Textile designer weaves connections

By Laura Williams-Tracy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 1996 production of the Pulitzer-prize winning play Angels in America did more than launch Charlotte to the center of a national debate about funding for the arts.

It made Wesley Mancini an activist.

While conservative politicians and a vocal minister decried the production’s 10 seconds of nudity and its open dealing with homosexuality, Mancini felt that no one was standing up for the gay community, or for freedom of speech.

“Theater companies in Charlotte were going to have to rewrite plays in order to get funding,” says Mancini. “It was censorship, which is not American.”

Mancini, a successful textile designer whose firm, Wesley Mancini Ltd., puts furniture and bedding fashions in the showrooms of some of the best-known designers around the world, saw the uproar as a chance to further his message that the gay and lesbian community is no different from the community at large.

He formed the Wesley Mancini Foundation, one of only three foundations in the U.S. that support strictly gay and lesbian causes.

The foundation does not focus on sponsoring or raising money for gay and lesbian events but works to communicate with a heterosexual audience that the gay and lesbian community is just like everyone else.

Mancini says he’s always treated his homosexuality matter-of-factly but, as his business grew, he had more of a platform to make a difference.

Mancini grew up on a farm in Connecticut and thought he would follow the path set by his own art teacher to teaching elementary art.

Mancini says he soon found out that teaching wasn’t his calling.

But he learned he had a love of working with fibers and took his interest in the medium to a career in textile design, working for several years for textile production companies overseeing their residential lines.

In 1981, Mancini went to work for the Charlotte office of textile-maker Collins & Aikman, overseeing the company’s home fabrics.

Wesley Mancini

Job: President, Wesley Mancini Ltd.

Hometown: North Branford, Conn.

Education: University of the Arts, Philadelphia, Bachelor of Art Education, 1974; attended Philadelphia College of Textiles; Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield, Ill., Masters of Arts, 1977.

Family: Partner, Bob Sheer; two sisters, seven nieces and nephews, 10 great nieces and nephews.

Boards: board member, McColl Center for Visual Art; volunteer, The Human Rights Campaign.

Hobbies: Greenhouse gardening.

Recently read: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Favorite vacation: Malta

Pets: Three dogs, two cats, four rabbits, four guinea pigs, four birds, lizards and a tortoise that will live to be 150 years old.

In a year, Mancini’s designs had changed the image of the mill.

With his reputation firmly established Mancini launched his own design company and continued selling his designs to Collins & Aikman, and a former division of the company remains his biggest client.

Today, designs by Mancini and the 16 designers he employs in his uptown Charlotte design studio of Wesley Mancini Ltd., appear in the designer showrooms of such well-known names as Robert Allen and Kravet, as well as furniture-makers Henredon, Baker and Thomasville.

His designers paint, weave, design yarns, color fabrics and even establish threads per inch for mills to produce their designs, which are then sold to furniture makers or to name brands, such as Waverly fabrics.

Mancini’s firm produces a minimum of 500 designs a year.

Relations between the gay and lesbian community with the community as a whole are getting better, Mancini says, as evidenced by the growing number of businesses that support gay and lesbian causes.

For many years, Mancini says, his firm was the only sponsor of the local Gay and Lesbian Film Series that was willing to publicly put his name on the event. Others were silent partners.

Today, hundreds of companies are sponsors.

As for himself, Mancini says he never tried to hide that he was gay, and it never stood in the way of his career.

“My contracts were all based on my talent and performance,” he says, “and luckily I was good at what I did.”

Since its formation in 2000, the Wesley Mancini Foundation has awarded 13 grants totaling about $50,000 to such organizations as Time Out Youth, which provides group therapy for young people who are coming to grips with their sexuality, and to The Lesbian and Gay Community Center of Charlotte and the William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations.

“Every grant is a chip off the marble,” says Mancini. “We hope we can one day get that marble down to just be a pebble.”

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