The Southern menswear designer brings the down-to-earth vibes of his how city into everything his brand does.
BY KATHRYN O'SHEA EVANS
Billy Reid wasn’t always the Billy Reid, the designer who gave urban style a down-home wash and built an eponymous fashion empire in his native Alabama. His rise to industry success started with a precarious beginning: He was once a humble college dropout. “I flunked out, and I was a P.E. major,” Reid says, with a laugh. “I wanted to be a football coach!”
Reid’s goal squashed, he recalibrated, setting a more intrinsic course. “My mom ran a clothing shop out of my grandmother’s house in Amite, Louisiana,” Reid says. “She inspired me to get into fashion.” He went on to study fashion design and merchandising at the Art Institute of Dallas before landing a four-year gig at Saks Fifth Avenue. “I worked in the men’s tailored-clothing department. This was the late ’80s, when Bill Robinson, Perry Ellis, and Giorgio Armani were in their prime. That had a big influence on me,” Reid says.
He parlayed that experience into a design job at Reebok, launching the brand’s golf division with Greg Norman. “I got to travel a whole bunch,” he says. “I had some amazing opportunities, kept following it, and eventually decided to do my own thing. I didn’t have a master plan.”
Sometimes, it turns out, no plan is the best plan. In 1998, Reid launched the men’s collection William Reid in New York, and won the CFDA award for Best New Menswear Designer in 2001. But despite his early traction, he watched business sputter in the economic fog that followed 9/11. So Reid moved his family to Florence, Alabama—a town of 40,000, where his wife had grown up—to pick up the jagged pieces. It was just what he needed.
It only took him three years to launch another label. This one, the friendlier-sounding Billy Reid, is headquartered in easygoing Florence. He now has 60 employees there and 13 stores across the country, from Nashville to Chicago to Manhattan, all fitted with an antiquey, timeworn aesthetic that would feel right at home in a certain grandmother’s abode. The spirit of community that hangs in each one reflects the gathering of like- minded people in Alabama—a surprising counterpoint to New York’s fast-moving garment epicenter—and has been vital for the brand. “There are economic benefits to being based in a small town,” Reid says, “but it’s really more about the neighborhood coming together, the small-town feeling. We try to replicate that in each of our stores.”
Reid’s southern sensibility shows up everywhere in his work, whether cultivating organic cotton fields with local clothing line Alabama Chanin or teaming with John Besh to create an apron whose proceeds went to the New Orleans chef’s charity. In 2014, his career had a full-circle moment when Saks picked up Reid’s collection. The kid from the Dallas department store is now sharing shelves with his idols.
The clothes themselves are laid-back, like the man himself, with an ease that can be hard to find in most fashion lines. It boils down to their intention. “I want whatever I’m making to be the favorite thing someone owns,” says Reid, who notched another CFDA award, Designer of the Year, in 2012. “I try to think about how we’re dressing now—uncomplicated. It should have a luxe hand, but be super-comfortable. It could be a reflection on our over-technical times, but it just feels right.”
BILLY REID’S GUIDE TO FLORENCE, ALABAMA
“I love Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House, which is his only one in Alabama,” Reid says of the 1938 brick Usonian structure, which offers 45-minute tours. “Fifteen years ago, they were going to tear it down, and somebody stepped in and said ‘Hold on, you can’t do that!’ They got a million dollar grant and refurbished it to its original condition. Now we do photo shoots there.” 601 Riverview Drive; wrightinalabama.com
“This local gentleman Tom Hendrix built the sandstone and limestone Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall for 30 years in tribute to his great-great grandmother, a member of the Yuchi tribe who was on the Trail of Tears in 1830 and spent five years walking back here because she missed the water. It’s a very powerful, spiritual place.” Natchez Trace Parkway; natcheztracetravel.com
“The farm-to-table restaurant Odette is a cool place,” Reid says of the brick-walled boîte owned by a New York expat. “They have one of the best bars and selections of bourbons I’ve ever come in contact with.” 120 N. Court St.; odettealabama.com
“Trowbridge’s Ice Cream and Sandwich Bar hasn’t changed since 1918. I like the butter pecan, myself.” 316 N Court St.