Stitching Together Big Dreams in a Once Marginalized Market

By Business Leaders FOXBusiness

Threading together dreams for 'big' success's Victoria Craig talks entrepreneurial fashion success with men's fashion designer Peter Manning.

Standing in a sunny, soon-to-be-open Brooklyn showroom organizing shirts and pants on various shelves, straightening models’ clothing, and talking about his latest line, Peter Manning doesn’t look “short.”

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But ask America’s fashion industry – or take a look around any department store – and they’ll tell you his stature is one not quite worth the investment.

At 5’8, Manning is considered “short.”

And he’s not alone: about one-third of America’s male population is 5'8 or smaller, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lifelong Dream…or, Struggle

Manning’s namesake clothing company was born out of necessity in 2012, but the passion fueling its success began much earlier.

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“When I was 10-years-old, I told my mom I wanted bell bottoms, and she said, ‘Sweetie, I can’t buy you bell bottoms because by the time I shorten them, they won’t be bell bottoms anymore.’ And I’ve been looking for bell bottoms ever since,” he said.

For Manning, the formula for building a wardrobe and determining its cost became painfully routine. It wasn’t just the price of the clothes; he had to tack on what he called the tailor tax.

Not just sales tax, but the extra money Manning shelled out for everything from button-down shirts and khakis, to T-shirts and sweatpants. For Manning, buying clothes and taking them to the tailor for alterations was just another part of his everyday life.

Until one night when he was mingling with a Broadway crowd and decided he’d had enough with clothes that didn’t fit right.

“I sat next to someone at a dinner party and I said, ‘I have this idea,’ and she’d been in retail for a long time and said, ‘That’s the best idea I’ve heard in years, go do it,’” Manning recalled.

And he did.

Now, two years later, Peter Manning the brand has doubled its business from the first year and is on track to double it again. In addition, its products ship to all 50 United States and 10 foreign countries. Meanwhile, Peter Manning the person is satisfied, knowing he helps the “short” guys of the world wear better fitting – and better looking --clothes.

A Patchwork Past

Manning says he is now entirely in his element. But the fashion industry wasn’t always his final destination.

Before launching his clothing line, Manning had a varied career in real estate development, architecture and even enjoyed a 10-year run as a producer in the Broadway theater circuit, winning a Tony award for his work with a play called “Side Man,” which he produced in 1998.

Though he loved the opportunities his varying careers provided, there was still an ambition buried deep inside, waiting to burst out. And when Manning finally sat down to seriously consider whether it was a viable opportunity for him a light bulb went off in his mind.

“I went, ‘Oh, it’s all producing!’” he said. “It’s all the same skills. It’s the idea, the creativity, and the financing, and bringing all those things together to make it happen. I wanted to do this line since I was 10-years old, and so I finally said, ‘Oh, I can do it.’”

Though he had a blessing from a friend in the retail/fashion industry, he said support was not always universal.  Reactions ran the spectrum: some were 100% into the idea from the moment the words left Manning’s mouth, others were more skeptical of the idea, feeling it wasn’t worth the work to represent a third of the male population versus two-thirds of it.

But Manning drowned out the naysayers in no time.

“In any industry, when something hasn’t been done, no one believes it should be done. So, you sort of have to buck the system,” he said. “I was like, ‘Okay, no one’s thought of it, it’s time.”

Armed with a lifelong determination to find clothes that fit properly, Manning went to work scraping together meetings with those in the industry, soaking up as much knowledge as he could, and trying to raise money to get his new concept off the ground. He and his business partner wound up with a Small Business Association, or SBA, loan from the government and the rest is history.

The Peter Manning Lifestyle Brand

“The interesting thing that happened in the course of the discovery period was that I thought I’d start with stores all over the country. And e-commerce kind of grew at that time, so I thought, I can just do this online and I can reach so many more people. And I have,” he said.

And though he’s been a smashing success among his demographic, he’s striving for more.

“There are so many people who still don’t know about us. There are so many things that they need. So, we’re just trying to find ways to make more things that they want and need; there’s a lot of room for growth,” he said.

For now, Manning said the brand doesn’t follow the classic fashion trend of “seasons” and “styles” to go with them. He said because he’s right now exclusively online, his brand makes its way into the hands of men from Alaska to Hawaii…and though the calendar days are the same, the seasons and the weather needs are not. So, Manning decided not to conform to the typical industry standard, and instead offer men a selection of products all year round.

Those styles include anything from polo shirts, button-downs, T-shirts and shorts, to wool sweaters, knit pullovers, scarves, and chino slacks.

“Men should have a great fitting shirt and chino and dress pants without pleats that elongate their legs and have a proper rise. Those are the building blocks for all men,” Manning said. “Then a well cut blazer, a great jean, a great investment shoe, and a playful sneaker. If all those things fit really well, there’s almost no way a man, short or tall, can’t look stylish and appropriate at all times.”

For Manning, who always wears pieces from his line, picking a favorite item is a bit complex.

“Picking a favorite is like picking a child!” he said. “I wear them all every day. I love our ‘Everyday shirt’ because it is such a job to wear a shirt that fits. Second would be our jeans. I hold them up with any jean on the market.”

Because of the growth in popularity Peter Manning the brand has enjoyed, Manning said he’s just weeks away from opening a new showroom in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn for clients who want to physically experience the brand before they commit to a purchase.

Manning said in addition to the classic fits and styles incorporated into the line, he’s working on outerwear, and pants ranging in styles from pajamas, tailored, and five-pocket. He said he’s also hoping to one day fulfil an indulgence of his: ski wear.

As for advice from one successful entrepreneur to another, Manning said the idea is terrifying, but worth it.

“Every day, you’re just stumbling through, just trying to do the right thing. So, if you really believe in an idea, do it. And try it. Don’t mortgage your house, but find a way. And if you keep pushing, it can work,” he said.

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