By Page Leggett
Photo by Amanda Caldwell Photography
While mills have closed and jobs vanished, Wesley Mancini has defied the odds as North Carolina’s once-robust textile industry has shriveled. His international design business is still booming. At 64, his creativity hasn’t dried up, nor has his pipeline.
Mancini doesn’t sell to the public or even to the trade. Instead, he sells his designs to makers of custom fabrics, rugs, decorative trims and drapery hardware, which eventually wind up in the hands of brands such as Robert Allen, Lee Jofa, Waverly and Schumacher. Valdese Weavers in Burke County, the mill that produces Mancini’s designs, is the largest U.S. upholstery mill. A mill in Blacksburg, S.C., produces his outdoor line. His rugs are produced by New Jersey-based Due Process Stable Trading Co., which has a distribution center and showroom in Lumberton.
His goal is to use 100% domestic products, but when he can’t find what he wants in the U.S., Mancini will call suppliers in Italy, Germany or any number of places. He runs his eponymous business out of a design studio (“a New York loft-y thing with floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwood floors and two cats”) in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood. The Connecticut native began his career in automotive interiors with Collins & Aikman, which operated several plants in North Carolina, but after only a year, he launched his own design business in 1983. The secret to his longevity? “I design what sells,” he says.
Mancini knows how to spot trends as they’re coming — and going. “For years, I was known as the person to go to for big florals,” he says. “Now, there’s not a single floral in the line. It’s more abstract, linear, graphic and painterly.
“The things I did, the industry followed,” Mancini says matter-of-factly. For example, no one else was designing emberline fabrics — an 18th-century damask featuring a pattern with a stripe behind it — until Mancini made them popular again. But he’ll also cop to some flops. “I have designed some things that no one wanted,” he says.
His successes often play out on an international stage. When the Obamas hosted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, for one of the president’s final state dinners, tables were adorned in embroidered jade tablecloths made of Mancini’s “Triana” fabric.
Mancini has found time in a busy career to be one of the state’s leading LGBT advocates. He counts his Wesley Mancini Foundation, which awarded grants to gay-rights groups, as his greatest personal achievement. In 2013, he closed his foundation, feeling he had accomplished what he set out to do. Its last grant was a $30,000 gift to Charlotte’s McColl Center for Art + Innovation as seed money for a permanent artist-in-residence whose focus would be advancing LGBT rights and freedom of speech.
But then came North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and the Trump administration. “More than half of the 50 states … have absolutely no anti-discrimination laws protecting the LGBT community,” Mancini says. “That’s the same as saying it’s OK to [discriminate]. It also justifies hate crimes toward us.”
Today, he is less optimistic about gay rights in North Carolina despite the repeal of HB2. “I don’t watch the news or read newspapers. I have to be creative every day. We put out at least one new fabric a day. You can’t be in a state of creativity when you’re depressed.”