Founders from South America always grab my attention. When I found about MannaE, a suiting and accessories brand co-founded by a person from the Dominican Republic, I knew I had to talk to them and learn their story. Pieces made in Italy and Mexico right from the artisans and delivered to you? Here’s how MannaE brought it together.
INTERVIEW WITH Stevenson Almonte
Diego: Let’s start with something easy. Who are you and what do you do?
Stevenson Almonte: My name is Stevenson Almonte and I’m one of the co-founders of MannaE. I’m originally from Dominican Republic. Specifically from the capitol, Santo Domingo. Before I came to US, I took art classes in the National School of Arts from age eight till pretty much before I came here. I came to the United States when I was 19. As of right now, I’m in charge of all the creative content, like the design for our merchandise. I consider myself a citizen of the world. I’m as much American as I am Dominican. Because my personality has been crafted by all the experiences that I have achieved so far.
Where does the clothes come from?
We handle all the designs, all the sourcing. We pick up quality stuff from all over the world but we like to get real artisans who devote their lives to crafting each one of our items. So when we get something, it’s not just a single item. It’s more of a – something that brings pride to a family somewhere in the world. We work with artisans in Mexico and Italy.
I love the family aspect.
That’s what we concentrate on. With that artisanal and family component, we custom design and custom create to our customers, so that the customer always finds and gets exactly what they’re having in mind.
So what does MannaE even mean?
So manna has a couple meanings. It’s mostly associated with food that God provided to His people, through a journey in the desert. So there are a couple verses in the Bible about manna, but more modern take on the word, is “unknown source of pleasure or gratification,” an unexpected gift.
When someone gets clothes from us, they aren’t only getting something that that they will love, a gift, but they’re also providing a source of income for the artisans that work with us.
So that’s where the whole MannaE… the E was more our addition to the word. To make it ours. To make it our interpretation of it. If we just said manna, people would assume it was just for biblical references. So we added the E. that’s why the E is bold and bigger.
So not the band, haha. Ok, when did you get interested in menswear?
Very early. My father has been through so many jobs, but one of them, he was a waiter for a hotel. And he used to dress up since it was a very high-end hotel. They had very high standards as part of the outfit that they wear. And I grew up seeing my father wearing the most amazing shoes, bow ties and ties every day. We were working in rough conditions, so he would buy most of this stuff used. But still, he looked amazing. Then, by the time I turned 15, I went into military school. I started dressing that way myself. Throughout my whole life I’ve been dressing up that way.
What was your first suit?
My very first suit was a three-piece suit. Two buttons, with a vest. And looking back on it, it fit horribly! And it was just one of those lucky things I got on a stupid sale. My brother was working for the store, and they had a very nice discount. That was my first suit.
Can’t beat a good sale and a Friends & Family discount!
Before that, the suits that I wore were for military school, so I never considered them mine. More like a uniform. But they were a source of pride because you have to earn your right to wear that uniform. They inspect you every Saturday. Your shoes have to be spotless. Your pants have to be ironed to perfection. And that’s without having access to a dry cleaner or anything. You take pride into caring for these garments. And the first time I wore my military uniform, I was 16. And that, you know, it’s a feeling that never gets away from you. It’s a feeling that you chase every time you bought a suit, even today. You wanna feel that powerful and that elegant every time.
When you put pride in your clothes, it really changes the relationship you have with what you’re wearing. Do you want people to have that same relationship with the clothes they get from MannaE?
Yes. We’re not looking to sell millions of something. We’d rather sell you one piece that you will treasure for life. Not only something that fits your perfectly and that you love, but you also know the origins; where it comes from. This jacket has heritage. For example, one of our hats could take three months to make. So, when you put a hat that somebody has been handcrafting for three months, there has to be a respect between the artisan, respecting what they’re doing for three months, so that it comes out perfect in the end. And when the customer gets it, that signifies three months of someone’s life. That person put an effort for three months just for you. Because you are that special.
In terms of inspiration for your style, is there any kind of celebrity or movie or book that really guides the way you dress or present yourself?
I’m a big history guy. I love history. And when you see some moments in history that have changed the course of the world, those leaders are usually humbly dressed in an amazing outfit. It’s not like they decided to wear this because they knew this famous picture was gonna be taken that day. Some of the big events in life have happened without any planning, and these people, they still look like were expecting this to happen that day. So that’s my source of inspiration. I want fashion to be that simple, but to be ready for those life-defining moments every day.
That’s always something I want to strive for. Something that’s timeless and always ready for any situation, no matter what comes towards you.
Exactly. Not too long ago I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela just walking in a riot in his country when he was young. He was probably in his early 30s. He had a double-breasted suit. It’s not like he knew this picture was going to be famous, but yet you see this person perfectly dressed in this life-defining moment. So usually that’s my source of inspiration.
So, my last question is going to be, what tip would you give someone who is getting their first suit. What should they be looking for?
The most important thing that they should look for is to be comfortable. You know, sometimes I think as designers get too wrapped up in the whole “something needs to be this way or that way”. And, there’s a first time for everything. Something that looks totally odd today would be a high ticket item next time. So I don’t have any parameters or guidelines. To me, if you feel comfortable with something, I think that’s the best way for you to wear it. To me, it does no good if you look perfect in my eyes but inside you’re waiting rip your clothes off because you’re not happy with it. That’s devastating. So, the best piece that I can give somebody is explore your options. See what different shapes and styles are out there, but make them your own. Make them fit you instead of you fit to whatever somebody else has. That’s the best thing that anybody, I think, can take from me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Thanks for reading, and follow me on Twitter: @DandyInTheBronx 😎