It’s a sophisticated barbershop. It’s a go-to coffeehouse. It’s an after-work escape with cocktails. It’s the best new spot for a staycation. It’s a retail hotspot to shop for your latest gear. Or, if you want it to be, it’s all of the above. “It’s a place you have to experience and it’s a place that, quite honestly, is whatever you’re looking for it to be,” says KJ Hughes, the founder of MANIFEST, a brand new, experiential space that encourages visitors to stop in and take a moment for a “modern” form of self-care. The concept often conjures up images of a spa, but as Hughes points out, most people today don’t have time to soak in an entire spa day. Instead, MANIFEST is a place that allows you to sneak in snippets of self-care, whether that’s sipping some coffee and scrolling social media, leaning back in the barber chair for a fresh shave, or stealing some time after work for a cool cocktail. When dreaming up MANIFEST, Hughes and his team asked, “what are some things we do to take care of ourselves with the little time we do have?,” he explains. “That’s where the whole idea of modern self-care comes from.”
Design can also be an important part of treating yourself and Hughes wouldn’t settle for anything less than the world-famous design team at Snarkitecture to dream up what MANIFEST could be (read below to see how a cold email turned into a daring collaboration).
Here, Hughes expounds on the new definition of self-care, growing up in a salon, and offers up his best advice for other would-be entrepreneurs.
You’ve described MANIFEST as offering a “modern self-care moment.” How are you making self-care modern?
For us, adding that word ‘modern’ to self-care … we’re all busy. The idea of taking a day [for wellness], it just can’t happen. You hear people say ‘Oh I’m going to take a spa day.’ That’s become synonymous with self-care, and so when you can’t take the day, you can’t just take off and hit the spa all day for a six-hour package, that’s when we started to say, ‘What are some things we do to take care of ourselves with the little time we do have?’ And so that’s where this whole idea of modern comes from. For some people it’s a staycation, for some people it’s a pedicure, some people it’s a facial, so this idea of modern really just drills in on the amount of time you have. The idea of pausing for a minute and saying, ‘Well, hey let me go do this thing for me.’ That’s the idea of this modern self-care moment.
We thought the idea of popping into a place and sitting down and having a cup of coffee while you just peruse the internet is self-care. When you’re not on somebody else’s time, when you’re not rushing to respond to a text or an email, you’re just taking that time out to do exactly what you want to do, whether it’s 20 minutes or an hour or two hours, we’re calling that the modern self-care moment. For me, that hour I spend in the barber chair is my rest and relaxation time. It was a time I can kick back. While, yes, I’m probably doing something on my phone, but when my feet go back and that hot towel comes out, the phone goes away and even if for 15 minutes, that’s my moment, that’s my self-care moment, that’s my Manifest moment.
Two years into the pandemic, do you think wellness has taken on even more importance in this era?
I think it’s always been important. I don’t think we knew that we’d need it as much as we do now. But I think being in the house for 9 months, 10 months at a time when so many of your outlets are restricted [has been difficult]. My outlet was travel. I can’t remember a time prior to Covid when I didn’t travel at the very least two times a month, for the last 15 years. That was my self-care. Getting on a plane, being able to stay in a hotel, order some room service or sit at the bar alone and eat freakin’ calamari or whatever, that was my self-care.
I don’t think people classify some of their habits or their stress relievers as self-care. I think that’s something that has to be put into perspective for them. And I think that the idea of getting a haircut, even now, people say, ‘I never thought of that as my self-care moment.’ Because of the way they would receive that service. A lot of times the idea of getting your haircut, or even retail or even getting coffee, because the service and experience doesn’t seem special. They don’t take it as a wellness moment because the line was long or the person serving you wasn’t nice or when you get your haircut you had to wait even though you had an appointment, or when you want to shop they didn’t have your size, or the lady wasn’t attentive enough to you, or you realize you’re an XL and when the last time you went was an L. You didn’t realize it was self-care because the experience didn’t warrant it to feel like one. So that’s why I think we’ve hammered down on this being an experience company. Because we want those little things, the idea of getting your haircut, the idea of having a good cup of coffee, the idea of having a good cocktail, we want them to feel like great, but the only way it’s going to is if we deliver it in a way that makes you say, “Wow this shit is good, and I deserve this.”
You worked with the world-renowned design company Snarkitecture to design MANIFEST. Why was it so important to you to partner with them?
This idea of a barbershop or a bar or a boutique or a coffee bar, none of those things have been special on their own. I’ve never been anywhere where [one of these things by itself] has been mind blowing, to where I’m gushing over it.
There are only two things that are special in my eyes: Haircuts. A haircut is not a haircut is not a haircut. Haircuts are special. And the other thing is, how does it make you feel?
And when you drill down to that, that’s where I started looking for partners. That’s when I started looking for: How do we gain a competitive advantage? And I ended up on design. This place has to feel good. It has to look good. It can’t just be the regular old regulars. I can’t just go to a regular old somewhere that designed a regular old nightclub. Someone that designed five things in DC isn’t special to me. So I cold emailed Snarkitecture. Why? Because they specialize in experiential design. They are the people who, when you pop into a city, you’re getting off the plane and saying ‘I’ve gotta go see that space.’ Regardless of what they’re selling, whether it’s candles or clothes or sneakers or freakin’ Christmas ornaments. It doesn’t matter. They design a space that makes you want to go and experience it.
And so that had to be our competitive advantage, what do you want the experience to be and it starts with the design, especially when you have so much going on. For us, people want to box us in and call us a barber shop or call us a this or that, and I’m like, ‘Call us what you want to call us, based on how you want to use the space,’ and that’s where Snarkitecture comes into play. And there was never anybody else. It was just Snarkitecture.
And you cold emailed them right?
I cold emailed them and they declined at first. Then I sat down and tried to figure out who I knew that knew them that could get me an intro. That took some mental chess. Because I know a few people that know them … but I always tell people, ‘Choose the path that’s going to get you a yes. Don’t choose the path that’s going to get you in the gate.’ Talking to them wasn’t the point. I knew I could talk to them. It’s, could I get to a yes? So I played that mental gymnastics and hit up one person who could hit another person. Then I sent another ‘cold email’ and got another decline, and then randomly four weeks later … I got a response with a, ‘Hey are you still doing that project? One of our project managers would like to speak to you.” And Alex [Mustonen] and I talked and he said, ‘I’d love to meet you and hear more about you.’ I went up to New York the next day and I told him everything I’m telling you and I was really adamant about what I wanted MANIFEST to look like and what I wanted it to be.
Your mom worked in a salon growing up. What did you learn, spending time there?
I spent my ’80s and a little bit of the ’90s sweeping up the salon. Time spent in the salon is where I think I started to gain that hustle and entrepreneurial spirit and street smarts. The hair salon was the place for everything. The salon [Shelton’s Hair on Connecticut Avenue] welcomed affluent girlfriends of athletes, street culture, entrepreneurs. At the salon, the barbershop, there is a lot of culture, at least for black folk. Growing up in a high-end salon that was catering to black folk and then later on in a high-end men’s salon there was a difference in luxury. Bringing those two worlds together. Luxury appeals to all folks in different ways. The hardest thing to do is to design a space where everyone feels luxury. I think we accomplished that, black and white, gay straight, etc.
My mother was working in the salon and without being in that environment for 10 to 12 years, I wouldn’t know that. When somebody gets out of that chair with a fresh cut they’re ready to take on the world.
What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs? Where do you get your motivation to see a project through?
I’ve been lucky enough to have a conversation or two with Jay-Z and be in his company. You may have seen interviews where he’s asked that same question, ‘What is that thing, what is that special sauce?’ and he literally plainly says, ‘You have to have unwavering belief and confidence in your ability to make it happen.’
And you’ve gotta live and die by that sword though, and I can tell you so many other ventures that did not pan out because I’ve been too optimistic. But I think success leaves clues and I think failure also teaches you a lot of good lessons. And so I think I’ve learned through some failures and my confidence isn’t necessarily blind confidence. It’s based on some form of previous success. You take a little bit of lessons from the failures as well, and you mix that shit up and I’m at least not blind to the risks, I’m not blind to the hurdles that could come. I couldn’t have accomplished this 10 years ago and I’ve had the same unwavering confidence my whole life, but I could not have accomplished this 10 years ago. Why? Because I didn’t have enough experience, I didn’t have the resources to be able to push through the hurdles that may come.
I tell my students this – I’m a professor at University of Maryland – what you need to spend your time on right now is broadening your network so that it’s so diverse that when things come up and problems come up that you’ve never seen, you’ve got somebody a phone call away that’s seen them. And that’s the difference between being young and old quite honestly. I think when I was a lot younger I would use these North Star folks like fuckin’ Mark Zuckerberg and you know whoever else that was 22 and a billionaire. You would use that and be like, ‘Oh I’m supposed to be doing this,’ No! His parents went to Harvard or so and so and this and that and he started off with $300 grand or a million. We’re different. Our resources are different. Our network is different. So that springboard that he had is not the springboard that I had. For me it just took the different networks and the different experiences collectively to get me to this place where I have this idea now, and not only do I have the resources but I have the network now that can really really make it happen. And that, plus the confidence, I’m like fuckin’ Superman with that.
What’s next for MANIFEST?
I’d like to open one or two more in DC. I think our city is so diverse, not just in racial complexity but also socioeconomically. I grew up uptown, which right now is in a predominantly affluent neighborhood. But I think this works in Ward 8, I think this works in Ward 7. I think we could build out one or two more locations and round out the experience in places that haven’t normally seen things like this in the neighborhood.
And in terms of broader, national expansion, I think this works everywhere. I think again it’s all about the experience. I think each location, you’ve got to be mindful of what that neighborhood or what that community is lacking, or needing. It might not be a speakeasy in every community, it might be a wine bar in another location, it might be a beer garden, in another location it might be cigars. It’s all about creating an experience. At the end of the day, MANIFEST is not a barber shop or retail or coffee or a bar, we are an experience company.
We’ll always be mindful of what that offering needs to be in order to create the top-notch experience that we think people deserve.
MANIFEST is located at 1807 Florida Ave., NW, Washington DC 20009 and opens 9a-7p, daily. To book an appointment via membership or to shop, please visit the website at www.manifest.us or call 202.903.0300.