The clothing that Bryan and Bradford Manning create is sophisticated. It’s expertly tailored and intricately crafted. The designs are influenced by the culture of New York. Every item is exceptionally soft. While all this is enough cause for endorsement and adulation — Ellen Degeneres and Richard Branson are fans — there’s something else that makes the brothers’ design aspirations so important: They’re both legally blind and all profits from their clothing line, Two Blind Brothers, goes towards finding a cure for Stargardt Disease, a condition for which there is currently no treatment.
Stargardt disease, which affects 1 in every 8,000 to 10,000 people, is an inherited disorder that affects the macula, or the central part of the retina, which is responsible for all central vision.
“When light comes into your eye, the retina converts it into electrical signals that are used to create the images that we see,” explains Ben Shaberman, senior science writer at the Foundation Fighting Blindness. “The retina is comprised of these sensory cells called photoreceptors, and like all the cells in our body, there’s code that’s necessary for those photoreceptors to operate. If you have just one mistake in that code, bad things can happen. You can lose your vision, cells can die.”
For Bryan and Bradford, this means a loss of of central vision, something they’ve been struggling with since they were seven. “Glasses, contacts, that doesn’t help us because the cells in our center vision are dead,” says Bradford Manning. Daily life becomes more and more of a challenge as the disease progresses. For the brothers however, this challenge wasn’t just a stumbling block, it was a call to effect change. That call led the Mannings to start a fashion organization to raise awareness of their condition and help fund the research to end it.
While Bryan and Bradford’s background isn’t in fashion (Bryan holds a degree in statistics and previously worked in financial technology; Bradford earned a bachelor’s in finance, a master’s in psychology, and previously worked in finance and investment), there’s something that makes them uniquely qualified to become master clothiers — their attention to detail and their sense of touch.
“[In the store] We run around and feel everything, like we’re five years old,” Bryan Manning exclaims, explaining how he and his brother hit upon the idea to begin designing. “What we had run across is this awesomely soft shirt. And then there was this ‘aha!’ moment, that maybe there was something to losing your eyesight, that you might have a little bit of an enhanced sense of touch.”
The brothers’ condition has inspired in them a special vigilance for details, a passion that carries over into the construction of their clothing line. The Mannings spent six months poring over fabrics until they found the perfect one, the material that they wanted to be known for. But their work wasn’t done. Using adaptive technology, they created their company from the ground up, handling everything from design to customer service, something that may not have been possible in the days of carrying pocket magnifiers, but is increasingly feasible with the advent of inventions such as the smartphone.