Stargardt’s designer duo: Bradford and Bryan Manning

Sometimes it takes a village to give birth to a dream. Of course, a celebrity endorsement never hurts, either. Two blind brothers share their vision with the world.

 Laughter is a mainstay in the lives of Bradford and Bryan Manning, two unexpected fashion designers who let their sense of touch call the shots.

Laughter is a mainstay in the lives of Bradford and Bryan Manning, two unexpected fashion designers who let their sense of touch call the shots.

In 2015, two brothers walked into a New York City department store, each on a mission to find a new shirt. Their search took them in different directions. As they meandered through the racks of clothes, their paths crossed and separated. Eventually, each found a shirt he loved, bought it, and the two met up outside. While this might sound like a mundane scenario, it is actually the beginning of an inspirational company and business partnership called, “Two Blind Brothers.”

Shopping with vision loss
Bradford (33) and Bryan Manning (27) were both born with Stargardt disease, an inherited retinal disease (IRD) that affects the retina and causes the gradual loss of central vision.1 While progression is different for each individual, both Manning brothers have now lost their central vision, forcing them to use their diminished peripheral vision to navigate life. When it comes to shopping, the two men rely primarily on touch to choose their clothes.

Which brings us back to that day in 2015, when Bradford and Bryan reconvened outside Bloomingdale's department store to compare shirt purchases. As they pulled out their new shirts, the men began to laugh (there is a lot of laughter with these guys). They had both selected the very same shirt. It wasn’t the cut, the color, or the price that had motivated the purchase. Each had selected his shirt because he loved the feel of the fabric.

“We just saw this outpouring of love and support—and energy! We watched the views on the video go into the millions.”

 

Stargardt disease creates an unexpected opportunity
The brothers’ shopping experience sparked an idea. They realized that their lives with Stargardt disease—feeling their way through the world—had developed in them a kind of “super power.” Their hands knew fabric. They really, really knew fabric. Banking on the idea that everyone, not just those with vision loss, loves clothes that feel good, they hatched a plan. Make the softest shirts on the market and donate all profits to support researchers seeking a cure for inherited retinal diseases like Stargardt, Leber congenital amaurosis, and retinitis pigmentosa.

It was an audacious, inspirational goal. When the Mannings shared their dream with friends, some who work in the New York fashion industry, things happened fast. “One or two of them told us, ‘Hey, if you want to do this—if you want to start a charitable brand—I know the process and have the resources and contacts to help shepherd you through the process.’”

Another friend helped produce a short video that captured their vision. The brothers created a Facebook page, uploaded the video, and shared their dream with the world. The response was swift and overwhelming. “Over the course of the next couple days, we just saw this outpouring of love and support—and energy!” said Bryan. “We watched the views on the video go into the millions.”

Then came “The Call.”

Enter Ellen DeGeneres
One day, not long after launching their online store, Bradford, Bryan, and their office assistant were busily filling orders when the customer service line rang. The office assistant’s hand flew to her mouth as she listened to the person on the other end of the phone. “I thought she was getting yelled at by a customer, actually,” said Bradford. “When she put the phone down she was like, ‘That was the producer from the Ellen DeGeneres show!’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’”

It’s every entrepreneur’s dream—to receive a call from the producer of a talk show like Ellen’s, which boasts a daily reach of almost 4 million people. It is also, however, cause for contemplation. The brothers suspected that their January 4, 2017 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show was about to change everything. “We were selling like a few thousand dollars’ worth of shirts every month,” said Bradford. “What were we going to do with all this attention? Were we going to use the momentum to try and create a big project; to make a difference with it?” As it turns out, the answer to that question was “yes.”

 Bradford checks the manufacturing process

Bradford checks the manufacturing process

The day after taping their Ellen DeGeneres appearance (during which Ellen bought 400 Two Blind Brothers shirts for the entire audience), Bryan and Bradford hopped on a plane back to New York. While they flew across the country, their segment aired. “As we were landing, I get service on my phone and everything explodes,” said Bradford. “Orders start coming through like crazy on the site; text messages from everyone I’ve ever met throughout my whole life; hundreds of emails a minute!” The brothers sold out of their entire line within three days.

Focusing on research and the need for genetic testing
During all of the excitement and growth at Two Blind Brothers, Bryan and Bradford have kept their eyes on two significant goals, and they’re well on their way to achieving them. The first is to raise money in support of gene therapy research that may one day treat any number of inherited retinal diseases. In May of 2018, the Mannings celebrated two years in business and having raised $200,000 for research.

The second goal is to instill hope in people who have been told that they have a progressive eye disease and there is nothing that can be done. “We still hear from parents who are basically told, ‘This is an incurable disease. Your child is going to have this dramatic vision loss potentially leading to full blindness,’” said Bradford. He and Bryan think that’s the wrong approach to diagnosis.

“I don’t know how to stress it to people that they should go get gene testing done. It’s just so critical.”

The brothers are two in a rapidly growing chorus of advocates and medical professionals who are encouraging those with an IRD to get genetically tested. Testing can identify the genetic mutation responsible for an IRD—as it did for Bradford and Bryan whose mutation is on the ABCA4 gene. In turn, that additional information can open the door for better disease management, participation in clinical trials, or helping your doctor know if you are a candidate for any treatments that may become available.

“I don't know how to stress it to people that they should go get gene testing done. It’s just so critical,” said Bradford. “And what we really want to do by funding research is get the conversation to a point where doctors say, ‘There is hope, and there are treatments coming down the line.’”

Keep up the good work, gentlemen. The world is watching.


1 National Institutes of Health. National Library of Medicine. Genetics Home Reference. “Stargardt macular degeneration: Description.” http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/stargardt-macular-degeneration#definition. Reviewed November, 2010. Accessed September 1, 2018.


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