I consider the first time I met Whitney Manney to be the moment I held a pair of her hand-painted drip earrings in my palms.
ConvertKit hired her recently to be in a brand ad, and when her casting announcement was made internally I immediately went to her website and fell in love with her aesthetic.
I bought two pairs of earrings in two minutes.
I’d never seen earrings like them before; it was as if they were animated, alive, dripping with fresh paint and possibility. When I meet Whitney for this interview, it’s clear no one else could have created them.
Her studio, too, is all playfulness and presence – large and airy, covered in pink, filled with mannequins and fabric and shoes and trinkets and tables; just when your eye decides its favorite thing in the room, another takes its place.
Whitney holds the space like a silent force of gravity. When she gives me a virtual tour with her phone, she doesn’t speak. She lets me take it in. We’re both quiet, allowing the colors to speak for themselves.
The signature tie-dye sweatshirt Whitney has on today seems to do the same.
She looks at me kindly through large, purple, heart-shaped glasses, and when I ask her how this all started, she tells me about her dolls.
“Barbie was my first client.”
The first outfit Whitney made was for Addy, the American Girl Doll inspired by the era of 1864. Whitney brought Addy’s wardrobe into 2002, making her a full denim “suit” iconic of the early millennium.
With just an outfit change Whitney brought her doll into a new century, and she was intrigued by how creating clothes could be like creating a world. She was hooked and kept making clothes for all her dolls.
“Barbie was my first client,” she laughs.
She asked for a sewing machine for her 13th birthday and started sewing clothes for herself – from the bits and pieces of whatever she grew out of as she got taller and taller and whatever she could find in the Kansas City thrift stores.
It’s weird because I wouldn’t say that I come from an environment that fostered fashion. I am from Kansas City, Missouri…the middle of the country.
Our access to fashion outside of what me and my mom would pick out for ourselves out of the JC Penny catalog was limited. I knew nothing about it.
But she credits her parents for fostering creative space: “I think my mom knew pretty quickly I was going to be some type of artist.” Even if the community she lived in didn’t scream “art” or “fashion”, her parents encouraged her to create her own artistic world inside their house.
The “not knowing” had its advantage, too. Not really knowing what else was out there in the fashion world helped Whitney confidently grow her own signature style and vision, without comparison.
Nobody else knew enough about it to mold my idea of it. It was just this thing I could dream of, however I felt like.
She even made her own fashion catalogs: hand-drawn, complete with order forms.
And instead of getting a typical job in high school, she made and sold purses and pillows. That’s when things started to change, when she realized, “I can make money off of things that I make?”
I ask her what gave her the confidence sell her own work in high school:
I think it was just the fact that my parents didn’t tell me no.
They didn’t say, “That’s ridiculous. You need to start thinking of a regular, real job.” They didn’t say that. And I just felt really empowered by that.
Her photography teacher bought one of her purses to give to his wife for their anniversary.
I remember him coming back to school and telling me she was surprised that a high-schooler made it.
His wife thought he’d purchased it from a fancy boutique.
It planted a tiny seed: maybe making clothes could be a career one day?
But for now, Whitney’s plan was to pursue journalism and work in the fashion magazine industry, inspired by all she’d seen in the copies of Ebony and Essence she’d find at her salon.
Her family had also moved from Kansas City to Arizona where Whitney attended an arts school and met a teacher who designed costumes for a ballet company in Phoenix.
The more she learned about the people behind fashion, the more inspired she became: “I can totally do this.”
Even though she knew how competitive it was, she decided to apply for art school in addition to journalism school…just in case.
“Oh girl, are you sure you’re supposed to be here?”
But she didn’t get into her top art school. She was crushed.
There was one art school she did get an acceptance letter from that also would provide enough scholarship money to make it feasible.
But that school was The Kansas City Art Institute.
If she wanted to pursue fashion via art school, she’d have to go back to the midwest.
When I saw the letter and the scholarship from Kansas City Art Institute, I’m like, “Okay, well….” I’m not going to lie to you. It didn’t feel great then. Because Kansas City Art Institute does not have a fashion program.
What they did have was one of the best fibers programs in the country, focused on the fine art of the material making itself. Whitney decided to attend, hoping she could apply all she’d learn to her own style and ambition.
In her first fibers class, the professor asked everyone to stand up and introduce themselves and their artistic intentions. One by one, each student stood up and referenced words and artists Whitney had never heard of.
Hearing everybody else talking, I felt myself kind of going, “Oh girl, are you sure you’re supposed to be here? They’re serious. They’re using terms you have no idea about. They’re talking about the art in such a way that you’re not used to talking about.”
No one was referencing the artists Whitney knew and focused on: “contemporary artists, artists of color, Black women artists.”
She started to question if she was in the right place.
It’s one of those things where you can kind of feel so small.
It’s impossible for me to imagine Whitney Manney ever feeling small – but the fact that she sometimes does makes what she did next even more miraculous.
When it was her turn, she stood up, big pink bow in her hair, and said:
“My name is Whitney Manney. I plan on being a fashion designer. I’m going to be the next Betsey Johnson, Kimora Lee Simmons, and Donatella Versace. And I’m going to have a Barbie made in my likeness one day.”
I ask her why her impulse wasn’t to shrink, but expand.
She references a few things: prayer, her dad, and acting before believing.
A lot of times my self-assurance is not necessarily in that moment when I’m displaying it.
She wasn’t feeling all that strong that day, especially knowing that making clothes for people to wear was somewhat frowned upon in a fine art world that cared more about couture and gallery showings – but something stronger within told her:
“Get up, make a statement. You need to say something that’s going to wake you up and something that’s going to encourage you and something that’s going to let these other people know that you are here and you’re not here to play.
“You have a journey that you’re on and you’re going to get there. Get up and say what you mean and mean what you say.”
It sounded a lot like what her former Marine dad said to her growing up whenever she was feeling left out at school or rejected by the world:
He always used to get on me about slumping, because I was always taller than everybody; I would try to physically shrink myself.
“Walk upright. Walk up straight,” he’d say. “This is your purpose. You’re living in your purpose.”
That sense of purpose was about to be tested once she graduated college and it came time for her fashion dream to bravely face reality.
“Well girl, you’re going to have to get a job.”
Whitney is no stranger to reality. It’s what makes her drippy earrings and pink walls exude a real sense of possibility, as if you can sense they were created by someone who has their head in the clouds and their feet on the ground.
Before Whitney graduated art school, she started a website, had a logo made, and began blogging and building an audience. She Googled everything she could about how to start her own fashion business, and every time she made something for a project at school she’d also show it at any local fashion show she could find in Kansas City: “I wanted to get feedback from both crowds and then find that happy middle point.”
By the time she graduated she had her clothes in two local stores.
But, now that college was over and her work study jobs ended she also knew:
“Well girl, you’re going to have to get a job. You have to get a regular job until this picks up.”
Unable to afford to move to New York or leverage any of the fancy fashion summer internships in LA or New York that she could never afford, a few months after graduation she got a job as a studio manager at a local dance studio.
I felt fine with it because it was just like, you got to eat girl. You want to keep buying fabric, right? Okay, go get a job.
I grew up with people who worked to make it work. My dad worked extra jobs and had a carpet cleaning business to take better care of us.
Nobody’s ever too good to work. That’s the cloth I’m cut from really.
She considered herself a full-time artist then, working on her own art 30-40 hours a week, and then working at the dance studio in the evenings, another 32 hours a week.
How did she find the energy to do both?
“I don’t know,” she answers honestly. “I have no idea. Youth? I genuinely think it’s just the desire to make it.”
There were points, however, that sometimes she did think about how much easier it would be to become an art teacher instead.
And that’s still an option, but I’m like, okay, but have you exhausted everything yet? Because even if it’s 10 years from now, I can go teach, I can go be a third-grade art teacher.
But 10 years from now, are you going to have the energy, the drive, the imagination to do what you’re doing right now?
I don’t know if that’s a chance I’m willing to take.
“This is not your mall fashion show.”
She preferred to take her chances at trying to make her fashion business a full-time job, even amidst all the obstacles she faced pursuing fashion in the midwest.
There was less opportunity being so far from the major fashion hubs, but she decided to make the most of whatever was in front of her: no fashion show was too small or boutique too local.
If she couldn’t go to New York or LA, she decided to bring New York and LA to Kansas City.
People were coming to Kansas City fashion shows just to do something cute, get Instagram pictures.
But honey, when the WHITNEYMANNEY logo comes up on that screen, and that first model starts stomping down that runway, you realize this is something different.
There’s narrative here.
There’s a story, there’s concept, there’s historical references, there’s cultural references, there’s music that makes sense with what’s going on.
Now you’re a little more intrigued and now you’re feeling like, okay, I’m getting a little bit more of a different fashion experience. This is not your mall fashion show.
It wasn’t a New York or LA fashion show either. It was Kansas City. It was Whitney.
I always say I’m based in Kansas City, but I have global ideas.
To help build her global audience, she turned to the internet, building relationships one customer at a time, treating her online audience like she treats each pair of earrings, each skirt: hand-painted, hand-sewn.
So when she saw a YouTube video of someone talking about how their Instagram got shut down and they lost their audience, she decided to start an email newsletter.
She had no way of reaching them anymore.
And it’s like, “Oh, wow, okay. What if my website crashed for a day or Instagram or Facebook was like, yeah, we’re going to pull your pages? How would I stay connected?”
And I’ve pretty much been consistent with newsletters ever since.
She takes a personal approach to the emails she sends too.
I don’t want to just send like “Sale! Sale! Sale! New in store!” That’s great every now and then, but I like to kind of approach it like it’s a journal.
And my subscribers can be a part of this behind the scenes.
I want them to feel like they’re getting something exclusive; I can share in that email what my thoughts are, how I’m feeling as an artist, what obstacles I’m up against or just what I’m experimenting with.
I think in a way, it’s a more intimate platform, as opposed to social media, out there for anybody and everybody to take in. If you took the time to subscribe to my emails, you really care about what I’m doing. And you’re really invested.
“People want to see the things you’re most passionate about.”
Due to her years of hard work, care, local fashion shows, and relentlessness, Whitney went full time on her own business in 2018.
Throughout our interview Whitney switches from fine art terms to marketing terms in seconds – sequins and sales funnels share the same space, sometimes the same sentences.
Whitney’s hunger to learn the business side came from a desire to communicate.
If you meet my parents and the rest of my family, they are loud, they are fun. People meet me and are like, “That’s your kid? Are you sure?”
I’m naturally an observer. I might meet you and not talk or be laid back for the first two weeks we know each other. But once I feel like I know you better and I can be safe around you, we’re good. I liven up.
For me, fashion was people taking notice of what you’re wearing. It’s a communication tool.
And so I might not feel like talking or I might not feel sure that I can feel safe around you, but at least what I’m wearing can tell you a little bit more about me.
She shares her mission on her website: “My job isn’t done until everybody in the world believes fashion is art,” and she’s always seen business as a way to extend her reach.
But as her business grows, how does she still find time and mental space to access that important playful space to do her best artistic work?
To create as freely and as bold and as bright as I do, I have to let go of a lot of that day-to-day weight to just allow myself to be in that space.
But of course it’s easier said than done.
When you think about adulting and arting, sometimes it feels like oil and water, because at the end of the day I have studio rent to pay. I have a car, I’ve got a pup at home to take care of, a household to take care of.
So sometimes you look at it and you’re like, “Okay, so this is what’s selling. I need to push that.”
And I got in that space for a year or two where it was like, “I just need to make what sells. I need to make what sells.” But that comes across. It gets kind of obvious to your audience that you’re in that space and they don’t respond to it. They don’t respond to it at all.
The drip earrings, she tells me, came to her on an ordinary day when she thought, “Hmm, I would love a pair of earrings that look like a kind of cartoonish paint drip.” She didn’t plan to sell them. She just wanted to make them for herself, for fun – and she did, wearing them to an event.
Everyone at that event asked about her earrings.
Being able to know people want to see the things you’re most passionate about just really kind of gave me permission.
That’s when she stopped focusing only on what “sells” and started putting “creative free time” in her planner, dedicating at least one three hour block per week just for creative play – without any pressure to come up with something to sell.
I guess I’m trying to come to terms with respecting that my inner artist kid still needs to just kind of play around in the art room.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
A few days later I observe Whitney in action in her own art room: her studio.
The first thing I notice when I see her today is the stunning pair of patchwork denim bell bottom capris she’s wearing – belling out and bouncing every time she walks as if they’re underwater. When I ask about them, she tells me they’re something she just made for the photoshoot she’s about to do as part of a feature for Sewn magazine, a publication that caters to sewists of color.
Because she still lives in Kansas City she’s able to afford her own large studio where she makes most of her pieces and has a great area just for photoshoots like this.
The capris are paired with a tie-dye sleeveless turtleneck and adorned with a long chain belt. The whole ensemble feels like something you might see in a gallery featuring Oscar-winning period costumes – the outfit itself feeling both not of this world and something you’d love to take off the mannequin and wear home.
The belt, she tells me, was her grandma’s.
I watch quietly as she prepares for the photoshoot, and that’s when I realize her perfect ensemble isn’t yet complete.
She adds purple eyeshadow, dangly earrings, hot pink lip gloss, a sheer scarf, gold clogs, and oversized tortoiseshell glasses. Before adding each new element I think to myself no one has ever looked cooler and then she adds something else and I realize I was wrong.
Once she’s finished she poses in front of a yellow backdrop, singing to herself, serving as maker and model today.
While she could easily move to New York or LA now, she loves being based in Kansas City, not only for the studio space she can afford, but also because of the hope she longs to provide to her community. She wants to be the answer to the question she always asked herself growing up:
Why isn’t there a prolific, larger than life, worldwide Black artist based in KC?
She’s a frequent speaker at local Kansas City schools and Boys and Girls Clubs and is a Girl Scouts troop leader. When kids come up to her afterward they say, “I didn’t know fashion designers live here. I didn’t know there were Black fashion designers here.”
In 2015 she received a huge order from the major Kansas City department store Halls; she’ll never forget seeing her own clothes and display showcased alongside Elizabeth and James, The Row, and Kate Spade.
At that moment, I was like, “This is what I’m meant to do. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Her next dream is to have her own building in Kansas City, a kind of community arts center that houses her studio and art events for kids and adults.
I’m going to paint it hot pink. It’s going to have gold glitter floors. It’s going to have space where I can roller skate.