In 2004, just one year after getting his business administration degree, James Whitner was shocked into a life change. During a night out with friends in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the low-income neighborhood where they grew up and where drugs and gun violence were widespread, he was shot. ‘As I lay there, that was the inflection point,’ he says.
Now 42, James is enjoying the benefits of that change. As founder and CEO of the Whitaker Group, he's established himself as one of the leading players in the streetwear industry. He opened his first retail outlet, Flava Factory, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2005. Since then, he's built an empire. His luxury streetwear brands, including Social Status, APB and A Ma Maniére, retail across nearly 20 stores. He owns real estate, managing in excess of 50 properties for low-income families, as well as a boutique hotel and a restaurant.
For James, business success in the traditional sense is only half the story. Growing up black and working class, his background has played a huge role in informing his wider ambitions – and, above all, his desire to use business as a means to elevate his community. ‘Thanks for your purpose and speaking for the unheard like my mom,’ a young US immigrant recently commented beneath one of his Instagram posts. Responding to a promo video set in the projects where James grew up, another fan, basketball player LeBron James, wrote on Twitter: ‘You literally took me back to my days in the hood. You captured it to perfection. Salute, G!’
Even as James maintains and grows a business with an annual revenue of $45 million, he's clear-eyed about the challenges that working-class black Americans are confronted with on a daily basis. The global streetwear market has been valued at $185 billion, yet its evolution from the margins of predominantly black counterculture to the heart of the luxury establishment tells a familiar story. The African-American communities that created the trend – and that often sustain it – are under-represented at ownership and boardroom level.
The early days
James describes Pittsburgh as a ‘tough place’ to live. ‘People who know anything about growing up poor and black in America – it's difficult,’ he says. ‘There are always things that are binding you.’ Growing up, situations could deteriorate at any minute, sometimes with fatal consequences. Even while he was studying for his degree, James was trapped by the same cycles of violence and incarceration that define the experience of millions of black individuals in the US. Imprisoned for drug crime, he spent time in solitary confinement. ‘When all your options are bad,’ he explains, ‘it becomes difficult to make good choices.’
There's an idea stoked by politicians and media, he says, that people who commit violence in rough neighborhoods are somehow intrinsically bad. In fact, he goes on, these people are products of their high-stress, high-pressure environments. Unlike many of his friends, he saw that he needed a clean break to find an environment where he could be defined not by its terms, but by his own. ‘I packed all my stuff, moved to North Carolina, and that's how Flava Factory started,’ he says, referring to his first store, which he renamed Social Status in 2011, prompted by his recognition of an uncomfortable truth. ‘Flava Factory was too black sounding. Or too “urban” is the word that people like to use.’
James was quick to recognize the social potential of retail outlets beyond selling consumer goods. ‘I realized it's just like the barbershop,’ he says. ‘The black barbershop experience is like a social club, and also like therapy for black men. I thought that the boutique could be the same. If you ever sell somebody something and they don't feel good in it, you lost them. If you help someone, and you help them put something together, and they feel really good about it, they'll always come back to you.’
This realization gave birth to something completely new. Social Status has become the ground zero for beSocial, a series of community-focused hubs in or near to the retail stores. These hubs aim to empower underserved communities by providing education and filling knowledge gaps in certain topics, including financial literacy and prison reform.
Speaking to several people who are close to James, it quickly becomes clear that his intensity is what makes him stand out. ‘One thing James is really good at is taking something that works and putting steroids into it, amplifying it to the max,’ says Kevin Chao, who has been working with James and the Whitaker Group for the past six years, moving there after winding down his own streetwear brand, 3·W·Y. And he'll do whatever it takes. ‘When I first moved to Charlotte, James even let me stay on his couch for, like, three months,’ says Kevin.
People in powerful positions rarely have much time to spare. But James is known for inviting all his staff to join him for lunch in the warehouse, where he shares his expertise with people just starting out in the company, who are often in their teens. ‘Things like, should you buy or lease a car? Should you pay off your credit card bills or leave credit rolling? If you want to establish a passive income of $1,000 per month, how do you get that working an hourly wage job? He's all about helping people level up,’ explains Kevin.
His professional relationship with James is built on a shared work ethic, a shared ‘level of intensity’, he says. But the intensity doesn't come at the cost of relationships or individual esteem. ‘If you read books on Steve Jobs, you hear how people would go home and cry, evaluate their lives, all that kind of stuff. With James, it's definitely not like that. You know that you're doing work that's meaningful, and being able to have that one person in the room who can fight through it and go first is definitely key. It's like that quote: he won't ask you to do something that he's not willing to do himself.’
Shortly before sitting down for this interview, James says he had an interesting conversation. ‘Someone said, “You look very scary and you don't smile much.”’ His reply? ‘When you have spent the first half of your life war-ready, it doesn't leave much room for a cheesy grin.’
Curation and connection
James says curation is one of his most important talents, something else he credits to growing up in the projects. ‘You've got to be intentional about every little thing you do,’ he explains. ‘Every project has its own nuance; if you fuck up one of those nuances, you can get yourself seriously hurt. When you're trained to think about things in that way – paying attention to what everyone is doing and why – you can't help but start curating your existence. And for me today, that means trying to curate the world the way I see it, so it's fair for everyone.’
In addition to his businesses and not-for-profit ventures, James has also been collecting art. Anthony Curis, along with his wife JJ, founded and operates Library Street Collective, a gallery that acts as a cultural hub in downtown Detroit. He says that James is ‘the type of person who, [with] anything he's going to put his name on, put a stamp on, he's going to make sure that he's all in’.
Before they started working together, Anthony says he almost got the sense that he had to prove himself to James. ‘He's not someone [who is] going to align himself with a questionable character,’ says Anthony, before adding: ‘There's a traditional way to do business, but there are also ways to reach beyond that, connecting in a much more cultural way. That's what James has done so well.’
Beyond the bottom line
Rather than simply fixating on the bottom line, James sees retail as a logical place for impactful action, and he has called on those in the supply chain who benefit from the tremendous value of the streetwear industry to stand up and play their part. In a powerful op-ed published in Complex Magazine in 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, he demanded that the American corporations that ‘weave [black] culture into the ethos of their brand’ take stock and devise corporate strategies that meaningfully engage with the problem of racial injustice.
When it comes to questions of inclusivity and equality, James doesn't pull any punches. ‘White men rule the Earth. The end,’ he says. ‘Until that starts to change, inclusivity isn't the first thing anybody is thinking about, for anything.’
As he sees it, the key to effecting meaningful change, to securing the ear of the powerful, lies first in proving himself. ‘No one would care about my voice if we couldn't execute,’ he says. ‘I tell people all the time that in order to change a system you first have to succeed in it. Once you succeed in a system, only then can you start to change it.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.