Written by Colleen Thompson
The story of the Black siblings could really begin at any number of starting points. An internship with TOMS Shoes. A bag of discarded bullet casings. A $200 start-up investment. A vision for helping children in need. But if you ask Wilmington, NC, founders of Half United, Christian and Carmin Black where it really starts, it always goes back to their parents and a southern upbringing that nurtured a passion for people, design, charity, and entrepreneurship.
How and where we’re raised, even if we don’t realize it at the time, often influences what we end up doing in life. A collection of ingredients – like places we’ve lived, food cooked in our grandparents’ kitchens, the music our parents played on road trips all blend together and shape us in one way or another. Being raised southern in particular creates a strong sense of place that infiltrates and seems to settle in deep. Carmin and Christian Black know what I’m talking about. They were raised in Hawaii, Alaska and North Carolina by two southern parents. A designer mother from Wilmington, NC, and a pastor father from Tennessee – seemingly opposite worlds of fashion and philanthropy converging in their home.
“We couldn’t help but be raised Southern,” says Carmin. “Everything from the foods we were raised on – collards and squash, peach cobbler, country fried steak, chicken, and dumplings; to the games we played as kids – anything in the woods; to the songs we were taught – southern gospel hymns, it was all there. We moved back to North Carolina when I was in fourth grade, which was a seamless transition to a place where my parents really knew how to live life and they were intent on sharing it with us. They once took us to visit our great-grandfather’s old grocery store in Norman, NC, that he had owned for so long, he’d transformed it from a grocery store, to a music shop, to a barbershop, and back to a grocery store. It had these original wooden floors from the early 1900s and it was painted white with narrow double doors that swung open at the front, it was magic,” she reminisces. “I love being Southern. I don’t love everything about its history, I don’t love how segregation still feels real depending on where you are, but I do love the charm and the quaintness of a life lived here.”
In the summer of 2009, Christian Black was a creative college student working on his own t-shirt business when his sister Carmin called and pitched an idea to him. She was working at TOMS shoes as an intern, where the concept of a giving back business model resonated and sparked her own idea. Her idea – create a range of necklaces from a bag of discarded bullet casings she had been given; sell them and provide a meal to a hungry child. Nine years later, the aptly named “Fighting Hunger Bullet Necklace” remains their bestseller and has provided over 700,000 meals for children in need.
The casings represented a symbolic fight against hunger – every time a customer purchased a “Fighting Hunger” necklace, they were peacefully fighting hunger. They have tried to keep their message as simple as possible – with every product purchased they provide 7 meals to a child in need and keeping their focus on 4 territories – the USA, Haiti, Cambodia, and Fiji. In Wilmington they have implemented farm to school programs and built community gardens; in Haiti they have partnered with a feeding project at a primary school for 6 years; in Fiji they funded sweet potato farms, student garden projects, and honeybee hives; and they’ve teamed up with the EAI orphanage in Phnom, Penh Cambodia helping provide meals to the kids.
They chose a sector namely fashion, that is notorious for human rights and environmental issues – something they were very aware of from the outset and committed to overcoming. “The entire reason we started this business was to use traditional business as a way to change the lives of people in need, in the U.S. and beyond,” says Christian. “We really strive to do as much as we can locally, honestly and ethically. We have all of our metal products custom made in Los Angeles, where we could very easily have our jewelry made in China, at a questionable factory, at a fraction of the cost, but we are really proud of the quality of our products that are all handmade in America by hard-working Americans.”
In Haiti, they have partnered with Papilon Enterprises who has more than 300 artisan employees that were all impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Papilon Enterprises has worked with brands like DKNY and foundations started by Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. By working with their artisans and creating employment, Carmin believes it is a more empowering and sustainable way of making a difference.
“In the future we hope to focus on sustainable impact over meal count,” she says. “We will always know the number of meals we’re giving, but by funding projects which provide people with jobs in addition to food for themselves and their children, is way more sustainable in the long term.”
The business headquarters remains in Wilmington where they design, market and assemble a lot of the products. Aside from design aesthetic that is inspired and influenced by living near the ocean, Carmin believes that being based in Wilmington has allowed them to grow slowly, learn by making mistakes along the way, and come out successful on the other side.
“We couldn’t have bootstrapped the way we did if we had been based in a big city, and to be honest had we been based in a place more conducive to running a fashion brand and then fundraised to fuel our efforts, I’m not sure we would have known how to use the funds in the wisest way possible,” says Carmen.
Christian says that location has not been without its challenges. “We don’t have the benefits in the fashion industry that a NYC or LA has to offer, so a lot of what we do is online, on the phone or traveling.” He adds, “we could very easily uproot, but we are invested in the Wilmington community and if every fashion brand that starts here just leaves then we’ll always be in this situation. We really want to be a part of a fashion revolution in Wilmington and in North Carolina as a whole. It’s so cool to see local fashion brands like Merewife, I Like It Here Club, and Freaker they’re all growing, succeeding and inspiring.”
The Blacks partnership is stronger than it’s ever been a result of equal parts DNA, upbringing and rivalry. While they operate within different spheres, Carmin as principal designer and Christian in production and marketing, their lives remain intertwined. “We’ve done a lot of growing and learning since starting this seven years ago,” said Christian. “There have been many tears and fights but we’ve both matured a lot and really come to be best friends. We haven’t really set any hard lines on when and where we can be family vs. business partners.”
Life looks set to remain busy for Half United as they prepare to launch a new line of t-shirts and jewellery, including a collection of “game day” inspired “Fighting Hunger” bullet necklaces.
In their down time, Christian will be riding waves at his secret spot near Fort Fisher and eating the best burger on the planet at Surf House in Carolina Beach. Carmin will be hanging out at Beanie and Cecil boutique for design inspiration and watching performances at Thalian Hall to feel amazed.
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