New York Post
When brothers Bradford and Bryan Manning told their parents they were leaving their finance jobs to start a joint fashion line, their parents laughed.
“I think they were a little confused,” says 31-year-old Bradford. “Our dad was like, ‘You guys can barely dress yourselves!’”
It wasn’t a dig at their sartorial sense. Bradford and younger brother Bryan, 27, are legally blind. Their New York City-based online label, Two Blind Brothers, which launched a year ago, offers supersoft, Braille-enhanced T-shirts and henleys from $30 to $125, for both men and women — Richard Branson is a spokesman — with all of the proceeds going to the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which conducts research to help eradicate blindness.
“We do have an edge when it comes to fabrics and responding to touch,” says Bradford, when asked how two guys with a rare degenerative eye disease would go about designing clothes. “But we did have to call in a lot of favors.”
The Mannings, who grew up in Charlottesville, Va., were diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which gradually erodes the patient’s central vision, when they each turned 5. (The disease, which affects 1 in 10,000 people in the US, is genetic, though no one else in their immediate family has it.)
By the time they each graduated from high school, they’d had learned to read Braille and carried magnifying glasses in order to read type. The brothers currently have 20/400 vision, which means that they can see colors and shapes but no definition.
Bradford went to the University of Virginia and moved to New York to work at an investment company, and Bryan followed in his footsteps, landing a job in data sales after also graduating from UVA.
It was during a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s — spent touching dozens and dozens of shirts in search for the softest one — that the two thought of starting a clothing company.
“We just thought that it would be a really great way to interact with the [blind] community, but also expose [the community] to other folks as well,” says Bradford.
But the fashion newbies had a lot to learn.
“We probably touched 10,000 fabric swatches,” says Bryan. “And then once we got that we were like, ‘Great! Now, how do you make a shirt?’”
A friend tipped off Bradford and Bryan to a cut-and-sew manufacturer in Midtown, where the owner whips up samples based on the brothers’ specifications.
“We spent about six months debating whether the sleeves should be a quarter-inch longer,” says Bryan. They sent photos to their nonvisually-impaired friends for feedback.
Two Blind Brothers sold its first shirt last May, but it wasn’t until Ellen DeGeneres invited the entrepreneurs on her show in January that they could quit their day jobs, due to the resulting influx of orders. (The $30,000 check from the host helped, too.)
Now, they’re focusing on fashion full-time, and have hired three employees who work in the brothers’ shared living-and-work space near Canal Street.
“It can get a little intense,” says Bryan. “That’s why we have the arcade games, to duke it out whenever we have an argument.”