It’s 9:30 am on a Friday and Houston White is still not used to the calm. At this time on a Friday morning, the old school barber chairs in Houston White Man’s Roomthe coffee shopmeetsmens boutique wrapped in a barber shop on the corner of North Humboldt and 44th in the North Minneapolis neighborhood that White dubbed Camdentown is said to be in turmoil. These chairs would be warmed up by men discussing ideas big and small and anything between politics, fashion, business, sports, you name it while getting cut or shaved. After being closed for months due to COVID-19, the Houston White Mens Room (HWMR) is open again, but it is operating at less than a third of its capacity.
The barber shop is our country club, White says. He sips his own custom roast of Dogwood coffee (King Kunta branded, like the Kendrick Lamar song, an exclusive casting at HWMR). He points to the room, the three sculpted leather barber chairs, the first pioneer graffiti artist Peyton Russells, the first gold leaf painting, the custom Curtis coffee brewer, his golf clothing line hanging on the opposite wall. It’s an invitation to imagine a fully functioning HWMR: like back in the days when White threw a party for newly elected city council member Phillipe Cunningham, or when White threw his own Fashion Week show, or even White holding a court with mowers on a normal Saturday afternoon. Black men wield all the power in this space, he says.
White wears a black polo shirt of his own design, buttoned all the way up. His goatee is razor sharp. One of his BE daddy hats (stands for Black Excellence) sits atop his head. This scourge was a setback, but White proved he could face adversity: he lost the love of his life, his wife, Donise, to stomach cancer a few years ago. two years. COVID has brought more losers to his community, but he’s been rebuilding himself since he was little. White, 41, started cutting hair at the age of 11, around the time he first experimented with hand-cut shears with his uncles on his friends. There were children coming home from church, he said. I told them, man, let me give you a hairstyle, your hair is [messed] anyway, so I couldn’t do much worse. He laughs at the memory, but the laugh belies the modesty that has trusted him from the start. He says he switched to electrics soon after, at his aunts’ North Side house, demonstrating such a confident line and mastery of fresh cuts that he was making $ 950 a week at the age of 16. years. Then he started trading his hairstyles for access. to the Russells screen printing machine.
I was the very first student at Juxtaposition Arts, he says, recounting days spent at Russells’ home studio in north Minneapolis. Russell turned it to the Harlem Renaissances Ernest Crichlow, a huge influence on his style. Soon he started selling his screen printed shirts to North High School. Im a con artist, essentially, he says, with artistic gifts.
The first love of whites was the barber Bladehe points out that the barber was one of the first routes to entrepreneurship for blacks in America, and he is proud to be a part of that legacy, but after a stint in praising his own chair after high school, he began to use his hand to sculpt larger and more lucrative masterpieces, build and renovate apartment buildings. White was born in Mississippi, and after his mother moved to Minneapolis with him as a child, he would return to Jackson during the summers to work with his father and uncles, who were drywall contractors and mechanics. He had the skills to move houses with his wife, Donise, who was familiar with the world of finance as a banker, and together their outsourcing company began to fill a void in the cities housing market. binoculars for affluent black couples looking to make their dream home a reality. . The two of them built and renovated 30 homes together, bringing their turnover to $ 14 million in 2006. Two years later, the housing market slump collapsed.
I was about to turn 30, he said, trying to figure out: What now? He used to win, there was no precedent for his success, he said. But he found himself struggling with a 10,000 square foot underwater rebuild with no prospect of new business, and he needed to reinvent himself on the fly. He says the experience empathizes him for people caught up in the same dynamic in COVID, removing everything properly, crushing it, then suddenly losing it.
A hair salon was always something I wanted to do again, he says. But if I couldn’t own the land, I wasn’t going to. White and his wife lived in Golden Valley when he passed by this cafe on 44 and Humboldt every day. He fell in love with the building and he fell in love with the location, a green neighborhood centered on a park with one of the few full-service grocery stores on the north side. White felt estranged from the northern Minneapolis community he grew up in and wanted to redeem. I believe in culture, he says. Who we were, who we are. And this place is special. But people were struggling, and he knew he was going to have to rebuild it to the letter. I mean, in 2008 when we bought this place it was the Wild, Wild West. There were drugstores in the neighborhood, shootings and burglaries, and many people had moved to the suburbs. And the property itself, an unlucky cafe, was in need of a good paint job, air conditioning, and more. But he knew how to restore the building. What he had to learn was how to build a sustainable business, how to build a brand that he could grow.
I learned a lot about business development, he says. I discovered the personality of a company, it is the only way to build a system that does not depend on the opinions of the people. And he resisted the gentrification model, this notion of black neighborhoods either having to suffer from the scourge or allowing people to come in and tell them what should happen there.
By 2012, the barber shop was booming, her costume and accessory business was growing, and White had reclaimed her place in the community, living with Donise in the upstairs apartment. But he couldn’t stop thinking bigger. Look at the throne It was kind of like this year’s soundtrack for me. He fell in love with a song called Murder to Excellence, where Jay-Z raps, Black excellence, opulence, decadence / tuxedo next to the president, I’m present. Around this time, a young MCAD student started working with him on branding, and White remembers hearing this song and saying: Black excellence: we’re class here, we’re doing it big. This inspired his clothing brand Black Excellence, which he plans to divide into three distinct clothing lines, all of which evoke the Black experience: the New Classic, filled with crisp prep school pieces; Victory, a royal sportswear line inspired by the film Coming to America; and Fresh, a celebration of streetwear.
He thinks people are looking for something more than just a luxury brand. Fashion and style are a totally irrational expense, he says. So if it’s not rooted in something that makes sense? He mocks. I mean, I already have a shirt. This summer, he released his first golf collection with an African Ivorian designer, Manou Effi. It sold on its website within weeks. This whole brand is about this authentic celebration of black culture, he says, but it’s welcoming to everyone.
In the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, White was forced to organize a team to protect the store he built, to protect his neighborhood from marauding strangers. He said it was traumatic, but it clarified his dream, which he says is the only way to bring Minneapolis back to the future: to make Camdentown a fashion and culture hub, I want that. it reflects that moment in history when there is this awakening, but with social mobility for blacks. To get there, he says black people must acquire the capital that will allow them to manufacture in their own neighborhoods, like his. He plans to build a Dogwood coffee roast in a few years, and later he would like to build a shoe factory that could produce a Doc Martensstyle boot. In his view, this is the only viable path to liberation. Until you show up and have political influence, capital, and vision, you can forget about it in this country.
His beacon is his wife, who has never really felt at home in their neighborhood. Everything I do is in honor of this woman, he said. He pushed to turn Camdentown into a place she would have loved, where young black professionals with families don’t have to fight so hard for their own culture, don’t have to fight so hard to be them- same.
Minneapolis cannot be a world-class city without a thriving black middle-class neighborhood, he says. After all, the future of the world is black and brown.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue.
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