By Nate Doughty
Digital producer, Pittsburgh Business Times
May 2, 2021
Pittsburgh-based James Whitner wants the fashion industry to be more accessible to people with similar backgrounds. After getting involved in the industry at a young age, Whitner founded The Whitaker Group – the nonprofit consulting and creative design arm for its fashion and lifestyle business – to bridge the gap between traditional fashion leaders and those who do it are shaping the culture around them, but are often excluded from the industry. Now Whitner is preparing to launch beSOCIAL this spring in East Liberty, which will feature community workspaces, a stage, coffee bar and free programs related to financial literacy, professional development, housing education and other topics.
What was the first thing that interested you in the fashion industry? Get up and get dressed every day. It was the idea of all of the attention I paid, especially in my late teens and 20s when I got money to buy things, and I really enjoyed getting dressed and looking my best. Not only did I like the experience of putting on the clothes but the shopping experience as well, and I was very interested in understanding the information from the people who were providing me with the things I was looking forward to.
Did that make you start The Whitaker Group? Well, for the backstory, Whitaker, Pennsylvania is a place. It’s between Homestead and West Mifflin and there is a housing project on Whitaker Street called Mon View Heights. I grew up there. For me it has always been about this relationship with my younger self and about not having any chances to grow up and not even to be with people who understand the possibilities there are in a world because their families don’t have the chances I am generationally impoverished and have probably been systemically oppressed in many ways. Then you start thinking about what I could do to do better for the old version of myself and other children growing up in situations like this.
And you can do that through fashion? Fashion cuts everything and I go one step further – culture cuts everything. The commonality between fashion and art is culture, and that is the common thread in food, travel – culture exists in all of these places and it is the connection to all of these things. There is a lifestyle component in everything we do that is colorless. Our generation and the younger generation all bond in unique ways with things we do, and we want it to be all about experiences. When you think about how everyone connects to digital, it’s about how they want the world to be experienced for who they are as a person. So there is a close connection to all things, and the connector is culture.
Art and fashion have the same end user in mind. So for us it’s all about providing perspective to children and communities who may not have that perspective or are realizing that all of these things fit together. When you think of the target market and who they are, and when you think of black people in Pittsburgh as you drive through Homewood, Pittsburgh, do you think these kids are thinking about opening an art gallery? These kids are thinking about how they can make it to their next meal, but when you bond with them, they love the sneaker culture, right, and they love sports and they love street wear. If you bring them along and show them here how other views of the world can exist, it will only happen if you intend to put things in places where they can digest and understand them, and not just make it easy for them to connect with that Child in Homewood, but also in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, the child in the North Hills. Most of the culture in Pittsburgh doesn’t live and exist that way. Someone has to come in to change the city’s culture.
What do you admire in the fashion industry right now? What I admire is the fashion industry’s willingness to understand right now that it doesn’t have the answers and their willingness to explore. The goalkeepers of fashion have largely kept others away and they wanted this thing not to change, and I’m not saying it’s changing a lot now, but I’m saying there is the idea that they realize they don’t all have Reply. That youth culture and street culture have a voice and can influence and inform the world – that is what inspires me most. I’m a project kid and I can share a point of view in rooms with billion dollar companies.
Where can you relax? In my room there is this chair by the window, which is perfectly comfortable and is my place of relaxation. It’s also in silence, I think some people call it meditation. I find peace in silence and allow myself to be on my mind to relax and resolve something that is making me anxious, or sometimes just to calm me down, or sometimes to realize myself. I think the most important place for me to calm down is within myself because I need to be an architect of my existence and my future, and the only way to be that is to have this personal relationship with yourself that allows you to know when to turn on and off.
What do you like to wear and why? Oh, now it’s usually just black, a black t-shirt, a black hoodie. It has turned into a bit of heather lately just to throw in a little excitement. It’s easy for me It is comfortable. I don’t have to make a decision because what the 20 year old version of me felt was excitement, the 40 year old version of me … now it’s about simplicity. And it’s really just about the idea of finding something I’m comfortable with and I don’t have to make another big decision. I have 50 types of black, the best version of black for everyone, and I find it easy. I don’t have to make any decisions.
Title: Owner, The Whitaker Group
Education: Bachelor of Business Administration, Edinboro University
Residence: Mon View Heights / Whitaker
Causes: Black economic, social and cultural empowerment
Hobbies: Art, philanthropy, food, travel, and sports
Family: Father of two children