Hey everybody and welcome to this week's episode of Brand Your Passion. I am so excited to be joined by the incredible Whitney Manney this week. Welcome to the show, Whitney!
Hi! Thank you so much for having me, Hollie.
You are so welcome, thank you for joining me. Before we kick things off, I would love for you to introduce yourself to the people, and tell everybody who you are and what you do before we dive into things.
For sure. I'm a fashion and textile designer based in Kansas City, Missouri in the US. I create work that combines colour, pattern and texture. Really, WM is just about wearing your confidence and wearing your statement. I'm a more-is-more kind of girl, so the bigger the better over here.
WM is just about wearing your confidence and wearing your statement.
We are 100% with you on that! All about colour and pattern, we love it. I did a little bit of research about you and I know that you started doing fashion design and making your own clothes when you were a teenager. Is that right?
Yeah, I started sewing when I was 13. 13 is kind of a big birthday, so I just asked for a sewing machine to be my big gift. My mama doesn't sew, I didn't really know anybody that sewed, I just asked for a machine. My thought process was basically to be able to keep my clothes longer. I'm 6 foot and when I was growing up, it seemed like I would wake up half an inch taller every day. So I was like, okay, if I can't turn the stuff that I love into something else, maybe I can keep my stuff longer. That's really where it grew from. It wasn't like I idolised fashion designers or anything like that. I just wanted to keep my clothes for as long as I could.
Amazing. It's like a passion born out of practicality, I love it! Would you describe yourself as creative at all before that, or did that come through that?
Definitely. I think my parents always knew I was gonna be some type of artist, it was just about what I would gravitate towards. I was always in every art class and art camp that I possibly could be in. But I really only looked at that from the traditional approach of photography, painting classes, drawing, ceramics and stuff like that. Even creative writing. Honestly, I think my parents thought I was going to be a writer of some sort. That was the other career plan, it was kind of back and forth for a while but fashion won out.
Fashion was and still is such a challenge for me. All those other mediums came really easy for me, but I had no education or understanding of fashion. I mean, you're talking about growing up in the Midwest in the 90s and early 2000s. The internet was not what it is now. Trends travelled a lot slower. So I think I really liked the challenge and I liked that nobody could tell me what it was. I could decide for myself what that meant for me.
I liked that nobody could tell me what fashion was. I could decide for myself what that meant for me.
That's so interesting that the things that were easy weren't the things that you gravitated towards. I love that you're someone who needs a challenge along the way.
When you started to make clothes back when you were a teenager, was your style as colourful and bold as it is now or has that changed over time?
I don't know... What was I wearing back then? I have no idea! I don't even know if I want to remember, for real.
No, what's funny is that around the time I really got into fashion, even before my sewing machine, the Style channel and Limited Too was everything in the world. That was what we wanted and what we dreamed of getting. So I would sit and hand-draw catalogues with different designs and stuff. I have my sketchbooks from fifth grade through to now, I just keep them all. It's half funny, half cringy, half inspiring to look at, but a lot of the time you were just copying what you were looking at.
Growing up when I did and seeing hip hop fashion, black culture and seeing how my family dressed, that was what I based fashion around. That's what it meant to me, so it just made sense for me to go in the direction of bright colours, being really graphic, having strong mark making and all that stuff. I think the evolution definitely makes sense when I line it all up together. But when I was young, I was making clothes for my Barbie and Addy dolls, just trying stuff.
Growing up when I did and seeing hip hop fashion, black culture and seeing how my family dressed, that was what I based fashion around. That's what it meant to me.
I love that. It's funny that you mentioned drawing catalogues because a few creatives I've talked to on this podcast say that they used to draw magazines back in the day. It must just be a thing that young creatives do as kids!
I think it's also because for that time period, print is how we got a lot of our information. My biggest goal at that time was to be on the cover of Teen People. My mama would use her leftover flight miles to get me magazine subscriptions like Teen People and Seventeen because I just loved them so much. That was how we got our information. It wasn't like we could scroll through an app on our phone, we had to flip through the glossies.
I wonder if young creatives now are drawing Instagram feeds or something as the equivalent!
So if we fast forward a bit from starting to get into fashion and making your own clothes to starting Whitney Manney the fashion label, how did that start and when did you decide you were going to make this a thing?
After my freshman year of high school, my family relocated to Phoenix, Arizona and I went to a performing and visual arts high school out there. It was just the best experience. I got to take art class pretty much from morning till afternoon, and a lot more specialised classes. Towards the end of my junior year, they added fashion classes. I thought, this will be great, because at this point I am literally spending my nights and weekends in my room sewing, making stuff and trying stuff. Me and my mama would get fabric from Walmart and try patterns and stuff like that. That's all I was doing, so it was great to be able to be in a classroom setting and have somebody be like, "Actually, this is how you do this on the machine" because I was just making stuff up and hoping for the best.
Once I was able to see that you can be a professional in fashion, it just hit a light for me. I mean, honestly it was between journalism and fashion design. Within journalism, I wanted to go the fashion route, but it got real close. I just thought, if I get into art school, that must mean I should go. That's just the rationale of a 16 year old. At that point, you got nothing to lose. You gotta be like, if it works, it works out. It worked out, thank goodness.
If I get into art school, that must mean I should go. If it works, it works out.
When I got to school, the intention was to be an entrepreneur. The thing is, it’s an interesting time to be in college during a history making recession. College was not what I thought it was going to be, just because of what was happening in the world. I wasn’t able to take advantage of doing internships in New York or LA or anything like that, so to me, I felt like I wasn’t a viable applicant for any job after school, like to be somebody’s assistant or a junior designer. So my problem solving said, okay, well you just start your own business.
Knowing what I know now, I don’t know if 31 year old Whit would encourage that. If I had to go back, I don’t know if I would have done that. But at the same time, I probably would have, because this market now - I can’t complain.
I made sure to educate myself while being educated in the classroom and find those resources that I needed - because the goal was to walk across the stage and work for myself.
So that was just my thought process. I am very realistic, so I was like, I have 4 years to get it done. I can’t take a gap year, I don’t have the luxury of just finding myself, I gotta get it done. And art school does not necessarily have business classes, so I made sure to educate myself while being educated in the classroom and find those resources that I needed - because the goal was to walk across the stage and work for myself. That was it.
It took a little time to build everything up, but I have always been a full-time artist. I would be in studio 40 hours a week and still work 3 part-time jobs to support myself, but this has always been the main gig.
I have always been a full-time artist. I would be in studio 40 hours a week and still work 3 part-time jobs to support myself, but this has always been the main gig.
I love what you just said, that I’m going to walk across that stage and then it’s going to be my time. I’m going to work for myself. That’s amazing.
When you did start Whitney Manny and built up this brand, did you do any quote-unquote “branding work” from the beginning? Tell me about that process.
Yes. What’s so funny though is the thing that really hyped me up about being able to do it myself was that in school, Tumblr was the thing. All the fashion girls on Tumblr were building their Etsys and beauty YouTubers were creating their own businesses, so I just copied what they did. I mean, it’s not rocket science, you really do not have to reinvent the wheel. And when I say I copied everything they did, I really paid attention to how they staged everything, their process, what they started with, watched YouTube videos about how they did something and really picked and chose what I thought would work.
While I was still in school, I started developing that stuff. That way, I could test it in the classroom, get feedback from my peers, but then also test it in the community. Because those are the people that are gonna be buying my work, not just people that graduated from art school. I need feedback from both audiences.
I know what I’m doing. I know what the plan is.
I really do have a genuine love for branding, so I just worked on that while I was still in school. I made it a part of one of my junior projects and just developed it from there. I made sure to interject it into each of my projects and kind of slide it in there into critiques. Sometimes they’d be like, “Why are you doing this? You should be focusing on…” And I’m like, child, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing. I know what the plan is.
That’s smart work weaving it in so you can do both at the same time, I love that. I assume you were doing all of that yourself at the time, like designing logos and everything. Have you changed the brand since then? If you have, did you do it?
Yeah, I’m still on the DIY train, honey. My logo has evolved over the years. Right now, my WM is my handwriting. I’m actually getting my website redesigned by somebody else right now, so a big old step for me because I have literally done everything on my own.
But you get it to a point where you’re like, I’m tired. I don’t have no ideas and I don’t want to learn how to do something else. I can go ahead and hire somebody, it’s gonna be okay. So I’m in that process of getting the website redone by someone else, but I love how much of me is in everything. I think it comes across and I think it helps people connect with my work too.
I love how much of me is in everything. I think it comes across and I think it helps people connect with my work too.
Yeah, definitely. I think whether you’re a branding designer or not, so many of us creatives have the related skills to actually do a really great job of DIYing your brand. That’s lasted you so many years before you’ve just hired the first person to help you do that. That’s amazing.
Yeah. I mean, I've definitely been wearing all the hats. I know how to make the hats. So all those fields definitely cross over.
When we talk about your brand, obviously there’s the visual side of things. But then there’s also the brand strategy, like your mission and vision. On your website, you have quite clear values about being ethical and your work not being boring. Is it something that you’ve thought about intentionally? Tell me about the process of those kinds of things, aside from just the visuals.
That’s so funny because that tagline of ‘ethical, not boring’ came up because I was pitching my work a few years ago for wholesale accounts and a lot of the stores that I focused on are independent boutiques that carry ethical brands. And the client was like, “Well, you know, we really prefer the ethical look, like neutrals.”
I’m like, why does neutral and calm and tan and linens equal ethical? Why is that the only definition of ethical? So I started saying my work is ‘ethical, not boring’ after that. No shade to everybody else. But us maximalist people should be able to be included in that too. We just use a few more colours, that’s all. The colour palette is a bit bigger.
Why does neutral and calm and tan and linens equal ethical? Why is that the only definition of ethical? So I started saying my work is ‘ethical, not boring’ after that.
But really, WM started out of wanting to be able to express myself, use fashion as a communication tool, love myself a little bit better, and be a little bit nicer to myself. I felt like if I have those feelings and I know I’m a creative person, there’s got to be other people who feel that same way. There’s got to be people who care about how their things are made, or the quality of things, or just want something that’s incredibly fly that they ain’t seen nowhere else. That they can include into their existing wardrobe, style it how they want to, and not feel like they’re doing something to keep up with the rest of the world. They are making their own world, you know?
WM started out of wanting to be able to express myself, use fashion as a communication tool, love myself a little bit better, and be a little bit nicer to myself.
I see the world of WM as this complete ecosystem where I can be a part of so many different opportunities. I’m able to be visible in different ways on different platforms, all because I just like being loud. I design all of my fabric. I love textile design. And that is the thing that really made me feel like - you got a unique voice. If you can sit here and design some fabric that came out of your head, that’s your edge right there. Can’t nobody mess with that. Nobody can take what you’re drawing. I mean, they can try but they’ll get a quick cease and desist, let me tell you.
I see the world of WM as this complete ecosystem where I can be a part of so many different opportunities.
Being able to create my own textiles, create at a fast pace, and really think of the idea of working with the body instead of against it is what really fuels me to keep creating. I just really want to be able to combine those fine art techniques in a wearable way. I don’t necessarily want to make couture or bridal gowns, I want to wear stuff that matters and I can go out to a meeting or to the grocery store.
If you can sit here and design some fabric that came out of your head, that’s your edge right there. Can’t nobody mess with that.
I know that your clothes have been in Vans ads and Wendy’s, and you’ve just recently been in the reboot of Bel-Air, which is awesome. How have all of these opportunities come about to grow your brand and get more visibility? Was it intentional to try and get those things?
I’ll tell you what. Like so many of us, 2020 completely rocked my world. It got to the point where every little gig I had just stopped, it dried up basically. I didn’t notice it at first and then after a while, business in studio picked up. Up until that point, my primary source of income relied on in-person interactions. That’s completely off the table.
I was days away from going to exhibit in a show in Atlanta when they were like, don’t come and I was quickly trying to figure out what to do. Up until then, I would get online sales every now and then. I would consistently put in the work to build it and have a working platform, it’s just that it wasn’t being seen. And so out of nowhere, people are rushing there. That could have been overwhelming had I not done the work all those years leading up to it. I was able to take it in stride. It was a few months into it when I was like, I’ve been only coming to studio every day and I’m fine. I ate today, everything is paid for. What is going on?
That could have been overwhelming had I not done the work all those years leading up to it.
If I had to make the conscious decision to be a full-time entrepreneur, I don’t think I would have made it. I think I would have felt like I could keep working 60 odd hours a week between WM and all my jobs because I’ve been doing it now, what’s the problem? I could just keep doing it and have the security. You hear coaches say you should have a year of expenses saved and stuff like that. If I had to go about it that way, I would have kept pushing that date out and out the closer I got.
People that would have never known about me now know about me.
As messed up and terrible and hard as the pandemic has been, it has leveraged a lot of opportunities for artists. People that would have never known about me now know about me. It’s one of those double-edged swords because it’s amazing, but at the same time, look at what it took for that to happen.
I just really made sure I was ready to be able to take advantage of any opportunity, keep flipping it and flipping it and flipping it until it turns into something else. And so really, the grant from Joanne in 2020 and then being in the ConvertKit commercial were the two things where after that, I was just like, we rolling. I’m forever so thankful for it. I’ve been telling people thank you, thank you, thank you profusely. I hope they know that I genuinely mean it because, for real, it changed my life.
I’m forever so thankful for it. I’ve been telling people thank you, thank you, thank you profusely. I hope they know that I genuinely mean it because, for real, it changed my life.
At the production company that filmed the ConvertKit commercial, the director asked if I’d ever considered doing wardrobe design. I’m like, no, I didn’t even know that was an option! So he says, “We think you would be great for this project we’re doing for Wendy’s, you want to join?” What would I look like saying no? Yeah, of course! I mean, what an experience to be able to style and design and stitch some of the costumes. I’ve done a few projects with them where I'm styling the actors that are in the commercials and it’s like, what the heck is going on?
The creator of Bel-Air, Morgan Cooper, is from Kansas City, Missouri also. I had never met him before, but my name got passed along to the costume department. I sent work for the character Ashley Banks and a few pieces have been featured so far in the season. It’s like, okay, this is happening.
I have to kind of pinch myself and be like, yo, you need to relax and enjoy what’s happening because this is not normal. It’s not just another check on the to do list. There’s work involved, stay focused, stay steadfast. But also, go ahead and enjoy it and be proud of yourself. You work a little too hard. There’s room for artists to do that, you know.
Yo, you need to relax and enjoy what’s happening because this is not normal. It’s not just another check on the to do list. There’s work involved, stay focused, stay steadfast. But also, go ahead and enjoy it and be proud of yourself.
It’s been an amazing journey. I’m just glad to be able to keep growing. I’m glad that even when these opportunities weren’t there, I had enough good sense to keep doing the work so that I would be prepared for days like this.
I’m glad that even when these opportunities weren’t there, I had enough good sense to keep doing the work so that I would be prepared for days like this.
It’s such a good lesson for so many people who are maybe in that earlier stage of just trying and putting in the effort to work towards those goals. All it takes is one opportunity, one offer, one person or one connection to make it happen. If you just keep going, keep putting in the passion and the work, it will work out and hopefully you will just fly onwards from there.
You just never know. I mean honestly, even when I have felt like I am having the worst creative block of my life, I still know that I have to show up consistently, even if only 5 people are listening. Those people, those brands or those dream clients you have, they’re going to look back at your feed or your CV or your website and say, okay, well what was she doing 3 years ago? If 3 years ago you were feeling at your lowest, and because you were feeling at your lowest you just dipped off the scene, they’ll be like, well I don’t know if we can work with that person because they seem inconsistent.
Even when I have felt like I am having the worst creative block of my life, I still know that I have to show up consistently, even if only 5 people are listening.
Of course, allow those moments where it’s like, listen, I don’t feel like doing nothing, I need a minute. But even if you're just sketching or talking about that struggle of what it’s like to be in a creative block, at least you showing up.
And then it will be worth it when you get to these moments that you’re in now, where you can pinch yourself and say look at where I was 3 years ago and look at where I am now. I can take a moment to reflect on that.
I totally relate to not taking those moments to enjoy the moment. I think as creatives and entrepreneurs, we’re always thinking about the next thing and where we want to go. It can be hard to take a second to just enjoy this cool thing right now.
I noticed that on your website, you’ve done a lot of magazine features and cool PR stuff. Has that all come in the last few years since those opportunities as well?
So we would do pro practices in junior and senior year at school, and one of my professors said - if you don’t talk about yourself, nobody cares, because nobody is going to know who you are. I was always of that old school train of thought that with any and everything you do, send a press release. I have built really great long standing relationships with press outlets here in Kansas City. It’s been that way from when I graduated college through to now. That really helped because we can talk about ourselves till we blue in the face, but to be honest, the public doesn’t really pay attention until somebody else says they need to. A very early lesson I learned.
We can talk about ourselves till we blue in the face, but to be honest, the public doesn’t really pay attention until somebody else says they need to.
Thanks to that professor for highlighting and recommending that! I feel like when a lot of creatives think about creating or sharing our work, we just go to social media, but there are so many other ways to get your work out into the world. Getting into magazines or newspapers or getting PR in some way is a really smart way to do that.
Now just to wrap things up, what is the biggest lesson that you have learned about branding your passion?
Whew… I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned about branding is to really not take it too personally.
If you think about getting up every day and having the nerve to say - I’m gonna sell some stuff and people will love it, they’ll buy it, they’ll wear it, and they’ll just keep doing that. That takes guts.
First of all, you have to have a bit of an ego to be an artist. I don’t think a lot of us like to admit that. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s really ego in the sense of drive, because if you think about getting up every day and having the nerve to say - I’m gonna sell some stuff and people will love it, they’ll buy it, they’ll wear it, and they’ll just keep doing that. That takes guts.
But at the same time, you gotta keep that in check. I have learned to separate WM and Whitney. They are the same person, however WM has to do her taxes on time and she’s got to have good customer service, while Whitney wants to go frolic and roller skate and have fun. And just because somebody has critiqued what WM has put out does not mean they are attacking you as a person.
I have learned to separate WM and Whitney. They are the same person, however WM has to do her taxes on time and she’s got to have good customer service, while Whitney wants to go frolic and roller skate and have fun.
To be able to have that separation doesn’t mean that I’m detached from my work or that it’s not the same person, but it allows me to have a little bit more freedom and a little bit more of an aerial view when I’m looking at the work that I’m producing and the business choices that I make. It’s a bit of a Beyonce/Sasha Fierce kinda thing happening. But it really helps me because otherwise I would be walking around with my feelings hurt all the time.
It’s a bit of a Beyonce/Sasha Fierce kinda thing.
That lesson is so good. I think nowadays, so many people talk about having a personal brand and that it’s all about you, and that can get tricky if it is so attached. So I think that’s really smart to think about it from that aerial bird’s eye view to step back a little bit.
If you were to give advice to other creatives who were thinking about branding their passion or starting their own business, what advice would you like to share with them?
Well, start doing things as legal as possible sooner rather than later.
I’m a super analytical person so I made sure I did very early on, but I listen to my friends and a lot of the time I’m like, ooh, I would not want to be in that situation. So be as legal as possible as soon as you can.
Also I think at the end of the day, it can be really easy to get stuck in this cycle. Even right now, this whole month has felt like one long Monday. I feel like I need to go ahead and put the ‘we’re closed’ sign up on the website, so to speak, and I need to just go somewhere and sketch, sit in the sun, eat raspberries and be fine, and not worry about my emails or whether I got something out on time - because I still have to make sure that the inner art kid that’s going into the art classroom is still happy.
If I can’t show up to this space everyday happy, fulfilled and excited to try something new or give myself the time to try something new, this is not going to be sustainable.
If I can’t show up to this space everyday happy, fulfilled and excited to try something new or give myself the time to try something new, this is not going to be sustainable. I’m going to keep copy and pasting, and that’s not fun. So I think just really be diligent about giving yourself space to explore consistently as an artist, whether or not it’s a successful exploration. You never know when something might come back around. Or you just did it to satisfy something within yourself or work through your own troubles that day.
Be diligent about giving yourself space to explore consistently as an artist, whether or not it’s a successful exploration. You never know when something might come back around.
It can be so easy as creative entrepreneurs to get caught up in the day-to-day emails and deadlines, and forget the inner child and the creative soul that you have. That’s beautiful, incredible advice. Thank you so, so much.
Thank you just in general for being on the show! I have had the best time hearing all about what you do and how you’ve grown. Your business is so cool. Can you tell everybody where they can find you and what you have going on right now that you want to share?
You can find me on my website or on Instagram and Twitter, where I am the most active.
Right now, like I said, I’m working on that website relaunch, it’ll probably be live in a couple of weeks. I’ll be re-releasing some older designs that have been updated and working on some new collections like swim again this summer, so that’ll be exciting.
I’m just also challenging myself this year to go ahead and release a new collection because it’s been a while. I’ve been a little timid, but I’m pushing myself to do it. Y’all hold me accountable.
Yep, we will! Everybody please check Whitney out, support her work and be there for the website launch. I’m excited to see it, it’ll be awesome!
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