 34 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards ­— often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The first virtual FNAAs will air online Dec. 8 and are presented in partnership with The Style Room Powered by Zappos, and sponsors FDRA, Deckers Brands, Soles4Souls and Foot Locker. 

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